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It's natural to think about the end of things. Everything has a time limit and that's ok, even human life. However, grief is also inevitable when it comes to death, and this is where video games are often at their most comforting. After all, there are many different responses to death in the virtual world, and the way a game handles it can offer a lot of support to us in real life.
According to the Kübler-Ross model, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While we may not feel them in that order, it’s argued that we typically do experience all of these emotions in response to significant loss. So, this is the structure we’ll be using here to look at how games help us process grief.
Spoiler warning for the games below.
Denial is an understandable first reaction to bad news. How many times does the phrase “Are you kidding?” appear after something terrible is announced? It’s natural to struggle with accepting something when we don’t want it to be true.
Take Before Your Eyes, for example. In this outstanding indie title, you play as a departed soul who is asked to tell their life story before being judged by a deity. What feels like a mostly pleasant tale soon reveals a dark revelation. It turns out that the protagonist’s life story isn’t an honest one.
When they talk about the success they made of their existence, we eventually learn that our hero has been lying about surviving a serious illness as a child. They never made it past that sickness, and all the heartwarming events of their adulthood never came to pass. Our hero is in denial about what really happened to them, to us.
This epiphany is devastating. In part because it’s a true story for many young people, but also because it’s an excellent example of why we deny. It’s only natural to want something else when faced with such overwhelming sadness.
The way Before Your Eyes validates the denial stage of grief is wonderful. It tells us that it’s natural to feel the way we do, and that reassurance is often most needed when we’re grieving.
Anger and video gaming go hand-in-hand. I’ll be the first to admit that something as trivial as being eliminated in an online FPS title can get the better of my composure. However, the game that most gets my hackles raised is the first Dark Souls.
Dark Souls knows what it’s doing. When you’re mercilessly cut down by any number of the in-game adversaries, the creeping fade-in of the iconic ‘You Died’ text on the death screen is enough to drive anyone to exasperation. More importantly though, it makes you want to try again.
A death in a video game is often a chance to pause for thought and collect yourself. Sometimes, you’ll decide to call it a day when it happens, but Dark Souls makes that a difficult prospect. The way it goads you after each demise makes you want to dive straight back in, and it’s a genius mechanic.
It’s also a telling display of how useful anger is. When faced with something we don’t want to accept, it’s a natural response to get angry and use that aggression to fight against the situation. I’m not saying an insignificant death in a video game equates to a real life passing, by the way.
What I’m saying is Dark Souls demonstrates the value of feeling this way. It may not have any bearing on the outcome, but getting angry and venting that aggression can be good for the soul. It lets us feel a modicum of agency in an otherwise futile situation.
Of course, in Dark Souls it’s possible to use that anger to avoid our demise, but that’s not the main point here. Ultimately, it tells us that anger is normal and we should accept it.
This is the stage of grief where guilt tends to kick in. We may make promises to do something differently in order to go back to how things were, for example. However, we know deep in our hearts that this won’t change anything, but for some reason we are likely to blame ourselves for not being able to prevent the situation.
Resident Evil Village briefly touches on this phenomenon. After Ethan Winters’ is believed to have perished at the hands of Mother Miranda after destroying Heisenberg, the player takes control of Resi series veteran Chris Redfield.
During our time as Chris, he is accosted by a member of his team, who says Chris should’ve told Ethan what was really going on right from the start. Chris argues that there was no time for the details, but this idea is shot down quickly, leaving Chris to begrudgingly accept his fault.
Here's the scene where Chris tells Mia about Ethan:
This then explains why Chris struggles to come to terms with Ethan’s actual death at the end of the game. As our heroes try to escape, Ethan makes it clear he can’t continue. Chris won’t accept this and urges Ethan forward, but it’s no good.
When Chris returns to his team, delivering Ethan’s daughter Rose to her mother Mia, he’s asked where Ethan is. He breaks down, angrily confessing that Ethan has gone, and the turmoil on his face is plain for all to see. He bargains by saying he tried, and that Ethan stayed behind so they could all escape, but none of this is a cure for the way he feels.
To see one of gaming’s toughest icons tormented by grief this way is a huge moment for Resident Evil as a series, and a reminder that this behaviour is normal. It’s a realistic portrayal of the feelings we all experience when we lose someone, because we can’t help but feel guilty in some way, even if it’s just a case of wishing we’d said something when we had the chance.
Depression is probably the emotion we most associate with loss. It’s a natural reason to feel empty inside, because we’re acutely aware of what’s gone. People are weaved into our lives and stitched into our hearts, so when we lose someone, it’s only natural to feel undone and hollow, even if only for a short time. One game that captures this feeling of depression is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Player character Peter ‘Star-Lord’ Quill is no stranger to loss, having witnessed the murder of his mother when he was only 13-years-old. The same can be said of his teammate Drax the Destroyer, whose wife and daughter were also murdered. This shared understanding of loss comes up in an emotional scene between the two.
Stood at what is believed to be the edge of the universe, Peter and Drax open up about how their loved ones “died for no reason”, and they exchange religious and philosophical ideas as they talk about where their families are now. Peter likes to maintain a positive outlook on the afterlife, while Drax doesn’t believe there’s much hope for his loved ones on the other side.
It’s an inspiring moment in the game because of how Peter and Drax reveal they both continue to suffer from their losses. The two heroes show their hearts are still heavy, and that depression is completely natural, even years later.
Earlier this year I played Nier Replicant, and one of the most striking features of the game is how it deals with grief. What starts with seeing an NPC lose their beloved animal companion soon evolves into the loss of partners and family members. In fact, Nier even deals with the extinction of the human race as we know it.
What stands out most about Nier Replicant’s handling of grief is the constant drive to push forward. When a tragedy occurs, the protagonist keeps going. Sure, he has moments where it’s all too much, but he’s never out. There’s always a desire - a need - to rage against the dying of the light.
Initially, you could say the response to grief in Nier Replicant is denial. However, there’s more to it than that. The protagonist doesn’t keep going because he can’t accept the reality of the situation, but because he is hyper aware of the truth; that we have to make the most of the time we have now.
This acceptance of the limitation of life is present in Nier Replicant’s gameplay, too. Once you reach ‘Ending D’ - the fourth ending - your save file will be erased. Not only can you not load up your old file again, you can’t even use the same name as your previous protagonist when naming the player character on a subsequent playthrough.
Now, while there is an ‘Ending E’, the core message of accepting the natural end of things is just as prevalent in that one. This ending lets you restore your previous file (a new option in the remake), but at the cost of losing what you earned from ‘Ending D’. Essentially, you’ll return to earlier in the game but with the knowledge of what awaits you if you go down the same path as before. In other words, you can choose not to accept what happened but you’ll be doomed to a life of denial.
This cleverly illustrates the genius of Nier Replicant. The game knows you can’t keep kidding yourself. It knows you can’t forget what awaits you, so it encourages you to make the hard choices again. It encourages you to go down the road that’s in front of you, even if you don’t like where it leads. It asks you to accept the inevitable.
In short, video games can offer support when dealing with grief simply by showing how natural it is. The Kübler-Ross model is clearly represented in all the games above, as well as many more, and it’s important to take heart from this as it proves, above all else, that you’re not alone with your grief.
Featured Image Credit: Capcom / Bandai Namco Entertainment
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