Death and the videogame
From the danse macabre to Charon the boatman, video games are reinventing myths about dying.
We’ve been dancing the danse macabre since the first microorganism emerged blinking from an ocean vent four billion years ago, but the art motif of that name dates from rather later. Probably the earliest example is a mural in a Parisian mass grave, the Cimetière des Innocents, completed in 1425. It depicts a kind of egalitarian carnival of souls – kings and peasants cavorting side by side under the reaper’s mocking eye. Death, here, is a great leveller, a ghastly but oddly vitalising force that binds people together across the divisions of class or station.
The Parisian mural was torn down in 1669, but the motif of death as dance survived and prospered. Over the years, it has jiggled and stamped its way into many artforms, from poems and church friezes to orchestral compositions, films and, latterly, video games. “We just figured, there had to be a game about that,” says Esben Kjær Ravn, founder of Danish studio Kong Orange. “It was sort of inherent game material.” Cheekily billed as a “romantic comedy”, Kong Orange’s Felix the Reaper turns the danse macabre into a peculiar hybrid of Final Destination and chess. It’s one of a handful of video games that goes beyond the conception of death as mere mechanical failure. It also invites us to look upon own mortality with, if not anticipation, a certain glee.
Death, in Felix the Reaper, is no leering skeleton but a merry bureaucrat in a white shirt and waistcoat, a Walkman jutting impishly from one hip. Rather than a cowl, Felix sports headphones, and rather than riding through each level on a white horse, he slides and shimmies, pops his hips and kicks out his heels. His job may be to rid each level of the living, arranging cartoon objects like rolling barrels within each level to create a fatal chain reaction, but he goes about it with an infectious gusto.
Felix has reason to be cheerful: he’s dancing towards a romantic liaison with the lovely Betty, a colleague at the Ministry of Life. Kong Orange takes inspiration on this count from another long-running art motif, Death and the Maiden, which became popular in Germany during the Renaissance. “Death was in love with The Maiden, who represents life, and had taught himself to dance in order to attract her,” says Ravn. “So Death is dancing to get in bed with Life. An impossible love story, right there.”
If the game channels antiquated art traditions, it owes the spring in its step to film and TV. Felix’s character design recalls the Twilight Zone episode One For The Angels, in which the reaper appears as a kind of taxman, together with Hayao Miyazaki’s work for Studio Ghibli and the Cartoon Network series Adventure Time. His portliness expresses a body positivity that is sadly unusual within games, let alone those in which you play death incarnate. “We got fed up pretty quickly with him being skinny, and thought we should flip it and make him fat,” Ravn comments. “It gave him more personality and went really well with the dancing.”
The dancing itself riffs on Masayuki Suo’s ballroom comedy Shall We Dance?, and consists of motion-captured performances from professional choreographers Gunilla Lind and Raphaël Ferdinand Eder-Kastling. The buzzing electronic soundtrack is Felix’s personal mixtape, and each move synchs up dynamically with compositions that are themselves layered up and down in real-time. “The music is also the game’s feedback mechanism, so when you do good, the music intensifies, and when you don’t know what to do it gradually gets less and less intense,” Ravn explains.
The game’s reinterpretation of the danse macabre went through a number of iterations. It was once envisaged as a literal Conga line, akin to arcade game Snake, with Felix attracting an entourage of gambolling dead as he moved through levels. “But we don’t like stressful games, and kept looking for the no-stress solution,” says Ravn. “And all the bricks sort of fell into place.”
Among Kong Orange’s industry influences are the Hitman games from IO Interactive, in which players dress up as hotdog sellers, catwalk models and much more besides in order to breach the sanctums of obnoxious elites. As the critic Ed Smith argues, Hitman’s charm lies not merely with killing powerful people but making fools of them, ending them in mundane and/or absurd ways that lay bare the vacuousness of their privilege. There’s a similar wickedness to Felix the Reaper, in which mortals are just props in an otherworldly love story, and Death comports himself with all the exuberance of an unsupervised intern.
It’s a world away from Spiritfarer, another uncommonly elaborate video game about mortality. The work of Canadian developer Thunder Lotus, Spiritfarer invokes a still-more venerable personification of death – Charon, the boatman in Greek myth who ferries souls to Hades across the rivers Styx and Acheron. In this reworking, Charon has resigned this duty for reasons unknown, bequeathing his ferry to a gambolling young girl, Stella. So begins “a cosy management game about dying”, in which you house and care for spirits aboard your (unexpectedly luxurious and capacious) boat until it is time to let them go.
Spiritfarer uses Charon’s infamous voyaging as a platform for thinking about end-of-life care. Creative director Nicolas Guérin’s brother is head of the geriatric ward at Nice University Hospital, and the game draws on conversations with its staff, together with personal experiences. Among the hospital’s patients was Guérin’s own grandmother, who passed away last December. “I tried to spend as much time as I could with her,” he says, “and interact with wonderful caregivers, who gave me a precious insight into the whole process of accompanying and taking care of dying people.”
Where Felix the Reaper is perfectly raucous, Spiritfarer offers a stately and serene vision of the afterlife, characterised by lilting orchestral movements and the almost imperceptible motion of the ship against a soft, pellucid skyline. Stella herself is no foul, towering apparition: she has a cat named Daffodil, sports an oversized hat, enjoys fishing from the rear deck in quieter moments, and is given to hugging her passengers. The spirits themselves compare to totem animals from the mythologies of North American indigenous tribes, hybrids of animal and flower. The game is “agnostic”, Guérin says, but makes use of ideas from various belief systems, from ancient Egypt to pre-medieval Norse cults.
Spiritfarer may appear rather sanitised in trailers, too sunny and upbeat to convince as a portrayal of dying, but Guérin comments that it will enter “darker” territory later on, as some of your passengers struggle with conditions like dementia and depression. While the game focuses on Stella’s changing relationship with each character, he adds, “the spirits will acknowledge one another, and some of them might have more in common than just being here at the same time.”
Where Felix the Reaper finds comedy in the arbitrariness of death, Spiritfarer’s achievement may be how it rescues the management sim genre from its banal interest in profit. Management sims are generally about resource optimisation and expansion – here, you’ll tend to an on-board garden, visit islands in search of raw materials, and add facilities to your ship during the voyage. But Spiritfarer is not, in the end, about building up: it is about letting go. It will be interesting to follow how the game plays this theme against what it borrows from less emotive settlement sims, like Harvest Moon.
Death in video games is typically a non-event, a lapse to be edited out on replay. Where it’s more than that, it is often coarsely transmuted into currency: one of the defining traits of the modern role-playing genre is the conversion of an enemy’s lifeforce into “XP” for character growth. Few are the games that set out to seriously investigate death – to engage with the forms it has assumed over the centuries, and break the silence that hangs around the subject.
“Death is something we – in Denmark at least – don’t speak about, and if we do we lower our voices,” observes Ravn. “And that’s just weird, especially when you look at how prominent and sprawling Death is [when] portrayed in art. So we’d love to push at that. Make it OK to talk loudly and clearly about Death, and laugh when facing it.”