I have long been an advocate of the view that the worlds of games, and of fictions more broadly, are capable of teaching us valuable lessons about non-fictional things. This isn’t all that groundbreaking: almost the whole point of fiction, since at least as far back as Ancient Greece’s booming theatre scene and probably far, far further back before that all the way to the beginning of oral mythology, has been to reflect reality in a slightly distorted mirror so as to make clearer what it has to say about how the world is, how we ought to act in it, and the perils of ignoring wisdom. More recently, of course, video games as a newer form of media have struggled to find acceptance in the mainstream as equally valid ways of telling these important stories (see the BBC’s astonished reaction to the fact that God of War dared to have emotions, as if that were the most novel thing a video game could possibly do), but in the corners of the Internet I inhabit there are of course a lot of people who have been agreeing for a long time that games do indeed have lessons to teach us and powerful stories to tell. I even collected some of the thoughts of some of these learned people in a blog post – that was almost a year ago now (!), but it’s still an interesting read, I think.
I say all this as preamble to something that may resemble an actual point, partly because there’s still a part of me that feels that I have to justify using the lens of a gaming world to speak about a real-life thing, even in the friendly company of people who, by virtue of reading this in the first place, are already pretty likely to agree with all this. That odd sort of gamer guilt probably merits another post all on its own.
Today I want to talk about death, or about reacting to death: grief, mourning, bereavement. It’s not a topic I’ve really addressed before, and if I’m honest I still feel as I write this that in some ways I shouldn’t be writing about it, that I’m not entitled or qualified to do so. There are people (there may even be people reading this) who have lost someone, or someones, very close to them in utterly devastating circumstances, or who have suffered unexpectedly or tragically. To those people, I am sorry, and I can’t imagine what you must have gone through and continue to be going through. I have been fortunate enough not to suffer this sort of loss, and my perspective on this topic is inevitably going to be influenced by my own history, or lack of it, with death. I hope that nobody will begrudge me the opportunity to talk about it, nonetheless.
For the sake of context, and for anyone who’s curious (I often find myself curious about things I really ought to be sensitive enough not to be), my timeline of death-related events is broadly as follows:
- Years before my birth, my father’s parents both passed away, so I never met them or really suffered the loss (I do occasionally dwell on how life might have been different, or wish I could have known them, but I don’t think I’ve ever really grieved because I never knew them).
- When I was around eight or nine, my mother’s parents pass away within a couple of years of each other. I remember being upset by this, of course, but regret to say that I was too young and not close enough to them to feel as if I really went through anything like the grief that my older cousins (and my mother and her siblings) suffered.
- Around that time, my family had a couple of pet rabbits who naturally passed away after a few years. Again, I was young and (to my shame) hadn’t really spent a lot of time playing with them or looking after them, so although it was sad it wasn’t devastating.
- Last year, my other half’s nan passed away. I didn’t get to know her as well as I would have liked, but she was a lovely, caring lady. She had been in poor health for some time, so it wasn’t unexpected; I don’t know whether that makes it better or worse. She was a big part of the family throughout the lives of her children and grandchildren, and was really too young to suffer the ailments she did; her mother is still alive and well to this day and attended her funeral. (This last fact hit me particularly hard when I realised it.)
These are the deaths that are worth mentioning in my life, as blunt and reductive as that sounds. There have been others, but these are the ones that were the most significant or the most immediate. I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been dwelling in particular on the fact that I didn’t really get the chance to have grandparents in my life; I feel more of a sense that I missed something I should have had, and more of a desire to learn about the lives and personalities of the people I descend from. I’ve also been thinking about grief as of late because I’m preparing, I suppose, to grieve another few losses.
I feel, again, a sense that I’m not supposed to be talking about this, that my loss isn’t as serious as others, because the deaths that I’m expecting are of animals rather than humans, but at this point I think I’ve got to keep going, really.
My partner Hannah and I have two rats who are a bit over two years old (the life expectancy of a rat is somewhere between two and three years), whom we have absolutely loved and adored with all our hearts since we first brought them home with us, and who are starting to show the signs of age a bit. They’re not as quick, not as confident (not helped by our recent house move, which I was terrified would have consequences for their health), and suffering from things like stiffness of the back legs and the beginnings of visual impairment.
Hannah’s family also have a dog, a beautiful golden German shepherd called Kia who’s aged around eleven. They’ve had her as long as I’ve known them; in fact, before I met Kia I was pretty scared of dogs, but she and I became friends and I got over that completely. She’s been a huge part of that family’s life – and mine, as I’ve been living with them the last couple of years. She’s been the thing that weekend activities have often revolved around, and a constant physical presence who always comes and says hello when anyone comes in. She is genuinely just as much a part of the family as any of the non-dog-people, and she is unfortunately not very well these days. In fact, within a day or two of this post going up, she will most likely have gone to sleep.
I am therefore confronted with the possibility of death in my near future for what feels like the first time in my adult life. I’ve never suffered the loss of someone I was this close to, who was such a constant everyday presence in my life, and whose absence will be so strange and so hard to bear. (I know that those who have had pets will understand this, despite the reactions of others sometimes being along the lines of ‘but it’s just an animal’. That animal happens to be one of my very best friends in the world, thanks.) I am almost completely inexperienced when it comes to processing grief, and the prospect of coming face-to-face with this huge alien onslaught of emotion is absolutely terrifying me. I almost feel as if I’ve gone through some sort of emotional release a few times already just contemplating how painful it feels to be anticipating the loss.
My instinct right now is to turn to games, which have been a source of comfort to me and many people when dealing with difficult times, but I don’t just want an escape at the moment. I need something to give me context, something to make me feel things or tell me how to feel things by taking what I’m going through and framing it in a story I can understand, but… as I think about it, I can’t really think of any games I’ve played that actually deal with death.
I’m surprised, because death is a huge topic that is a big part of a lot of stories in some way, and because I generally expect that if there’s a theme I want to be thinking about, a game will probably have explored it! This may only be an indication of my gaming history, to be fair; perhaps I’ve just never sought out games about loss and grief because those themes haven’t spoken to me before or something like that. There may be all sorts of games out there that deal with death in a variety of thoughtful ways, and I hope that people will pitch in with suggestions, recommendations, and thoughts.
‘But, Chris,’ someone is surely thinking, ‘death is one of the basic building blocks of gaming! You can die all the time in games!’
That’s true, but I suppose when I say ‘death’ here, I’m not really talking just about, er… dying. A ‘death’ in gaming is usually just a moment in which the player character stops being active for a bit. In reality, too, in the strictest sense dying is a very short-lived thing; it happens when someone goes from being alive to not being, and that’s a very narrow moment. What I’m trying to find is something that deals with the anticipation of the loss of a loved one, or the emotional process that surrounds death.
A few things came to mind when I was trying to think of a game that did address these topics, so let’s quickly take a peek at them. (Some spoilers may follow.)
In the first chapter of The Last of Us, the player briefly assumes control of a young girl called Sarah, who with her father Joel tries to escape from the violent outbreak of an infection causing people to start killing each other. Sarah is shot and killed – unexpectedly and without much ceremony – within probably the first half an hour of the game. We see Joel desperate and terrified in her final moments, and then there’s a cut to black and a timeskip before we rejoin the action.
Sarah’s death defines the way Joel interacts with the world and with other people for much of the rest of the game, but we never see how he processed the immediate aftermath; we get the sense throughout his story in TLoU, especially in his developing relationship with Ellie, that he is still dealing with the impact of his daughter’s death, but his way of dealing with it has been to close himself off until he eventually finds some peace in bonding with another young girl in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Unfortunately, this is not a viable way for me to process my feelings.
When we join Kratos at the beginning of God of War, he’s a single father who’s suffered the loss of his wife and doesn’t seem to have found a way to get over that. Again, it’s an event that defines the way he is in his story and contextualises his behaviour and relationships, but we begin the adventure with that death already in the past, with him having already gone through stages of grief before settling, or getting stuck, on being a grumpy murder dad. I haven’t played the game (and therefore the previous couple of sentences could well be inaccurate, so please forgive me), so I don’t know whether he ultimately gets better and deals with his feelings or not, but from what I know about Kratos I’m expecting that his coping method is not going to be realistically possible for me to emulate. I can’t go and kill a pantheon as a way of accepting my emotions.
Similarly, Wander in Shadow of the Colossus begins his journey as a way to save a girl from death (or some sort of magical slumber, I’m not sure) – one assumes that just before we meet him in-game, he’s had a traumatic time and a lot of emotional turmoil surrounding the loss of Mono, but by the time we start our journey together he’s coalesced the broad spectrum of emotions into a single determined drive to kill an array of beautiful giants. In Wander’s case, the emotional progress he makes from his starting state is perhaps the most unambiguously not good. His reaction to this death is all but explicitly condemned as being the wrong course of action by the game, so I don’t think I should be trying to learn from him.
The above three examples come from games hailed as having rich and emotionally deep stories, and I do think that playing through their stories might help me to go through some sort of catharsis by experiencing the pain and growth of these characters, but I was hoping I might find something that would deal more intimately with the experience of actually processing a loss. What I’ve found so far are stories which use a significant death as an inciting incident or a motivating factor for a character, not an actual part of the story as it unfolds.
Other games that have included deaths as events within the story have tended to use the loss as a similarly motivating incident for the characters left alive, driving the next part of the action. There’s also a mechanical aspect to some deaths that occur during games; perhaps the most famous, Aerith in FFVII, is effective because it hits the characters and the player as a loss both of a person that we’ve come to know and love and of a party member who was useful in combat, and whose absence means that some playstyle adjustment may be required. That last part is certainly an interesting facet of games using mechanics to tell a story: making the player feel the loss on a functional level is perhaps not intended to emulate the feeling of an actual bereavement, but it’s a way of adding an extra layer.
Still, even this most famous of gaming deaths moves speedily on to the next part of the story, with Aerith’s death lighting a fire to help drive the plot forward. It becomes an event, a part of history, in fairly short order; characters do express an emotional response to their loss, sure, but I still feel that this is… not what I’m looking for.
(I know there are more character deaths in Final Fantasy, and some of them are probably very well-handled, but for some reason the only one I can think of is Cyan finding his dead wife and son and reacting by uncontrollably stabbing everyone until he gets over it a few battles later and is thereafter pretty much fine.)
I thought that perhaps having a look over at AmbiGaming might give me some good ideas; Athena, who runs the site, always has insightful things to say about games and their relationships to Big Deep Topics like this one. I came across a couple of interesting thoughts from her, in particular this:
Why do we want to experience negative emotions, if we have the option? The answer is surprisingly simple: by being given the opportunity to feel these emotions behind the safety of a screen (or behind the pages of a book), we are given a chance to experience these emotions within a safe context. If a person dies in real life, you can’t pause life to process what just happened, and you can’t distance yourself and look at the grief with a critical eye.
You can do that with a game. You have control over how you experience those emotions. You can pause the game; you can even turn it off and come back to it later without consequence. In real life, there’s no actual “pausing to come back later.” It’s happening, and you can’t just “turn it off” until you’re ready to deal with it.
The above is from a post called ‘Why We Like Heroes Who Fail’, which is well worth a read on the subject of what makes a protagonist relatable. I think it captures quite nicely why I’m looking for some fictional experience to help me make sense of things, if not where I should go to find that experience. (Her post ‘Low Batteries’ is similarly insightful on the psychology of using games to cope with difficult situations.) Continuing to peek around Athena’s site, though, I found a review of a specific game that I had vaguely heard of but hadn’t played: RiME.
I suggest reading Athena’s review, since she discusses it more incisively than I would be able to. It does contain spoilers for the ending of the game, but even now that I’ve had the game spoiled, I think I’m going to have to play it. (In fact, if I hadn’t been spoiler-ed I probably wouldn’t feel so certain that this is going to be a game I’ll need to experience.) Suffice to say that it sounds as if RiME deals with loss and grief via allegory and metaphor, but in a way that does relate closely to the sort of feelings I think I’m trying to make sense of. Sometimes an allegorical or metaphorical truth is more effective for making sense of something than a literal explanation, I think; stories can take these themes and express them in ways that capture their essence more neatly and more relatably than real life would ever be likely to, and contextualising that essence against the reality of the experience helps to frame what’s happening as something less alien. Or something like that.
(In fact, as I was looking around the blogs of the people I know, certain that someone would already have addressed this subject more insightfully than I could hope to, I stumbled across Kim from Later Levels writing on the subject of a recent loss and games as a form of escapism. It’s another article that’s well worth a read, and again is more about the general state of mind that causes a player to seek out a different world to escape to; the comment section is what stands out to me, though, as it’s filled with gamers sharing their own thoughts and experiences. There was a link in there to a post by HomeButton Gaming about RiME, in fact. It is a truly affecting article, and one that expresses an anguish deeper than I would wish on anyone, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. It’s another reminder that my own grief is vastly smaller than that experienced by others, and another niggling feeling that I shouldn’t be writing about this, but I hope that even those who have experienced much worse than I have will forgive me for struggling with what seems like less.)
A game which most definitely deals with precisely these ideas, but does so in a much more direct and less abstract way, is That Dragon, Cancer. It’s another game I’ve not personally played, but in my search for games about the topic of death and loss I couldn’t help but turn it up. This is a game created by the parents of a young boy with a terminal illness, and it is an intensely personal work which really is simply about that experience. It sounds like something that should exist, and that does so for the right reasons, but I have to say I don’t think I’ll be playing it. It’s too personal, I think: too much the story of those particular people, and I can understand why entirely, but I don’t think simply exposing myself to their suffering would be useful. Or maybe it would; maybe just being in that experience, acclimatising to it (if such a thing is possible) is the only way of really adjusting and learning how to cope. I don’t know.
Back to the symbolic side of things, I recommend EmceeProphit’s YouTube channel to anyone who likes games and thinking about games. In several of his videos, perhaps most notably the Ocarina of Time series that first gained him some attention, he touches on small details in games’ stories which add up to powerful messages about life, growing up, and loss, among other things.
At the end of all this, though, I still feel that I haven’t really found anything helpful. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure exactly what I was trying to do here: I might just have been trying to get some stuff out of me, and I seem to have done that, if nothing else. Whether it’s helped is up for debate, of course!
I think all I can really conclude is that for something like this, there is no right way of doing things. There’s no experience I can share that will make my own feel more manageable. I’m just going to have to go through it.
That doesn’t sound easy, but at least I have some intellectual context to help me justify why I should simply allow myself to feel things (I struggle with emotional responses, especially if I can’t contextualise them): it’s practically the foundation of existentialism as set out by Jean-Paul Sartre. There’s even a gaming reference to sneak in here, for bonus points.
I’d like to open this subject up for discussion, if that’s alright; I’m sure there will be people out there who have stories to share, including how a game (or another sort of experience) helped them. Of course, nobody has to share anything, but I’d be interested to discover games that are out there which really do cover these topics in exactly the sort of way I’m looking for.
Thank you for reading this, by the way. I do appreciate it.