Death is a mystery. For many brought up under the well-established reductionist model of reality, once your brain stops processing, that’s it – zip. Nada. For spiritualists, they adopt the Eastern philosophies (sometimes backed up by a quantum theory they don’t really understand), of consciousness as something other than brain matter alone – like electrical awareness passing through a brain shaped TV. Both camps are stupid. The real answer to this argument – of course – is 42. Here’s some videogames about death. Come on, dust off your funeral jacket and join the party. We’ve even got those little sausages on sticks.
My introduction to the world of literature (a.k.a a book fatter than a collection of Paul Jennings stories), was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. And yet I wouldn’t have picked them up at all if I hadn’t been introduced to Psygnosis’ point and click adventure. Not only did Discworld contain a strong cast of comic actors (Eric Idle, Tony Robinson, Rob Brydon), but also a script as witty as any of the books. The Death of Discworld (for those new to it) is a personification, depicted as the stereotypical ‘grim reaper’ of folklore. HE ALSO TALKS LIKE THIS. While a great character in the first game, it was Discworld 2 that brought Death to life (see what I did there). Due to unforeseen (or – more likely – foreseen, in Death’s case) circumstances, the bony friend of the sick and dying gets blown up, and goes missing, presumed… uhm, anyway – our hero – the incompetent wizard, Rincewind (voiced by Eric Idle) eventually discovers Death on a beach, sunbathing. He’s had enough of working for a living… (did it again) and wants to sit back and enjoy a beer whilst wearing one of those hats with corks on it (to keep the flies out of his eye sockets). It’s the human side of Death that comes across in both books and games, and which makes him such a wonderful character. One can only hope that when their time on Earth has ceased, there’ll be a skeletal tap on the shoulder. EXCUSE ME, I COULDN’T HELP BUT NOTICE…
Following on from Death, here’s another grim reaper: Gregg. Gregg is the grim reaper of Conker’s Bad Fur Day. He’s very small, has to use a megaphone for the theatrical voice, and hates cats. When Conker the squirrel first pops his clogs, players are surprised to find there is no ‘game over’ screen. Instead, Conker wakes up in a dark, blue lit realm – one made of flagstones and stony walls. This is the place where he is introduced to Gregg. He learns that – like cats – squirrels have ‘as many lives as they think they can get away with’ (finding a funny, weird tail-thing counts as an extra life). The next time Conker dies (providing he has enough lives) he’s brought back to the world by a giant skeletal hand. It’s a great game mechanic (hi, I’m a game mechanic), and it fits seamlessly with the bizarre humour of the game. Conker’s Gregg would be a welcome sight. I hate cats too.
So, supposing consciousness arose from matter like some weird steam, you’ll die and won’t know about it. In this sense, death in shooters is generally the most foreboding way to go. Pierce Brosnan’s watch shows his health deteriorating (and body armour, funnily enough) in Goldeneye. When the last square-fisted guard shoots you, your eyes fill with blood as you sink to the ground. There’s also a red screen in Gears of War , with an unsettling skull in the middle of your vision. The Call of Duty game fills your vision with – yep – a red mist, which is presumably blood. Perhaps the darkest of them all is Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, after he’s dropped from a great height. For several seconds you can see your body parts scattered all over the ground, and you can even move your head around – or eye – or whatever the hell’s left of you. The good thing is, you can always reload your game. So there’s someone looking out for your avater. You. Yes you, sir – are a god!
Playdead’s Limbo – the stylistic game of a boy stuck in a dream-like purgatory, is truly an unsettling experience. Not only are your own deaths gruesome in this silhouette puzzler, but everything is unsettling. The lack of music, the strange Another World type slugs that latch onto your brain… that freakin’ spider. It’s a nightmare world of a little boy trying to find his missing sister. That’s it. No other explanation. Is the boy dead? Probably. Where is he then? You don’t know, for certain. The anxieties of this place bring out the deepest night terrors or most heinous trip on a psychedelic drug. Could this be similar to the hellish state some near-death survivors describe? I dread to think. Just make sure you get past the spider as quickly as you can. Urgh!
I remember the first time I thought about death – I was about 6, sitting on the floor in a primary school lesson. The realisation that I was mortal – that I would one day die – was so visceral and frightening, I could see nothing but a great void at the end of (what would hopefully be) a long life. I’ve been told my thoughts at such a young age must have been the reaction to a death – but the simplicity, the sheer honesty of a young mind before it prescribes to the notion of an after-life, felt just that: honest. Does that mean I was right? No. But try arguing that with a kid. Regardless, that horrible feeling seeps in when I play Bioshock 2. The opening of the game sees your character put a gun to their head – against their will – and pull the trigger. The next minute they’ve been revived in a vita-chamber (a reanimating station). But ten years have gone by. And what happened in between that? Nada.
So – death… should we be afraid of it? No. Will we be? Instinctively. What lies at the other end? No one can ever tell you – certainly not this washed up writer. Read some Eckhart Tolle or Richard Dawkins, depending on what mood you’re in at the time. What has that even got to do with games? Nothing. I’ll leave you with a wonderful song about death, by Eric Idle. It’s from Discworld 2, if you were wondering.