There is possibly no greater representative icon for the entirety of gaming than that of the game over screen. That negative void with stolid letters painted cryptically across; there is a certain mysticism surrounding the screen, the dark back corners of arcade holes that once used to thrive, and the natural competition to overcome the inevitability of failure that it represents.
Bore with the medium’s creation in arcade cabinets and the surrounding culture that developed after their inception, the challenge of prolonging play time and avoiding inevitable failure in death became the central function for nearly every game created to date. In the form of a barrel throwing gorilla, the simple existence of a play clock, infinite and unseen pits that trail into the unknown below the screens of any number of platformers, or even in competition between players, video games have always been a participatory form of near exclusive survival.
Despite what takes the lion’s share of gaming experiences, a handful of titles have worked to reverse this trend. Most significant of these is thatgamecompany’s most recent release, the penitent juggernaut, Journey. Those who entered the throngs of Journey’s pale and dissonant world have been afforded a much different view of the afterlife; a view that was both end and beginning, and single-handedly turned the quarter emptying game over screen into something more.
The Cold Grip of Arcades Past
Outside of titles like Pong that worked only to imitate established sports in digital forms, the earliest games, those that have proved most prominent in the medium’s formative years in arcades like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, all challenged the player by the difficulty of staying alive. Avoiding ghosts’ ethereal potency in Pac-Man. Navigating the vortex of pits with greased boot in Super Mario Bros. Possibly the most famous code ever created- the Konami code used in Contra and onward, was proof to the expendability and difficulty of video games’ earliest and most celebrated titles. Even a game like The Legend of Zelda, which proved a more complex fiction, was riddled by the fallacy of escapable death, and that with a reset or a load the player would be pulled from eternal slumber to begin anew.
Whether on consoles via a collection of 1-ups or in arcades where lives were as expendable as the handful of tokens one had to replenish them with, the lightness with which video games have dealt with death has always been, at least from a narrative standpoint, one of the medium’s most glaring weaknesses. Games have functioned around the notion that life is fleeting, death is imminent, and rehashing parts of gameplay to succeed is expected. In life there is nothing more sure or true than what lies inescapably ahead for us all. While other media commonly explore death in a mature and enlightened manner, games, which largely still remain a medium of hyper fantasy, have sadly failed to acknowledge death with the same maturity or importance.
This isn’t to say some games haven’t attempted to integrate the element of death in digital experiences more succinctly. Point and click adventure games of the late ’80s and early ’90s like LucasArts’ Maniac Mansion introduced the idea that certain actions taken during the course of the title could cause any of the player’s characters to die permanently and affect the final outcome of the game.