It would be very easy, if a little odd, to begin this piece with some final remarks; certainly far easier than dreaming up some opening words of my own. The done thing is to lead with a quote from somebody else, centred on the page like a cartouche. It’s a reassuring start, to have another person go before you and pharmaceutically compact whatever it is you’re about to spend 3,000 words discussing into something elegant and digestible. However using a person’s last ever words, what they choose or do not choose to say in the final, rattle-to-a-halt moments of their life, has an altogether different effect.
Now, this might be a mite awkward, but I’m desperate to start as I mean to go on; that is, profoundly. And where better to find profundity but in the dying words of some of the finest examples of public humanity from history? Even a very brief prescription from the Internet provides me with no shortage of options.
Hold still, and swallow. They may be big names, but they’ll go down without any trouble.
“Et tu, Brute?” Julius Caesar
“Kiss me, Hardy.” Admiral Horatio Nelson
“One of us must go.” Oscar Wilde
(attributed, probably apocryphal)
You might think that it’s a bit parasitical of me, perhaps even disrespectful, to hijack the immortalities of these noble, unforgettable men, in those long-gone moments as ignoble and mortal as veal, but rhetorically it’s a safe bet. Last words, especially those uttered by the historically surveilled, frequently mean more to us than any of the millions that they spoke beforehand; at the countless breakfasts, wars and podiums throughout their lifetimes. Their quotidian wisdoms are treated quite roughly, back when everything is good and their hearts are healthy and there isn’t a single shadow on their stomachs; they are dislocated into paperbacks or poetry or blog columns or, for the most part, ignored entirely. But when the final moment comes (and it is too late for anything else) we record whatever they say fetishistically onto the populist imagination, whether it is controversial or meaningless or useful or transcendent.
I think that this impulse might find its cause in the marine survivals of our brains; those wibbly bulbs and leftover nodules which, when we were just flotillas of cells in need of teeth or horns or bioelectricity, used to warn us where the shadow of a ichthyosaur ended and the light from the surface began. It certainly does seem that, as organisms, we are far more concerned with the borders, or termini, than with the content of a thing. There is an importance attached to beginnings and endings that has migrated from those primitive flight responses and into our dramatic apparatus, those misunderstood amygdalae which help us to appreciate good stories.
The first words of our narratives, of a person’s life, are harder to dramatise, as we have a raft of unrealistic expectations and little to compare them to. Still we search for something gnostic in the ‘Dada’ or ‘Plop Plop’ of a toddler, and judge her accordingly. When that toddler moves on from the admittedly-rich ‘Plop Plop’ material and becomes a celebrated activist, for example, and her words become countless, and she is hale and wealthy in partners and goes to live by a lake we still celebrate her words, albeit with less granularity — there are just too many of them. And if that activist falls down while buying flowerpots aged 88 and the passerby who holds her head, as light as a tulip, hears her say ‘Winchester’, and feels that head grow ever so slightly lighter, that one word completes the loop all the way back to ‘Plop Plop’, and its oracular qualities; her two best pieces of work, in the eyes of the world.
The importance of these first and last words is largely defined by how society, at least some society, views the twinned acts of birth and death. While many of us do not explicitly believe in reincarnation there has often been an unspoken sense of transition, of transference, rather than finality, during these life-events; a change in geography, in mode of transport, rather than a line ending or beginning. The dying or borning person is osmosised, with some atoms in this world and some in whatever turgid, crisp landscape comes next or came before. This is perhaps why we listen to the dying especially, as we might sonar, echo-locating for some insight. Like peering up into the lantern of an Unorthodox church, we squint into the apertures the departing make with their words, hoping to catch a glimpse of blue sky beyond.
Of course, not everything about last words is celestial, forever floating off from us; they have a tendency, as well, to root the dying to our world, and to us. They can be intensely carnating, transmuting history’s polished figurines, those who we are only ever encountering rendered in marble on museum staircases, into a softer, myrrhic squish, part of the same tapenade of personhood as ourselves. Whatever the material or accomplishment of the person who utters them, last words often characterise and make vulnerable, denuding those we never even thought of as having bare skin. Caesar, for example, felt betrayed, as we all have, and probably died with a lump in his throat and a turd in the chamber as he tried not to cry; Freud just wanted the curtains shut, as the light was hurting his human, human eyes; countless others have lost their historical composure, the manners and vestments and right sort of shoes which place them on the guest-list for exclusive encyclopedias, and instead call for their mothers, a glass of water, or just a diagnosis. Their achievements are forgotten, and they become just another bin of nerve endings, knotted and stanky, which in that moment is tipping, farting, bubbling, sphincting, pouring away.
Of course, the imperative to marble, the need to make these figures statuesque and public-domain, cannot be put off for long, and these last few words, these self-written panegyrics, are always in the end co-opted by the utterer’s estate, politicised and mythologised to serve their burgeoning logo. This is especially true of suicide notes, a special sort of last statement which can play havoc with the precious commodity of a celebrity’s public frontage, especially if they were not known for their pith or their mental illness. Even spoken epithets can prove troublesome to the marketing; take Nelson’s last words, most likely misquoted at the beginning of this essay. For much of recent history, ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ was altered to ‘Kismet, Hardy’, kismet being a Turkish word meaning’ fate’. This clumsy switcheroo ignored the fact that ‘Kismet’ did not enter English usage until thirty years after Nelson’s death. It is likely that Nelson’s sacrosanct words, rather than being misheard, were altered on purpose; the man’s useful martyrdom to the red-blue-and-white-blooded Jack-brand of England was undermined, in the eyes of patriots who like to quote him, by their misgivings about where exactly Hardy was going to kiss Horatio.
In this stonemasonry of history, chiselling out all of these useful personalities, it perhaps would not have mattered much if Nelson’s words had been changed, for they were never meant to be answered, or questioned, or refuted. For all their political power, last words are not part of a conversation with these people; they belong to the same oratorical family as the eulogy, the father of the bride’s speech and other phatic communications; they exclude all information in favour of self-promotion, remaining unquestioned and performative, the audience deadened by the notion of ‘respect’. Once performed, they cannot be impeached, or broken into; they may as well be chiselled in stone underneath their speaker’s busts, part of their unchanging character, a character they have always played in the ongoing bill of our culture.
When we look at final words in this way, then, it is entirely unsurprising that videogames rely upon them so heavily to solve their own problems of characterisation. In fact, it is only with the rise of interactive art such as games, art meant to simulate a living space, that we have even had to think about characters in this same way, as living and unpredictable. With painting, writing, sculpture and other forms, what is presented is in some way a mausoleum of ideas, in the most respectful sense; a diorama of thoughts already thought, conclusions already reached, arranged for appreciation like skulls in an ossuary, the flesh long-sloughed, can become chandeliers or retaining walls with a little mortar and lateral thinking. Certainly, I have written about the interactive power of all art elsewhere, but it remains the case that on the page, the canvas or the digital stock, traditional art relies on the events of its narratives being done with, long before the audience comes by in their present to appreciate what remains; what is left picturesque, and sublime, now that everything has been finished. It is in this way no coincidence that most of our stories, in one way or another, begin with ‘A long, long time ago’.
The promise of videogames especially is to move away from such static, historically-dictated structures. We believe, perhaps a little naively, that the barrier between the audience and the artist, the character and the player, the speaker of last words and the mourner by the bedside can be removed entirely. We hope that we might take up a role in something living and unmythologised and still-changing, where the pithy phrases have not been coined just yet, and the words, the good and the bad, the memorable and the ordinary, are still being spoken and influenced by our presence in the story; that the stories themselves might be told later, with ourselves a part of them. But there is a struggle with this new paradigm, ranging across the realms of stay-at-home coders and the centuries of designers in the larger companies. Despite the potential and investment in the medium, these artists cannot depart from cultural imperative; they are intelligent, rarefied human beings who read books and watch many films and learnt the trade of story and worldbuilding through such prisms. They have spent their lives walking, hats in hands respectfully, through a marble, busted landscape of those who went before, uninteractive, holy statements written everywhere, on every surface.
It is not only philosophical problems they face, either, but computational ones; creating any being from scratch, one which has at its disposal even a finite variety of reactions to any situation, requires at the very least a rough simulation of a personality, and this has very, very rarely been done well. On a handful of occasions, perhaps.
And so we come to the current, halfway exercise, one which remains, at its heart, dead.
Let’s sit down to play a game. Almost any big one released in recent years will do. The environment loads up around you, one that is superficially inviting and full of winkling holes. However, this construction is almost always less vital than it looks, flatter, more referential than representational; these lands in which you love to tread are lands of symbols, of caryatids and atlantids lovingly copied from reality but still mute and solid through. As a player, you are told by scattered murals, cunning furniture and designed avenues that people once lived here, but are now evacuated or murdered. You creep through biospheres, meticulously simulated with a healthy understanding of how rocks might erode, though often they are devoid of predator or prey. The player especially is isolated from any richness in this ecosystem, other than in a linear snakes-and-ladders of a virtual food chain. There may be characters living in front of you with whom you may speak and interact, but this interaction is perfunctory to such characters as environment, part of the larger environment that holds hegemony over your experience. Neither you, nor these companions, have much chance of changing this environment; it is heavy with the feeling of a public museum, a place where everything has already happened and been said, where velvet ropes segregate you from the dynamism, and your only role is that of a tourist, or at best an archaeologist, reading their parting statements.
This does not describe nearly every game, but it is coming to describe more and more; especially those with larger budgets and larger ambitions, though the indies have not solved this problem either. Of all the tomb paraphernalia that these games employ, of all the formats that such last words can take, the audio diary is the current, duogenerian favourite; consisting of collectible widgets scattered throughout the gameworld, devices onto which the world’s inhabitants have recorded their dying breaths, the motif shows little sign of the self-reflexive mockery that game designers and game players have started to enact with other, insomniac features such as in-game graffiti. The audio diary began, as far as limited research can tell, with the Shock dynasty of roleplaying games, and has irrigated into more-recent, lauded examples such as Dishonored, the latter-day Fallouts, Alien: Isolation and the Dead Space series, games universally marketed as possessing an in-world rich, elegiac and open to interpretation. For these, and many other games being released now, the audio diary becomes the current vogue of ‘environmental storytelling’, a greased wheel on which to deliver some life into these arrested places.
So often the feeling when exploring these gamespaces is that of viewing an impressive diorama. There is a sense of simulacrum, of isolation from the events which shaped these arenas so long before you arrived. Of course, with the audio diary your loneliness is accompanied by simultaneous commentary, like those cumbersome talking guides that you are lent when visiting a national monument, explaining why everything went so mournful. While such pathos is no mean theme for any piece of art, it is becoming the sole subject that ‘artistic’ or ‘atmospheric’ or ‘narrative’ games can deploy. It seems then that such gamespaces, with the story distributed neatly throughout their dimensions in compartmentalised, canopic packets, are really just collections of last words; dropped about the topography and substituting statuary for character, sarcophagi for real people. What is more, the glimpses of the story which such diaries provide pay little homage to the fact that these recordings were made in the environment by limited yet dynamic individuals; when the player comes across them, most often in the location where the narrator lost their lives, blunt, silly crags of story fall out of them, stonking great obvious fistfuls of archetypes and clanging plot development that are often clumsy or hopelessly troped.
If we take Bioshock to be the most modern and accepted foothold of this device, I can defend its use; in that game the city of Rapture’s death, its stillness when compared with the occasional mushroomed bursts of violence and nonsense was mechanically and narratively apropos, embodied by the almost-glossolalia which the game’s main enemies, the Adam-addled Splicers, raspberried into your ear just coherent enough to make you feel sorry for them. The audio diaries in Bioshock, identically-modelled tape recorders (or, rather, mass-produced as part of the communal product line in the otherwise neoliberal Rapture), could be explained away in their ubiquity and convenient placement. It stood to reason that in a world that once held so much sense, the only way to navigate it would be by the final words of its once-sensible inhabitants. The appearance of each recorder, when found, was subliminally comforting, the sound of a measured human voice wonderful after so much wandering alone. The characters on the recordings were fleeting and incarnated just like Caesar and his blubbing; even if the words weren’t truly the character’s last, and they went on living after the recording was made, in a world enacted by the player’s attention, they may as well have died as soon as the recording ended. Indeed, some of Rapture’s long-dead inhabitants were solely developed through a succession of fragments, cunningly landscaped across the player’s path. Most, however, were fragmented and Jurassic, and like palaeontologists finding only a shard of an archaeopteryx in a valley wall we the players extrapolated everything, constructing a Dramatis Personae for ourselves. We did not need to meet these people; they came pre-assembled by the history around them and the circumstances in which time had left them. These were the last words of Bioshock’s world, as pure as any else in our culture, and it did not matter to us that we did not get a say in crafting them.
Like so much of Bioshock, this was a clever solution to a fundamental burden of games design. Living humans are difficult to render or artifice, and so by making them former, unacquaintable figures of a history, they take on all those benefits of the dying breath of the celebrity; knowable and human, yet removed from the interaction of the game, politicised out of being individuals and into the public domain of Rapture’s themes themselves.
Out from Bioshock, though, it seems we have not found a different way to do things, and so instead we ape and we ape and we ape. We have taken this audio-diary-as-inscription to the extreme, entirely divorcing the marriage of mechanic and metaphor that it once represented and turning it, instead, into punctuation, a sigil that indoctrinated players will recognise and disregard as standing for something more complex.
Even in Rapture, the content of these recordings do not always represent last words in their intricacy and ambivalence; they often have convenient context, and a conventional, prosaic structure, so that instead of burbled thoughts, gasping weakness, or even just the intestinal grumblings of a human being in a moment, what we are instead given is little different from paragraphs in a textbook, clinically detached from their surround; this character fully explained Randian determinism before dying, that character made a clumsy, Chekhovian gunshot before she ran away, nullifying any ambiguity or mystery in the room in which her words are found. The language these characters use in their last moments is that of an author, a director, a spin-doctor, treating the plot as press-release, as viral marketing to the theme. Human beings do not truly speak in that way.
The aping has abstracted even further, so that our response to these devices is not surprise or delight but instead Pavlovian expectation, as phatic and unargumentative as the words themselves. Many games seem infested with nooks and crannies, incomprehensible sewers and alcoves, built not because of geographical accident or storied reason but because these are the places where audio diaries should be found. We are expected to act as if coming across these hideyholes is a Zen-act of realisation, as if we were not already actively searching for these places because we know that they are the only locales where we will find anything human in these totalitarian, happened worlds. Some games even remove the notion of chance altogether and simply tell you, by means of a counter, how many more last words you still have to collect. Not unlike Nelson and his kisses, the fact of these character’s last words have been co-opted, levered in to filibust a solution. They are no longer warming or relatable, elegant or humanising. They are just another asset, just another mechanic to be grokked.
What brought about this lambast in the first instance was a website that I discovered a few years ago, far from any signposted niche or filter bubble of my usual browsing. I cannot remember how I found it; I did not Stumbleupon it, algorithmically. I have decided not to link to it, to honour this happenstance, but it is still out there, as far as I know. What this website represented to me, however crudely or categorically, was how we parse this phenomenon of last words within our society. It was named Last Words, and it was a crumbling Geocity, a remnant of a time a long, long time ago when websites were personal, matte, twinkling lists of links, and Lycos still had a shiny coat, and it was a simple thing to come across these shrines to one person’s interest, unannounced, in your wanderings.
The website was a subsidiary of a larger domain called Planecrashinfo, which trod a fine line between encyclopaedic and symphorophiliac; every publicly-known aviation disaster throughout history, military and civilian catalogued minutely. No engine was too underpowered, no crew too small, no crash site too remote to be included. As I scrolled down the list the causes of these tragedies blurred into a greypoint mix of formerly-innocuous words
which started to make me feel a little bilious.
There were some pictures, but not many. There were some famous incidents, though most had not even made the news, as far as I could tell. I think, when you totted up the casualty lists, that the total number of dead in these events ranged into the tens of thousands. Here was the banality of death, a screaming and smoking spreadsheet far removed from the bedbound, Homeric platitudes of all those famous last words. The final moments of those ten thousands, their legacies, have gone unknown, drowned out inside the thrumming, whirring blenders that those planes became as they fell out of the sky, all pureed instantly. Whatever they were, I’m sure that they did not reveal much plot, or resolve any tension, or hint at the ineffable, or have the whole thing make sense in the third act. I imagine, instead, confusion, cowardice, a mite of bravery, and possibly a very real embarrassment.
It was while browsing Planecrashinfo that I found the link to Last Words, and saw it for what it was; the pinnacle of this entire, accumulative, voyeuristic exercise. The author, and I the audience, were little different from the player-character in our games collecting their tapes. The website took advantage of a narrative peculiarity in the aeronautics industry, separate from other, less-chronicled modes of transportation; planes are amongst the only public vehicles which contain within their fabric the ability to write their own epitaph, to speak their final bit, if something does go wrong. Through the principles of the black box, and the evidence of those final transmissions to whichever clerical, benedictine air traffic controller was within broadcast range at the time, this website meticulously recorded the last words from each of these planes, all the screaming, pleading, unknown humanity in the main cabin behind filtered and interpreted and smoothed through the one or two voices elected to speak for them in such a situation; those of the pilot and co-pilot.
When I visited Last Words there were perhaps twenty or thirty entries on this website, the carriers involved in the disasters ranging truly international from Air France to United Express to AeroPeru. Some only had a typed transcript attached, though always helpfully translated into 11-point English from the original, hollering tongue. Some, though I have no idea how, had the actual recordings available for download. And like any good, indoctrinated collector of stories, any game player who finds the artificial little alcove where the secrets are stored, I sat down, clicked play, waited for the crackle, and started to half-listen as I got on with something else. I was making a salad, I think.
After not very long I stopped trimming lettuce and frying croutons, and started to really listen, and to read the transcripts properly, giving myself up to the mode, and I started to cry. Expectedly, nothing like a girl’s blouse. I have only ever cried at media like that once before, when I watched the trailer for a documentary on intensive pig farming which finally sent me vegetarian. I listened to these men, almost all men in this stupid world, these professional pilots in starched white shirts and with voices like kindly grandfathers as they lived out their last seconds of life on the job. Some of the recordings are minutes long, a creeping degradation in altitude, a worsening rattling that, in the end, simply unclips the left wing like a gate latch and kills them all. It takes some of them a long time to realise what is happening. Some of them make brief pleas for help to the air traffic controller in a strangled jargon of metres-per-second. One pilot laughs when he realises what comes next; another just states ‘That’s it, I’m dead.’ Every recording ends abruptly in static, and I almost laughed myself at how troped that has become.
It was very clear to me after this encounter how dishonest we have been in valuing last words as they really are; that is, as the product of a flawed machine, a disaster, a body unprepared to take a breath and say something lasting, something that kerns well on a cenotaph. Some of those cenotaphed greats with which I began this essay have hinted at this biological, human urgency in their last recordings; consider Goethe’s “mehr licht!” (more light!) and Richard Nixon’s simple, adorable “Help”. However, we will never allow such men, the very currency of history, to die saying something so ordinary or honest; I have seen other, ‘wiser’ words attached to them, as if they had had the time and forethought and organisation to start writing second drafts. These are most likely false as well, their actual last words even less literary.
Even if they are honest and mortal, last words are too privileged, too manufactured, too weighty in the balance of a person’s life, and nowhere more so than in videogames. Our current industry practice of moulding our character’s entire selves in a few snatched, unrealistic moments of dialogue has become the default solution to a pressing and ever-growing problem: how do we reveal our characters, and keep them authored and manageable, when the precepts of the medium requires that the players interact, trample, troll, be disobedient? This solution enforces respect and distance in order to make the gameworld a dead one, a memento mori with all the life in the past tense. The characters are remembered by the things they did and the things that they uttered as they passed from view, and any act of rebellion that we might wish to begin is neutered. Overusing the ruth of the well-placed audio diary, as we do now, makes games into parodies of themselves, politically-expedient and prepared statements rather than troublesome playgrounds or forums for debate. There are horrific obstacles to building living characters, to making them answerable and discursive, making their flaws and contradictions and unheroics apparent and manipulable to the player. But the solution we have engendered is to rely, instead, on the static roominess of environment, of world, the illusion of choice in navigating it and giving every story we have to that environment; an act of landscaping designed to make everything look as natural and emergent as possible. The artificial audio diary must have less presence in a medium which has such drive to be organic.
I do understand how far we are from adopting such a drive fully. It is easy to sit here being churlish about how some of gaming’s best characters exist after the fact, in correspondence, and how if we ever meet them at all they are so very often disappointing; much the same way, I imagine, that Freud or Wilde or Nelson might have been, if we had been there as they passed away. The audio diary, and last words, will have to do the narrative job that they have always done for just a little while longer; perhaps, however, we might have a compromise for now. If we do have to wait to get to know our characters a little better, and have our questions of them answered, to impeach as we have always wished, perhaps we can treat their memorials, their last words, with a little more honesty and thought. The audio diary should be more like the black box and less like the paean, an honest and unedited accident of circumstance which stands for a person more completely in its mundanity, its relatability and what goes unsaid than a tacky memorial. I have lost faith in those big, important words that I used to begin this essay, and I might be better served if I close it with something more banal and terribly, terribly sad.
“Unload it, unload it-”
First Officer of IAI 1124A Westwind, November 8th 2002
“Let’s do like this-”
Co-Pilot of Birgen Air Flight 301, February 6th 1994
Passenger in Seat 5, Row D, Air Canada Douglas DC-8, July 5th 1970 (attributed)