The Greatest Victory

Ernest Becker, Lara Croft, & Death in Tomb Raider

Essay - Game Death

“We admire most the courage to face death; we give such valor our highest and most constant adoration; it moves us deeply in our hearts because we have doubts about how brave we ourselves would be. When we see a man bravely facing his own extinction we rehearse the greatest victory we can imagine.”

– Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

Becker’s androcentric rhetoric sounds out of place in a discussion of the latest Tomb Raider instalment (Square Enix 2013), which of course features a strong female hero. Nevertheless, there is something very noble about individuals who unflinchingly face death, and Lara Croft is no exception. Many of us would like to think that we would act bravely in the face of danger, but the truth is that none of us can be sure. When faced with mortal danger, the instinct for self-preservation can be very strong. But videogames, especially ones which utilize explicit representations of death, allow us to “rehearse” this “greatest victory” over death in a safe and accessible manner.

As Tadhg Kelly wrote in 2011, All games are about death. I tend to agree with Kelly, though I’d say that all games are partially about death, and some more than others. After all, some of the earliest games (e.g. 1962’s Spacewar!) framed success and failure within thanatological terms, and even games without anthropomorphized/organic avatars tend to do the same.

For example, why does a game like Brickbreaker, which features only inanimate objects,  frame success and failure within thanatological terms? Why do I start with 3 lives, and whose lives are lost when I fail to hit the ball? Is Brickbreaker perhaps exploring non-organic modes of being, a la Object Oriented Ontology? I don’t think so. I think life and death are just the clearest indications of success and failure we have. At a very basic level, to die is to fail, and we understand this at a primordial level. Thus, this thanatological shorthand simply lends itself very well to videogames, which are often concerned with success and failure. But death is a very unpleasant subject, so why is it such a prevalent ludic metaphor?

Terror Management Theory and Ernest Becker

According to Terror Management Theory (TMT), a heuristic framework within Social Psychology, “death anxiety” plays a key role in human motivation. Developed in the 1980s by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, TMT argues that human beings are motivated by an evolutionary urge to transcend death, either literally (though an afterlife) or symbolically (through a legacy). TMT is largely based on the ideas of  Ernest Becker, and it attempts to empirically test his claims.

Becker, perhaps best known for The Denial of Death (1973), saw the desire to deny death as the root of human motivation. According to Becker, human beings are born with an innate instinct to survive, both individually and collectively (i.e. as a group). However, because we are capable of abstract, imaginative thinking, we also know that one day we will cease to be. The tension between the urge to survive, and the prospect of an impending doom causes potentially crippling anxiety. We therefore seek ways to explain death in a way that makes it less permanent, and more manageable, and anything that sheds some light on mortality is of great interest.

Mortality is in one sense an odd sort of certainty; I haven’t died yet, but I know I will (fingers-crossed for cryogenics!). I only know that others die for sure. As Heidegger puts it in Being and Time (2008 ed.),  

Death does indeed reveal itself as a loss, but a loss such as is experienced by those who remain. In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man ‘suffers.’ The dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense; at most we are always just ‘there alongside.’ (p. 282)

The end is always on the horizon, and we’re desperate to get a peek. What I’d like to suggest is that videogames can offer us a unique perspective on death, and can perhaps partially bridge the gap between the personal, unknowable experience of death, and this sense of simply being “alongside” of it. Perhaps game-death can help us confront our own mortality, and better understand how we conceptualize it. In particular, I’d like to examine game-death in the context of Tomb Raider, because I think it approaches both sides of the game-death equation—dying and killing—in some interesting ways.

Dying in Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider’s treatment of death and killing has received considerable attention. Most of the reviews mention the death scenes, and there are dozens of Tomb Raider death compilations available on the web. Kotaku’s “35 Gruesome Ways Lara Croft Dies in Tomb Raider” is probably the best and most complete. The attention is no surprise, as the death scenes can be difficult to watch.

For me, the worst are the impalement deaths. Seeing Lara impaled through the neck by a tree branch, followed by her prolonged, fruitless struggle to remove the branch, is discomforting. It is one thing to see an anthropomorphic “target” drop in the distance from a rifle shot; it is another to watch the light go out of Lara’s eyes as she writhes (and gurgles) in pain and fear.

In addition to her deaths by impalement, Lara is also brutally crushed by a boulder, strangled by a burly man, and has her throat ripped out by a wolf. It’s difficult to think of more brutal death scenes in the medium, though feel free to leave suggestions in the Comments. Returning to TMT, with such graphic death scenes, it might seem that Tomb Raider should increase the player’s death anxiety. However, if Tomb Raider’s treatment of game-death is novel, it is only so in a “cinematic” sense.

Lara’s deaths are difficult to watch in much the same way as it is difficult to watch a horrific death in Saving Private Ryan or Saw. From a ludic or procedural perspective, Tomb Raider is actually very standard in its treatment of game-death. Lara’s brutal deaths are quickly nullified, as the player can simply load a save file or checkpoint. Procedurally, Tomb Raider’s standard game-death model can be expressed as such:

1)      Lara lives (Play);

2)      Lara dies (Play stops);

3)      Respawn/Player reloads checkpoint;

4)      Lara lives again (Play resumes);

5)      Repeat.

From a terror management perspective, this model of death closely mimics the theological model, wherein death is not an end as such, but a transition. In this view, death is only a temporary state; after a brief waiting period, the self is resurrected, and  being continues.

This creates a very particular form of tension, in which one mode’s depiction of death (cinematic) interacts with, and potentially complements another’s (procedural). There are all sorts of possibilities which arise from this modal tension. For instance, perhaps the graphic imagery of Lara’s deaths ramp up death anxiety, but reloading a checkpoint alleviates it. Perhaps the cinematic representation of death causes an “itch,” only to be scratched by the procedural representation of rebirth. In this tension, we can draw an analog to the theological model of death:  it is ugly, but not permanent.

Killing in Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider also takes some novel approaches to the other side of the death equation, killing. Right away, we see that Lara feels bad for taking life, at least at first. Her first  kill is not even human, but a deer killed for food. Since this is a survival situation, Lara certainly gets an ethical pass. However, as she is butchering the deer she apologizes to it and seems remorseful.

Lara is even more distraught after her first human kill, even though, it too was an act of survival. Essentially, Lara and a man who has kidnapped her struggle with a pistol. Lara eventually gains control of it, and shoots the man in the head. His head comes apart but he doesn’t die right away. Instead, he makes guttural noises and stares blankly up at Lara. Like many of Lara’s deaths, Tomb Raider makes sure you take it all in. In a subsequent cutscene, we see that Lara is clearly shaken up after the kill. She shouts “Oh God!” and appears to retch. Unlike many other videogame heroes, she doesn’t gloat or shout “Hoorah!” after killing an enemy, but understands the gravity of her act.

Almost immediately after this first traumatic kill, however, Tomb Raider’s approach is more of the same bloodbath we’re used to in the genre. Lara proceeds to shoot bad guys in the head with superb skill and without remorse. The enemies are often generic, hapless, and hyper aggressive. Except for the bosses, they are often faceless and indiscernible from one another. They are not given much of a back-story, and their “lives” are treated with the same respect as a CoD terrorist. Furthermore, as the game progresses the player is  rewarded with bonus XP for landing a “Killer Headshot!” or for performing a gruesome finishing move. Killing has gone from something traumatic, to something fun.

Soon after her first kills, Lara confesses that she “had to kill some of them. I had no choice.” When prompted with the remark that it “can’t have been easy,” Lara replies, “It’s scary just how easy it was.” There is some indication at the end of the game that Lara has been affected by everything she’s seen and done, but it’s not a major point. It would seem that Lara’s reluctance to kill only lasted for a short period.

Rhianna Pratchett, scriptwriter for Tomb Raider, addressed this shift in Lara’s attitude in an interview with Kill Screen:

what we tried to do with Lara was at least have the first death count…. [S]he’s uncomfortable with having to do what she needs to do. Those feelings start to bubble to the surface, and she does sort of push them away because she knows she can’t think about what she’s doing. It will incapacitate her if she does.

For Pratchett, this was essentially about “balancing the needs of gameplay with the needs of narrative…. I’d say from a narrative perspective, we would have liked the ramp-up to be a bit slower. But, you know, there are other factors to be considered! When players get a gun, they generally want to use the gun.”

As a Third Person Shooter, Tomb Raider must fulfill certain requirements. Players expect cool guns and lots of enemies to mow down, always in self-defence, of course. With very few exceptions—Metal Gear and Deus Ex come to mind— games with guns usually place the player into a fairly rigid kill-or-be-killed scenario. Your opponents are trying to kill you, and there is no opportunity for discussion or diplomacy. With these generic constraints in mind, the fact that the game tries to add some emotional weight to killing at all is to be commended, and will perhaps encourage future designers to take even greater risks.   

But why have killing in a game at all? Why is it such a prevalent mechanic, and why do we seem to enjoy it so much? It may be that killing also serves a terror management function, just as virtual resurrection does.  As Becker (1975) writes in Escape From Evil, “We feel we are masters over life and death when we hold the fate of others in our hands. As long as we can continue shooting, we think more of killing than of being killed” (p. 114).

From one side of the death equation, we have very little control. We may be able to put off our death, but we can never fully prevent it. However, we can gain some control on the other side of the equation through killing. Games like Tomb Raider which force us to “continue shooting” may thus allow us to forget our own deaths while inflicting it on virtual others.

Conclusion: Permadeath and Future Directions

Since death is so prevalent in videogames, it makes sense to look at how we think about it in general. TMT and other frameworks which deal with mortality can potentially lead to game design choices which explicitly engage our complicated relationship with death. For starters, since death matters, game-death should matter. One way to do this is through the permadeath mechanic. Permadeath is nothing new of course, but the apparent revival of roguelikes and games like DayZ have marked an increase in its use. For me, this is a step in the right direction. However, even instances of permadeath as such are rarely “permanent.”

In DayZ, for example, death does not signal an “end” as much as it signals a loss of gear. This is a painful penalty to be sure, but starting over is hardly permanent. So what would a “true” permadeath game look like? In its most extreme sense, one death would mean the end of the game, full stop. No respawning. No reloading a save file. Such a game would not even allow the player to reboot and start the game over again. In fact, upon dying the game would have to self-destruct; just like in “real life,” you would only get one chance.

Of course, I don’t think anyone would play such a game, or rather, would pay to play such a game. As Jesper Juul’s latest book, The Art of Failure (2013) examines, repeated failure is an integral part of the playing experience. Still, I’d like to see more instances of death mattering in games. I think we’re ready for it. Perhaps an optional “Hardcore” mode (e.g. Witcher 2, Diablo III) is the appropriate balance. In any case, heightened stakes can add to a game’s intensity, exhilaration, and to a player’s satisfaction when successful. Thus, examining the relationship between death, the highest stakes, and videogames can lead to a two-way exchange, in which game-death helps us understand “real” death, and real death helps us design more engaging game-death.