hl2epp2.jpg[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. Today, a look how little moments of death can move us even when death seems commonplace.]

When I'm looking at the world down the barrel of a gun, I'm not sure I feel like Gordon Freeman, whoever he's supposed to be.

But right now I feel as close to at ease as the game gets. I'm in Valve's Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and I'm nosing around the hills on the way to White Forest because the goody detector in my car went off. It feels safe enough here: Empty, peaceful. The wild monsters seem to only dwell in caves, anyway. The cool green forest path looks so much like the real earth that I can't imagine something as unreal as enemy soldiers or alien fauna lurking within.

The cave here's probably the least interesting goody drop off. It's hidden away and there are no clever tricks involved in getting it. The need for collectibles is an obsession though, so here I am. The crates have medicine and a little bit of ammo, but there's a skeleton here as well, and when I see him and his friend I stop for a moment.

How the hell did he get here, anyway? Moreover, how did he die surrounded by all these health packs? If the combine killed him, why didn't they follow them? Did he starve to death? Right now I should probably be thinking TRAP but, no pun intended, it's just too dead in here. This body isn't the answer to a monster around the corner, it's a lingering question with no answer in sight.

I wasn't asking this back in City 17 where there were corpses around every turn and I was making most of them. When it came to civilian casualties I didn't have a lot of questions there about why Mr. and Mrs. generic were lying decapitated in the sewers since flying buzzsaws were chasing me through the city piping.

Thousands of things will be dead by the time I'm done with this game, so why does only this guy make me wonder?

Remember That You Must Die

Passage is unique for being the first game to be only about the momento mori, but the trope is quite old even within the genre. The earliest example from my own experiance is The Final Fantasy Legend, an odd RPG with a somewhat unusual premise. There's a tower, and it connects to all sorts of different worlds. At the top, supposedly, is paradise. But in addition to the main worlds that advance the plot, the tower is full of little side rooms, each holding a little world. Many hold places their residents believe are hell or paradise.

One of the rooms near the top held nothing but a small room full of corpses and a diary. It was a family that ran out of food and died trying to reach paradise. It's the same thing as Half-Life, a moment found by exploring, trawling for items, and the reward for you is the appropriately grim nuke. It's an easy moment to miss. It doesn't tie into any greater plot or drama. It's just there.

What's remarkable about these moments in The Final Fantasy Legend and Half-Life 2 Episode 2 is how they run against the grain to the rest of their experience. Passage is memento mori in its entirety, but what these games lack in the sophistication of their moments they make up for in contrast.

It's notable due to the fact that these are games in which the players are continuously killing large numbers of monsters/robots/people/aliens/etc. When a giant Venus fly trap man is incinerated with a fireball, its connection to mortality is thin. In Passage, death is always on the player's mind. In these other games, the merry slaughtering of abstract monsters is rudely interrupted.

Immortal avatars and games that revolve around collecting things tend to undermine the idea of a memento mori, which is historically used to show the futility of earthly vanities: no matter how beautiful or wealthy, or how many purples your paladin has, you will die just the same, or something like that. But players are superior to NPCs by the very rules of a videogame.

For death to mean something, it has to exist outside of the context that players are used to experiencing it within. What sets the Half-Life and the FFL moments apart is how disconnected they are from the narrative. The room with the dead family is basically a throwaway-an Easter egg and not essential to the plot. This is part of what makes FFL unusual among JRPGs and even RPGs in general. Its own narrative is very loose, a bunch of stand alone stories and many side ones, made possible by the many worlds of the tower.

Not that FFL isn't melodramatic at times, but it's a very wandering sort of game, of loosely connected experiences rather than the sort of epic narrative the RPG genre is commonly thought of. There's something more poignant about the death of this ordinary, nameless person, especially since he's one of the few people you ever encounter who's trying to complete the same quest, the same journey as you.

They aren't special, like the player's party. They're not going to reset the game if they die, they can't save and start over. They're dead since the beginning of the game. A lot of important side characters die in FFL, but the drama surrounding the circumstances of their death overwhelms the simple fact: they're dead. They exist to be dead, and they die for the player to see death and nothing else.

These moments are outside the normal experience of player and enemy death. In these circumstances, the idea of death is overwhelmed by the feelings of victory or defeat, in much the same way Grand Theft Auto makes death senseless and satirical. In the context of art and entertainment, death is only very rarely actually about death. Memento mori has its own name because it is the exception.

Final Fantasy VII was one of those big moments in videogame history because it was a major game subverting the major trope of the party's invincibility. Still, because it is a major character dying the drama of her death still overwhelms the idea of death itself. It's really about her, after all, and the loss of her for the other characters. Character death is about the character. What makes the moments in FFL and HL2E2 so unique is that they are about death and nothing else.

The moment in Half-Life is really a hit or miss sort of thing. I passed the body I talked about in the beginning maybe three times without thinking about it at all. The moment relies on the fact that humans are used to making sense out of things even if they don't actually make any sense.

I mean, if you wanted to really know why this dead guy is under your medkits, it's because some designer stuck him there. He's not a person or anything, he never walked there, he was spawned dead and will stay that way. But that dead body makes me want to tell a story.

Maybe he's just there to add flavor. Maybe he's there to freak the player out. Whichever, he's dead.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which channels the power of Lavos, and can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]