(Cowboyana death animation by Messhof)
By Yifat Shaik
It feels cliché to start with an opening about a recent death. But it just so happens that, at one point between researching and starting to write this essay, a long-time friend committed suicide after a long fight with clinical depression. It feels almost fitting, in a macabre way, that as I write about finding meaning in seemingly meaningless repeated deaths and do-overs in games, I am faced (again) with the notion that death is not infinite; that in reality there are no do-overs. That death is meaningful because it is finite, because you only get one chance to do everything right, because death is not a reset function.
Contrast a real death with a video game one and the latter instantly feels cheap, absent of meaning. Repeated death as a game mechanic has become nothing more or less than a constant, infinite metaphor for our failures. A fail-state that allows for the system to reset itself and for us to start over and for the player to learn from previous mistakes. Unsurprisingly, video game death is often thought of as meaningless action, a way for the system to communicate a player’s failure and nothing more. But is repeated death really so meaningless? Although repetition and reanimation can make each lifetime feel less meaningful, I think repeated death is a meaningful mechanic if we look at its impact on the character and storyline as a whole.
Other forms of entertainment have started to widely incorporate repeated death as a mechanic, showing us a new way of seeing death in video games. This year at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the pleasure of watching Hardcore, a movie that is basically a video game in the form of a film. (I highly recommend it just for sheer fun.) It struck me that video game mechanics are showing up in the narrative choices of cinema. In the past, video games referenced specific narrative and aesthetic film dogma. Now, films are drawing inspiration from video games. While not yet widespread, aesthetic choices such as using first-person and point-of-view cameras and manipulating space and regeneration are popping up in films more and more.
Often, repeated deaths in film take the form of the time-loop plot device. In the 2014 movie Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat.), Tom Cruise is a soldier stuck in a time-loop reliving over and over again the day preceding a battle between humanity and an alien race trying to destroy it. Edge of Tomorrow echoes game mechanics closely by having a “ reset button,” in this case the character’s (often creative) repeating deaths. This is no coincidence: Edge of Tomorrow was based on the Japanese Science Fiction Novel All You Need Is Kill, which the author Hiroshi Sakurazaka himself explains was inspired by gamers’ accounts of repeating death in games and how it leads to constant player improvement.
In the even more popular example Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character “magically” gets stuck in a time-loop, so that he relives the same day (February 2nd) over and over again. The “reset button” in Groundhog Day is just sleep. But though Murray’s character does kill himself in order to leave the time-loop at certain parts of the movie, thus interrupting sleep as a metaphor for death, its usefulness as an analogy for video game death is far from perfect: Death, even repeated death, is a far more violent and dramatic concept then sleep.
In both movies, the time-loop creates opportunities for self-improvement. The heroes start out incomplete and unhappy individuals, and slowly over the course of repeating the same events over and over again, become a better person. Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is a misanthropic and arrogant meteorologist, who by the end of the film finally manages to to leave the time-loop by completely transforming his character. He becomes a happier, kinder person, and even finds love. Tom Cruise’s character, on the other hand, starts out as a cowardly, inexperienced soldier who joins the battle after using blackmail to get out of serving in the battlefield. He ends the movie as a strong, experienced, and brave soldier who saves the world from the alien invasion. In this was, the time loop is used as an interesting framing of a character's personal journey and growth. By showing how a character reacts to the same events, and how he differentiate each time as the character grows and changes, his personal journey becomes more obvious to the audience.
Maybe self-improvement is the answer to the search for meaning in video game death. Each time you die in a game, the game resets and you get to do the same thing again, but better. Until eventually, you get good enough to avoid death and then move on to the next level. To, metaphorically, be out of the time-loop and possibly enter a new one.
For me, the metaphor doesn’t have to end there. It is not just the player that improves; it is the in-game character, the player's avatar. If you really think about it, the in-game character changes and develops at the same time as do you, getting stuck in the same “time-loop." The avatar gets better and more complex as the game progresses, picking up new skills and developing better combat ability, and in so doing, developing a new narrative and complexity.
While repeated death is not the only factor to contribute to self-growth, I will argue that without death there can be no growth. Without death, the avatar will not encounter any difficulties, will not change, and will certainly not strive to be better. Therein lies the meaning of our many deaths.