'no one has to die' Tells the Story of Death in Video Games

The magic of video games is that save points, continues, and respawns offer the promise of inevitable resurrection, an unending experience even after we have lost all three of our lives.

As is the case with life, the problem with early arcade games was that eventually you have to die. Be it Pac-Man, Frogger, or Donkey Kong, early single player gaming experiences had no win-state, only a fail-state. These games were largely feats of endurance, efforts to rack up points, before an inevitable and expected failure. Of course, I've addressed this idea before in other writings ("Pac-Man Will Die: Cynicism and Retro Game 'Endings'”, PopMatters, 28 July 2010).

One could, of course, compare one's “more successful” failure to others' failures on High Score screens on which one could enter one's initials at the end of a session, but even those score boards were transient, as scores would be erased when a machine was turned off. Games were measured in lives, and multiple deaths were the way in which they ultimately ended.

In no one has to die, a flash game designed by Stuart Madafiglio, despite its title, the inevitability of death to complete a video game becomes not only a mechanic, but the game's central theme.

The game itself is quite simple and minimal. The player takes on the role of a visitor to the Fenix Corporation Headquarters, a facility where a fire has broken out and a number of employees are in harms way of both the fire itself and of drowning in the waters that can be released into the facility to contain the fire. The game is a puzzle game, in which, following some dialogue that suggests at the motives and personalities of these employees, a puzzle must be solved that concerns locking down doors and using water valves to flood the facility to contain the fire. In each instance of the puzzle, only one character of two can be saved given the options available for flooding the facility and locking down fire doors. Someone will burn or drown for the puzzle to be solved.

Essentially, the game is a series of puzzles with moral quandries at their heart. There is always multiple ways to solve each puzzle, but that someone will have to die and who that should be determines how one proceeds.

Thus, the game seems more “modern” in a sense, since it can be solved and it offers choice as a central motivator to play. There are four characters to save in the game and always three puzzles to solve. As a result, someone can walk out alive at the end. However, three lives will always be lost. This seems an appropriate enough number given that three lives are the typical number of chances allowed by early video games to squander before an eventual “ending” -- the player's failure.

Of course, also, in a sense, then, every possible outcome of no one has to die is inevitably going to on some level be a “bad ending.” For one to live and for the player to be a success, bodies must fall, lives must be lost. In that sense and at first blush, then, it does seem that no one has to die speaks to the notion that play is always marked by loss and measured by loss. It is only the execution, the choices made, the way that one plays that matters in terms of evaluating the outcome of play.

Indeed, no one has to die seems to tease at this notion on its opening screen, which merely contains an image of all four characters (three of whom will be sacrificial lambs before the player is done with the game) and a flow chart that maps downwards assumedly marking what outcomes might occur as the number of lives is whittled down to one.

What with save points, continues, and respawns, modern video games really lack any sort of fail-state at all (that is, besides quitting). Success is inevitable for anyone with the perseverance to retry when they fail. In that sense, no one has to die is a thoroughly modern game, as it cleverly addresses the loss of lives and integrates it into a necessary win-state.

When one game is completed, the Game Over screen always suggests that the full mystery of who set the fire, what the Fenix Corporation's business is, and the personal agendas of all these characters cannot be fully revealed through the choices that the player has made this time. Thus, the game resets itself, asking the player to make different choices the next time – to complete the flow chart. It acknowledges that with each death comes a loss of perspective, a loss of what one of the characters would have said or done if they had been the one to survive as opposed to another. Thus, its mystery can't be understood unless the player explores and completes all possible outcomes and choices.

Modern games seem to want to focus us on such choices in gameplay, as if they are the only thing that matters in the game. You can't lose, so “your own” choices become markers of how you have come to shape your version of a story that you will inevitably win. Thus, it is the player's story that seemingly matters, how he or she decides to shape an experience. Thus, it is particularly interesting that after the full flow chart is laid out, a chart that gives the illusion of a multilinear story and interactive experience, that the game resolves in a single linear set of puzzles in which all of the characters can (and must be saved) in order to finish the game and the story. “Our paths” become a single story that Madafiglio wants to tell.

Much death must occur to get there, but put simply, all of those choices matter little when the truth is that no has to die. After all, that is the magic of video games, save points, continues, respawns, and the promise of inevitable resurrection -- a promise very much explored in a game whose story concerns time travel, do-overs, and, well, the image of the phoenix -- are the grand illusion that games offer to the player through a “multi-pathed” interactive narrative experience.

Unlike in life, in modern video gaming experiences is the promise and the inevitability of immortality. No one ever has to die in this medium. Or so the story now goes.

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