What better way to discuss some of the social, cultural, and spiritual aspects of death and dying than in a medium rife with demise? Our digital playground is strewn with corpses of both enemies and allies and filled with the memories of our own demise. Even the idea of spiritual transcendence is crudely mirrored by our avatars’ tendencies to revive and carry-on after any casualty. In games, death is commonplace and frequently trivial, and, thus, gaming provides a safe place to dissect some of our beliefs and assumptions about mortality. In real life, managing one’s feelings on such sensitive subjects can be quite difficult, particularly for young-adults. Channel 4 Education, the learning arm of the UK television broadcaster, and Preloaded, a London-based game studio, seek to help teens confront their own feelings about mortality with The End, a puzzle-platformer that normalizes death and creates a venue for discussing life, belief systems, and our eventual passing.
Since venturing into educational media, Channel 4 has shown no hesitation in broaching sensitive and risque subjects, from sex and drugs to the threat of a surveillance society, as they relate to youth. Death is both a biological and a deeply sociocultural phenomenon. The process of dying has long since left the home for the hospital, and as a result, our cultural attitudes towards death have altered drastically. For many, the subject remains taboo, something to be hidden away lest we give it strength. Although some cultural norms arise, belief systems and perceptions about death vary widely. Preloaded describes their interest in the subject as follows: “One debate we were particularly interested in was the approach to death, belief and science. Many children and teens in the UK have a secular upbringing, which can leave them feeling unsupported when trying to make sense of death outside of a religious viewpoint.”
To approach teens about death, Preloaded made a browser-based puzzle-platformer. Like many educational games, The End wraps the game’s subject matter around the game mechanics more than it incorporates the two. The game is actually composed of two components, the first being a side-scrolling platformer with some light and shadow based puzzle solving along the way, the other being guardian boss battles that take the form of a competitive hex-tile puzzle game. Discounting the final stage, players can access eighteen levels across three surreal worlds named Body, Mind, and Spirit. While the platforming lacks some precision and polish, the game makes up for it with clever level design, simple yet surreal art design, and a forgiving jumping system that gives players plenty of aerial mobility and the ability to grab ledges.
In some ways The End’s gameplay does address its subject matter. The surprisingly robust character creation screen allows players to differentiate themselves from other players, some of whom you see wandering the home screen before stages. The unique avatars mirror the diversity of beliefs about mortality. The light mechanic, which allows players to turn shadows into temporary surfaces, may stand as an allegory for the dual nature of life and death. Success demands an understanding and appreciation of both. Even the loading screen shows the passing of time as an interplay between light and shadow, two complimentary aspects of a similar phenomenon. When players activate the shadow ability, their avatar becomes a black figure and leaves their corporeal body behind. The game suggests it is normal, and even necessary, to enter the realm of death, even if just for a short while.
The allegorical components aside, The End truly shines in its mapping of personal beliefs through nineteen philosophical and moral questions asked at the end of each stage. These questions are preceded by interesting quotes by philosophers, poets, playwrights, and famous thinkers, which are often related to the question at hand. All of these questions reflect serious personal beliefs: Do we have a soul that could live on after our death? Is there such a thing as a cause worth dying for? Is it important to have children? Are humans cut off from other parts of nature? Should people be able to choose how they die?
As players progress through this interactive questionnaire, their answers appear on the “Death Dial,” a “mind-map” that plots the positions of all players and various historical people on a grid divide into four “thought-spaces:” Mystic, Awakener, Truth-Teller, and Crusader. Players may be firmly one type of thinker or a combination of two. The End describes each characteristic, describing how someone in this thought-space may see the world and their place within it. The game also shows which historical person to which they mostly relate.
Like most RPGs with binary questions and answers, the resulting outcome can feel inaccurate. Some of my answers categorized me differently than I expected. In the end, I found myself uncomfortably close to Ayn Rand in the Mystic quadrant. Fortunately The End seeks not to confine and categorize, but to explore. Players are even encouraged to try different combinations of answers and freely change their minds. As the game states, “There are no such things as better or worse answers. But you may find new ways of thinking about how you are defined by your personality and beliefs — and what lies beneath different ways of thinking about life and death.” Through internal descriptions and links to outside resources, players may explore the convictions they share with historical figures, the diversity of thought about life and death, and some of the game’s question topics.
The End’s final question asks “Can anyone else truly know what it’s like to be you?” Regardless of your answer, the question ultimately addresses empathy and understanding. From the appearance of other players in the game lobby, to the “Death Dial” depiction of the beliefs of friends and other players, The End normalizes death as a topic of discussion without presenting a dominant belief system. Its purpose is not to sway beliefs but to reveal them, to encourage an open discussion of beliefs and cultures that shape our lives. Through games we have confronted death a thousand times, but rarely like this.
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