This is the transcript of a Youtube video, which can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/xsbURcSkmPE
A while ago now, my mum and I became obsessed with the show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive”. It’s a documentary series that involves dramatic re-enactments of real, life-threatening events and miraculous survivals. People recount their stories of breaking their leg while hiking, being lost at sea, or getting stranded while mountaineering. For half an hour at a time, mum and I took a nail-biting voyage to the edge of the void along with some very unfortunate people. The stories were grim and harrowing, so much that we’d have to decompress after every episode. We’d say, this is awful, why do we watch this? And then…. let’s watch another one.
We, as a species, are both terrified and fascinated by death. True crime content is so popular you couldn’t avoid it if you wanted to, and crime fiction dominates as the best-selling literary genre in many countries. Representations of death haunt our fictional universes, disaster films let us revel in the spectacle of mass death and destruction, and more intimate stories of survival find huge audiences eager to take the journey to the edge of death and back.
Why are we so irresistibly drawn to death? Is it that we all know, deep down, that none of us should be alive? And that one day, our luck will run out? And can games, of all things, help us take that knowledge and make it mean something?
There’s a deep irony at the heart of video gaming. In games, we — the character we’re playing as — die, a lot. There’s no other medium that makes us personally experience dying in this way. In TV and film, characters on the screen die, but you don’t die. In games, though, you die all the time. You’d think that this would mean something, the fact that we touch the void every time we fail to hit the parry button at just the right moment and are dispatched by an angry skeleton. And yet games have done the least, out of any art form, to force us to reckon with the reality of death. Even in the scariest horror games, dying itself isn’t even particularly scary, unless it includes a cheap jump scare. Usually, death is a mild inconvenience, an instant respawn with a temporary loss of progress. In a competitive environment, death means a loss for you or your team, at least until the next round. In games, death is equivalent to failure.
Except that, it’s not. In the real world anyway, we don’t tend to think of death as a failure to have survived longer. This idea of player death that is so common in gaming — “death as failure” — is completely detached from the real meanings that death can have. In games, death happens so often, and means so little.
How can we create meaning in player death? Can games do more to add a sense of preciousness or gravity to our in-game moments?
Well, there’s permadeath. Permadeath means having only one life, and no save points. Once you die, you lose all progress in the game, which could be 15 minutes, or 15 hours. One genre that is typically defined by permadeath is roguelikes, which send you right back to square one, whenever you die.
I love me a good roguelike. They make me focused and alert, they get my blood pumping. They force me to make laser-precise decisions and maneuvers because every moment could be my last. The familiar safety of autosaves and checkpoints is gone. It’s just me, versus whatever is out there, in the dungeon, in outer space, in the…basement.
And this enhanced sense of mindfulness does reflect a real and meaningful facet of death. Here’s Kierkegaard, describing Spelunky all the way back in 1845:
“Death, in earnest, gives life force as nothing else does; it makes one alert as nothing else does.”
In games, the threat of imminent — and permanent — death makes every moment and decision count. But to be honest, if I’m looking for a profound experience that brings me face to face with death — the kind of experience that makes me tune in again and again to watch people nearly freeze to death on a mountain — I’m not looking to Dicey Dungeons. And there are a few reasons for this. Firstly, these games don’t escape the idea of “death as failure”, and secondly, they don’t really encourage any reflection on death. They just make you want to do a better job of dodging the bats and the booby traps next time. When it comes to making death meaningful, I think games can do better.
Survival games pit you against the environment — nature, wildlife, the elements — and often include a permadeath mechanic. These games strip everything back and force you to contend with the basics of survival — managing things like hunger, thirst, injury, and exhaustion.
In The Long Dark, you play as the survivor of a plane crash, stranded in the Canadian wilderness. Playing in survival mode activates permadeath and drops you in a semi-random location. From there, it’s up to you to do what you can to keep yourself warm, well fed, and alive, for as long as you can. That’s it, there’s no other goal and no ending — just, stay alive.
That might not sound like a particularly compelling setup, until you play it and realise it’s the best setup. In this game, you’re not fighting skeletons or hordes of hell demons — you’re fighting off death itself. What more do you need?
The Long Dark taps into a particular facet of what makes death meaningful. That is, when you’re stripped of everything but the little things, the little things become precious.
It’s the same reason I love this show [I Shouldn’t Be Alive] so much. Yes, 95% of it is horrible and tough to watch but, right at the end of every episode, the tone shifts.
When I regained consciousness, everything was new to me, everything was spectacular to me.
The only thing I decided to do differently when I got back was that I was gonna savor things more. Not the big things. But the little things.
Ever since then, every morning you wake up — it’s wonderful to start the day.
And every day I wake up, and it’s a new day, and I’m happy. And I always, always try to find something good in the bad things that happen to me.
This is a message echoed by many survivors of near-death encounters — treasure every moment because every moment could be your last.
In The Long Dark, all you have is the next moment. And every moment is special. Every waterfall, every fireplace and every clear night sky is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. Dammit even the way the snow falls is beautiful and it’s the thing that’s gonna kill me! The way this game makes me drink in every moment is magical.
And it’s also tragic. Because unlike an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive, which is a journey through death that always ends in survival, The Long Dark is a journey of survival that always ends in death. As such, it’s an experience that is fundamentally sad and lonely. Everything — from the toasty fire in front of you to that can of delicious soda — carries a touch of foreboding because it won’t last. Sooner or later, you’ll have to return to the wild outdoors. And one day, your time will run out.
The Long Dark evokes existential dread, and forces you to live inside it. And within that dread there’s an acceptance of your inevitable demise and the understanding that your job isn’t to conquer death — only to hold it off for however long you can. And to find whatever pleasure you can in the time you have.
When you finally fade into the long dark, there’s no sense of having failed. You were never meant to survive forever.
And then there’s Pathologic 2 — a game about arriving in your remote home town just as a deadly plague strikes, and then proceeding to run around frantically for 12 days trying to find a cure so you can stop everyone from dying while you also slowly die of….everything.
I have to confess that I never finished Pathologic 2. After what seemed like an eternity of hardship, I finally gave up on the 9th day. I hadn’t hoarded enough food or panaceas and I was in a failure spiral. I was constantly being bested by the disease and by starvation. I died again, and again, and every death was crushing.
But even though I died many times, and I never even finished the game, I don’t feel like I failed. “Winning” and “succeeding” are not the intended experience of Pathologic 2. The intended experience is to suffer, get sick and die alongside the townspeople as the plague rages uncontrollably around you. This game is unapologetically unfair, and that’s the entire point. This is a mysterious plague, there’s no how-to guide! You won’t know, for example, that food will become ridiculously expensive a couple of days in, or that the water fountains will eventually fail one by one, or that plague clouds will sometimes suddenly appear on the street and whack you right in the goddamn face. You can’t know that any of that will happen, until it does, and any one of these things may, eventually, be the thing that finally finishes you. Because death isn’t fair and it doesn’t come with a handy rulebook for how to cheat it.
Pathologic 2 is also a game that is devastatingly good at making you feel powerless in the face of death. Events go on whether you’re there or not, and the plague will take its victims whether you’re there or not. All the actions you can take in the game to hold off death are laughably feeble. You can spend a precious tincture to boost the immunity of one character…a bit. And the plague might still infect them. You can use a rare and very expensive antibiotic to treat someone’s infection, and they still might die. I mean, look at the message you get when you successfully administer a treatment. Not, “yay, you saved a life!”, just — “You did all you could”.
Most games throw death at you so that you can have the experience of triumphing over it like the badass hero that you are. When Pathologic threw death at me, I’m not sure it wanted me to beat it. I think it wanted death to knock me to my knees, to make me feel how pathetic my desperate struggle to overcome the deadly forces of nature were. In Pathologic, I fought death, and death won.
Like The Long Dark, Pathologic 2 embraces death, not as a failure, but as an inevitability. And not only that, but it challenges you, the player, to make meaning out of that devastating encounter with death.
The founder of existential psychology, Viktor Frankl, has said:
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”
Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, was a firm believer that the tough decisions made in the face of suffering and death were the most meaningful ones because those were the decisions that truly reflected who you were deep down — the strength of your character, your will to survive, your inner dignity and determination.
I haven’t mentioned the other reason I love watching I Shouldn’t Be Alive. It’s a real glimpse into a side of human nature most of us will never have to see, one that is only revealed in the worst kinds of torment and the closest brushes with death. When I watch these people, doing what they have to do to survive and revealing what they’re really made of, I can’t stop asking myself … what am I really made of? What would I do?
Well, here’s a gruelling twelve-day struggle against death. What do you do? Do you keep working for a cure, against all the odds? Do you use your precious cure on yourself, even if that means someone else will die? Do you fight to the last breath, or do you give up? Because Pathologic understands one thing very well: an encounter with death is an encounter with yourself.
If life was a game, the goal wouldn’t be to win — death always wins. But then, what’s the purpose of playing? To accept that winning is beside the point. To enjoy the game as best you can while it lasts. To try your best to play well, and to learn something about yourself from your decisions and your mistakes.
Few games do what The Long Dark and Pathologic do. They offer a depiction of player death as not just something immediately scary or undesirable, but something that tinges life with dread, sadness and preciousness. They present death as not something to be beaten, but as inevitable and inescapable. In these games, death can sneak up on you, whether you’re ready or not and if it does, it’s not a personal failure on your part. When you die, these games don’t say “you failed”. They say, “you did all you could”.
We’re all just doing what we can. We’re all just surviving. And when we fade away, everything will go on without us. But we don’t have to be morose about it. We might not be able to win the game, but we can let that knowledge inspire us to play well in the time we have. Because we’ve only got one life.