In 1994, Perri Klass argued that “If children’s entertainment is purged of the powerful, we risk homogenization, predictability and boredom, and we deprive children of any real understanding of the cathartic and emotional potentials of narrative.” She was talking about The Lion King, a Disney film released that same year.
Meanwhile, Doom received its first sequel, building on its predecessor’s capability for multiplayer deathmatches. Thousands of Marios and Sonics plummeted to their accidental demise. By ’94, gaming’s preoccupation with death was well established, but amongst the millions of frags, nothing came close to the emotional impact of Mufasa’s fat leonine fingers, slipping one by one from the edge of that cliff.
But The Lion King wasn’t the first Disney film that dealt with dying in a way designed both for children and, apparently, to make adults cry uncontrollably. The title of Klass’ article, A Bambi For The 90s, Via Shakespeare, drew parallels back to both Will’s masterpiece, Hamlet, and Walt’s.
When Bambi arrived in 1942, animation was a young medium. Bambi was the Disney studio’s fourth fully-animated film and like their previous film, Dumbo, featured an adorable soppy-eyed talking animal in the title role. A single gunshot cemented Bambi‘s place in not just animation but cinematic history forever.
The death scene stands sorely out against the rest of the film, which opens with an awakening forest of cute, anthropomorphised animals doing cute, anthropomorphic things. The next forty minutes show the young Bambi discovering the world, learning to say “bird” and “butterfly,” slipping on ice … it’s fluffy, adorable stuff.
Bambi’s mother’s death is kept tactfully off-screen, the film instead focusing on the young fawn’s reaction. We’ve been following Bambi on a journey of discovery, and his dawning understanding of death, told through carefully-animated body language, hits hard. It’s an understated moment, which allows the emotion to settle as the scene fades to black.
The jarring leap into the next scene – with its cheery song and colourful birds – serves to illustrate Bambi‘s sharp contrast between adorable fantasy and painfully real loss. Death hasn’t been absent from Disney, before or since, but never had it been pushed so directly into the foreground. Bambi showed that animation could talk about death properly … and make grown men cry their little eyes out in the process.
That contrast is still a potent one today. Even post-Happy Tree Friends, violence being inflicted on cute animals can have a strong impact, an effect that carries over to games. Viva Piñata presents a world of friendly paper animals for the player to tend. You’re encouraged to customize individual piñatas by naming them and buying them accessories, which makes it all the more distressing when Professor Pester destroys them, or they destroy each other. These deaths mean something because of your investment of time and because – as in Bambi and real life – they are largely out of your control.
It was another half-century before Disney built on Bambi‘s foundations to create a more sophisticated depiction of parental loss in The Lion King. The film consistently presents life as a huge cycle. Mufasa’s “One day, all of this will be yours” speeches to his son push this message, introducing his surprisingly zen philosophy of life and death. Even a king’s time, he points out, “Rises and falls like the sun.”
The Lion King shows Mufasa plummeting to his death; it cuts away a moment before impact, but doesn’t shy away from displaying the body. Once again, the most heartbreaking moment is the child’s reaction: Simba tries to wake his father up, until realization finally dawns. He snuggles into his father’s unmoving body, placing one huge paw over himself as shelter. The death of a protagonist is rarely as affecting as watching them react to losing a loved one. This is why the Buddies of Far Cry 2, Mass Effect 2‘s climactic suicide mission, or Aeris in Final Fantasy VII resonate with players.
The Lion King uses the introduction of comic relief characters Timon and Pumbaa to divert young viewers’ attention, while their “no worries” dogma helps Simba move past the tragedy. In a series of fades, he goes from child to fully-grown lion. Time, as the saying goes, heals all. Both films skip past the mourning process, implying it in the gaps, and it works: Jumping forward in clumps of years is not just possible in cinema, but effective. In games, this takes control from your hands, as if to remind you this isn’t really your story.
One game that does make this work is Jason Rohrer’s Passage, which has you walking from left to right, along a thin strip representing the timeline of a couple’s life. Eventually, your partner dies, and you’re forced to walk on alone. By compressing a lifetime into a single five-minute level, time is emphasized without ever removing your control. It’s not dissimilar to Disney’s latest addition to this morbid tradition, Up, and in particular its harrowing first few minutes. It introduces two young wannabe adventurers, shy Carl and feisty Ellie, and zooms, in a charming montage, through the couple’s life together. With a minimum of fuss, the montage presents what appears to be a miscarriage, Ellie in a hospital bed, and finally Carl alone at a funeral.
Up turns eventually into a thrilling action-adventure romp, but it remains a story driven by Carl’s loss. Losing a loved one is a common enough motivation for gaming’s heroes, such as Max Payne, in which Max avenges his wife and child’s murders. Their bodies are discovered by the player and revisited in nightmarish flashback levels, with corridors stretched out to infinity as the sound of a baby crying loops endlessly. It’s fairly primitive, but manages to evoke the right emotions. This doesn’t fit quite so neatly, however, with the action-filled content of the game. When Max discovers his wife’s body, he has dual pistols drawn, and the player fills the killers with bullets in slow-motion. Up, meanwhile, uses its adventure story – which has its share of action scenes – as a framework to show the grieving and healing process. Carl progresses over the course of the film from a lonely shut-in to a motivated action hero in a way that mirrors Kübler-Ross‘ stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).
Before Carl can reach acceptance, however, there’s a sequence that shows him, in silhouette against an ominous red sky, dragging his balloon-buoyed house along. It scrapes along the ground, the metaphorical weight of grief and all its baggage made literal. It’s only after Carl ditches all the mementos of his life with Ellie that he’s able to rise triumphantly into the air. This would translate perfectly to videogames. It provides the plot with a third-act reversal that helps the hero beat the baddies, but also marks the emotional journey Carl is on. Best of all, it does it in a way that games could do better, by using restriction of movement and the discomfort of a physical burden to get its subtext across. Made interactive, it could be so much more tangible.
All three films strive to introduce big, hard, grown-up concepts to children, and suggest that dying, and mourning that loss, is natural. People talk about how getting a pet helps teach about life and death, and when I have children of my own, I’ll be glad to have Bambi, The Lion King, and Up there to help me in a similar capacity.
Meanwhile, few games – certainly not those aimed at children – have even tried to match up to this. Right now, the medium’s relationship with death falls mostly within the Tom & Jerry tradition of consequence-less violence: Characters get crushed by giant anvils and pop right back up. Super Meat Boy pushed this to its extreme with end-of-level replays. A hundred Meat Boys – each one representing an attempt at its frustratingly difficult levels – run simultaneously across the screen, all but one splattering at a different hurdle. It’s a smooth parody of how mundane death is in most games.
This needn’t be the case. Gaming has evolved a lot since 1994, developing a vocabulary and toolbox all of its own. With sly steals from the right places, the potential is massive; after all, it’s easy to make you care about something you’ve spent any length of time interacting with when there’s a risk of losing it. I remember catching my girlfriend sneaking up the life expectancy bar in The Sims 3‘s options screen. A couple we’d guided together from childhood had reached old age, and she was trying to keep them alive just a little longer.
So, people often ask: Where is gaming’s Citizen Kane? I say: Who wants an over-extended, self-important snorefest about some rich old geezer and his sled? What we really need is our Bambi.
Alex Spencer spends too much time thinking about pop-culture. See www.alex-spencer.co.uk for further examples.