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.