The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

To Fatality and Beyond: The Deathsetics of Failure in Videogames

Stephen Curtis

To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not its universal formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student of aesthetics (Pater xxix).

If you leave your game, stay safe, stay alert, and whatever you do, don’t die! Because if you die outside of your own game, you don’t regenerate. EVER! Game over (Wreck-It Ralph, Rich Moore, 2012).


I’ll never forget the first time I died. I was eight and after a successful bombing run across enemy territory I ran out of fuel before I could make it back to the aircraft carrier. Since that first fatal engagement in Harrier Attack (1983) on the Amstrad CPC464 I have died countless times in almost every conceivable way. Death is as inevitable in gaming as it is in life – albeit much more frequent and rarely as permanent. However, this in itself is not a mark of distinction from other media. For every Lara Croft being eaten by a marauding T-Rex in the original Tomb Raider (1996) there is an unfortunate lawyer sat on a toilet in Jurassic Park (1993); for every Medal of Honour: Allied Assault (2002) featuring the storming of Omaha Beach there is a Saving Private Ryan (1998); for every gas explosion caused by flatulence in How To Be a Complete Bastard (1987) – well, that’s an exception. What makes dying in games distinctive is the phenomenological effect of ludic embodiment. When Hamlet dies at the end of the eponymous play we do not feel that we have died – despite the incredible psychological insights we might have gained from his soliloquies. When Boromir redeems himself through defending the hobbits in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), we can be affected but it is still clearly the character that dies. Although videogames have clearly been influenced by the representation of death in film, as seen in the classic Goldeneye (1997) where the iconic blood descending was lifted straight from the film series’ opening credits, the experience of player death is altered through its ludic elements. When we mistime a jump, fail to avoid a laser beam, crash into an obstacle, are eaten by a monster, or have our face melted by the acidic vomit of a Necromorph in Dead Space (2008), however, we say ‘I’ve died again’. It is the construction of this ‘I’ that the neologism of deathsetics seeks to describe. In coining such a term, I do not wish to argue for a purely mechanical reading of death in games, although this is an important aspect, but instead hope to explore the aesthetic moment and effect of videogame death. As Jasper Juul has convincingly argued, the role of failure in games is perhaps more complex than we might at first assume:

It is quite simple: When you play a game, you want to win. Winning makes you happy, losing makes you unhappy. If this seems self-evident, there is nonetheless a contradictory viewpoint, according to which games should be “neither too easy nor too hard”, implying that players also want not to win, at least part of the time (237).

This notion of ‘neither too easy nor too hard’ helps us to understand the ubiquity of the Game Over in videogames. Films do not explicitly test the viewer and end if answered incorrectly, and books do not require more than the manual dexterity of turning the page to be continued (although, obviously, there is a world of difference between simply parsing the words and understanding them), but games by their very design are resistant to completion to a greater or lesser degree. This necessity of failure (which will be discussed later on) has meant that the aesthetics of death have developed directly alongside the technological progression that characterises the history of videogames.


The notion of deathsetics is predicated on the idea that death is a necessary part of the pleasure experienced through playing games. There are obviously exceptions to this general rule but, over the course of gaming’s history, they are clearly in the minority. Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens (perhaps the seminal discussion of the links between play and human life more generally) identifies the role that the risk of failure plays in the ludic experience:

The player wants something to “go”, to “come off”; he wants to “succeed” by his own exertions. Baby reaching for a toy, pussy patting a bobbin, a little girl playing ball – all want to achieve something difficult, to succeed, to end a tension. [...] The more play bears the character of competition, the more fervent it will be (29).

In this formulation, play is objective-lead and the implication is that when the stakes are raised, then the pleasure is increased. Videogames’ application of an avatar representing the player enables this risk to be taken all the way to fatality and beyond.


Towards Deathsetics

There are two main threads in what follows. The first is an aesthetic account of the development of game over sequences in videogames from their arcade beginnings through to the motion-capped, voice-acted, multi-million pound/dollar franchises – the so-called ‘AAA’ games – that dominate the medium today. The second, more theoretical, part will examine why we are so drawn to the death of the avatar and will hopefully suggest a fruitful way in which the cultural critic can read death in games. Throughout, the focus will be on single player experiences, although, as will become apparent, more recently the divide between single and multi-player fail-states has become blurred.


In analysing the development of the deathsetics of game over I am treating the relevant screen or sequences as literary texts, following Samuel Archibald’s identification of the effective ways in which literary theory can illuminate the process of playing games as a form of textual reading:

Applied to video games, literary theory invites a kind of player-response criticism, which would never allow players to be insulated from gameplay. That means never forgetting, while observing game dynamics, that gameplay isn’t solely about what games make the player do, but about how and why he does it, what it does to him, and what he makes of it retrospectively. The opposition between heuristic and hermeneutic readings drawn by Michael Riffaterre in his 1983 book, Text Production, translates appropriately to gameplay, and clarifies the fundamental interplay of actions undertaken by the player while following the strictly logical nature of the game as a formal structure, and of actions informed by the player’s thoughts and sensibilities about the game world, which he enters with his own set of ideas, values, and beliefs (361).

This approach results in a necessary fusion between the ludic and narratological elements of games – or, in other words, the mechanics and the storyline. Both of these elements converge in the embodied experience of gameplay, whilst the fail-state of death largely results in an unsatisfactory and premature caesura in the game.


Considering the experience of gameplay as a hybrid also allows for a classical aesthetic approach to criticism, an approach perhaps most clearly defined by Walter Pater:

The objects with which aesthetic criticism deals [...] are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces [....] What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence? (xxix)

It is through Pater’s identification of the effect of the aesthetic object that the present study will examine the experience of death in games. This idea of the modifying influence of games ties in with Huizinga’s seminal discussion of the ludic properties of human interaction. He argues that “Play is to be understood here not as a biological phenomenon but as a cultural phenomenon” (18). In analysing the phenomenological effect of gaming failure as well as the technical developments in representational fidelity, the new media of videogames can offer an important insight into the ways in which virtual dying is constructed and the experience it creates. The virtual nature of these fail-states is crucial, serving to invert Christopher Belshaw’s statement that “death is in every case a biological phenomenon, but is not in every case a sociological, or cultural, or psychological, or whatever else phenomenon” (15). Playing with death, or, even, playing at death, in this way opens dying up as an aesthetic experience for the individual, enabling to a certain extent an otherwise unknowable moment to be lived through. Obviously, such virtual death is not commensurate with its biological analogue but its interactivity distinguishes it from the more static engagements with mortality to be found in traditional media. Gaming death can be a part of the gameplay itself, or a necessary developmental tool, whether in terms of narrative or player skill. The various ways in which this interactivity can be experienced will be discussed later.


Gaming, therefore, derives much of its distinct textual resonance from the synthesis of ludic structures and narratological drive. The comparisons to traditional media, however, are telling, as David Myers convincingly illustrates:

Playing is to games as reading is to books. Sort of. Games are designed to be played, just as books are designed to be read. Both playing a game and reading a book involve transforming a pre-determined set of rules into a more immediate phenomenological experience (45).

The importance of highlighting the technological aspect of normalised textual analysis cannot be overstated. It is too easy to accept the quotidian technologies of traditional media and forget their origins as new and other, as G.P. Landow reminds us:

Technology, in the lexicon of many humanists, generally means ‘only that technology of which I am frightened.’ In fact, I have frequently heard humanists use the word technology to mean ‘some intrusive, alien force like computing,’ as if pencils, paper, typewriters, and printing presses were in some way natural (26).

The idea of new technologies, therefore, is a problematic one, and it is no surprise that there has been a move towards breaking down this fear of the digital in contemporary humanities. The inclusion of videogames in media, cultural, or even literary studies, is perhaps the most visible sign of this epistemological transition. Having said that, it is also crucial to state the particular effects of gaming’s immersive, interactive experience; in other words, its explicitly ludic qualities. Myers likens this to the more playful lexical choices of poetry rather than the narrative thrust of the novel:

During video game play, the human body and the human experience are accessible only as these are represented and valued by the video game mechanics. Poetic language points us to an objective correlative: a prelinguistic state of direct and immediate experience. Video games, in contrast, point us to the more localized and individualized phenomena of the psychophysical: what we believe to be true (52).

Such an internal, experiential effect of videogames fits well with Huizinga’s identification of play’s cultural importance: “Even in its simplest forms on the animal level, play is more than a mere physiological phenomenon or a psychological reflex. It goes beyond the confines of purely physical or purely biological activity. It is a significant function – that is to say, there is some sense to it” (19). Both Myers and Huizinga highlight the temporal boundedness of the gamer’s interaction with the game. For Huizinga, this escape from ‘ordinary life’ is a key characteristic of the ludic nature of culture:

Play begins and then at a certain moment it is “over”. It plays itself to an end. While it is in progress all is movement, change, alternation, succession, association, separation. But immediately connected with its limitation as to time there is a further curious feature of play: it at once assumes form as a cultural phenomenon (Huizinga 28).

This ‘limitation as to time’ is the nexus from which deathsetics emerges. If we understand death to be the cessation of consciousness, then any interruption to the progress of play becomes a death within the game and, as such, creates an effect in the player. The general requirement to repeat at least some of the preceding gameplay differentiates this caesura from an intrusion into the act of reading – a moment more closely analogous to pausing a game.


 Perhaps the most fundamental explanation for the power of these moments of frustrated immersion is the quasi-carnivalesque nature of play:

Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game”, robs it of its character, and makes it worthless. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noted in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics (Huizinga 29).

I define this escape from ordinary life as quasi-carnivalesque because its reliance on order distances it from the Bakhtinian idea of carnival as release – although a more nuanced reading of Bakhtin can highlight the strict order under which the hegemonic social structure allows carnival to take place. This classic definition of the experience of play, however, does not account for the distinct pleasures to be derived from the various ways of cheating, hacking, modifying or playing against the game that characterise gaming for many players.


A hybridised notion of the textual nature of videogames is continued in my identification of deathsetics – an aesthetic engagement with the affect and representation of virtual death. Of course, as outlined above, death is not unique to gaming but there is a distinctive deathsetic brought about by the immersive nature of gaming. Huizinga reminds us of the importance of the aesthetic aspect of play, arguing that “[Theories from psychology and physiology] attack play direct with the quantitative methods of experimental science without first paying attention to its profoundly aesthetic quality” (20).


What do I mean by aesthetic? I follow Pater’s influential definition of aesthetic as a process of critically identifying and analysing the factors that result in a given text (I deliberately use the term broadly here) having an effect on the individual assessing it:

The functions of the aesthetic is to distinguish, to analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture [...] produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced (xxx).

For the purposes of this definition, the text can have aesthetic value whether it is a painting, a poem, a play, or a platformer. However, this generalisation should not lead to the flattening of difference between what causes the ‘special impression of beauty or pleasure’ within each text. Juul argues that, in games, there is a clear correlation between aesthetic pleasure and the mechanical experience of playing:

[There is a] contradiction between players wanting to win and players wanting games to be challenging: failing, and feeling responsible for failing, make players enjoy a game more, not less. Closer examination reveals that the apparent contradiction originates from two separate perspectives on games: a goal-oriented perspective wherein the players want to win, and an aesthetic perspective wherein players prefer games with the right amount of challenge and variation (238).

This notion of a necessary tension or challenge for true aesthetic appreciation is not new. Abstract art, modernist literature and surrealism have all famously sought to challenge the expectations and conventions of their form to make a statement whilst the tabloid praise of ‘a real page-turner’ when applied to a novel is often taken as a synonym for banal, middle of the road writing. Using this criterion, it is surely possible to equate Dark Souls with Of Grammatology, but in general, such a comparison is problematised by the inclusion of difficulty levels in videogames. In Juul’s definition of aesthetic enjoyment being dependent on an appropriate level of challenge, the player has the agency to adapt the game to suit their ability through a few button presses on a menu or option screen. The equivalent steps towards creating an easy mode for Jacques Derrida would involve many years of rigorous study into the context and stylistics of his writing. Working from this understanding of deathsetics, then, it is clear that the presence and possibility of death within games is a key, although not universal, factor in their achieving an aesthetic effect on the player.


A Brief History of Deathsetics

Death has always sold and gaming is no exception. Freud would put this down to the unavoidable action of the death-drive; the entropic compulsion to dissolution that exists within us all, whilst conservative social commentators – from the early modern Puritan William Prynne to Jack Thompson – have pointed to a violent and nihilistic strain attracting disaffected audiences to alleged sensationalist media, or recurrently, that such media creates and perpetuates this violence. There are ebbs and flows in deathsetics’ historical popularity however. Revenge tragedy dominated the early modern stage and then disappeared, Grand Guignol burned brightly before fizzling out, and the video nasty has a defined chronological relevance.


Somewhat oxymoronically, death has had a renaissance of sorts in popular media over the past few years. Television series such as Game of Thrones (2011) or The Walking Dead (2010), have seen death move into the mainstream. In these examples, the propinquity of death is a key part of dramatic tension and the constant drip-feeding of demise only serves to sustain the thrill rather than expunging it through a process of Aristotelian catharsis. The adaptation of both into videogames makes for a fascinating comparison, although tellingly the game versions feature alternative protagonists in order to avoid the determinism of their source material. In the beginning, however, death in games had a more prosaic function. Arcade machines needed to pay for their upkeep by ensuring that the player put more coins in. Therefore an explicit link between death and expenditure appeared in the videogame arcades of the 1980s.


What follows is not an exhaustive survey, but does instead point towards the general shifts in gaming’s relationship with death since the arcade machines of the 1980s. A more systematic examination is a project in and of itself, but one towards which I am hopeful the present study can be a step. Crucially, in one legacy of the punishing difficulty of gaming’s origins, it is not just the possibility of death that leads to an aesthetic enjoyment of the game. Juul outlines the result of an experiment in which volunteers were asked to rate a game he devised as a test of their perception of difficulty in relation to pleasure:

By comparing the average game ratings with the performance of the players we can see an indication that winning isn’t everything: the most positive players were the ones that failed some, and then completed the game. Completing the game without failing was followed by a lower rating of the game (243).

Juul’s findings suggest that gamers enjoy failure as a part of play; and that overcoming a previously fatal challenge enhances their gaming experience. In gaming’s arcade origins, however, the looming presence of death was a more pernicious one.


Coin-op (shortened form of coin-operated) arcade machines were the first mass-market videogaming experience. Legendary titles such as Space Invaders (1978), Asteroids (1979), Pac-Man (1980), and Donkey Kong (1981) were based purely on a compulsive high-score mentality with little attempt at more than the most cursory of framing stories. Early gaming death, therefore, owed much to the penny arcade or peep show machines that many of the early coin-ops replaced. Game Over meant a denial of visual stimulation, and this frustration for the viewer/player was enough to justify their spending more and more coins. This frustration was clearly visualised through ending sequences being little more than a static screen taunting the player with a stark notice of their failure, and a timer adding psychological pressure – ticking down the dwindling chances to insert more coins and continue playing.


When gaming moved into the home, this approach continued for a number of years, with many of the most popular games being conversions of arcade machines – although rarely displaying the arcade quality graphics that were so often emblazoned on the packaging. These conversions brought ludic death into the home, but with a crucial alteration in the financial imperative. Rather than paying per go/life, consumers were spending a more substantial sum upfront. Consequently the mechanic shifted from ‘Insert Coin’ to ‘Press Start to Continue’. The Derridean differance at play here (the invisible difference/deferral between two seemingly identical terms or actions) highlights the ontological disconnect between the videogame console and its arcade predecessor. While ostensibly the same interaction is taking place between player and game, the experience is different. Having paid already for the whole game experience, consumers began to feel short-changed if they were unable to access much of this content. The technological solution to this consumer concern was the development of various mechanisms by which game progress could be saved or continued. Alongside such deferrals of death, developers distributed cheat codes that altered the parameters of games in order to provide infinite lives or invincibility. A parallel path in home computer gaming leads to developer modes (tellingly referred to colloquially as God modes), in which the game code could be altered.


As home gaming developed, the ability to save progress in a game simultaneously ensured that death was no longer the end and that games became much more sophisticated narrative experiences. The abuse of the F5 key began long before the desperate refreshing of emails near a deadline – with the built-in memory of personal computers providing the ability to instantly save progress and consequently to potentially endlessly defer death. With the increased fidelity of home gaming the aesthetics of death shifted from the denial of visual stimuli towards a spectacle in and of themselves. Resident Evil 4 (2005), although predating the HD generation, can be seen as a key originator of this trend. The multitude of ways in which the protagonist, Leon Kennedy, could meet his maker ensured that a slew of YouTube compilations swiftly appeared, each proclaiming themselves to be the most brutal. This trend perhaps reached its peak through the Dead Space series, all three of which delight in the gory deaths to which the game’s central character, Isaac Clarke, is subjected. Without the spectre of the ‘please insert coin to continue,’ games adapted to make death an essential part of gameplay. Some games, such as the LucasArts adventures, were distinguished by not featuring death, although the modern enhanced version of the classic Secret of Monkey Island (2009) contains an achievement unlocked by allowing wannabe pirate Guybrush Threepwood to drown. More recently we have seen the rise of the so-called ‘walking simulator’ (defined by an absence of combat or peril), such as Gone Home (2013), Proteus (2013) and Dear Esther (2012), a genre looked down upon by a subset of gamers because of its refusal to include death and violence as a gaming mechanic, choosing instead to present an immersive narrative experience. It is telling that, to a vocal section of gaming fans, death is now fundamental to what makes a game a game. On the other extreme to the ‘walking simulators’ we have the ‘maso-core’games (defined by extreme difficulty and frequent game deaths), such as Super Meat Boy (2010), Spelunky (2012), 1001 Spikes (2014) and, perhaps most successfully, the aforementioned Dark Souls. These games incorporate the frequent, often unfair deaths of arcade classics like Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins (1985), and largely echo this nostalgic feel with a suitably retro visual style. Dark Souls owes its surprising popularity, I would argue, to its blend of classic hardcore gameplay and HD visuals. In general, however, the appeal of ‘maso-core’ games lies in the skill required to make it to the end. Death is unavoidable, but also didactic, serving as a learning tool in the development of the player’s skills. As such, the emotional effect of death in these games is closely related to that of their arcade ancestors but in this case the player has paid up front for the privilege of dying.


In contemporary gaming, therefore, the notion of deathsetics has matured and dying provides a mechanical and aesthetic pleasure for the player. On the other hand, however, too much death is a bad thing and can negatively impact the enjoyment of a game. The frustrating echoes of repetition from the arcades are felt in the lurid cutscenes that now accompany in-game death. This barrier to player enjoyment is most egregious when the cutscenes are unskippable or prolonged by the intrusion of multiplayer gameplay mechanics into single player games, particularly through the overused AI companion revival trope.


Between the two extremes of walking simulator and maso-core, mainstream gaming uses death as a combination of punishment and learning tool but does so without a frequency that might put gamers off. Unlike in the early home computer days when films almost invariably had videogame tie-ins released, the exorbitant budget and time required to produce an HD title has seen the reverse to be more common. Indeed, many blockbuster movies have entire action sequences that have clearly been lifted from videogame conventions – even when no tie-in title is released. However, there is still a clear influence from films in many mainstream ‘AAA’ games. Their reliance on cinematic exposition, usually through non-interactive cutscenes, and the unwillingness to prevent the player’s progress too rigidly leads to many games almost playing themselves. The recent Tomb Raider reboot (2013) certainly faced this accusation, although it also displayed a ghoulish delight in inflicting painful death on the young Lara Croft. Whilst preparing this article, I rewatched a compilation of Lara’s deaths and, without the context of the game surrounding them, many of these make for deeply unsettling viewing – not least because of a seedy elision between sex, torture and bloodshed. The deaths in these big franchise games, therefore, are now part of the spectacle (in direct contrast to the blank screens of early games) but the player is expected to be able to finish the games and receive their narrative payoff – and more crucially be prepared to buy the inevitable sequel the following year. Death is no longer a terminal ludic barrier but instead a discrete aesthetic experience that has found a new audience through YouTube montages.


Reading Deathsetics

The brief history outlined above illustrates both the continuing importance and shifting aesthetics of dying in videogames. With this history in mind, we will now examine the significance of ludic death and suggest a number of ways in which critics can explore such deathsetics. One of the most complex philosophical debates around death is how we can define it. Is it an event or a process – do we die; or are we always dying? Belshaw summarises the questions that surround this inevitable life experience:

What happens when someone dies? How can we tell whether a person is alive or dead? These are connected, but nevertheless distinct, questions. Many complex physiological changes are involved in human death. Most of us, including doctors, have no need of knowledge of them all. But some of us, especially doctors, need to be able to distinguish between the living and the dead (40).

In the world of the videogame, it is also important for the player to be clear when they are dead, and designers implement a range of indicators to alert them as to when they are at risk. Rapidly increasing heartbeat sounds (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, 2011), bloodied onscreen avatar portraits (Doom, 1993), screens turning red or dark (Mass Effect, 2007), and specific danger music (Super Mario World, 1990) or warning tones (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, 1992) are all employed. These signs serve to either panic or focus the player, resulting in a physical and emotional engagement with the avatar’s peril. In these cases, the proximity of death is signposted but there is still a clear failstate at which death occurs. The psychophysiological effect of these aesthetic warnings accentuates the ludic enjoyment of the player and fits with psychological explanations of the motivation for playing:

Finally, this research points to another layer of complexity in player behavior. That failure and difficulty is important to the enjoyment of games correlates well with Michael J. Apter’s reversal theory, according to which people seek low arousal in normal goal-directed activities such as work, but high arousal, and hence challenge and danger, in activities performed for their intrinsic enjoyment, such as games (Kerr and Apter cited in Juul 249).

Once again, more scientific modern approaches to the aesthetic experience of gaming match Huizinga’s earlier philosophical insights. He poetically describes the corporeality of play: “In play the beauty of the human body in motion reaches its zenith. In its more developed forms it is saturated with rhythm and harmony, the noblest gifts of aesthetic perception known to man” (25). When engaged in this kind of ‘in-the-zone’ gaming, a precarious line must be drawn between the tension-enabling propinquity of death and its existence as an obstacle to aesthetic pleasure. Huizinga reminds us of the essential fragility of this aesthetic engagement:

The play-mood is labile in its very nature. At any moment “ordinary life” may reassert its rights either by an impact from without, which interrupts the game, or by an offence against the rules, or else from within, by a collapse of the play spirit, a sobering, a disenfranchisement (40).

Following Huizinga, virtual death results in an unwelcome removal from the escapist release of gaming. It is apparent, then, that the presence of death is an important part of the aesthetic experience of gaming, and that this deathsetics reveals much about the ways in which we as gamers are impacted upon by the games we are playing. What specific purposes, however, does death play within the hybridised ludo-narrative world of the videogame? I have identified five ways of categorising the role of death in games: didactic, voyeuristic, cathartic, inevitable/necessary, and existential.


Didactic death is more closely related to game mechanics than narrative, and most ably covers the trial-and-error gameplay that harks back to the arcades. This mode of death is concerned with punishing the player for a mistake but also enabling them to learn and, hopefully, to avoid repeating that mistake. In reality, what often happens is that the mistake is repeated many times until a solution is found. This can perhaps best be seen in the ‘maso-core’ platformer Super Meat Boy, in which the bloody stains left by previous mistakes remain on the level to serve as a warning and guide for the next attempt, and all lives lost on a level are replayed over each other upon completion, creating a palimpsest of death. This is perhaps the most traditional utilisation of death in gaming and, as such, is most represented in contemporary culture; in television with parodies such as the videogame episode of Community (Season 3:20, 2012), and in film with the recent Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). The latter is a particularly striking commentary on the didactic nature of death since the central character, played by Tom Cruise, is trapped in a cycle of death and resurrection but is unique in being able to learn and recall the lessons of his previous lives and deaths.


The increasing fidelity enabled by technological advances in computing has seemingly always been accompanied by a sensationalist and voyeuristic deathsetics. The most infamous example of this representational mode is Mortal Kombat (1992). Now approaching its tenth iteration, the unsettling blend of cartoon violence and realistic characters (increasingly so) has proven to be equally successful in attracting fans and critics. The clearest illustration of the series’ voyeuristic relationship with death is the trademark inclusion of gruesome finishing moves, carried out upon an unconscious opponent through an elaborate series of button presses. The clear way in which lurid death was held back as a reward for the most skilful or persistent player characterises the voyeuristic deathsetic. This approach has proved influential, despite, or perhaps because of, its controversial nature, and therefore popular titles such as Skyrim, and God of War (2005) can be seen as clear descendants of Mortal Kombat. The most notable difference, however, is that in these games the gory finishing moves are either triggered randomly through invisible algorithms or brought about through immersion-breaking quick-time-events in which standard controls are temporarily replaced by a mini-game of reactively pressing the button illustrated on the screen, thus removing the element of skill and dexterity that characterises Mortal Kombat’s fatalities. A direct evolution of this voyeurism can be seen in the increased fetishisation of the death of the avatar, described above in relation to Resident Evil 4, Tomb Raider and the Dead Space series. Here, the player is punished/rewarded for mistakes by watching their character be killed in startlingly gruesome ways. The line between character and player is blurred through the physical reaction to the tension within the game, and then reasserted by the witnessing of the avatar’s death.


The emotional effect of watching the player character die can be read in terms of Aristotle’s classical identification of the positive effects of tragedy upon the spectator. As Malcolm Heath relates in his Introduction to Aristotle’s The Poetics, “the relief that katharsis brings is pleasurable” (Heath xxxviii). Moreover, the greater the psychophysiological effect of the game, the greater the potential for positive cathartic release:

The kathartic effect applies to someone watching a tragedy only to the extent that his or her emotional status is disordered; the more prone someone is to feel excessive or inappropriate emotion, the more benefit he or she stands to devise from katharsis and (presumably) the more pleasure (Heath xl).

In facing the physiological effects of anxiety and fear through the immersive embodiment of gaming, the player can release emotional and mental tension and, in Aristotelian terms, be restored through this catharsis.


The experiential contrast to this rejuvenating response to death is the unavoidably scripted death. Most famously present in Final Fantasy VII, this mode removes all agency from the player and, in doing so, prevents the emotional investment that is necessary for gaming catharsis. The result is more usually frustration and anger, particularly when the death is evidence of ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’, that is, it works against the accepted rules of the established game world. It is no coincidence that this mode of representing death is most closely related to its literary predecessors and also the most controversial amongst gamers. An alternative narratological approach to death is the trope of the player character having to die/lose within the game in order to enable supernatural or cybernetic development (The Darkness, 2007; Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, 2013).


Perhaps the most persuasive reading of the continuing appeal of virtual death would suggest that, rather than a cathartic release of emotions, the death of the avatar actively confirms the integral identity of the player. This existential deathsetics takes the necessary identification between player and avatar and reframes it within a violent assertion of self-definition. In what could be called the ‘Cain effect’ – named after the identification of the first murder as an integral moment of self-realisation through the death of the Other – the player undergoes the emotional experience of the character, and shares the frustration when progress is curtailed but, crucially, witnessing the player-character’s death does not involve a release of emotion but instead a confirmation of one’s own existence as a living being. This way of reading videogame deathsetics can be seen as an evolution of Huizinga’s celebration of play:

From the point of view of a world wholly determined by the operation of blind forces, play would be altogether superfluous. [...] The very existence of play continually confirms the supra-logical nature of the human situation. Animals play, so they must be more than mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings, for play is irrational (22).

Play confirms our existence as sentient beings, and surviving the death of the in-game avatar elevates us from the chimerical being represented on the screen to an integral and, vitally, alive corporeal one. This effect is enabled by the uniquely immersive quality of a player’s interaction with the game world:

When the psychophysical—our perception of self—is asserted and confirmed during video game play, there is nothing to deny it other than some grotesque failure of the game mechanics (a power outage, for instance) or, through purposeful design, the end of the game. In the natural world, play provides a means to deny and therein explore the boundaries of our environment and our selves, yet these remain unassailably physical boundaries. There are no analogous physical boundaries—other than, perhaps, the physical exhaustion of the video game player—delimiting play within a virtual world. In the natural world in which our bodies and our play have evolved, experience is available to trump belief. In the virtual world of the video game, belief is given its own body of experience (Myers 60).

This elevated status of belief is responsible for a psychological state ripe for the affirmation of the self. The visceral separation from the avatar, especially in the more lurid examples above, brings about a sudden realisation of the corporeal body that survives the shattered avatar. In dying, therefore, the player truly asserts that they are alive.


Where can death go from here? Past experience would suggest that videogame designers will find either more realistic or more shocking ways of killing the player. With visual fidelity having reached such near-photorealistic levels, however, other avenues may have to be sought. Haptic feedback taken to its logical extreme would be akin to a version of the game ‘Domination’ played by Sean Connery’s James Bond in Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983), in which the secret agent suffers electric shocks as a direct result of failure in the game. The resurgence of interest in ‘Virtual Reality’ through the forthcoming Oculus Rift VR device is perhaps the clearest potential route for innovation. In more tragic intrusions of virtual deaths into the real world, the occasional cases of individuals seemingly addicted to online games and dying through self-neglect are surely the most disturbing possible result of gaming’s immersive nature; fatally inverting the existential deathsetics, as excessive association with the avatar results in the literal death of the self – here, the character outlives the player. Fortunately, such cases are rare, and the vast majority of gamers follow Sonic the Hedgehog’s advice from Wreck-It Ralph quoted in the epigraph above, ‘if you die outside of your own game, you don’t regenerate. EVER! Game over.’


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