The first time I experienced death was in King’s Quest 3. My character would gaily tumble to his doom if I missed a pixelated step, and I learned then that death was more of an annoyance than anything permanent, because I’d have the load screen up even before he’d technically died.
The second time I experienced death was in Quest for Glory 1, when I found, with everlasting glee, that if you type “pick nose” as a thief, your character pushes his own lockpick up his nose, into his brain, and dies. I learned then that death is hilarious, and will amuse friends and passers-by alike (except, generally, my mum).
This time, I’m not sure what I’ve learned.
On the 11th of April, 2008, my aunt died. The culprit: breast cancer. It wasn’t a surprise, no misstep in an 8-color world, no totally overpowered goblin slaughtering me at level 1. I died, and yet, I didn’t. My power over death vanished as I contemplated a life without checkpoints or autosaves. I can’t go back, and it feels wrong.
There are those moments, in games, where you get hopelessly stuck, trying to get through the same puzzle, the same patch of corridor, over and over, what seems like a hundred times (or, at least, that’s the number you tell your friends). You load, die, and load again so many times that it becomes habit, and all you can think of is beating the challenge before you, as the minutes stretch into hours and finally, exhausted, you give up.
But even if you manage to beat every challenge thrown at you, some games will always have a tragic ending. Revenant. Fatal Frame 2: Crimson Butterfly. Planescape: Torment. These are the games that have affected me, deeply, and all of them are tragedies. Even knowing the outcome, I still play them, talk about them, and even recommend them. The short reason for this is that they make me feel alive. The longer and more complicated meaning touches a part of me that I wasn’t ready to admit to for a long time, but now compels me to write this article.
In all these games, though the tragedy is there, it’s nothing like someone slowly dying of cancer. People are consumed by galaxy-spanning battles, or a curse, or some knowledge or outcome they have to pursue, literally to their last breath. These games say nothing of having lived and then just slowly losing that vitality, of having to wait an endless wait until the inevitable. There’s no reward, no greater goal. The only outcome is death. Where’s the story in that?
The story is in the life of an extraordinary woman who lived, in the truest sense of the word, up until the very moment she died. It’s in the gifts she left, the shadow of her smile, the continuing grace of her whispers, and the memories inside a heart long past breaking. It’s in the joy, and wonder, and awe she brought to those who knew her, and it’s in the eyes of her small niece, looking up at her before being swept into a hug, and knowing that anything is possible.
Maybe that’s why I’m so confused. In all my many years of losing loved ones on the screen, nothing has prepared me for this particular variation. I’m so used to video games emulating life, that I’m not sure where to start when they don’t. About twelve months ago, in a movie, book, game, or any recent media, she would have breathed her last breath, the credits would have rolled, and people would go on with their lives, saddened, but enriched. I find that a little ironic right now.
The day after my aunt died, I was sitting at my computer, doing I can’t recall what, when I realized I’d looped a song for the last four hours. It was Amano Tsukiko’s “Chou,” from the ending of Fatal Frame 2. I was immediately flooded with memories of Mio chasing that tiny, ethereal butterfly, the moment of indrawn breath as it flutters toward her reaching hand, and the utter despair as her fingers pass right through it and she falls to her knees, defeated. It took me a couple of days to realize why this song gave me the most comfort out of anything I owned, and when the revelation came, I wasn’t ready. In fact, it almost caused a road accident.
I was out drinking when my aunt died, to tell you the truth. I know life goes on, and we do the things we do while in an endless holding pattern, but from everything I’ve seen or played, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. You’re always there, right there, as your loved one breathes their last, always the one to hear their final words, to be the first to cry, to have the dubious honor of being the first to mourn. Grief is one of the very few emotions that doesn’t feel better when shared. If anything, watching your family cry makes the pain more than double. In games it’s always you, the center of attention, who gets comforted bravely while others stay dry-eyed, for your sake. It turns out when your dad loses his sister, that’s just not possible.
So what have I learned? Probably only what thousands of people have learned before me. In the following days I thought of all my favorite characters, of Mio, The Nameless One, Khalid, and Andrew Ryan, and I lay on my bed, the hollow in my heart somehow lessened by these thoughts. It was only months later, as I again listened to “Chou” on the way to work and thought of the heart-wrenching, breath-stopping moment of Mio’s pain that my own pain suddenly became real, and I had to stop driving, and cry.
I realized then that even though none of these characters died a slow death, and all of their lives ended with a fade-to-black and a welcome return to the mundane realities of my own life, they’d taught me something vitally important. All of these characters and the games that are their stories had taught me how to live, and a little bit of how to die. Each tiny death had allowed me to feel a sliver of the pain that was yet to come, and prepare me for a world that stops, for just a moment, then continues.
I know now in real life there is no fade-to-black for those of us left behind. The universe keeps spinning, unaware of the enormity of what just happened. Obviously, that’s just as well. But that chapter of your book is over, there’s no Phoenix Down, and Mio will never catch her butterfly. Things will never go back to the way they were. No amount of rewinding or pausing will stop Gandalf from falling into shadow. It’s a hard lesson, for those of us raised with autosave and ctrl+z.
I still listen to “Chou,” almost every day. It’s a song that’s become synonymous with both a rending pain and a wavering relief that this has happened before, and it’ll be okay. I’ll be okay. After all, I’ve lived through worse. I’ve killed a man I respect with a golf club, been too late to save my friend from the man who tormented her, and left countless soldiers to die at the hands of the Zerg. Through all my other selves I’ve lived and died in increments, and this is just a bigger step along the same road. My kin lie in the catacombs of the videogame dead, and, having known them, I feel comfort.
I think I’ll go play Crimson Butterfly again.
Leanne C. Taylor is a freelance games writer and lecturer in Interactive Narrative. Her most recently discovered talent is the ability to fail levels of Mirror’s Edge in exceptional ways.