Till Death Do Us Part

Death: the ultimate frontier. No other medium than video games has ever been so fixated with the concept of death, and at the same time, been so nonchalant towards it. As a result, I’m pretty sure that the amount of bodies produced by player in a single Call of Duty –game can beat the bodycounts of every movie ever made by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylverster Stallone, and Chuck Norris put together. To kill a man in a game isn’t just that big of a deal as it shouldn’t be.

Indeed, spontaneous screams like “I DIED!” and “I KILLED YOU!” have companied gaming from the very beginning, and terms like “lives” and “an extra-life” were an integral part of the gaming vocabulary until save-systems made them obsolete.

The oldest cliché would be now to wonder what it reveals about the Human Condition that the gaming culture (the only medium that lets people do stuff) is so soaked with death, violence, and destruction. However, I’ll pass that opportunity for now.

Can death, then, be an aesthetic experience? I doubt it.

How about a simulated death? Sure.

A case in point is the way Grand Theft AUTO IV handles death of the protagonist.

First, there are two art direction decisions that take effect when Niko gives up the ghost: High-contrast black&white imagery and slow motion. To desaturate an image of deceased is of course a common practice, and it indeed is an effective strategy to suck out life of any imagery. And slow motion as well can be considered a rather classic approach to create ad hoc dramatic feel to a scene.

Of course, in the case of GTA IV, black&white imagery and slow motion would be futile without the sophisticated physics engine the game utilizes, Euphoria, which simulates the physics of a human corpus like no other engine in existence. In comparison to other physics engines, Euphoria makes for instance a clear distinction between how a lifeless body and a living one absorb hits, so when Niko goes belly up, the ragdoll system that kicks in truly makes him look like an empty shell of a man hitting slowly the curb. And when cops keep on shooting the dead, wiggling body on the ground you almost feel sorry for the guy, which is said a lot about a video game.

Interestingly, slow motion at large seems to be the opus moderandi for aestheticizing physical causal chains in general – actual and simulated ones. Just think about The Matrix and all its slow motion scenes with ultra-slow explosions and flying debris. They looked cool then, and they look cool now.

And speaking of causal chains, what usually fascinates me the most in player’s death in GTA IV is indeed the aftermath that often follows the fatal incident: A dropped gun fires itself, cars explode, people get run over, and so on. And you can only watch it from aside without any control over the events, until the screen fades black and everything starts over.

This all must make me sound a bit of a sadist, but believe me, I’m the least eager to watch any real violence whatsoever. I just happen to find beauty in simulation, be it of the workings of a whole city, or just of a guy passing by on the other side.