Videogames tend to have the most wonderfully optimistic approach to issues of mortality. From the coin-op continue with its underhanded suggestion that your continued existence is no more than a matter of sliding death a quick buck under the countertop, to the checkpoint reincarnation making amends like a beleaguered kid being consoled on grandma’s lap after inadvisedly stumbling onto a schoolyard bully’s turf, Death, the mighty and dreadful, the destroyer of worlds, has become alternatively a capitalist hack selling an opt out clause to all bidders against the doling out of his namesake, and an avuncular slapper of wrists. But Death has had enough. Death is not your bitch. He’s here to reclaim what’s his; and that something is no more or less than an adequately sized stake in your gaming habits.
Integrating themes of mortality in a serious, considered way is never an easy task for a medium that’s historically been centered on power trips and wish fulfilment. The games that try are often confronted with a choice between shoehorning their innovations into pre-existing game types, and creating something entirely unique from the ground up. The latter is likely going to be the result of slow sea change in design habits, rather than a single game overhauling the way we look at the medium. What we’re usually left with, then, are subversive portmanteaus of design that predate on unwary player assumptions about the nature of the game, and subtly or otherwise, pull the ground out from beneath their feet.
Almost as soon as it begins, The Banner Saga thrusts both protagonists Rook and Hakon into a situation where someone died and made them king. An alliance between men and the giant varl is the result of generations of warfare against the animate stone foes of the north. Waves of armoured black, pursuing dredge are the circumstance, a caravan full of weary, starving clansmen, women and children accompanied by a dwarfed proportion of fighters, are your protectorate. Kings, chieftains and gods are in absentia as you march past desolate rural settlements. Massacred populations everywhere; anomie looms. You fly by the seat of your embroidered chaps, into the stormy, godless gray. The nature of the game is twofold. A cross country trek between godstones – colossal monoliths dedicated to the game’s dead deities – with the end goal of reaching safety, such as it is, paired with turn based battles when confronted with your many enemies on the way, be they opportunistic humans and varl, or the unknowable dredge. While the turn based sections impart one message – that your heroes are unassailable; they can be downed or injured, but not slain – the overarching exodus conveys another. As you travel across the landscape, you’ll have to contend with the size of your caravan against the quantity of your supplies; the relationship between your supplies and the luxury of rest between cities; the association between all of these and your heroes’ morale, as well as the direct ties between their morale and their effectiveness in combat. No sooner than you understand, in theory, the implications of these relationships, you’re confronted with the incidental choices you must make on your path. An isolated band of bedraggled men and women might meet you on your way, begging to join your company. With no prescience of possible consequences, and dwindling food, do you take on these unknowns and cater to the demands of sustaining a growing population? Or do you ignore them, erring on the side of risk management, and dealing pragmatically with the realities thrust into the forefront of your previously naive pastoral life?
The lack of transparency and, at times, the complete opacity in the relationship between decision and consequence, make death a lurking presence, cutting away steady swathes of your men and your morale. And these losses aren’t kept to the many nameless men and women in your charge, they extend to your heroes – the units you take into battle – too. You can lose a good soldier who stands in the way as a titanic dredge makes a beeline for your daughter, because you insisted on lurking in a besieged town for too long. Or lose a hulking varl who’d cut down three dredge in one swoop, when a cart full of gold topples over a precipice, and you were too stubborn to command him to let go. So the relief you feel as you pile into Boersgard – the game’s final city – with no food, no morale and a weary band of injured and impaired heroes is the emotion the entire game was set up to extort from you, as day by day, on the final leg of your journey you see your clansmen and fighters dwindling, crippled by starvation. The impression the game creates of death is of a transient and opportunistic force. When you’re facing head-on walls of its agents in battle, you can ususally expect to be victorious, but in the quiet hours there’s no foreseeing the ways it might conspire to slip in unseen between the plates of your armour, or the withered constitutions of your clansmen.
Dark Souls on the other hand, is a game of a different sort entirely. Playing it is often very much like the chess game in The Seventh Seal. The bargain struck; “if I show you what for at this carnival of the macabre, Death, you’ve got to stop peeking over my shoulder.” In this case though, the player character is a gender ambiguous ghoul with an unspecified motor neuron disease, liable to tumble off a cliff at the slightest provocation, and Death is Garry Kasparov with a prankster’s eye for world design. Your fumbling fatalities are the inevitable consequence when the two collide.
Death flashes its grim rictus at you from all conceivable approaches. Its imminence mediates the player’s relationship to the environment at every turn. It infuses every uneasy twitch of the analog stick with a degree of trepidation, and creates a reluctance to celebrate the toppling of even the weightiest challenges until sitting before the temporary safety of a bonfire, for fear that the uneasy circumstances of one’s victory might be irreproducible. Because along with the frequent and imaginative means to mete out the player’s demise, is instituted a system of reincarnation wherein every antagonist you’ve slain, save for bosses, is there for the ride, meaning that taking a fatal blow, or carelessly shuffling off a precarious perch, results in a fate fit for a Buddhist hell: Endless reconstitution tethered to your enemies and their petty antagonisms, unless you give up and admit absolute, abject defeat, or achieve a meditated perfection to the routes between bonfires the spatial equivalent of Bill Murray’s final recitation in a particular repeating temporal nightmare. Anyone, for example, whose forays into Sen’s Fortress have been repeatedly foiled by an obstacle course involving serpent-headed monstrosities, swinging blades, giant boulder traps and rail thin walkways that overlook one’s inevitable doom, can attest to this. You are out maneuvered at every turn, yet it never feels like you’re cheated, only that the game caught you the second you let your attention slip. Anyone who’s had to deal with tossed lightning and the pummeling gavel of Ornstein and Smaugh, knows all too well: The only way to keep on keeping on, is to be unfatigueable in mind, unshakeable in resolve and perhaps to have more real world time to kill than an ordinary human lifespan can bestow. I suppose that’s as apt a way to interpret the game as any; the only way to move consistently between bonfires, and from microcosmic hell to hell, until you reach your final destination, is to offer your own flickering humanity to the game’s unwavering demands.
But the abjection caused by the game’s frequent rebuffs is mirrored by its occasional elations. As a consequence, every battle won feels like an accomplishment. The effervescing figure of a boss after you strike the final blow is as satisfying as any feat in gaming – you don’t just kill your enemies in Dark Souls; you master, slay and smite them. Kill is too bland a verb. The game teaches you a respect for death, both because of the fastidiousness required to keep it from you, and the knowledge of your enemies required to wield it against them.