Death Becomes Him

Alright, so my _permadeath (is it an official term with an official usage?) playing _Metro 2033 came to an end the other day. I’ve taken a couple of days to reflect on it to see whether anything more came of it as an experience, but… not really. (See also: Gordon Calleja’s blog, where he’ll no doubt relate his own experience with the same scenario.)

The playthrough involved starting up the game, setting it on “Normal” difficulty, and then getting down to the tough work of killing mutant dog things and being depressed by the sad state of humanity. And doing that until I died. I was pretty confident it wouldn’t take me too long to die, since I’m no hotshot with shooters generally, and even less so on a console. True to form, I did die soon enough.

Perhaps the most paradoxically disappointing thing about the permadeath effect is that it was so very predictable. Yes, indeed, I agonised over which gun to buy because I’d need it to protect me. I was indeed very scared when I was out of the “civilised” bits of the game world and thus open to attack from the things out there. The firefights were super intense because I really didn’t want to die. Only one life to live and all that.

But that’s all exactly what you’d anticipate a permadeath playing would be like. A more intense version of the normal game because you have a greater aversion to your death. And of course this means that your levels of affect are probably more in keeping with the action transpiring in the game itself. When you know you can “really” die, you take getting shot, mauled, and surprised very seriously, you treasure your moments of comparative safety and so on. Just like a good post-apocalyptic citizen would.

Which is all to say that playing these games with a permadeath mindset feels like it gets you closer to the “true” experience of the game world, and that’s very nice, but it didn’t feel terribly revealing, at least to me. The one really notable “bright spot” for me was my actual death. Naturally the very event of dying was invested with a heightened intensity because that’s the end of the line, but the nature of the death was, I think, special.

Specifically, I died because a surge of mutant dog things attacked me . None of them killed me directly, though. Instead, in the course of the fight – which was extremely terrifying – one of them broke my gas mask. I killed the last dog and then, with a broken mask, started to choke to death in the poisonous air of the “top side” street level of the city. I stumbled out into the open, onto a broken street, under a grim grey sky, completely alone. And then, helplessly, I collapsed to the ground.

The game asked me if I wanted to restore from a previous checkpoint, and I said “no.” That moment of aloneness in an uncaring world felt special and real in a way that most action-packed moments don’t in video games. Further, the pathetic nature of choking to death on a deserted street had that level of poignancy I treasure in playing a game. It wasn’t a traditionally brave or heroic or “fierce” way to go – it seems to me more like the way that people really die in these settings. For want of a gas mask.

Permadeath gave me the chance to “sit with” that moment, rather than hastily restore to an earlier point in time. In that sense, it restored a kind of dignity to video game death that I think is valuable. There are the obvious corollaries that we value our video game life more sincerely, but I think that the chance to value our own death is even better.

I think the Buddha might even approve.

8 February 2011
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