This piece was written for List Jam
CW: Death, Suicide, Nihilism, Language
Death is so integral to video games that almost every game includes it. I still remember the outrage over Kirby’s Epic Yarn foregoing death in favor of moving back a few steps and losing a bunch of money. Funnily enough, Shovel Knight would get praised for this same mechanic. Just this time, the game ties it to death, and you go back just a tad bit further. In a large majority of games, death is just an easy way to say you lost. Video games tend to be violent, your character tends to have health, so you tend to lose when you die. Lives and 1-ups are ubiquitous likely because games needed to make money on arcade machines. Some 30+ years after lives in video games were invented, and I spend a month of my one life accidentally playing a bunch of games about death. Surprisingly, the life mechanic doesn’t come up in these games.
From here, I’m gonna try and talk about each game segmented, so spoilers are contained. Spoiler warnings should last from one warning to the next, but likely there’ll be some minor references to the previous works in the later. If you want to fully avoid spoilers for a title, just stop reading there. All images used in this piece will be taken from Snoman Gameplay (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeP1Enud_t8FBRrDroYPJvQ/featured).
In 2011, Dark Souls came through with a breakout new death mechanic. When you died, you lost all your progress since your last save, but if you went to where you died, you could recover all the experience you got. This factoid might be true, but I both haven’t played Dark Souls and could be wrong about it being the first to do this. I’m actually like 99% sure Demon Souls did it first. Many players likened Shovel Knight‘s death mechanic to Dark Souls‘s, so maybe you could argue Kirby’s Epic Yarn was the first to do this just on the absolute smallest scale possible where your last “save” scales approximately a single foot walk from where you died. Regardless, Dark Souls definitely popularized it, and many games, like Shovel Knight, Hollow Knight, and many FromSoftware games, use the mechanic and iterate on it.
Spoiler Warning for the majority of NieR: Automata
NieR: Automata, a game I actually have played, has a fascinating take on this mechanic. Many mechanics that tend to exegetic are instead diegetic in NieR: Automata. The playable androids actually see the UI just as the player does, and rendering it requires hardware space that players could use for an extra .5% attack boost. This lead me to only using the Mini-map and Text Log chips, as the rest of the UI didn’t seem worth while. Death is similarly mechanicalized. During the [A] and [B] routes of the game, dying actually keeps the consciousness of the android backed-up, and it leaves their body out in the world. The android’s robot bodies simply brake, but everything that happened still happened. Players recover the broken android to regain the lost hardware. The game warns players upon starting that the game will not no auto-save, and it’ll explain why later. Saving is backing up the androids memories, and there’s even hardware that mentions when saving is possible (but why would I ever want to sacrifice my sweet sweet .01% damage boost for that). YoRHa forces the androids to have a self-destruction feature turned on; their missions success is far more important than their hardware. This is shown at the beginning of the game, but with the cruel twist that only 2B actually got backed up, so 9S doesn’t recount their first mission together. At first this seems like a fun way to make dying make more sense, but NieR: Automata turns this mechanic on its head for the [C]/[D] route. Shortly into this third route, the logic virus infects YoRHa, and the back-up system turns offline. From now on, dying is losing all progress. Okay, you can still save. Yoko Taro isn’t that cruel. There’s no more Dark Souls-esque body recovery. Players will lose all their progress and have to redo anything done previously since their last save. Death all of a sudden means something more than a simple chore. There’s so much more at stake; just like how it is for the characters.
Death plays a much bigger role than just mechanics in NieR: Automata. Throughout the game, the game equates dying with some sort of greater role. This is first notably seen with Adam. Adam purposefully disconnects himself from the network in order to experience the threat of death and death itself. He’s engrossed himself in human culture. In order to fully understand humans, he forces himself to confront death. To be human is to know death. Everything a human does is done because we’re a little bit sad, afraid, anxious, knowing it won’t last forever. With infinity to exist and no threat of ever not existing, everything is completely different. Death turns Adam into a human.
This same idea comes up again, but with Kierkegaard, the machine who became God. Upon finding a religious cult, 2B and Pascal arrive at the worst possible moment. Their priest, Kierkegaard, just died and the machines decided that he did this to become god. The machines then all start killing each other and themselves in order to obtain god status as well. NieR: Automata does not address the machine’s philosophy in much detail, so one can take a lot of liberties in its interpretation. The machines mimic humans and based their religion on human culture. This could read similarly to Adam, where the machines equated death with becoming human. I think this makes the most sense, as it fits into NieR: Automata‘s critique on nihilism. There’s definitely room for interpretation on many different fronts for this scene though. Death could be seen as actually becoming god, and the machines simply believed this was the case. The machines also could have just been so lost without their ecclesiastical guidance that they needed to mimic the last action their priest performed. Regardless of which interpretation a player subscribes to, the game focuses a lot on the act of death during this scene.
Many machines use death as an escape during Nier: Automata. There’s many machines that focus themselves on a task, and upon completion or failure, decide that self-destructing is the only option. High-Speed Machine serves as a great example of this. The machines strives only to be fast. Upon losing three races to our androids, they self-destruct. The imbued their life with a singular purpose, but couldn’t handle what happens when something takes that purpose away. This happens a lot in NieR: Automata: Master Servo, Engels, Wise Machine, Pascal. The machines descend into nihilism again and again and use death as an escape. The game revels in nihilism, but it always make death feel incorrect. When Pascal asks the player to kill him or wipe his memories (effectively killing who he is), the game offers a secret third choice to let him live. The fact that the game doesn’t broadcast this option and makes the player chose it for themselves decidedly shows that living, learning from your mistakes, and finding new meaning is the right answer. These ideas culminate in ending [E], after we see our boy 9S descend so deep into nihilism. 2B’s death causes 9S to go down this path. He could not care less about dying as long as he kills the machines. He infects himself with a logic virus when he attaches 2B’s hand to replace his. Then he willing thrusts his body into 2B’s sword just to kill A2 in ending [D]. An aside, I really like how he dies by 2B’s hand; this subtle pun strengthens the 2 and 9 motif. After ending [D] (and [C]), the player then must decide that the endings stink and take ending [E], where the characters live on, for themselves.
9S’s path also mirrors Eve’s descent into nihilistic rage during the [A] and [B] routes. Eve lost his brother Adam and sought revenge on 2B for killing Adam. Both Eve and 9S realize revenge will not accomplish anything, but it gives them a vague sense of purpose until they achieve their goals. Before, both filled their life with relationships to give themselves purpose, but death takes that away from them. NieR: Automata says death does not solve nihilistic pain; death causes it.
Death as a mechanic fleshed out NieR: Automata‘s through its diegesis, and it used death as a motif throughout its story. While both work in there own way, I wished the concept married each other a little bit more. The mechanical changes definitely add more flavor to 9S’s character growth at the end, but games can definitely tie their death mechanics into their theme.
Spoiler Warning for all of Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds central gameplay revolves around death. Shortly after the player’s first voyage into the unknown in Outer Wilds, their character figures out they are trapped in a time loop after they die and return to the start. Either immediately or after a few deaths, player’s will see that they Sun at the center of the solar system goes super nova after 22 minutes of real time. The entire game revolves around solving the mystery of the time loop. Outer Wilds is a pretty high concept game. Many may argue this misses the point entirely, and I probably. I, also, did not explore 100% of the game; although, I only learned I did not see everything after completing the game with only missing a very small amount. To continue, the player learns that these statues send their memories back 22 minutes, and these statues were created to find the eye of the universe, a signal older than the universe itself. The Nomai, a near extinct alien race, created this and called it “The Ash Twin Project.” Sending their memories back 22 minutes requires a super nova’s worth, which explains why this event occurrs now. Along their quest player’s will likely find the coordinates to the eye of the universe, which were found through time having looped 9,318,054 before the player’s character started looping, and a spaceship that can warp to those coordinates. Once at the eye of the universe, the player will enter some sort of wormhole looking thing, arrive at a campsite where they collect musical instruments summoning all of their friends, and then play off until the universe resets.
In order to complete the game in the main way, the player needs to remove the power supply from The Ash Twin Project and put it into the ship. Previously, death had been a simple mechanic to aid in exploration of the universe. The entire universe works on an active timer, and players can only complete many events at certain points in the 22 minute span. If players miss an event, they can simply die and try again. Some examples are sand covering up pathways on the planet Ember Twin and chunks of the planet Brittle Hollow falling into a black hole. When completing the game, the players all of a sudden can die for real again. They turn off the time loop. The implications of this weighed on my soul. There’s only one shot to do the most difficult thing in the game and under a tight time limit. I kept redoing the part right before removing the core to make sure I had the maximum time. The rush of removing the core, the nerve wracking space journey, the constant fear, trying to find the line between not dying and going fast. Outer Wilds creates an experience like no other when it introduces death into its equation. The finality of death in Outer Wilds feels real, much more than losing a life in Super Mario Bros. feels. The game’s death mechanic informs its narrative. Players explore to find out why they don’t die, and players solving the mystery and reintroducing death into the game lets them complete the game.
Outer Wilds also takes place at the heat death of the universe. Chert, a fellow astronaut, will inform the player that a significantly large amount of super novas occurring. They will then have a breakdown once they realize their own sun will super nova eminently. The ending of the game sees all the major astronaut characters join together for a final music camping session while the universe ends. Now I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure the “final moments” of the heat death of the universe probably lasts billions of years after it could sustain life at all. Outer Wilds more fun approach works way better anyways. Stopping the time loop allows the universe to finally end, and the characters all find peace in spending the last moments together. Outer Wilds actually bears striking resemblance to NieR: Automata‘s thoughts on these topics, where company and shared experience helps people overcome these existential crises. Chert goes from a mix of rage, sadness, and insignificance to happily participating in the jam sesh with everyone else. The game finally ends with everyone dying and and the universe reborn anew.
Okay I need another aside. I keep calling it “the Outer Wilds” in my head, and I hate that that’s not how it’s typed. Like, it’s how you would normally converse about the game, but because “the” is absent from the title, everything sounds off. Maybe it’s because the game is eternally confused with The Outer Worlds or maybe it’s my English brain demanding definitive articles for places I have a sense of location for. This isn’t important for this piece, but it’s vitally important that it’s said.
NieR: Automata has interesting death mechanics and motifs, and Outer Wilds uses death to give purpose to its mechanic and define its main theme. It makes sense for any game talking about death to have it as a mechanic, but many do not.
Spoiler Warning for all of What Remains of Edith Finch
What Remains of Edith Finch explores the family curse of the Finch’s, and their curse is death. There’s no dying in any sort of traditional game sense of the word in What Remains of Edith Finch. The game has the player relive the final moments of each family member’s life, usually seen through fantastical stories. Death does not result from failure; playing through death scenes progresses the game. The game instead looks critically at how people deal with the loss of family members.
First, I think I need to clarify that when I say What Remains of Edith Finch does not mechanically have death. One could argue playing out the final moments of someone’s life is a mechanic directly tied to death, and that’s a fair argument. For me, dying in the game is not the important part; those moments before and the reactions around define the game. The only moment I would say the dying strongly tied mechanics and theme was in Lewis’s death.
The family’s curse of death is sort of an oddity since everyone dies. The family curse feels so real playing through the game, yet all families will experience the death of the family members. It is actually more specific than just death: the curse implies all but one child will die before having children of their own. Edith, the titular character, is named after Edie, her grandmother. Edie sets up shrines to dead, complete with portraits of them and some story of the death. Various people and mediums tell these stories; it is not just Edie writing them down. Therapist letters, a ViewMaster, and personal diary are just a few ways the players experience these stories. Edie mourns death so uniquely; I would hesitate to call it morning. Edie much more lovingly revels in death. Growing up, Dawn, Edith’s mother, sheltered Edith from the curse. Dawn acts as a foil to Edie in the way they deal with the deaths of their family members. Dawn watches her father die as a teenager, and then had her husband die and son go missing in quick succession. This likely heavily effected her outlook on the curse compared to Edie, who didn’t experience any death until her mother, father, (infant) brother, and daughter all rapidly died in one year. The closeness of Edie’s first death experience along with her being more mature cemented the curse’s inevitability in her mind. Dawn is more rational, but still deeply afraid since she experienced so much death. The game fights with celebrating versus sheltering.
The game gains a new perspective once the players realize they have been viewing Edith’s death the whole time. While Edith lives through the dangerous exploration of her old family home, she dies in childbirth shortly after. Her son, Christopher, bookends the game with him going to mourn for his mother. Christopher has Edith’s diary, and we can infer Christopher learned the stories from viewing Edith’s story mirroring viewing every other death story. Christopher saw the result from sheltering and the result from celebrating, and ends up morning his mother years later in a very traditional way. The game really wants people to know that everyone deals with death in their own way. What Remains of Edith Finch does not concern itself with which way works best. The way that helps the person morning make it through things okay is the correct option for them. Edie lavished fantasy onto death and played up this curse, and that worked for her. Edie forcing her way of morning onto Dawn hurt dawn and lead to her death.
The game actually does confirm that the curse’s non-existence. What Remains of Edith Finch is actually directly related to The Unfinished Swan. Milton, Dawn’s missing son, fathers a child named Monroe, the playable character in The Unfinished Swan. Milton’s room shows this through the many elements from The Unfinished Swan. Milton both did not die as a child and had a children. Of all of Dawn’s children, Edith died the youngest, at 17. Edith and Milton both had children. The curse was just the way some family members dealt with death, and it scaring Odin to move to America directly contributed to his death. This furthers the theme of dealing with death in your own way and not forcing your way onto others.
So originally I wanted to talk about the game Necrobarista next. That game definitely deserves literary analysis; it has interesting themes about accepting your own death. I don’t think I’d do the game justice talking about it in the confines piece, since it is similar to What Remains of Edith Finch in lacking death mechanic. I thought I would pivot in the complete opposite direction. So far, the three games we’ve looked at all death with themes of death, but what about death just as a game mechanic? Let’s look at murder mystery games. I haven’t played any recently, but who cares I can cheat a bit.
Spoiler Warning for all of Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright
Murder mystery games are some of my favorite. In these games, murders are less about the weight of the death of the individual, and more about how murder is a puzzle. Even Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright, the death of Mia Fey, Phoenix’s mentor and Maya’s sister, is not a major focus of the game thematically. Within her chapter, the game mainly looks to tie capitalism into its critique of police institutions. Mia’s death definitely affects Phoenix and Maya, but the game’s main focus remains elsewhere.
Murder makes for a great set up for a puzzle. Killing someone is not easy, and it leaves a lot of evidence. There’s a good reason why Phoenix doesn’t go around defending people accused of thievery. A murder contains so many interesting factors that lead to endless puzzle combinations: method, place, time, motive, etc. Someone only steals for a few reasons: someone needs money for food or medicine usually. Murder motives vary wildly from self-defense to covering up past murders. Murder also brings spectacle to crime. You don’t take a man out on a boat at midnight to commit tax evasion. Other crimes as heinous or worse generally either are magnitudes greater in scale or can’t really be abstracted in the same way we see the puzzle in murder.
A murder in Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright might as well not even involve the death of a person. The game presents murder as an interesting situation to solve. That’s why Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright does not dwell on Mia’s death. The developers know a murder mystery does not work if players start thinking about how horrible murder actually is. The game stays lighthearted with its quirky, pun-named characters and exaggerated scenarios to keep murder as a puzzle. Most successful murder mystery games make sure to maintain this distinction through one method or another. Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc wants you to know how fucked up children murdering each other is, but it uses its extremity to make sure you never wallow for to long. The Return of the Obra Dinn sees players investigating a possible sixty deaths, but the scale and some interesting elements that I won’t spoil keeps the investigation staying a investigation. Many of the Ace Attorney’s series biggest cases involve murders from years gone, allowing for lots of character development without the sadness to accompany death. Murder mystery abstract the interesting mechanics of death into a puzzle and leave the serious parts behind.
So I think that’s gonna end my exploration of death in games. There’s definitely a lot more to explore about death in games both in similar categories and categories I didn’t cover at all. We saw death just mechanically in Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright, death just thematically in What Remains of Edith Finch, death both mechanically and thematically in NieR: Automata, and a full merger of death mechanics into its theme in Outer Wilds. It is interesting how What Remains of Edith Finch focuses so much on death as a personal experience, while NieR: Automata and Outer Wilds show how sharing our experiences can help us cope. Even in the little Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright does talk on death it shows Phoenix and Maya getting through it by helping each other out: very plainly in Phoenix helping Maya defend her innocence. I don’t think mechanics are the reason What Remains of Edith Finch takes such a different stance; it more likely results from the time distance. NieR: Automata and Outer Wilds concern themselves with the moments prior to death, while Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright deals with the moments right after. What Remains of Edith Finch deals with death over generations of people.