Afterlife: On Death In Games

"People have a hard time dealing with death. We don’t just grieve over lost loved ones: we mourn complete strangers and celebrities we’ve never even met. Death is a subject that is difficult to approach, so it’s unsurprising that game developers have incorporated death in a way that is either crass, facile or both.

Games don’t really have ‘death’ in the sense of finality: it’s just one long stream of life, punctuated by save points to which we can rewind after a mistake. Narratively, the only universe that exists is the one where we played perfectly. What could be more fake, hollow and unrealistic than a perfect life? Games should be able to give us new perspectives on life, rather than conforming to ideal ones.

The concept of ‘Game Over’ has been engrained in wider collective consciousness since Bill Paxman’s immortal line in Aliens, a quip from the future about the culture of our past. In arcade games of yore, and in neo-arcade games that explicitly retain the ideas of continues and ‘credits’, death is the fail state a player strives to avoid. That creates an obvious imperative to… well, to stay alive. In arcade games like Metal Slug or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the number of coins in your pocket determines your length of life. You can keep plugging away in a war of attrition between wallet and machine until you eventually win."

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