It was a mistake starting up a playthrough of Atlus’ Devil Survivor 2 a mere two hours after completing Papo & Yo.
I had just left a world based on the experiences of a child growing up in an alcoholic household. It was a difficult game to play. No…it’s more appropriate to say that it was a difficult experience, an opportunity to peek into an experience born of a personal chapter in the creator’s life. I fully expected to finish Papo & Yo – a game in which a young boy escapes into a fantasy world while hiding from his abusive, alcoholic father in the real world – in one session, but instead, it took me days due to the nature of the content. Every time I picked the controller back up, I would draw a breath, filled with a strange sort of anxiety.
There were times when I had control of Quico, the child hero in Papo & Yo, that I became terrified. In Quico’s exploration of the fantasy world, he meets a creature named Monster. At first, Monster is seemingly harmless, and even helpful in furthering Quico’s exploration. It is soon discovered that Monster’s consumption of poisonous frogs in the game caused the creature to become violent, which resulted in his violent actions directed at Quico. Being in the same space as Monster often gave me pause when thinking aout how to proceed. Even in those moments when I had to use a Monster to get to a ledge that was unattainable on my own, I hesitated to get close. When Monster was peacefully eating a coconut, I moved Quico cautiously around him. When Quico was caught by an enraged Monster, I did more than cringe. Quico’s screams weren’t merely a tool to evoke emotion- the sound of his screams and the sight of his body being flung around like a rag doll made me wince. To say I felt terrible every time he got caught is an understatement. In those moments, I felt I had failed Quico, sickened by the consequences given the personal nature of the narrative upon which Papo & Yo was based, and the abusive, alcoholic father that Monster represented.
And so, when I entered the world of Devil Survivor 2 that began with two high school students having a nonchalant discussion about death, I found it troubling.
Here was Devil Survivor 2’s Daichi Shijima, one of the students in the aforementioned discussion and later a member of your RPG party in the game, supporting a lackadaisical and sensationalized attitude to a person’s end. He hungered to see an end to a life (even if he brushed it off as a rumor).
Somewhere within the interaction was an intended commentary on gruesome death portrayals and the need to see these images. Daichi’s human condition willed him to talk freely and with a certain excitable tone about a car crash in which one of his classmates was going to be killed. There was also the matter of being able to easily access them, readily available with just a notification and a click of a button.
Immediately, familiar questions swirled in my mind, thoughts such as: We do not and should not live in a bubble where we are shielded from harsher truths, but why is the desire to see a ‘trainwreck’ so strong? Do images of violent death need to be blazoned everywhere to draw our attention? Is this what we crave? Are these images distasteful? Disrespectful? The ever so often asked question remained: are “we” desensitized to all these manners of violence?
In the first few moments of the game, your character is introduced to Nicaea. Nicaea is a mysterious website that uploads videos of the others’ deaths moments before they happen, which would then be broadcast to everyone signed up for the site. Disturbingly, it seemed as though Final Destination style deaths of the extreme- the most raw and visually gruesome- were the only ones worth talking about as ‘gripping entertainment.’ The vision of future deaths were images of mangled bodies in the aftermath of their violent end.
Nicaea, to me, was portrayed as a tool that demonstrated that the videos and people’s reactions to them were no different than people having trouble looking away when a car accident occurs. No different than the endless shows about real life murders, or cop procedurals that populate our television and excel in the ratings. Hell, I watch them. There’s always a whodunit aspect that is far more intriguing than the actual deaths. Who can deny that murder mysteries sell more than news about the death of a person who had died from natural causes?
The certain, somewhat morbid excitement of viewing deaths and wanting to know how it happened (and if it would actually happen) was in play in Devil Survivor 2. It was in Daichi’s curious nature and approach to death as just another thing that happens, brushed off, desensitized and scarily desired until of course, he was presented with the video of his own horrific end.
Even for sprites, the pixelation of carnage was brutally honest; stark grey metal of a mangled train lay in dark subway tunnels, tiny pixelated bodies laying in pools of red, faces with closed eyes, lumps of former life, an arm strategically placed out of a broken window.
Atlus games never shy away from the gruesome and human nature to be drawn to death in violent ways. The games also pose moral scenarios in their narratives, at times through showing characters’ questioning their life’s worth by placing them in situations where they are faced with asking if death should be so easily accepted whether by their own hands or at the hands of others.
As the game progressed, the reality of death affecting many of the characters on a personal level caused them to decide to challenge fate. It taught some of them to not take death so lightly. It reminded me that I, too, am guilty of thinking of death at times in a sort of lighthearted fashion or not at all.
It reminded me that I am guilty of misusing the phrase, “I died,” when it comes to gaming.
I’ve always found it fascinating that for reasons of finality that death connotates, my use of language has me throwing those words around to describe failure at any game.
Did the time run out before I got to the flagpole in Mario? No. I died.
Did one Pokémon defeat my Trainer’s resulting in the defeat of my Pokémon as it fainted? As much as you tell me it fainted, my Pokémon died.
Did the Tetris blocks get stacked too high leading to the game over screen? Nope. I will tell you again that I died.
In those handful of examples, there’s no need for me to describe my failure at beating a particular game’s level in a such a manner. Granted Mario does lose ‘lives’ when the time runs out, but he has more lives left. Then again, and this is true of games in general, there’s the simple reset button. There’s leveling up and trying again. There’s a last save point. There are other words to describe defeat. There’s usually no absolute death for one of your heroes (not counting scripted deaths that are a part of a narrative).
Why can I just not say, “I lost”?
Trying to correct language is difficult. Sure, this is all just “a figure of speech” and maybe it’s that I am overthinking everything, especially my use of particular words. Besides, words only carry weight depending on how one person perceives them and their intended use, right? Well, it’s not that simple.
Perhaps it’s that with a few close deaths of loved ones in recent memory, I’m settling into the realization that loved ones are getting older and we’re not invincible. It could also be hearing my nephews and niece use words like ‘kill’ instead of ‘defeat’ to pepper their innocent imaginary games of Cops and Robbers that has me acutely aware of how I have been bandying those words about without much respect to their gravity and their reality.
Of course, not everything has to be so serious. Videogames can be about fun and harmless escapist realms. Will I stop having fun in a firefight in the Uncharted series? Not at all. Will I stop to think maybe I should be mindful of every monster and its life that I encounter when playing a JRPG? And that maybe I should let them best me in a fight instead of “killing it” and advancing game play? Of course not.
Videogame experiences resonate a little differently with each of us. On many occasions, videogames have tasked me with saving curious and strangely beautiful worlds. At other times, they have let me fight off hundreds of unusual creatures on journeys that have carried me through deserts, cities, and other familiar locations. Then there’s those experiences that have challenged me to rethink the words I’ve been throwing around, experiences such as Papo & Yo and Brothers that reflect on real world consequences and give a more emotional human element approach to a narrative that have kept me grounded and given me a bit more to chew on.
It may not happen right away and it may not happen every time, but whenever I next suffer a videogame death, I will do my best to think carefully about changing “I Died” to something a little more truthful and a lot less morbid.