In 1996, non-fiction writer John Krakauer joined a group of eight clients in an attempt to climb Mt. Everest. On the evening of May 10th, a storm made traversing the mountain nearly impossible. Of the five team members that reached the summit, four lost their lives on the frigid peak. Eight climbers total from four different expeditions died during the event, and seven more would follow before the season was over.
A year later, Krakauer published Into Thin Air, his personal account of the story. The work is a haunting attempt to uncover the truth about what happened, to gain some glimmer of understanding about these events. There is no value to be found in the deaths of those climbers, only revelations about human systems on the raggedy edge of survival.
Video games often put us in terrible simulated survival situations, but more often than not, the challenges that we face are shallow attempts at simulating the lives of endlessly dispensable characters. What we learn from each failure is a new way to approach relatively static game systems. We learn how our enemies behave, we know the tools at our disposal, and we know the rules that govern their use—everything else is implementation. We may poke and prod at game systems, but they rarely falter or change.
To some extent, survivalism is also the measured assessment and navigation of consistent systems. Robert Hall, Krakauer’s expedition leader, was known as a reliable and safe crew leader with years of experience under his belt. Like other mountaineers, Hall knew precisely how thin air could get above 20,000 feet. He felt comfortable with the use of rope systems and external oxygen containers and surely had an almost instinctual knowledge of weather patterns and their effects on high-altitude climbs.
These measurable systems, however, are bound inexorably with each other. Survival rests on a house of cards built of interlocking systems, small and large, easily quantifiable and tragically obscure. Those who willingly put themselves into extreme situations must monitor both weather formations and something as simple as their own breathing. These physical systems all meet with systems of human relations.
Robert Hall died on the morning of May 11, 1996, and not for a lack of knowledge. On the precipice of the world and the tattered edge of survivability, social and material systems start to crumble. According to Krakauer’s account, a myriad of failures led to tragedy. Despite storm warnings, several team members continued towards the summit of Everest anyway. Oxygen canisters went unused and directions unheeded as communication broke down. Even the line between leader and client faded into the snow as the participants were pushed to the brink.
In Into Thin Air, Krakauer puts some blame for the events on the commercialization of Everest. Economic systems weighed down on the leaders, leading to riskier attempts at the summit. In extreme environments, social systems that induce feelings of pride, shame, a drive for competition, or blind determination become fatal. Slowly these too unravel, and only breathing remains. The economic, physical, and social systems behind Krakauer’s odyssey both culminate here and seem to disappear.
This failure of human systems must partially explain the sudden and fervent reception of Day Z, the ARMA II mod that inserts players into a post-apocalyptic world of zombies and player-controlled survivors. In this fictional deadland, no formal structure limits the range of player behavior. The game abandons morality meters and structured quests, giving players free range over their actions. Hunger and desperation motivate players. As a result, social norms collapse. Day Z offers a rare glimpse at the decay of social systems that survivors face at the end of the world.
Not everything splinters and cracks at the brink of survivability. Some climbers ventured into the freezing storm to rescue other survivors, at great personal risk to themselves. Human affection and concern, which we may call systems for they too contain feedback loops and independent parts, may still sprout up in the harshest of environments. In his last moments, barely alive after an entire night alone on the summit without oxygen, Robert Harris called his wife via satellite phone. “Sleep well my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much,” he told her. There are powerfully evocative emotions we keep aflame even in the coldest dark when all other systems that were meant to protect us have fallen.
The most chilling aspect of Into Thin Air is its inability to provide any clear answers. Not about cause of death—that much we know—but about the circumstances that lead to the entire event. We can trace one failure back to one system or another. Lines of communication failed, pride impeded wisdom, and that damn storm came too quickly. Yet other steps led to those deaths. Knowing full well the dangers such a climb presented, Krakauer and their team chose to climb Everest anyway and for what reason? Does motivation matter for the climbers when so close to death?
Video games often fail to meld human systems within game systems. The small and ephemeral are subsumed within the large and quantifiable. Certainly documentary games may illuminate human experiences in survival stories, but any game may travel those borderlands. The makings of excellent game design can be found in any tragedy. I see systems everywhere I look, but games contain too few of the ones that really matter.