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Materiality of Bodies in Video Games

Context & Theory2 min read

Death as the moment of confrontation with your (game) body

More often than not in games focused on killing as the primary means of progression, the player is in the first-person view. They seemingly do not possess a body, perhaps just hands holding their weapon, and the ability to move and scale obstacles. These games give their sense of embodiment through the apparent opacity of your character's body.

We see the first person view used when fine movement is needed, or when the playability revolves around the fine motor skills of the player, pitches against such similar obstacles.

In these games, the main motivator for the player is kill or be killed. If they do not succeed in their mission and die typically you are only then shown a glimpse of your body. The camera may zoom out, and the third person view is shown. Only in dying do you get to connect with your avatar's physical existence in the game, that is beyond its ability to manipulate the environment.

We can also find intentional exceptions to this. In one of the earlier shooters in memory Nintendo 64’s 007 Goldeneye’s player death animation has the screen fill with drips of blood until it eventually goes black. During our research we found that there are hidden death scenes here unused in the game, only unlockable by “hacking” the memory of the game, available much later with emulator technologies. What is interesting about this is that the game designer's original intent may have been to indeed allow the player to see Bond dying, however they made the conscious choice against this. Does adding or removing this connection enhance the risk or embedding of the player in the virtual space?

Killing as a way of managing chaos

When a player enters a level it could be seen as chaotic. Actors and the environment have been specifically designed to be “energetic”. That is, with a certain order, but unknown and disordered to the player, with the potential to be a boon, or a threat to their play. A player then overcomes this perceived chaos by encountering these energetic elements commonly by utilising death as a means to gain control and structure. This can organically lead the player to explore the designed environment, and participate in their own version of the planned narrative.

Some games are notably frustrating in a related manner. During our own play through of Secret of Mana, we had great satisfaction killing rabbites the first time around. When however we went back to observe our ‘ordering’ of these creatures, they had completely respawned. As if we had never been there, and our trek back and forth became annoyed by the jumping balls of toil. This is two-fold frustrating. The first, our work in killing them, and second the confusion of the spatial, or temporal order in which we travelled was not preserved. The universe was immutable, and our power stricken.

Others embrace this concept fully. Finding that it creates so much satisfaction to have persistent order, that it becomes the core element of gameplay. Notably in this category and the builder type games (Sim X), Minecraft and Terraria. The limitations in playing these games then becomes simply a resource or material concern. Your satisfaction comes through asking, “what can I utilise to achieve my goal?”. This is amplified by many players' experiences, after discovering cheats which allow for infinite resources, immediately lose interest, or find the game boring.

Returning to the killing genre of games mentioned before we can see that this resource, to be ordered, utilised, or consumed is the death of an actor itself. Enjoyment is created through the materialisation of death.

Alex goes into the various perspectives players have on this here.

A related machinima we have put together can be found here

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