This is a kinda old piece of writing of mine that somehow hadn’t seen the light of day, so I’m fixing that. There was another contemporary piece from that same time period posted here last year. They have the same backstory.
Four years or so ago, a bunch of prolific freelance writers that had worked together in the Cracked forums got together to form a publishing company called Wordplague. For some reason they let me play along. A book for charity was published (that I illustrated rather than wrote for, still worth checking out), with plans for several others. Then shit went sour in a ton of irreconcilable ways and the whole thing crumbled to pieces.
Old news, bummer news, anyway this is another one of my unpublished pieces from that project:
The Grim Reaper Stands Below, Waiting To Catch You (The Ridiculous World Of Video Game Death)
One of the first things you have to get used to when playing video games is the fact that you will die. A lot. You will be eaten by a grue. You will die of dysentery. The sex worker will give you more than you bargained for, and while life may be possible, it will no longer be worth living. You and your friends will be… dead. You will be BOOM! Headshot.
You will be jumped by a tri-species Confederacy of Murder.
We could go on all day arguing about what exactly you die from when you fall down a bottomless pit or the physics of being squashed by a scrolling screen or death by time limit. We never insisted any of this makes sense. Point is, death is everywhere in the world of video games. It adds stakes to the challenge and another level of humiliation to your failure. It could possibly even prepare ourselves to face the prospect of our own mortality, but that’s probably a bit grandiose.
…almost definitely the way I will die one day
In any case, it’s a familiar game mechanic as well as a way to siphon every last quarter from your sticky little hands. Many of you probably remember how classic arcade games used to even torture you via the countdown screen. They would depict your character in a dire situation growing ever more perilous as you stood there helplessly with your snot nose and your rabbit-eared empty pockets. Just look at you there, snivelling.
Don’t pretend for a moment this is not your fault, you little punk.
As graphics have improved, so has the graphic quality of violence that can be depicted. It’s a pretty common showcase at this point, with each new title including more vicious ways to mow down villains and to be mowed down yourself.
In case you can’t make out what’s happening here, there is a guy in the background with hooks for hands that has dug them into your character’s eye sockets and used the leverage to tear all the flesh from his bones. This screenshot is from a game made in 1995. A game that was actually rated kid friendly, believe it or not.
Of course, ridiculously over the top and graphic violence has been in games since the days of Mortal Kombat. There’s not really much of a story to trotting out some sort of “best of” or “most violent” list however, because it will be meaningless in a month. So we’re gonna cover a few tropes that are surprisingly common and in some cases more disconcerting/disturbing than, say, twisting the head of an escaped mental patient and feeling the snap of his neck in your DualShock controller. Probably not much more though.
In the real world, suicide is a grave and tragic prospect that should never be taken lightly and always handled with sensitivity and empathy. However, within simulated environments designed to kill you, if you’re dedicated/incompetent enough to kill yourself in the video game you’re playing… that’s an entire other morbid realm.
You read that right. Amateur self-brain surgery with a lockpick.
Most of the early point and click adventures (and the text adventures they were descended from) included syntax where items could be used in a way that would harm yourself. Everything from “USE SWORD ON SELF” to that lockpick scene up there. The logic was most likely that if you’re dumb/bored enough to try something that ridiculous, there might as well be some sort of gratification coded in, if only in the form of a snarky reminder that you’ve done something stupid. Typically the results were more silly, with a little bit of “what did you think would happen?” finger-wagging thrown in for good measure. Things have evolved a long way since then to scenes like the one in Dead Space 2, where if you’re dumb enough to approach the final boss, it will make you crazy or possess you or something, after which you are compelled to blow your own head off.
Not pictured: Whimsy
Sometimes the results aren’t so small scale, for instance Smoke’s Fatality from the Mortal Kombat games where he blows the entire world up.
Not Pictured: Subtlety
Of course, you don’t always have to do something absurd to end your own life in a game. The Japanese Super Mario Bros 2 (the super-hard one without the Birdos and Ninjas and with the poisonous mushrooms and killer breezes) had infamous scenes where you found yourself forced to either enter a warp zone that would start the game over, or leap over the warp to your death in a pit and merely have to start the level over.
Pictured: Cold, hard, unforgiving reality.
In Clash At Demonhead, progressing past a certain part of the game required allowing yourself to be killed by a demon. Id Software actually had to remove a “Kill” button from Quake III that allowed players to commit suicide. It was originally intended to help free the character from possibly getting trapped in buggy level architecture, but quickly became a respawning cheat for clever players. Even without it, in several competitive first person shooters, killing yourself with rockets or by leaping off a cliff can come in handy if you have to return to base immediately for certain modes. Suicide as strategy.
EASTER EGG DEATH
It shouldn’t surprise you that hidden in the code of games were sneaky scenes that weren’t all Hot Coffee and Justin Bailey. Creative players have found hidden ways to kill off characters that they normally couldn’t or finding more brutal ways to kill than the ones presented.
Of all the things that come to mind regarding The Sims, murder isn’t really one of them. However, ways have inevitably been discovered, and by later games incorporated into game play in a “wink, wink” fashion. In the original SIMs, there was a few ways to die that were mostly accidental. You could be electrocuted if you’re not careful with your appliances or catch a virus from your pet if you left their cage dirty. Stuff like that. Players began experimenting with ever more complicated ways to kill their characters, pursuing it with a Jigsaw-like obsession. Deleting the doors in a house that’s on fire, or just leaving them in a room with no doors to starve. Rounding everyone up for a pool party, then selling the pool ladder so noone can get out. Keep in mind, these were technically glitches.
However, by the next game the programmers had caught on and snuck in secret death scenes where you can’t even stare at the clouds too long without a satellite falling out of the sky and crushing your ass.
In Final Fantasy VII, a flashback by Cloud that shows the death of Zack Fair is an optional hidden scene you can find by exploring the basement of the Shinra mansion and examining the containers there.
Comparatively, this one’s actually adorable.
In a similar scenario, in the game Clash At Demonhead you can actually watch the death and rapid decay into a skeleton of your associate Joe by visiting and revisiting the dead-end (and otherwise meaningless to the game play) Level 32.
In Maniac Mansion, using a hidden keypad you can blow up the whole house. In Resident Evil 4 you can piss off Del Lago the lake monster by shooting indiscriminately at the water until it just up and eats you. And if you activate the no-clip cheat in Doom II and walk behind the final boss, you’ll find the head of game designer John Romero on a pike, which you can shoot at until it dies. After which, you can experience the satisfaction of murdering a head on a stick for some reason, I guess.
RIDICULOUSLY CHEAP DEATH
These are the bane of sensible video game players everywhere. Insta-kills, especially one’s that come out of nowhere, are probably the reason old arcade cabinets had that part that jutted out at the top which made them so hard to headbutt.
Speaking of arcade games, the game Time Killers (a shoddy Mortal Kombat rip-off that involved weapons and the ability to sever your opponents limbs during the fight; actually, it was kinda awesome) included one of the Worst Ideas Ever. Everyone had an instant kill fatality, and they were all performed the same way: simply by slapping all 5 buttons at once. No matter how good
you were at combos or how excellent your defensive maneuvers were; slap, bloop you suddenly had no head:
This game was fucking buckwild
It wasn’t just arcade games busting your chops, however. There’s competitions on Youtube on how fast your game over can be achieved by the cheap harshness of the landscape. The Transformers game for the Famicom (the Japanese predecessor for the NES) has you lined up with incoming enemies in such a way that you can die before your intro music completes. In the classic Apple II and Commodore 64 game Karateka, you learn real quickly that even though you have the ability to bow respectfully before a match, any time you try it the bad guy will just kick you in the face, killing you instantly. Another adept player managed to game over playing Treasure Island Dizzy (one of a surprisingly long-running series of games for multiple platforms where you play an egg dressed like Indiana Jones; apparently it was real popular in Europe) for the ZX Spectrum in under one and a half seconds.
In Clash At Demonhead, the last thing you have to do after defeating the last boss is enter the medallions you collected over the course of the game into the Doomsday Bomb to prevent it from going off. You only get a few chances, and the order is randomized every time.
If you fuck up, and you will, you get to watch the whole freakin’ world explode before having to climb all the way back up Mt. Demonhead again to fight the same bosses all over. It’s pretty brutal, and totally obvious the game hates you.
Splatterhouse threw cheap shots into so many of it’s boss fights that it was more surprising when one just actually died without a fuss. Stages had chandeliers drop on you right on the verge of victory and even a fake final boss and “ending” where you’re reunited with your girlfriend, who turns out to be another monster you have to beat up before plunging into some sort of vagina cave where you’re beating the crap out of fetuses…
Hey looky there, that wasn’t hyperbole.
…before finding out you still have the last stage and boss to defeat.
Technically, this one doesn’t happen to your main character, but we should mention the ending of Earthworm Jim, where your rescue (and subsequent wooing) of the Princess What’s-Her-Name at the end is suddenly interrupted when the cow you launched off the seesaw at the very beginning of the game (it’s a very strange game) finally appears again and smashes the Princess flat before both of them topple to the lava below.
And in a move that’s part last-minute, part Easter egg, and even part suicide (sorta), if you play a perfect game in Night Trap, you are given the opportunity to be a total bastard and murder leading lady Dana Plato, of Diff’rent Strokes fame, because why the hell not?
Of course doing so gets you fired from the Sega Control Attack Team and probably arrested. Then again, if you’re gonna go out, you might as well make it an occasion. Beats the heck out of a lockpick to the cerebrum.