September 22, 2012 by jesseal
Death is a tricky concept in all media, but the video game is necessarily obsessed with it. This is an inheritance from conventional games; to put it succinctly, somewhere in the spectrum between narrative and non-narrative games, between playing a game and children’s play, the idea of losing – and, necessarily, playing the game again – was inextricably linked with death. That is to say that death is an ontological building block of all games, an idea for which due credit must be given to Freud. Beyond the Pleasure Principle begins with a description of the fort-da game, where a little boy repeatedly throws his toys away (fort) and then makes them reappear (da) (14). To gloss over the entirety of one of the foundational works of psychoanalysis, Freud uses this example as a starting point toward his eventual conceptualization of the two drives: Eros and Thanatos, the life drive and death drive, the ego and libido (Freud 63). To use more pertinent terms, the order-disorder dualism of Eros and Thanatos is the same one unpacked by Caillois between paidia and ludus (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 32). The presence of the death drive and its inherent repetition compulsion within video games often manifests as a fascination with the act of dying – that they are criticized by society at-large as taking the issue too lightly by featuring it so prominently can hardly be helped. However problematic the general brevity of representations of death within video games may be, there are prominent examples where these representations swing to the other end of the spectrum, where death carries enough psychical weight to dilate the fabric of space-time, pausing the forward motion of the game, leaving the character suspended in a state of half-death (undeath?). One outgrowth of this dilation is the “fatality” gameplay feature.
Released in 1992, Mortal Kombat infamously introduced “fatalities”: when the opponent’s health bar is depleted, rather than dying, they appear stunned, and the screen invites the player to “Finish Him/Her.” The player can choose to leave the enemy alone (in which case they collapse), attack them one last time (simply killing them), or execute an often-brutal “fatality move” (90). This feature was met with great controversy, and, along with other similarly ultra-violent game releases, led to Congress creating the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) in 1994 (Egenfeldt-Nielsen 164). From these inauspicious beginnings, “fatalities” were ripped off by a wide range of fighting games throughout the mid-nineties, and have since been subsumed into the video game design repertoire: the Gears of War series implements fatalities largely in their original form as an excuse for gore, and Bioshock alters the feature slightly by giving the player a choice of either harvesting the Little Sisters or rescuing them. Understanding Video Games is purely pragmatic when describing this phenomenon; at the time of Mortal Kombat’s release, Sega was looking to distinguish itself from Nintendo as more adult-oriented. While this is certainly true of its origins, there is more to the idea that lends to its staying power – as revealed to us in particular by Bioshock’s variation on the theme.
The paidiac joy we find when playing a game can unpredictably morph into a desire to gaze into the face of death, transfixed by the chaos of Thanatos – that is, to embrace death and stare into the eyes of Medusa. This gaze carries both a spatial and temporal dimension, which can be unpacked with the narratologist and ludologist toolkits. From the perspective of narratology in Mortal Kombat, the spatial dimensions of this half-death – the over-the-top gore and perverse humor of it all – take a voyeuristic slant, an unhealthy fascination with corpses and our own corporeality. There is no escape from the clear intention here, and the problematic implications of such graphic violence have been discussed extensively in newspapers and at dinner tables. From the perspective of ludology, however, the temporal dimension is more ambiguous. The very moment of death in the gameplay has already passed and cannot be undone; the health bar has reached zero, no more action is actually required to “Finish Him.” As Freud points out, death is the goal of all games, Mortal Kombat included, so what then is to be made of the option to continue pressing buttons after this goal has been achieved? From the ludic perspective, this temporal location exists completely outside of the rules of the game. In this time, there is no ludus; the game’s structure stands paralyzed, turned to stone from gazing deep into Medusa’s deathly eyes. Here we find only paidia in its purest form: an ellipsis, a caesura, a grand pause, an inner magic circle within the larger magic circle of the game. The player may choose mercy, either while elongating this pause through inaction or terminating it through a simple press of a button, or judgment, placing an emphatic coda on the undead enemy.
This is not meant as an apologetic, merely a deconstruction. The issues of gore and hyperviolence brought to the fore in Mortal Kombat are troubling at best and damning at worst. However, the actual gameplay feature of the “fatality,” and the dilation and expansion of the moment of death unlocked therein, provides a sufficiently ambiguous ludological model to carry more nuanced revelations of the connection between the death drive and video games.
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961. Print.
Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Simon, et al. Understanding Video Games. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.