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How death can breathe life into video games

The industry's evolving relationship with death is a sure sign of the medium's maturity

Death has a unique place in video games. Unlike other art forms where pure creative expression is at the heart of the medium, in video games since the earliest days, the goal has simply been to stay alive. Space Invaders, Pitfall, Pac-Man... all the way up to the plethora of modern first-person shooters the market is saturated with, have one thing in common: keep playing until you "die" or lose all your "lives." This core mechanic of most games glosses over the very nature of death -- it's a mere frustration, an interruption to your gameplay with little in the way of consequence.

In a film, if a character dies on-screen, that's the end of that person's story (unless there are some flashbacks or time travel tricks). In recent years, we've thankfully seen a number of developers tackle the subject of death in a way that's far more fitting for a topic that essentially drives the human condition. Most recently, What Remains of Edith Finch from Giant Sparrow delves into the subject by examining the lives of each member of the Finch family leading up to his or her demise. It's a brilliant way of approaching death, because our mortality naturally forces us to confront the nature and purpose of our lives. So in essence, a game about death becomes one about life. "It's about the bizarre experience of being alive at all," creative director Ian Dallas said in an interview with Motherboard. "Death is just a way for us to highlight how temporary and fragile that is."

"If you had asked me 15 years ago when I started writing about this amazing industry if I'd one day play a game that dealt with such delicate subject matter in such an exquisite way, I would have laughed you out of the room"

I've been thinking an awful lot about death lately. Some of my favorite celebrities have been dying off like flies. My uncle recently passed away, and I lost my father in January. It's without question the most difficult thing I've ever endured, and I don't think it's something anyone truly fully recovers from. You just... move on. As a father of twin boys myself, there are so many instances in my interactions that automatically make me think of him, that make me think of the afterlife and my very existence.

Perhaps that's why Tequila Works' brilliantly crafted RiME resonated with me so deeply.

[Warning: some spoilers ahead]

At a time when I'm clearly still trying to process my own grief, the Spanish studio gave me an experience that is at its heart a story of a loving relationship between father and son. Aside from the game's beautiful artwork and music, the fact that the developers managed to weave a narrative without any actual dialogue leaves things a bit open to interpretation. What's clear is that a young boy gets shipwrecked. What happens after that is deliberately vague; and while it's not hard to guess that he's actually dead, the way the story unfolds through flashbacks and cues from the environment and art is so expertly done that it effectively gives you a chance to experience the boy's emotions as your own.

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Tequila Works' RiME is a beautiful story about love and loss

My interpretation of the events is that he's in a purgatory-like state, desperately searching for his father, whether that symbolizes his clinging to life as he drowns or if it's just a metaphor for what his ultimate happiness would be should he gain entrance into heaven. On the other end of the spiritual wormhole, you have the father who continues to mourn the death of his son, looking out onto the ocean and clinging to the remnant of clothing (a ripped red cloth) that he kept after failing to save the boy from going overboard. During the ending, which pulled at my heartstrings unlike any game I've played before, the father finally lets go of the red cloth -- in a way, accepting the loss and setting both himself and boy's soul free.

[End of spoilers]

If you had asked me 15 years ago when I started writing about this amazing industry if I'd one day play a game that dealt with such delicate subject matter in such an exquisite way, I would have laughed you out of the room. No, RiME and What Remains of Edith Finch are not everyday examples of video games, and indeed, the average gamer probably hasn't even heard of them. But as more and more developers push the art form, we're bound to see video games continue to grow to new heights, tackling not just death, but social injustices, sexuality, ethics and morality, etc.

"The very fact that games like RiME, What Remains of Edith Finch, or That Dragon, Cancer exist and can offer us all commentary on the nature of life and death is a sure sign that the industry actually is maturing"

In Hollywood, for every Transformers there's something gripping like Moonlight. We're not quite at that point in the games industry where you have something like RiME for every Call of Duty out there, but tons of progress has been made, and tons more is yet to come. As Phil Harrison rightly pointed out to us, it took film a good 40 years to create some of the basic tenets of how the medium creates rich and meaningful stories. "Are we evolving at the same rate, in terms of our rich storytelling and our rich characters?" he asked. "Those are some of the themes and the questions that I'm interested in exploring as an investor, and that I think the industry should be asking itself."

Whether or not games are evolving at the same rate is debatable but also somewhat inconsequential. What matters is what happens now and how game developers and the up-and-coming talent in this industry treat the medium moving forward. The very fact that games like RiME, What Remains of Edith Finch, or That Dragon, Cancer exist and can offer us all commentary on the nature of life and death is a sure sign that the industry actually is maturing. And with virtual reality slowly gaining some traction, I fully believe we'll be experiencing more video games on the human condition in immersive ways that never would have been possible just a few years ago.

In many cultures and religions, death is not the end. Death is a rebirth - it's the start of your "next life" (with reincarnation quite literally). I don't think it's a coincidence that Tequila Works chose the color red for the boy's clothing in RiME. Red often symbolizes spiritual passage - in Christianity the ascension of the Holy Spirit, in Buddhism it's a color that stems from enlightenment and in Shintoism, the temples' bridges are often red. The video game industry is on a journey, and death is just the beginning.

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Latest comments (1)

Loic Claveau Director of Community, 6ft21 days ago
Nice article!

I personally think that RiME is a little gem. Of course, one could say I am bias as I work for the publisher who helped bringing this game to life but RiME has touched me in ways that no other has since many many years (IIRC, the last time I cried was when I listened to the Preacher last monologue in Call of Juarez). I cried like a baby but maybe just because I am at a point of my life where I can truly bond with the narrative.

At this point, we have received many letters all around the world from people who have been touched by the story of RiME. Having people taking the time to share their stories with complete strangers (us) is a very humbling and powerful experience. Every story I read makes my day and reminds me that Game making is an art and I am so lucky to be part of it.

Anyway, I thought I would share my thoughts :)
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