The Virtual Life is a column dedicated to exploring the place where our lives and games intersect. As the medium continues its evolution, we’ll be here to chart that line and talk about life, love, games, and the universe every other week. We like doing things our own way here at GI, so we’re going to kick off the birth of this column by talking about death. Just so you know, this week I’m gabbing about the first season of The Walking Dead and Wolfenstein: The New Order, so spoilers for those if you haven’t played them yet.
My grandfather died a few months back. He was one of the salt of the earth types. Worked as a welder for most of his life until his body wouldn’t let him anymore. He passed while I was a thousand miles away, writing words about why you shouldn’t play a bad Assassin’s Creed spin-off. Like Vonnegut said, I guess: “So it goes.”
Death’s been on my mind a lot since then, mostly the indifference that will settle on my inevitable but hopefully-very-far-into-the-future-demise. It’s scary to think about the end, this idea one day all that remains of you will be dust and any memory of who you were will fade from existence. Perhaps it’s a silly fear in the large scheme of things given that dying is a natural part of life, but the anxiety is there in the back of my mind, snickering and poking at me, no matter how much I try to busy myself with work or passion projects.
Death in games has fascinated me for a long time, mostly because it’s usually treated as more of an inconvenience than anything else — for completely understandable reasons. It would be frustrating, for example, never to be able to boot up Fallout 4 or Call of Duty again once your character got struck down by an enemy’s bullet. It would also be kind of a bummer, albeit interesting, if your character suffered huge amounts of guilt and had a breakdown after a mission where they mowed down a squad of soldiers. The majority of high-budget games where death is a factor in some shape or form are content to make it a non-issue and gamers, including me, are just as often pleased that it’s not that big of a deal. We want our escapist action fantasies that crib hard from summer blockbusters. We want slo-mo headshots on goon after goon. We want to play badass assassin warriors capable of slicing up a dude with a katana and then throwing his buddy through a window with telekinesis (no, really, someone make me this game please).
Sometimes though, it’s refreshing to play a game where the fear of death is tangible. I’m not talking about a series of cutscenes in Mass Effect where characters talk about how the forces of good have to prevent the end of civilization because the fate of humanity is at stake. I mean games that treat death as something other than light slap on the wrist or obvious plot stake, the ones that make you absolutely dread perishing in them.