(photography by Rachel Meyers)
On Death Positivity in Video Games
By Gabby DaRienzo
When Maxis’ simulation game The Sims launched in 2000, my friends and I (aged 10) quickly became obsessed with it. We spent hours in the game customising Sim-versions of ourselves, building elaborate homes, and watching their (our?) lives play out. The game had a great many innovative gameplay mechanics for its time, but my friends and I were mainly interested in one feature: Your Sims could die.
At first it was a tragic and heartbreaking discovery. But very soon afterwards, we were excitedly creating horrible and tragic deaths for said Sims. While our parents were disturbed by our morbid fascinations with killing off each others’ Sim lookalikes, my friends and I were excited about the game’s death mechanics. There were other games at the time that included death and dying, but The Sims dealt with death in a very different way from most other games. It not only encouraged us to think about death in video games, it also gave us the opportunity to come to terms with our own mortality.
In video games, death can serve multiple mechanical roles. It is most commonly used as a thing you want to avoid, a goal you need to accomplish, or as a narrative device. While death is prominent in many video games, we generally give it much less thought and treat it with much less seriousness than actual death, especially when it comes to player death.
This could be from a lack of permanence in most video games. Mechanics like “life systems” (a certain amount of retries designated to a player after they’ve died) and “respawning” (when a player reappears at a fixed point in the game, after they die) are a staple in many video games, but these remove the seriousness and finality of death. Rather than dwelling on the actual consequences of death, they turn death into an interruption or an annoyance.
I think this is why I (and millions of others) was fascinated with killing our Sims. Their deaths were permanent, they meant something, and they directly affected the gameplay of The Sims.
A recent movement that’s gaining popularity called death positivity (or “death acceptance”) is encouraging people to face their own mortality and be open to talking about death, addressing and demystifying it. The movement was started by a group of young morticians and funeral directors whose goal is to lift the veil on death and encourage us to explore our thoughts, feelings, and fears about mortality.
As a person who has been quite accepting of death and her own mortality since she was a young child, I am totally on-board with this whole death positivity movement. I’m particularly interested in how it applies to video games. The interactivity of video games makes it a great medium for getting the player to directly deal with things like death, yet a lot of the time it seems developers aren’t really considering it mechanically when designing their games.
That said, there are a bunch of games that do use death in mechanically or narratively interesting ways, and it’s exciting to see developers really thinking about death as a part of game design. In a sea of video games using traditional death mechanics, it’s interesting to look at which games are using death differently and how they allow players to really think about and come to terms with their own mortality.
Of the growing number of death-positive games out there, four in particular are stand-outs. One is Drinkbox Studios, the Toronto-based game studio responsible for bringing us Guacamelee! and the upcoming Severed. Developed in 2013 by Drinkbox, Guacamelee! is a rare game that not only shows death and the afterlife in a positive way, but does so beautifully and hilariously. An action-platformer game that is heavily inspired by Mexican culture and folklore, Guacamelee! features a cast mostly made up of skeletal calaca figures. The game stars Juan, a farmer-turned-luchador who must save his love interest and El Presidente’s daughter from an evil charro skeleton. Halfway through Guacamelee!, Juan unlocks the ability to teleport between the world of the living and the world of the dead, which allows him to solve puzzles or fight specific enemies.
The act of teleporting between these two worlds is quite aesthetically pleasing. Each time you teleport to the world of the dead the music changes to a gorgeous ethereal version of the living world’s music. The scenery in the world of the dead mirrors that of the living world, with subtle details like decorations or internet memes (the game is famous for being chock-full of them). When you shift from the world of the living to the world of the dead, you meet the animated skeletons of deceased citizens who used to live in the same towns and villages. These friendly non-playable characters (NPCs) are often more energetic and alive than the living citizens. Although Guacamelee! features classic death tropes (Juan has a health bar and respawns after he dies) the shifting between the world of the living and world of the dead, and the beautiful and colorful depiction of the afterlife, all make Guacamelee! a truly great example of a death-positive video game.
Next is Drinkbox Studio’s upcoming game Severed, which is slated for release in 2016. Severed centres around a young woman named Sasha who must exact revenge on the monsters who murdered her family and severed off her arm. In a conversation with Drinkbox’s concept artist Cuxo Quijano a few months ago, he explained to me that in the game death appears as an anthropomorphic character who is designed to be neither good nor evil. Cuxo remarked that death is often depicted as an evil or Machiavellian character in games, and that it made more sense for Severed’s story to personify death as accurately and as positively as possible — as a true neutral character who can help Sasha through her grieving process.
Another is Rogue Legacy, by the studio Cellar Door Games. In 2013, the team brought us Rogue Legacy, a platformer with a fascinating take on the mechanics and narrative of death. In Rogue Legacy the player must explore randomly generated dungeons and fight off randomly spawned enemies. The game uses permadeath (or “permanent death”) so when your character dies, they’re gone for good. After your original character has died, however, the game allows you to play as one of their heirs. These descendants each have unique characteristics and abilities that affect the gameplay . For example, if your descendant is colour-blind the game will be presented in black and white. Also, the gold you collect during the lifespan of your original character is been passed down to the heirs, and can be used to improve the abilities of successive descendants. This unique mechanic makes Rogue Legacy not only an incredibly inventive game, but a death-positive one at that . It allows the player to acknowledge and accept the deaths of their characters, while at the same time letting the player continue the adventure with unique heirs and descendants, all of whom will also inevitably die.
Finally, a game that allows players to understand the true consequences of death is Undertale, the critically-acclaimed game developed in 2015 by Toby Fox. Undertale is a role-playing game (or “RPG”) in which you play a human child who must navigate a fictional world filled with non-humanoid characters referred to as “monsters.” In the game you can choose to kill the monsters or “defeat” them nonviolently, but your decisions to do so affect the story and gameplay. The most interesting thing about how death is treated in Undertale is how (almost) realistic it is–choosing to kill the monsters lead to serious consequences that would normally be ignored in traditional RPGs. It not only encourages the player to think about death, but its twist on traditional death mechanics allows players to consider how death is normally treated in games.
There are a growing number of death-positive video games I could go on and on about — games that really broach the subject of death in mechanically or narratively interesting ways. More games I consider to be death-positive that I highly recommend checking out:
Sunburn! developed by Secret Crush in 2014 is a mobile puzzle game in which you play a captain of a space vessel that has crashed. Knowing that you and your crew are all doomed, your goal is to gather your crew and to plummet into the sun, dying together.
Gravity Ghost developed by Ivy Games in 2015 is a physics-based puzzle game in which you play the ghost of a young girl, reuniting animal spirits with their physical bodies and uncovering the story of your death and the deaths of the animals you’re helping.
Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask developed in 2000 by Nintendo is arguably the darkest game in the Legend of Zelda series, with the subject of death and doom being central to the gameplay and narrative. You play a child version of the main character Link, who must repeatedly travel through time and use transformative masks to solve puzzles and stop the moon from crashing into the earth.
The Graveyard is a game developed by Tale of Tales in 2008, where the player assumes control of an elderly woman walking through a graveyard to a bench. The game is slow and beautiful and easily one of the best examples of a death-positive video game.
Fate Tectonics is an upcoming world-building strategy puzzle game by Golden Gear Games launching September 9th. The player can build up a world and attempt to appease the gods, but also has the ability to destroy said world. There is no death or “game over” state. Instead, pieces that fall go back to “the void” — a place where your world starts and ends, a place of both life and death.
Games like Guacamelee!, Rogue Legacy, Undertale, and these mentioned above give me hope that video game developers can use death in creative and mechanically interesting ways that stray from typical and often tired tropes, giving players an opportunity to think about death and possibly even come to terms with their own mortality. I’m genuinely looking forward to the future of “death” in the games industry, and hope to see other developers use it in unique and interesting ways too. I’m absolutely positive I’ve missed a few examples of death positive video games, so if you can think of any that I’ve missed or if you’d like to share your thoughts on death and video games, please hit me up on twitter: @gabdar