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Death in Games: Part 3

PolyBlog & Videos

Death in Games: Part 3


SPOILER WARNING: This post spoils major parts of The Walking Dead: Season 1! If you haven't played it, don't read this post until you do.

Death: Not always this cute...

Death: Not always this cute...

In nearly every game, the death of your character is just a mechanic that conveys failure. Pac-man, Mario, Sonic, Solid Snake, Master Chief, Marcus Fenix; almost any character you can think of. They all die numerous times, but you load the last save, and battle on until you "get it right", and you're victorious. However, there's at least 1 game where the death of your character is more than that. There is no "getting it right".

The Walking Dead by Telltale Games is really the game that got me thinking about all this. It has all three types of death that I've discussed in this series. It has moments that make you question the morality of taking a life (Part 1); it has moments where the death of a friendly character actually evokes a feeling of loss and helplessness (Part 2); and finally, at the end of the game, we have the death of the player's character.

Now, The Walking Dead does use the same death-as-failure mechanic as most every other game. If you don't react to situations properly, you can die and get a "Game Over" type screen. What I'm talking about here is the scripted death of your character, Lee. at the end of the game.

Through the course of the game, you and Clementine survive all sorts of horrible situations. While your friends seem to be dying off, one by one, you and Clem consistently make it through alive, if not unscathed. Each time you make it through a seemingly hopeless situation, it gives you a sliver of renewed hope that you and Clem are going to make it. Which makes what eventually happens all the more hard to take.

At one point in the story, Lee is bitten by a zombie. We know that this is basically certain death in the world of The Walking Dead. But when it happens to you, you can't help but deny it. "There must be some way to stop this. This can't be it. I can't die like this." You may even take extreme measures to try and stop the spread of the infection, but nothing will stop it.

With Lee's health deteriorating, I could see this moment coming, but at the same time, like Lee, I kind of denied that it was actually happening. "We can't die now. We've got to get Clementine to safety. We've got to push through it for Clementine's sake." But eventually, reality takes hold. This isn't a feel-good story where the heroes beat the odds. No matter how much you care for Clementine, it's over. You can't help her anymore.

Playing as Lee, there were a few things that really resonated with me during his death. The first was how the game defied all of my expectations as a gamer. Games have conditioned me to expect certain things:

  1. If I die, I'll get to try again
  2. If I persevere, I'll eventually reach my goal
  3. I can "win"

But Lee's death went against all of these. There's no coming back from this death. I've spent the entire game with the goal of protecting this little girl, and I can't anymore. I've failed. I'm leaving her all alone in this zombie infested hell. It really tore me up. There was no "winning" this game.

The second thing that really struck me was how, at the end, there didn't seem to be any words or enough time to adequately communicate what I wanted to say to Clementine.  You could argue that it's just the limitation of the game's conversation mechanics, but it felt sadly realistic.  If I were actually laying on my death bed, how could I ever say everything I wanted to say to my kids?  Nothing would ever seem like enough.

And finally, the part that probably resonated with me the most, was when Lee actually died, and there was nothing.  We want to know what happens to Clem. We want to continue to protect her, but it's over. The unknown is agonizing. I sat through the credits silently, just a confused, emotional mess. Following the credits, we do get a glimpse of Clem, but it presents as many questions as it answers.

Of course, Season 2 let us find out what happened to Clementine, but at the time, the not-knowing was excruciating.

Now, depending on your religious beliefs, you may not agree with me on this part, but playing this game kind of made me realize that the saddest part about dying is the thought that I'll never know what happens to my loved ones when I'm gone. Like Lee did with Clementine, I try to protect my kids, teach them right from wrong, and hopefully prepare them for what's ahead. And if I imagine a situation where I'm dying while my kids are still young, it makes me sad to think that I'd never know what happens to them.  Are they safe and healthy?  Does tragedy befall them?  Do they grow up to be kind people?  Do they find love?  Are they happy?  Hopefully, I stick around this world long enough to find out, but the fact that a video game got me thinking about these kinds of things is pretty profound in my opinion.

What I really wanted to convey with this series of posts was that while games are often derided for their violence and death, games are in a unique position to let us safely experience things we can't or wouldn't want to experience in real life.  While I'm sure it pales in comparison to the real thing, through games I've gotten a taste of what it might feel like to encounter death in a number of ways.  Hopefully these virtual experiences make me better able to empathize with other people, or to better cope with death in the real world.  If nothing else, it has made me more conscious of my own mortality, and how I need to cherish what time I have with the people I love.  All from a game about zombies.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @HokieBriz