Death, told in the world of video games

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Aina Prat Blasi
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One of the strong points of the video game is that of being an experience capable, with all the elements that characterize it, of convey emotions of practically all kinds. It is after all a medium capable of acting on several levels, and thus leaving an almost unique impact on the mind and heart of the lucky player. Joy, pain, anxiety but even relief: playing can mean experiencing these and dozens of other sensations, and at the same time better understanding some of those aspects that are part of all of our lives. Beautiful or ugly they are.

What we want to do today is analyze how, over the last few years, we have witnessed different ways of narrating a theme such as death within the video game. A serious topic that should be treated carefully, so as not to risk appearing trivial or obvious in the eyes of the end user: for this reason we have collected some examples which, in our opinion, are particularly significant in the explain the link between death and video games. Enjoy the reading!

Death and video games: a matter of approach

Let's start with a small premise: we won't talk about death in its most entertainment-oriented conception, as happens for example in Resident Evil or similar titles. Indeed, works of this kind have a totally different setting compared to those that we are going to deal with, in which we speak of death as a real concept part of the life of each of us. Wanting to put it on the philosophical we can in fact say that yes, death is in all probability the only certainty we have: perhaps a slightly crude and excessively tranchant look, but which reflects the simple reality of the facts. What changes is not the state of things, but the way used to tell everything.

Let's take as a first example To the Moon, an independent title from 2011 created by Freebird Games. A touching pixel art adventure capable of conquering the public for a simple, but in its own way completely unique approach to talking about certain topics. In the game we will play the role of Eve and Neil, two employees of the Sigmund Agency of Life Generation: a unique company born to help dying people grant a wish through the implantation of artificial memories, in order to guarantee them a death without regrets.

The two will find themselves having to deal with Johnny Wyles, an old man who has always wanted to go to the moon: a journey through man's memories starts here, where we will get to know his late wife River and all the circumstances that led them to meet. The whole story takes an unexpected turn when some problems emerge in the man's psyche, damaged for reasons that our protagonists will discover firsthand, which have compromised many of his memories. Eventually we will learn the real reason why Johnny has always wanted to go to the moon so badly, and the message that To the Moon leaves us is very clear: death is indeed the conclusion of something, but that does not mean that something is not must retain all of its value.

Another conception is the one narrated in Grim Fandango, a LucasArts graphic adventure where we find ourselves catapulted into the Land of the Dead: a place where one ends up at the end of one's life, and where to transit while waiting to finally be able to reach the Ninth Afterlife. The game takes up the Aztec vision of what life and death represent, and it does it in a very particular way.

With what is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, Tim Schafer manages to tackle the theme of death with the sarcastic tone that has always distinguished his productions... Without however ever diminishing or ridiculing its significance. The protagonist Manny Calavera and the various characters (all, in fact, dead) tend to be ironic about their situation, but at the same time raise interesting reflections on what is a journey that every gamer should experience at least once. As Manny himself says, after all: "Love? Love is for the living...".

The approach adopted by Giant Sparrow in What Remains of Edith Finch is very interesting, a 2017 adventure that makes death the real background that accompanies the entire narrative. As Edith, the last remaining member of the Finch dynasty, we will relive the stories of all the members of this singular family. In the various sections we will literally find ourselves in the role of the protagonist's cousin, great-grandfather, aunt, mother and so on: a dramatic journey that will tell, one step at a time, how each of these people met their death.

The Finches look indeed subject to a curse for which, often at a very young age, a shocking event causes the death of every member of the family. We are witnessing here many different ways of perceiving, living and narrating death: a brilliant work that, without exaggerating, we can truly consider revolutionary for everything related to storytelling in video games. And not only.

Grieving, and what follows from it

In the three examples just mentioned, we were able to observe a particular vision of death within videogames: in the cases in question it is seen as a rite of passage, at the conclusion of the strange experience that is life. However, the enormous quantity of titles on the market obviously leaves room for many, many other interpretations.

It is impossible not to mention a production like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, developed by Starbreeze Studios and dated 2013. The main characters here are two brothers who, already orphaned of their mothers, find themselves facing a long journey in search of the only cure that can save the life of the sick father. An adventure where the theme of death will be touched upon in three different conceptions: in fact, we will talk about the deceased mother of the two boys, the risk of losing the other parent as well and what would happen to one of the brothers if the other dies.

A touching work and whose simple style could be misleading, but which hides a very profound message: life is made up of many things, many of which are unfortunately negative. It's up to us to face them and move forward, being able to count on others but first of all on ourselves.

It is then with a pinch of pride that we can mention, within this short list, an all-Spanish title such as Last Day of June. Conceived by the team of Ovosonico, and with a masterfully soundtrack composed by Steven Wilson, the game is a real masterpiece capable of hitting those who experience it for the first time hard. This adventure tells us the story of Carl: a man intent on getting lost in memory lane thinking about the last moments of his wife June's life, who died in a tragic and sudden car accident.

Carl's journey will lead him, through an infinite series of puzzles and decisions to be made (every action will correspond to a reaction, following the logic of the butterfly effect) to try to avoid the death of his partner: a clearly impossible undertaking, and this is exactly what the game wants to communicate. The absence of any form of verbal dialogue within the game somehow makes everything even more effective, letting thoughts and gestures express the emotions associated with being face to face with a mourner. Accepting it is difficult, and the ending of the game manages to give us something extraordinary even in helping us to really understand the importance of this phase.

We have seen a whole series of cases of how, within a video game, one can talk about death in many different ways. It is an issue that it is important to address, and to do it in the right way – without minimizing, or in any way altering the scope of the message – it is also essential as an element in the growth of each of us.

Over the years we have managed to observe all the different ways of perceiving video games, which can be a tool for educating, communicating values ​​and even a useful means for sociological analysis. Several studies have begun to evaluate the role that such an experience can play, obviously in a general sense and which still needs to be explored, in dealing with and processing a theme such as death (the American of Wired).

After all, we are talking about a medium capable of merging different languages ​​and directing them to an audience that, today more than ever, is varied and full of peculiar characteristics. Only the future will show us if and how this interesting hypothesis will actually turn out to be founded, but in the meantime what we want is to invite you to tell us yours. What are, in your opinion, those video games that best manage to tell the theme of death?

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