Death Positivity in Video Games
Using game mechanics to encourage players to think about death and mortality
(Note: This piece has been updated for A MAZE Magazine’s Death Issue. You can read the original on Killscreen or Gamasutra)
When Maxis’ simulation game The Sims launched in 2000, my friends and I (aged 10) quickly became obsessed with it, spending hours in the game customizing Sim-versions of ourselves, building elaborate homes for them, and watching their lives play out. But although the game featured many innovative gameplay mechanics for its time, my friends and I were specifically interested in one particular feature: your Sims could die.
At first it was a tragic and heart-breaking discovery, but very soon afterwards we were excitedly creating horrible and tragic deaths for said Sims.
While our parents were disturbed by our morbid fascinations with killing off each others’ Sim lookalikes, my friends and I were excited about the game’s death mechanics. The Sims dealt with death in a much different way from most other games we were playing at the time — even though those games also included death and dying — and it not only encouraged us to think about death in video games, it also gave us the opportunity to come to terms with our own mortalities.
In video games, death can serve multiple mechanical roles — it is most commonly used as a thing you want to avoid, a goal you need to accomplish, or as a narrative device. While death is prominent in many video games, we generally give it much less thought and treat it with much less seriousness than actual death, especially when it comes to player death.
This could be from a lack of permanence in most video games. Mechanics like life systems (a certain amount of retries designated to a player after they’ve died) and respawning (when a player reappears at a fixed point in the game, after they die) have been a staple in many video games, but subsequently remove the seriousness and finality of death — acting more as an interruption or annoyance rather than the actual consequences of death.
I think this is why myself (and millions of others) were fascinated with killing off our Sims — their deaths were permanent, they meant something, and that directly affected the gameplay of The Sims.
Their deaths were permanent, they meant something,
and that directly affected the gameplay…
There’s a relatively new movement that’s slowly gaining popularity called death positivity (or “death acceptance”) that is encouraging people to face their own mortalities and to be open to talking about death, addressing it, and demystifying it. The movement was started by a group of young morticians and funeral directors whose goal is to lift the veil on death, and encourage us to explore our thoughts, feelings, and fears about mortality.
As a person who has been quite accepting of death and her own mortality since she was a young child, I am super on board with this whole death positivity movement — but I’m particularly interested in how it applies to video games. The interactivity of video games makes it a great medium for getting the player to directly deal with things like death, yet a lot of the time it seems developers aren’t really considering it mechanically when designing their games.
However, there are a bunch of games that do use death in mechanically or narratively interesting ways, and it’s exciting to see developers really thinking about death when designing their games. In a sea of video games using traditional death mechanics, it’s interesting to look at what games are using death differently and how that is allowing players to really think about and come to terms with their own mortalities.
One developer whose games often carry a death positive tone is Drinkbox Studios, the Toronto-based game studio responsible for bringing us Guacamelee! and the upcoming game Severed.
Guacamelee!, developed in 2013 by Drinkbox, is a rare game that not only shows death and the afterlife in a positive way, but does so beautifully and hilariously. Guacamelee! is an action-platformer game that is heavily inspired by Mexican culture and folklore, and features a cast mostly made up of skeletal calaca figures. The game stars Juan, a farmer-turned-luchador who must save his love interest and El Presidente’s daughter from an evil charro skeleton.
Midway-through Guacamelee!, Juan unlocks the ability to teleport between the world of the living and the world of the dead, which allows him to solve puzzles or fight specific enemies. The act of teleporting between these two worlds is also quite aesthetically pleasing — Each time you teleport to the dead world the music changes to a gorgeous ethereal version of the living world’s music. The scenery in the world of the dead mirrors that of the living world, often with extra subtle details like decorations or internet memes (the game is famous for being chock-full of them).
There are many towns and villages in Guacamelee! filled with friendly non-playable characters (also referred to as NPC’s). Shifting from the world of the living to the world of the dead reveals the animated skeletons of deceased citizens of these towns and villages, who are often more energetic and alive than the living citizens.
Although Guacamelee! features classic death tropes (Juan has a health bar and respawns after he dies) the mechanic of shifting between the world of the living and world of the dead, and showcasing death and the afterlife in a beautiful and colourful way, makes Guacamelee! a truly great example of a death positive video game.
Drinkbox Studio’s upcoming game Severed, which is slated to release for the Playstation Vita and potentially other touchscreen devices in 2016, centres around a young woman named Sasha who must exact revenge on the monsters who murdered her family and severed off her arm. A few months ago I had the opportunity to speak to Drinkbox’s concept artist Cuxo Quijano about the game, and he explained that death appears as an anthropomorphic character who is designed to be neither good nor evil. Cuxo commented that death is often depicted as an evil or machiavellian character in games, and that it made more sense for Severed’s story to personify death as accurately and as positively as possible — as a true neutral character who can help Sasha through her grieving process.
Another studio that is exploring death in mechanically and narratively interesting ways is Cellar Door Games, the studio who brought us Rogue Legacy, a platformer with Roguelike elements developed in 2013.
In Rogue Legacy the player must explore randomly generated dungeons and fight off randomly spawned enemies. The game uses permadeath (or “permanent death”) so when your character dies, they’re gone for good. However, after your original character has died, the game allows you to play as one of their heirs. These descendants each have unique characteristics and abilities that affect the gameplay — for example, if your descendant has colour-blindness the game will be presented in black and white. Gold you’ve collected during the run with your original character has been passed down to these heirs, and can be used to improve the abilities of any successive descendants.
[Rogue Legacy allows] the player to acknowledge and accept the deaths of their unique characters, and continue to adventure with their heirs and descendants…
This unique mechanic makes Rogue Legacy not only an incredibly inventive game, but also a death positive one at that — allowing the player to acknowledge and accept the deaths of their unique characters, and continue to adventure with their heirs and descendants, who will also inevitably die.
Another game that is allowing players to understand the true consequences of death is Undertale, the critically-acclaimed game developed in 2015 by Toby Fox. Undertale is a role-playing game (or “RPG”) in which you play a human child who must navigate a fictional world filled with non-humanoid characters referred to as “monsters”. In the game you can choose to kill the monsters or “defeat” them nonviolently, but your decisions to do so affect the story and gameplay.
The most interesting thing about how death is treated in Undertale is how (almost) realistic it is — choosing to kill the monsters has some serious consequences, that would normally be ignored in traditional RPGs. It not only encourages the player to think about death, but its twist on traditional death mechanics allows players to consider how death is normally treated in games.
Games like Guacamelee!, Rogue Legacy, and Undertale give me hope that video game developers can use death in creative and mechanically interesting ways, that stray from typical and sometimes tired tropes, and give players the opportunity to think about death and possibly even come to terms with their own mortalities. I’m genuinely looking forward to the future of “death” in the games industry, and hope to see other developers use it in unique and interesting ways too.
There are actually quite a lot of death positive video games I could go on and on about — games that really broach the subject of death in mechanically or narratively interesting ways. Here’s a short and summarized list of other games I consider to be death positive that I highly recommend checking out:
- Sunburn! developed by Secret Crush in 2014 is a mobile puzzle game in which you play a captain of a space vessel that has crashed. Knowing that you and your crew are all doomed, your goal is to gather your crew and to plummet into the sun, dying together.
- Gravity Ghost developed by Ivy Games in 2015 is a physics-based puzzle game in which you play the ghost of a young girl, reuniting animal spirits with their physical bodies and uncovering the story of your death and the deaths of the animals you’re helping.
- Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask developed in 2000 by Nintendo is arguably the darkest game in the Legend of Zelda series, with the subject of death and doom being central to the gameplay and narrative. You play a child version of the main character Link, who must repeatedly travel through time and use transformative masks to solve puzzles and stop the moon from crashing into the earth.
- The Graveyard is a game developed by Tale of Tales in 2008, where the player assumes control of an elderly woman walking through a graveyard to a bench. The game is slow and beautiful and easily one of the best examples of a death positive video game.
- Fate Tectonics is a world-building strategy puzzle game by Golden Gear Games developed in 2015. The player can build up a world and attempt to appease the gods, but also has the ability to destroy said world. There is no death or “game over” state but rather pieces that fall go back to “the void” — a place where your world starts and where it ends: both life and death.
I’m absolutely positive I’ve missed a few examples of death positive video games, so if you can think of any that I’ve missed or if you’d like to share your thoughts on death and video games, please hit me up on twitter.
About the Author:
Gabby DaRienzo is a Toronto-based independent video game developer whose work is often influenced by death. She is the host and producer of the Play Dead Podcast which talks with game developers about how death is used and approached in their games. Gabby is also the co-founder of Laundry Bear Games, the Toronto-based game studio currently developing death-positive video game A Mortician’s Tale (coming early 2017).