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Dead Again: Notes on the Impermanence of the Virtual Body

In video games, dying becomes useful, functional, pedagogical. In some games, it is consequential. However, such pain ironically can magnify the pleasure of play.

Returning to a bloodstain, a virtual scar marking the world of Dark Souls is a common enough occurrence. The game’s box announces to the player, “Prepare to Die!”, after all.

Dying is an essential experience in Dark Souls, as it seemingly is in most video games, where an understanding of extra lives and of health bars are an essential part of living in virtual worlds.

However, in most cases in video games, death is relatively inconsequential. It halts progress, might, perhaps, teach a valuable lesson in later strategy or tactics, or may just be a mild irritation on the road to completion.

Death is significant in Limbo as a gameplay mechanic. As the lost soul of a little boy in limbo, Limbo’s world of brutally designed puzzles teaches that little boy through death. Each error in a puzzle frequently leads to spectacular carnage, but it also teaches where to go, where not to go, and mostly how not to approach a puzzle the next time. These deaths are significant in terms of play but inconsequential in terms of concerning one’s self with death itself. In a sense, dying becomes useful, functional, pedagogical.

Dark Souls certainly contains a similar pedagogical element to the experience of dying. Indeed, getting your fragile and already undead character from checkpoint to checkpoint (the bonfires of Dark Souls) frequently requires dying a few times to, perhaps, another undead warrior lurking just outside of your line of sight or survival might depend on knowing that a flaming barrel will come hurtling down at you when you attempt to ascend that next staircase.

However, death in the game is more than significant to play. It is also consequential because your virtual body can suffer loss.

Souls serve as both experience points and as currency in the game world, and on death, souls are “dropped” wherever your body died. This means, of course, that any foray into the world can lead to the loss of whatever progress you have made, since any experience accrued from killing monsters is at risk of total loss. If your “bloodstain” can not be recovered on a second attempt, it and all of the souls (and humanity, another useful collectible for an undead creature) collected to that point will be gone forever.

The tension created by this potential loss is -- for me at least -- extremely reminiscent of playing the first Diable in which the impermanence of the body, a real nod of sorts to mortality itself, likewise created a sense of consequence for poor play and poor judgment (such as deciding to go one more level even if that level clearly looks to be more dangerous than what you can currently handle).

In the original Diablo when a player is killed by monsters, the player's equipment dropped with their body. Players respawn in town essentially naked, stripped of all but their bare attributes, unmodified by the equipment carefully collected to empower their hero. Recovery then is made all the more difficult by having to return to the place of your death quite underpowered. Playing a great deal of Diablo back in the '90s, I have attempted many a body recovery that turned out to be futile. The equipment I had was gone if I could not meet the challenge of clearing a path in a vulnerable state back to my equipment.

Disheartening though this was, playing Diablo was thrilling as a result. One knew when approaching a new level of the dungeon that a bad mistake could mean a potentially character threatening ending. Rebuilding a character's power base (which in Diablo is more related to great loot than great stats) is difficult. Risk in Diablo had a tangible quality because your body and the materials that it housed were not permanent like Pac-Man's (who always recovers as capable as ever) but impermanent and subject to disappearance if a game and body had to be abandoned.

Thus, playing Dark Souls feels like a return to an earlier, more frustrating, but more rewarding era of gaming, in which pleasure was modified and magnified by pain. It also changes the way that one thinks about fighting and most especially how one thinks about dying in the game. When one realizes that one is in trouble, one looks for “good places” to die in the hope that a recovery of ephemeral things like souls are possible.

Sometimes, though, there is no good place. Sometimes death is total, a grim lesson in impermanence and the fragility of the body. In the case of these games, the virtual is as mortal as the real.


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