Category Archives: Video games

Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Videogame Characters

Death by a thousand pixels

Two nights ago, I noticed that my boys, ages 10 and 13, looked—there is no other word for it—depressed.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about their obsession with/addiction to Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including this: “for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life.  Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum.”  But they didn’t look happy now.  My younger son should have been especially happy, because my older son had helped him beat a tough part, much to my chagrin—I’ve told them repeatedly that they should not play each other’s turns or games, since the playing, not the winning, was the point.  You wouldn’t ask someone to eat your ice cream for you.  They persisted anyway.

But now, they weren’t down because they had lost.

They were down because they won. It turns out that they beat the game. 

And with that victory, a kind of defeat: my doctorate of philosophy calls for a diagnosis of Existential Crisis, one that usually doesn’t set in for another few years, the nagging, gnawing, corrosive question that sets in at adolescence and, in some cases, never ceases: Is That All There Is?

It turns out that once you get to the last level, beat the last villain (in video game parlance, “Boss,” which seems weirdly Marxist to me), and rescue Zelda, the credits roll (Dear Fellow Old People: video games have credits), and play simply starts over at the beginning again. 

I asked them: what did you think would happen?  The point of the game was, as always, to kill monsters, beat bosses, acquire money (“Rupees,” which seems weirdly Asian Subcontinent), and move one level closer to finding Zelda.  It couldn’t go on forever, could it?  Did they think victory would reveal a secret code for a secret club or secret game? That a crisp $20 bill would pop out of the Wii? No, but—and here I paraphrase—they didn’t think that winning the game would feel so much like losing it.  Not just emotionally—really, all that happens after you win is that you go back to where you started, same as when you lose.

For all the scholars who suggest that video games are texts ripe for analysis, or that they even surpass more conventional narratives like stories thanks to their interactivity and player control, the end of the video game seems very different to me from the ending of a story.  As Walter Benjamin says in “The Storyteller,” readers intuitively understand all of life through the end of the story, which represents a kind of death, or through the actual death of a character:

The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the “meaning” of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

In other words, as human beings we can never understand the full significance of our own lives, because we must live them, from our perspective, and can’t reflect on our own ending, because we’re, ya know, dead.  But we can contemplate the full life, objectively, of a fictional character, because the beginning and end of the story delineate the full beginning and end of their existence.  And so through fiction—the figurative deaths that are stories and the more real but still fictional deaths of characters, we may understand something big—Death!—that, by its very nature, eludes our grasp, and therefore we may take comfort. As Benjamin concludes, “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” It’s uplifting.  Really.  So we think that we’re sad when our favorite characters die or our favorite stories end, but we also, on another level, feel good, or, if you’re Aristotle, experience catharsis, a purging of the bad emotions, once you’re through.

Or, as Frank Kermode understood it, narrative endings are not only dress rehearsals for death, but they are inextricably linked to our apocalyptic sensibilities: “Fictions,” Kermode says, “whose ends are consonant with origins satisfy our needs.”  The conventions of story itself dictate a beginning and an ending; for every “Once upon a time,” a “Happily ever after.” He goes on to suggest that “one has to think of an ordered series of events which ends, not in a great New Year, but in a final Sabbath.”  Or a Black Sabbath, if you’re not feeling particularly rapturous.  Kermode relates the endings of all stories to the endings of all things: narrative endings as death, but also death as a narrative ending, “the End is a fact of life and a fact of the imagination.”

But video games seem not to provide Benjamin’s comfort, Aristotle’s catharsis, or Kermode’s closure at all.   There is no Once Upon a Time or Happily Ever After, only the grim, relentless Middle—just like our own real lives.  As I wrote in the other blog, main character Link looks and seems a lot like Peter Pan. But it’s not just the pointy ears and pointy weapons, the green clothes, or the shock of hair.  Like all video game characters, and like Peter Pan, Link is, for all intents and purposes, immortal and eternally youthful.  You could make the same case, I guess, for all fictional characters—that they revert to being alive and young when you start the book or movie again.  But that’s symbolic.  Thanks to endless “lives”—the word gamers use—and concomitant reincarnation (a word no one uses) with each reset or replay, Link lives, and dies, again and again and again.  As a father, I find no sentence weighs heavier on my heart than when one of the boys tells me, when their game time is over, that “I’ll just play until I die.”  He’d like that, I suppose.  The shift to first person—“I” die, not “Link dies” or even “my game ends”—makes clear that the games are about defying death, but they also focus relentlessly, discordantly, on death itself.

You thought you had it rough?

But if Link cannot ever die, if there is no final level—since the thing resets ad infinitum—no sense of an ending, then it feels like there is also no point.  The Onion, as always, gets it hilariously right: “Video-Game Character Wondering Why Heartless God Always Chooses ‘Continue’”:  “ORANGEBURG, SC–Solid Snake, tactical-espionage expert and star of PlayStation’s ‘Metal Gear Solid,’ questioned the nature of the universe Monday when, moments after his 11th death in two hours, a cruel God forced him to ‘Continue’ his earthly toil and suffering.”  In the end, “God,” of course, is revealed to be “Orangeburg 11-year-old Brandon MacElwee,” who “offered no comment on His greater plan for Snake, saying He was ‘too busy trying to get to the part with the knife-throwing Russian girl.’” 

But players realize that they are not gods, or God, and that the never-ending levels and never-ending deaths in video games provide a different, cautionary lesson than those in stories: the ironic moral that there is more to life than acquiring points and money, more to existence than merely getting to the next level.  And I said this to the boys, concluding that “this is why I don’t let you play the hard parts for each other.  All you’re doing is speeding up the end, and it’s the playing  itself that’s supposed to be the fun part.” 

With that, my ten-year old looked at me, eyes bright and wide, and said, “I understand now.”

Time: It looked like I was gonna finish in 50 minutes, but then I decided I wanted to find the Benjamin and Kermode quotes that you probably didn’t read anyway, which took me overtime to 75 minutes.  I’ll finish faster the next time I play.

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Our Zombies, Ourselves



This is me on zombie

“Peak oil”:  the point at which the world’s oil supplies go into irreversible decline (from Financial Times Lexicon ) 

I’m not expert enough to decide if peak oil is simply a depressing fact or a myth needing to be debunked.   But I will say this: we may have reached the point of Peak Zombie. 

“The Walking Dead” on TV; Zone One by Colson Whitehead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in books; The New York Times dividing the world into figurative zombies and vampires, as though Myers-Briggs can now add a Z/V to its inventory of personality dichotomies. 

At the movies, beyond the Final Destinations and the 28 Days and the multiple reanimated George Romeros, even a movie like Contagion is a quasi-zombie movie sans actual zombies, Pirates of the Caribbean a de facto zombie movie even if the thing you remember is Johnny Depp’s larf an’ teef.  You’ll be relieved to know that there is a Zombie Movie Database, so you can look up, say, Klown Kamp Massacre, to say nothing of the thousands of other zombie websites, including this one, that I used to zombify myself (apparently it’s a transitive verb) for the swell pic above.

Exhilarating, yes, but there’s a dark side: we’re in desperate danger, not from zombies, or in running from zombies, but from running out of zombies. Too many years of drilling already-limited and well-mined material must lead to irreversible decline. 

So why zombies, and why now?  There’s not a single answer. In fact, I believe that zombies have overrun the cultural landscape because all of the explanations have infected and colluded with each other, creating the conditions for the perfect storm of zombies.

Consumerism: This was Romero’s earliest hobbyhorse, with his mall zombies interchangeable with its usual clientele, later perfectly depicted in Shawn’s, of Shawn of the Dead, inability to tell the difference between the zombies and his usual  neighbors (“She’s so drunk!”).  Zombies are like holiday shoppers: thoughtless, impulsive, unselfconscious malcontents driven by the basest instinct to do nothing but seek the next object of consumption.  It’s hard to question one’s own consumption, but easy to pick on zombie’s fixes.  Certainly Zombieland presents the post-apocalyptic world as one in which the survivors can raid any car or house—or just trash a souvenir shop—because, well, there’s no on left, so why not?

Globalization’s literal and metaphorical infectiousness: Look at the recurring zombie motifs: pandemics, undocumented movements of people across quarantines and borders, the possibility of infiltration by the dangerously infected or affected: zombies are a perfect proxy for the fear of insecure boundaries of every kind.  (I wrote about this in much greater detail here.) Compare zombies to Frankenstein’s monster.  As a reanimated corpse, F’s M was a proto-zombie, but badder:  seven feet tall, intelligent, super strong, super agile, impervious to bullets, frost, and fire.  (Go read your Shelley and stop Whale watching if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)  But F’s M wasn’t CONTAGIOUS!  His whole hangup was that he was the only one of his kind. Zombies don’t have that hangup.  They don’t have any hangups.

Technology: Back in the day, zombies were created by magic. But for a few decades they’ve been formed by radioactivity and viruses, especially scientifically engineered viruses and bio-weapons.  And the solutions tend to be old school and low tech: baseball bats, bludgeons, and medieval style-weaponry.  Many movies—and World War Z and Zombie Survival Guide—specifically suggest that hand to head weapons are more effective than guns and projectiles.  How many times have you tried to solve your tech problem by whacking something—and it worked? 

Apocalypse: 2000, 2001, 2012: the end has been near for some time now.  And who better to bring about the end than zombies?  But each version in its own way allows us to rehearse the end one more time, so if or when it ever arrives, we’re better prepared.  Scared of the end of the world?  Anyone who doesn’t know how to respond to the apocalypse has no one but himself to blame at this point.  You’ve had practice. You’ve been warned.

Political and racial polarization: People who don’t think and just merge with the hordes are considered zombies.  Unfortunately, it’s only people who are opposite one’s own political preference that confers the brainless, conformist zombie label.  For conservatives, it’s Obama Zombies; for liberals, it’s Republican Zombie Defense online game (apparently removed).  Anyone who doesn’t agree with you must be a zombie. The Obama Zombie label, though, seems to have been far more used, possibly thanks to its assonance and consonance. But it also has an undertone of racism—the word and concept were Haitian, derived from Africa, which is why the old Bela Legosi movie was White Zombie. Until then, the assumption was that zombies were black—another latent fear of globalization, porous borders, and those different from one’s self.  Max Brooks nods to this origin in World War Z, and Romero has always been interested in the relationships between zombies and race as well.


If you add the last five reasons up, you get this:

 Permission for violence: in film after film and game after game, you see an unambiguous, unmitigated invitation to unself-conscious carnage.  There’s no diplomatic solution, no treaties, no peaceful protest possible.  There’s no Occupy Zombieland movement.  There are only blows to the head or else your brains are eaten.  Zombies may be dead, but unlike Frankenstein’s monster, they’re beyond sympathy, and unlike vampires, no one actually wants to be one.  Ever. 

Which leads us to the last factor:

Twilight ruined vampires for a while.  So zombies it is.  So if being a vampire means being all emo and sparkly and not getting to do anything cool and spending the rest of your life in high school and the best part is like climbing trees or playing baseball—crap you can do without being dead—then maybe we don’t want to be vampires anymore anyway.  And part of the allure of the monster is its Otherness, the ways in which it simultaneously both is and isn’t like a person.  But once the vampire becomes the object of conscious and able-to-be-consummated desire, it loses its taboo allure.  But as of right now at least, no teenage girl fantasizes about marrying a zombie.  Zombies, unlike the Cullens, remain Other, but an Other so close to the original as to be terrifying rather than potentially enticing, the Uncanny Valley of Monsters.

Of course I could be wrong.  I would have thought we’d reached Peak Zombie in 2006.   In his book Understanding Movies, Louis Giannetti says that all film genres begin with a primitive stage, move into a classical stage, see a revisionist stage, and end in a parodic stage.  It seems clear enough that White Zombie is primitive; Dawn of the Dead is classical; I Am Legend, with Will Smith and Hollywood production values, is revisionist; and Shawn of the Dead is parodic. Yet here we are, with zombies more popular than ever.  

But all that could change.  Or if we have not reached peak zombie, it’s because we have yet to see the Twilight-ization of the zombie genre; striving to see, and love, what remains human in the zombie is still relatively untapped (unless you count the end of Shaun of the Dead).  The one place I’ve seen an attempt to humanize the zombie is the trailer for the video game “Dead Island,” which is more emotionally affective than a trailer for a zombie video game has any right to be [warning: graphic violence]:

Notice how, through its Memento-esque backwards chronology, we see a chilling reminder, one that even a taut, literary thriller like Zone One is afraid to depict: that if we see ourselves in zombies, it is because we are already always potential zombies, and zombies are already us.  Perhaps, then, zombies offer a sustainable, renewable resource, and though the era of the zombie may peak and then ebb, it will not run out after all. 

So sleep well, knowing that zombies may be around for a long time to come.  

Time: 90 minutes!  Gaa. Fourth entry and I’ve already broken my rule.  I did waste 10 minutes looking for, reading, adding, and deleting links about peak oil, though.  Then another 10 minutes to zombify my picture.  It also took me about 10 minutes to remember which video game trailer I wanted.  So it’s sort of an hour.  The funny thing is, this was supposed to be a review of Whitehead’s Zone One. Another time.

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