“A Game of Chess”: ‘Breath of Death’ Is ‘The Waste Land’ of Video Games

In the wake of the Great War and a Spanish flu epidemic, T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land with considerable help from his friend and mentor, Ezra Pound. Ostensibly, The Waste Land is a shell-shocked reaction to the spreading wars and disease that would define much of the twentieth century. But beyond that, The Waste Land is also a poem about poetry. Along with the literal ruins left by the First World War, Eliot and many other high modernists felt that culture itself was in ruins — that art, thought, and history were being destroyed.

Nearly every line in The Waste Land is a reference to a classical text from the European, the Indian, the Chinese, Biblical, or the ancient Roman heritage. The poem switches perspectives and languages frequently and without warning, and Eliot’s footnotes are a separate, parallel poem that is often intentionally misleading. The Waste Land is a logistical nightmare, spiraling through numerous histories, miming and parodying lines and legends that frequently disorient and frustrate its reader. Combing through the lines of The Waste Land is combing through the wreckage of a thousand years of writing, uprooted and discarded in a way that must mean something.

In part, the wasteland of The Waste Land is high culture. It’s the sprawling tradition of genius texts that have been shredded and strewn about by an increasingly shallow popular culture. T.S. Eliot would have hated video games.

In April of 2010, William Stiernberg and Robert Boyd, known together as Zeboyd Games, released Breath of Death VII: The Beginning on Xbox Live Arcade. Breath of Death is The Waste Land of video games. It is morsels of early (particularly role-playing) console games selectively realigned to make a new game that is as much a celebration of its genre’s history as it is a new entry in it. It is designed in a similar spirit as The Waste Land. Of course, the references in The Waste Land span centuries whereas those of Breath of Death can only span decades, and it seems doubtful that Zeboyd Games created their game with T.S. Eliot in mind. Still, both texts make direct use and reuse of their histories in crafting something new. The important difference between them is that The Waste Land is a eulogy for something that largely only the educated elite could mourn whereas Breath of Death is a celebration of its ancestors left open for anyone to enjoy.

The opening cutscene of Breath of Death is composed of 8-bit stills set to the familiar catastrophic bleeps and bloops of NES-era melodies. In eleven sentences of exposition — each hovering around six words — there is a reference to Mega Man, Fallout 3, and (appropriately) the video game classic, Wasteland. When the game gets underway, the player is inundated with nods from the past: towns are portmanteaus of classic JRPG titles, NPCs chirp one-liners from iconic characters, enemies are modeled after easily recognized designs from previous generations, and even the title is an amalgamation of established conventions. However, like Eliot’s poem, the game is not a cluster of arbitrary references. It serves a purpose.

The Waste Land is a barren landscape of poetry, an inert series of references buried in the poem’s lines that the reader must be familiar with in order to link to Eliot’s work, bringing them back to life only with time and patience. Breath of Death is alive with the animated corpses of a “low” art. The game takes place after an apocalyptic nuclear war when all life on Earth is extinguished and the dead rise and form their own peaceful society. The world is a literal wasteland, corrupted by nuclear fallout. But this isn’t a story of bleak survival. The world is inhabited by a population of pleasant undead, after all. Instead, it’s a story of celebrating the dead rather than mourning them.

The main cast is a group of revenants, walking dead occupying a “dead” genre. Reading the rhetoric around the Japanese RPG, there is a sense that the narrative-heavy JRPG is a “lost art” that games have left behind. It’s appropriate, then, that a game exhuming the genre’s corpses is also one about the walking dead finding novelty and peace in its wreckage. Furthermore, the entire point of the characters’ adventure is to learn more about their world’s history, the outright stated goal of the game is to seek answers in the past. The approach to everything in Breath of Death is retrospective.

Breath of Death VII: The Beginning, is not a sequel, there are no previous six in a series, but it is a part of an established tradition. As mentioned, Breath of Death’s original release was on the Indie Games market of the Xbox Live Arcade. Importantly, the Xbox 360 is one of three consoles occupying the seventh console generation. The previous six generations are the history alluded to in the game’s title while The Beginning suggests a pursuit of newness in the context of so much history. It is composed with the dual objectives of rejoicing in past work in the genre while pursuing something new.

Eliot’s purpose in writing The Waste Land was to lament the loss of all the writing that came before him. In some sense, the reader must earn an understanding of The Waste Land by becoming familiar with centuries of texts. An exceptional editor is useful in unraveling the poem’s allusions but is just as likely to paralyze the reader with recommended further readings. The inaccessibility of the poem leads to a sense of Eliot and Pound possessing a kind of signature smugness, leaving one with the feeling that if you don’t know the history behind The Waste Land, you don’t deserve to understand it. Breath of Death doesn’t take this approach.

Both texts draw on their respective histories to achieve very different things. While The Waste Land simultaneous mourns the loss of its tradition, just as it guards it behind veiled references, Breath of Death VII: The Beginning relishes in its own goofiness. It participates in its own joke while unabashedly enjoying itself. Moreover, unlike The Waste Land, Breath of Death is able to be perceived as something beautiful to someone that doesn’t “get” all the references that make up the experience.