Every gamer is well acquainted with simulated death. You miss a jump, forget stealth or travel into high level areas and find yourself either facing a loading screen and taken back to the last checkpoint or (in less forgiving games) back at the start of the level or game. Death is flippantly treated as an obstacle—a hurdle to jump over as you progress from one level to the next.
However, occasionally, some games present us with a truth beyond their sometimes excessive character death sequences. Reminding us that death is unavoidable and giving the player room to process mortality and their experience both in game and out. Stories about coping with loss and grief. Characters who struggle with the fragility of existence. Sometimes there’s more to take away from in-game death than “I need to get gud,” and the following are some games that check some of those boxes.
That Dragon, Cancer
On the morning that Ryan Green’s son Joel died, Ryan and his pastor went out to the parking lot of the palliative care facility and wept together for twenty minutes. That Dragon, Cancer tells the story of Joel’s battle with terminal brain cancer. Knowing that Joel “loses” that battle might dissuade some from playing, but the game is so much more than a tragic story. It’s an interactive experience offering players the grace of mourning. In a world where it feels like there is so little space to feel anything, That Dragon, Cancer is an invitation to embrace our grief and a reminder that though we’ve all felt the sting of death, none of us are alone. – Drew Dixon
To the Moon
The whole premise of To The Moon, and its sequel (Finding Paradise), involve death. It’s like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind gets approved for hospice patients. Intrapsychically, they get one wish fulfilled prior to death and the player must discover the meaning behind the patient’s cryptic final wish. In doing so, layers of trauma are uncovered—most involving the deaths of others. Great care is put into discussions around death, and the game is ultimately a testament to the different ways people can and do live on after they’ve left this world. – Patrick Gann
Casualties of war aren’t new to games. Playing war is probably as old as war itself. But far removed from the blood-soaked trenches are the decision-makers in the Cold War epic Twilight Struggle. The entirety of the Vietnam War—the death and suffering of millions—is housed on a single card; one of dozens. A perfect illustration of the shocking hubris of power. – Marc Davis
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
From the opening cinematic to the final credits, the emotional weight of death rests heavily over the story of Brothers. It isn’t something that can be brushed aside or forgotten, requiring ample time to truly process and heal. Brothers understands the value of finding levity, pausing to reflect, and eventually overcoming grief with one slow and steady step at a time. – David Jamison
This War of Mine
This War of Mine is a game about civilians trying to survive in a war zone. Predictably, they tend not to make it. Basic necessities are scarce, and the game also doesn’t shy away from the psychological toll war exacts from civilians. So it’s no wonder that when one survivor dies, it stings. In addition to the loss of whatever they had and whatever they can do, the remaining survivors take their time to mourn. After all, one death, in addition to being a source of grief on its own, has just made more—theirs—even more likely. – Peter Martin
Shadow of the Colossus
In a seemingly endless sea of violent power fantasies, Fumito Ueda’s Shadow of the Colossus stands out as a parable on the consequences of selfish violence. You play as “The Wanderer” and the goal is to hunt down and slay sixteen giant mythical creatures (“Colossi”) in order to release a dark power that will resurrect the wanderer’s lost love. These Colossi, however, are not violent—they only attack after Wanderer shoots them with arrows or recklessly stabs them. The epic feel of slaying the Colossi, however, fades with each victory. The more giants Wanderer slays, the more the darkness within him grows and the less human he becomes. In Shadow causing death is not empowering but costly and destructive. – Drew Dixon
At face value, Dear Esther describes a descent into grief so deep the narrator loses his grip on reality. But taken symbolically, it is the narrator’s internal journey through grief—a pilgrimage over and under the Hebridean island of his psyche. It is not neat or clean, and often it is difficult to follow, but it is raw and true. An unexpected, violent death leaves the living floundering for a way to make sense; but no matter the depths to which they descend, they can still find their way out. – Madeline Turnipseed
In Assassin’s Creed, you as the main protagonist are tasked with assassinating a variety of targets around the ancient Middle East. Death is presented with a casual aloofness that in and of itself is a perfect picture of the nihilism that drives the assassin’s oath: nothing is true, all is permitted. However, within this aloof depiction of death, the player is treated to marvelous depictions of the various human emotions caused by each death sequence. And it’s through these that the human experience is expressed in an extremely artistic and beautifully sad way. – Casey Flynt
How do you tell a loved one that they’re dying? How do you tell a child that their parent is gone? Rakuen investigates these questions in a short adventure that spans a fantastical world and a harsh reality. The two main characters—Mom and the Boy—journey together through the uncertainty of the Boy’s final days in the hospital. In the end, he feels a sense of hope after helping other patients with their emotional pain and coming to terms with his own mortality. When the Boy sails away to join his father in the magical land of Rakuen, the sense of loss that comes with death is muted by the hope that Mom and the Boy have woven throughout their story. – Jonathan Campoverde
Enter a dungeon, kill all the monsters. That’s how fantasy games work, right? But what if every monster you met had its own story, its own hopes and its own dreams? What if each death left its mark on the story, and on the world around you (possibly even on replay)? To quote Tolkien, in Undertale, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.” – Lisa Eldred
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