What Video Games Can Tell Us About Death

CW: suicide, death

Major spoilers: Dear Esther, What Remains Of Edith Finch, Spiritfarer

Anyone who’s played even a handful of video games has likely experienced death in some of the most violent, weird and comical circumstances imaginable – accidentally rolling off a cliff whilst on course to finally beat that one tricky boss? Been there. Eaten by a shark whilst trying to kill it with a knife purely for the sake of it? Done that. Walked straight into the sea just to see what happens? Countless lives lost to that one. In video games, death is just different. Often, it’s a punishment, there to make a game more challenging, but it can also be a chance to learn about the game, showing you what not to do through an arduous process of trial and error. In multiplayer games in particular, though, death can be almost meaningless. The virtual lives of almost countless nameless individuals end seconds after they begin and it’s seldom worthy of little more than a frustrated sigh.

Death is the failure state in so many games that it’s easy to disconnect the virtual deaths we experience in games from the perception of death that we have in our real lives. Not only this, but ending the lives of others is often our primary goal, be it taking out all the enemies in an area to be able to progress or racking up a KDR we can brag about. Even in games that put so much stock in the deaths of specific characters – think The Last Of Us with Joel’s daughter Sarah, or the multiple Call Of Duty titles that make a point of killing the player-protagonist for shock value – these deaths are not given precedence because they are uncommon in this gameworld, but simply because you (or your protagonist) know the character.

This is not inherently bad, of course, and there are plenty of games exploring bleak or even macabre themes in creative ways. It is, however, perhaps a growing concern that violence as the core gameplay mechanic has become so ubiquitous across the medium. Often we assume that grittier stories dealing with heavy themes are more worthy of prestige, but this then gets confused with gruelling explorations of death and torment. In Firewatch’s exploration of a man running away from his problems, Lost Ember’s look at the natural world and the afterlife or Journey’s elegant retracing of steps through a lost civilisation destroyed by conflict and an exploitation of resources, we see the ways in which stories full of life and devoid of action can still wrestle with grand themes in engaging ways.

Similarly, there exists also a catalogue of games that explicitly confront death, grief and tragedy without prioritising violence as a core mechanic. In this way, video games have begun to show the ways in which they as a medium can bring their own unique perspective to humanity’s millennia-spanning exploration of our own mortality, just as books, films, poetry and music have been doing for years. So, let us explore a collection of video games which do just that.

“Often we assume that grittier stories dealing with heavy themes are more worthy of prestige, but this then gets confused with gruelling explorations of death and torment.”

Where better to start than with Dear Esther, a game with death at its very core. It’s a game that grapples with heavy themes of loss, grief and suicide through a premise that’s so simple but so strikingly effective. Starting on a boat slipway off the coast of a Hebridean island, the player begins to trudge forwards, exploring the island as a narrator reads a loosely connected series of vivid prose – letters addressed to the titular Esther. The words are vague but details come together as you progress, and the basics are established fairly quickly: Esther is a lover who died in a car accident, and this island is one that her and the narrator once read about. 

The assumption is that these letters are your own, but why then do you never stop to actually write any? This is just the first of many questions that gradually allow the player to realise that the deeper you dive into this game the more unreliable the protagonist seems to become. The narrator even speaks of breaking a leg in a cave and yet your momentum doesn’t seem to slow down in the slightest. Not only this, but the environment around you grows increasingly surreal. You find car wrecks at the bottom of a cliff on an island without roads, gorgeous caves way too large and bright to exist on a small Scottish island and sprawling phosphorescent graffiti full of illegible symbols and biblical proclamations. Perhaps most interestingly, certain parts of the game are explicitly fallible – on repeat playthroughs letters will be read in a different order and objects will disappear and appear, making you question your own perception. Where a film or book may make you question the reliability of a character’s reality, Dear Esther makes you question your own. It is not only a rumination on grief but on memory and its tendency to drift and fade.

In one of the game’s most striking sequences, you drop into a pool in a cave only to inexplicably find yourself on a road at the bottom of an endless ocean – the scene of Esther’s accident. For any of this to be real this section surely has to be a kind of flashback or dream sequence, but there’s no clear indication of this, no cutaway to our protagonist awaking in a sweat – it’s as if the road really is here. So, the question arises: is any of this actually real, or is the narrator’s mental state just beginning to wane? A prevalent theory, though, suggests that he is already dead, perhaps retreading the last steps he took before climbing to the top of the island’s radio mast and stepping off the edge.

And this is where the game’s lack of interactivity is key. As one of the originators of the “walking simulator” it’s often derided for a lack of conventional gameplay, but putting aside inane arguments about whether Dear Esther really is a game or not, it does stand out for its sheer lack of things to do. You move the protagonist and the camera (much as you do in any first-person game), a torch comes on in dark spaces – and that’s about it. Your time in the game is spent looking and listening, and in this sense there is ultimately nothing to separate you from the numerous ghosts that inhabit this island. If the ending of Sixth Sense is iconic for its twist, then Dear Esther goes one better – gradually realising not that someone you’re watching has been dead all along but that you are the ghost that haunts this island is an experience that other mediums simply can’t emulate.

“Not only a rumination on grief but on memory and its tendency to drift and fade.”

But if Dear Esther posits you not as the haunted but as the haunting, then What Remains Of Edith Finch puts you in the shoes of the dying, and it does so over and over. Only, these deaths are not always treated with the gravitas you may expect. Even as you experience these deaths first hand they are impersonal, largely happening to the titular protagonist’s relatives, some of whom she never even met. They’re also eccentric and hyperreal, taking place in wacky minigames in which you play as the monster who ate Edith’s great aunt Molly, witness her great uncle Calvin “learn to fly” straight off a cliff or read a slasher comic book depicting the death of her other great aunt Barbara, complete with the iconic John Carpenter Halloween theme. These are folkloric renditions of family tragedies, passed down through generations.

That’s not to say that the game is irreverent in its dealing with death. The game’s tone is eccentric, sure, but never jovial. After all, this is a house filled with shrines to dead relatives and rooms sealed off by Edith’s mother in an attempt to stifle the grief and hide the “family curse”. The deceased are all fully realised people with hobbies, personalities and life goals they’ll never have the chance to see through. The Finch family home, an implausibly towering structure, is meticulously crafted and thus feels so intensely lived in, in a way that video game environments rarely do. As such, you truly feel like you’re stepping into the lives of these people at the moment their life was snatched away.

Whilst some of them are distanced from Edith through generational gaps, others are immediate relatives who she herself also mourns. Many of them died as children, and though the question of whether there really is a curse is not definitively answered, it’s just as easy to put these deaths down to neglect – an infant left alone in the bath, or a child forgotten outside during a rough storm.

Edith Finch can, in part, be seen as a game about the guilt of survival, about being surrounded by tragedy and grief and being the only one who makes it out, only to pass those fears on to your own children. But to be honest the game is not entirely interested with making grand statements regarding its themes, and that’s not something that is to its detriment, in fact it feels purposeful. Instead, the game is more interested in its depiction of death. It is sad, yes, but grief is not always the intense sadness it’s depicted as. Death is never something to celebrate but looking back when the dust has settled it can be funny, ironic or strangely fitting.

“Edith Finch depicts folkloric renditions of family tragedies, passed down through generations.”

As walking simulators, it’s not surprising that player death is not a key aspect of the gameplay of either Edith Finch or Dear Esther (though it is technically possible to fall off a cliff or walk into the ocean in the latter), but in Thunder Lotus’ 2020 title Spiritfarer we see a 2D platformer in which death during gameplay is impossible. And that’s for a reason that becomes immediately obvious to the player the minute they start their first playthrough – everyone in this game is already dead.

If Dear Esther and Edith Finch show us both show us what death means to those left behind, the way it can fracture families and cause insurmountable grief, then Spiritfarer is about those who have passed on. It’s about the hopes they leave behind, the regrets they carry and the trepidation felt when you don’t know what comes next. In the game, you play as Stella, accompanied by her cat Daffodil, and are tasked with taking over from Charon, the mythical figure of Greek mythology who acts as ferryman for the dead. Your overarching goal is to sail around the map finding spirits to bring to their final resting place at the Everdoor. What lies beyond is unclear, though each spirit lives on as a constellation in the nighttime sky.

It’s a management game at heart, with a breathtakingly gorgeous animation style and a world that feels cosy and warm despite the subject matter. But the often light-hearted writing can often give way to intense moments of reflection during which the story of each character is gradually built up. In these stories we see explorations into a range of topics. There’s Stella’s uncle Atul, a former union leader who delights when you help a group of workers successfully negotiate better terms with their exploitive boss, and Alice, an elderly woman who opens up to share her love of Swedish romance novels with you before her memory begins to fade. Then there’s Stanley, a child who lost his battle with a fatal illness, whose bravery and honesty could move even the most stone-hearted cynic to tears.

In Spiritfarer it’s easy to get wrapped up in the expanding to-do list that comes with the base management and keeping the spirits on board happy, but this only makes the characters’ eventual end that much more impactful when the time comes. And on a grander scale, Stella’s own journey is pieced together slowly and in the end must also come to an end. Putting together information gleaned from dialogue and confrontations with Hades himself, who takes the form of a huge spectral owl, the player learns that in life Stella was a nurse, caring for those in need of end-of-life care – Alice and Stanley among them. In this sense, her role as Spiritfarer, which initially seems inexplicable and random, is fitting. It is her own way of preparing for the end. She uses her seafaring home as a place from which to care for the spirits she encounters, giving them glimpses of happiness before they make their final journey. Some seem ready come the end – art curator Gustav believes everything is a meaningless arrangement of atoms, and thus seems unmoved when his time comes. Others, however, show their trepidation, fear or sadness. Stanley wishes his mum were there, Giovanni wishes he could stay longer, and poor old Alice grows increasingly confused, mistaking you for her daughter Annie.

Summing up what Spiritfarer has to say about death is tough because in each character’s story something different can be found. But it never fails to keep you engaged, even when the gameplay is at its most repetitive, simply by virtue of the rich stories it tells. On the whole people don’t like to talk about death, because we fear it for ourselves and for our loved ones, but Spiritfarer puts us in an environment in which it is inescapable. You don’t witness deaths in Spiritfarer, not really, and yet I contemplated life and mortality during this game more than I ever have when going on a virtual killing spree or fighting in a virtual war. You can’t make things okay for the spirits in this game, you cannot fix the things they wish could be fixed, because death is seldom neat and tidy, and it is often ruthless and uncaring. But the game does allow you to ease them into the afterlife, hopefully contented due to your actions. It is painful at times, but it’s a rewarding, cathartic kind of pain, and one that you’ll feel better for having experienced.

Words: George Parr

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