How video games conquered the sting of death — and taught me the secret of failure

click to enlarge CHRIS HULSIZER ILLUSTRATION
Chris Hulsizer illustration

Today, watching other people play video games is a multimillion-dollar industry. But I was an early adopter: I'd sit on my neighbor Adam's bed as he'd play Nintendo for hours, riveted by the drama unfolding before me.

He'd hit the jump button, and I would twitch at the same time — my own body rising ever so slightly in time with Mario or Diddy Kong, as if I could will them across the yawning chasm, over the flying turtles or under the giant bees, through sheer force of hope.

But sometimes — the dark times — hope wouldn't be enough. Whether you're a hedgehog, a plumber or a bandicoot, death comes for us all. In Adam's case it came in the form of a swinging axe in Super Ghouls n' Ghosts.

No more lives. No more continues. Game over, man.

Adam's mouth twisted into a contortion of unfathomable agony. I'm not going to print all the words that came from that mouth in these moments. 1994 was a different time, and we are both better people now. Let's just say he thought the game was "bull." It was "shit." And — this was the gravest insult an elementary schooler could utter — it was "cheap."

A controller would be thrown. A pillow would be punched. A mother's voice would be heard through the door: "If I hear one more outburst like that, I'm taking away your Nintendo time!"

I could tell she was judging him. But I offered no such condemnation. I fathomed his agony. I myself had already died a thousand deaths.

Tens of thousands by now. I've been killed by mine-cart accidents, turtle-shell ricochets and GoldenEye slaps. I've been assassinated in Assassin's Creed and starved in Don't Starve. I've ended up dead in Dead Cells, Dead Space, Dead Island and Left 4 Dead.

Video game deaths are fictional, obviously: But the failure, the thing death is a metaphor for, that's real. When you lose in a video game, you actually did fail.

All these death-filled games didn't turn me into some twisted killer — not yet anyway — but they did shape me in profound ways. As I've aged, video games have taught me a slew of contradictory lessons about failure and success, ranging from nihilism to narcissism to existentialism to something almost like enlightenment.

It's not whether you win or lose that's important, it turns out. It's how the game plays you.

click to enlarge Even if our family survived long enough to get to Oregon, we'd only have learned that all the good homestead spots have been taken, there's nowhere to park our covered wagon, and the donuts are overpriced and overrated. - DEREK HARRISON PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Derek Harrison photo illustration
Even if our family survived long enough to get to Oregon, we'd only have learned that all the good homestead spots have been taken, there's nowhere to park our covered wagon, and the donuts are overpriced and overrated.

WHAT DO YOU WANT ON YOUR TOMBSTONE?

The first time I can remember dying was on a road trip to Oregon.

Oregon Trail was one of the first games I ever played. Dad copied the game onto a floppy disk from a school district computer and installed it on our Macintosh.

It seemed so simple, Oregon Trail. You name your wagon party (Adam preferred names like "Poop," while I, far more sentimental, chose the names of my own family members), pack your wagon with provisions (bullets, bullets, and more bullets), and set out for America's wild frontier.

And at first it couldn't be better — I'd kill whole herds of buffalo, stopping only briefly to travel a couple miles forward in my wagon. But then Oregon Trail hit me with a hell of a blow. The message is nasty, brutish and short: "Diana has dysentery."

What had I done? My mom was such a nice lady, but I just had to go and put her in this game, and now she has something called dysentery?!

I'd failed somehow, but I didn't know why, or how to stop it from happening again. Had I shot too many buffalo? Was this the buffalo's revenge?

All I could do is hold my breath, hoping each tick forward of the wagon didn't bring more misfortune. No such luck. Cholera gets my sister. My brother has typhoid.

I try to ford the Green River, but the wagon tips over into the rapids. I lose two oxen and most of my buffalo meat. Dad dies of a broken leg.

I try to cross one last river, and get one final message."You have drowned."

With that, all that's left of the Walters family is a couple of lonely tombstones scattered along future route I-84.

For those my age, the experience was so iconic, that some researchers have nicknamed an entire swath of Millennials the "Oregon Trail Generation."

It feels exactly right. One moment our generation was heading toward our manifest destiny, the next an economic crash overturned the wagon, our oxen are dead, our job prospects washed away, and we're drowning in student loan debt.

Some of my peers accept it, slapping "Dysentery Happens" stickers on the back of their covered wagons. Some revolt against the very premise, launching Occupy Oregon Trail protests and Save The Buffalo awareness campaigns and writing think pieces about how "Oregon Trailness" itself is a manifestation of the hegemonic colonialism endemic to a cultural substructure subsumed by toxic masculinity. Some get to Oregon only to light it on fire.

But I refused to do any of that. My family didn't raise me to be a quitter, and I didn't want their Oregon Trail deaths to be in vain.

As a child, I just kept restarting. I kept holding my breath. Maybe this cruel game was all about dumb luck.

But I was willing to be dumb enough to think I could still get lucky.

RESTORE, RESTART, QUIT

I am Prince Alexander of Daventry, and I've stumbled into a trap in the labyrinthian catacombs of the Green Isles: The doors lock, gears begin to whir, the ceiling slowly begins to inch down. I'm squished like a bug. Next thing I know, I'm at the gates of the underworld, and one of the game's iconic "RESTORE, RESTART, QUIT" death screens pops up.

"Alexander never was much good at SQUASH!" the game's narrator says with a bit too much glee.

I'm in fifth grade, hanging out at my church friend CJ's house, and we're trading seats while playing King's Quest VI: To Heir Is Human. These old point-and-click adventure games delight in death, striking players down for crimes as minor as eating a custard pie or crossing a rickety bridge too many times. Stupidity in these games is punished mercilessly, but intelligence and creativity are rewarded eagerly.

Every time CJ and I solve a King's Quest puzzle, we hear a little triumphal chime, a soundtrack to an epiphany. Even hearing it now, 25 years later in a YouTube walkthrough video, it's a Pavlovian hit of dopamine, the glory of success infused with the thrill of possibilities that had just been opened up.

I bought the game myself. The future of the Green Isles was too important to have to work around CJ's schedule. Soon I've reached the catacombs, my pack filled with everything from magical artifacts like the "Mirror of Truth" to junk like a red scarf and an ordinary brick. Anything could be a clue, I knew. Anything could save my life.

As the ceiling trap descends, I shove the brick into gears in the wall. The gears snap, the ceiling halts, and the doors open. The game throws a vicious minotaur at me. I counter with a red scarf.

I wave the scarf in the air, and the minotaur sees red. As he charges, I pull away the scarf at the last moment, and the beast rushes straight into the flames of his own sacrificial pit.

Eventually, I scam my way into the underworld itself. I bribe my way across the River Styx with catacomb coins, pass through the underworld gates — alive, this time — and face off against Death himself.

I could not just beat death, I could reduce it to tears.

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I throw down the gauntlet, and the Lord of the Dead responds with an impossible challenge: make him cry. Death is a bit of an unfeeling asshole, not a weepy type. But nothing, I figure, triggers tears like a clear reflection of a person's true self.

So I pull out the Mirror of Truth and dare Death into taking a good hard look. He stares into the swirling horror of who he is and what he's become, and the mirror cracks under the strain.

"And Death sheds a single, gray tear," the narrator says.

To a nerdy kid like me, the moral was clear: With that overactive brain under my messy mop of hair, I could not just beat death, I could reduce it to tears.

Who needed popularity? I was clever, and that was so much better.

I attend Tessera, a gifted program where we all sit criss-cross-applesauce to talk about how tough it was to be so much smarter than everyone else. I get 4 on the AP Euro test without really studying, mostly by reverse-engineering the psychology of every question. I decimate a high school debate opponent so thoroughly that she starts crying. I almost feel bad for her, but she should have known what happens if someone tries to go up against the Mirror of Truth.

But cleverness can't solve every puzzle. My most persuasive essay writing can't stop a friend from transferring schools. I think up elaborate schemes to convince crushes to fall for me, but they strangely seem to prefer my tall Swedish friend with the dreamy eyes. I learn that a smart-ass one liner can make the rest of Mr. Gannon's class burst into laughter, but it can also get your scrawny little stomach suckerpunched on the soccer field.

And then I get to Whitworth College, and I realize that I'm not that smart — not really, not compared to the perfect-hair perfectionists with tiny gel-pen handwriting, not compared to the bow-tied brats raised on a diet of Latin roots, not even compared to some of the longboarding bros who cut class for a round of Ultimate. My 4th Grade Linwood Spelling Bee ribbon has started to fray with age.

"You didn't even outsmart the minotaur on your own, did you?" the narrator inside my head taunts. "You found the solution on the King's Quest Geocities page."

I look in the mirror and don't know which truth is more crushing: That intelligence isn't the secret to success, or that I'm lucky it's not.

THE MEAT GRINDER

If the god of my adolescence was cleverness, the god of my twenties was tenacity.

I am Meat Boy, an adorable little anthropomorphic meat cube, trying to leap my way through the depths of Hell. Think Super Mario Bros but harder and, well, meatier. Like Humble Bundle or Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy is one of those games that revels in being fiendishly difficult.

Blessedly, death just warps you instantly back to the starting line, ready for another adventure. So once more I leap into the fray, once more into the breach, dear boy, and once more death comes quickly.

click to enlarge A single triumph, the ancient proverb states, stands atop the corpses of a thousand failed Meat Boys.
A single triumph, the ancient proverb states, stands atop the corpses of a thousand failed Meat Boys.

I try again. I die again. Try, try, try again. Meat Boy after Meat Boy, charred in flames, shish-kebabed on spikes. Try until my hands are raw and wrists are sore and eyes are red. Try until I see the level when I close my eyes, until its rhythms leave deep grooves etched into my soul. Try until the boundary between man and Meat Boy dissolves — his thoughts, my thoughts; his will, my will — until Meat Boy is all I've ever known or need to know.

And then, almost without expecting it, I reach the level's end. Bash your head against the wall long enough, and you don't just make dents, you change your brain.

It's why brutally hard video games can be so addictive. It's math: The thrill of any given victory is directly proportional to the sum total of the agony of your defeats. For a young journalist, that's a seductive lesson: Persistence is your trump card. Call a hundred potential sources — all you need is to convince one to talk. You fail many times, but you only lose if you click "quit."

But that lesson can be a trap too: It's why I spent two years failing a hundred times to win one woman's love, because I told myself I'd never give up. You can spend a lifetime trying to pick a locked door before you realize it's the ceiling that's crushing you.

I'd assumed back in college that I wouldn't play video games after I graduated — I'd be too busy getting married and having kids and raising a family of my own. But when none of those things happened, I returned again and again to worlds where failure was never permanent, where every challenge, no matter how tricky, was possible to overcome. A video game achievement is a tiny one, a silly one, but it's still an achievement, right?

I beat one more Super Meat Boy level, and the game's instant replay feature shows what a feat I had accomplished: I witness all hundred — maybe a thousand — of my attempts at that level unfold simultaneously, hordes of Meat Boys leaping toward their doom, bisected by saw blades, blown to bits by missiles, dissolved into pools of acid.

But one — just one — pulls off every jump and dash perfectly, bouncing off the walls, dodging the lasers and the buzzsaws, soaring past the showers of gore, to finally reach the end. He did it! I did it.

It's 2 am. I've forgotten to eat dinner or shower or shave. Emptied Beef Top Ramen bowls are stacked up haphazardly beside me at my bedroom computer desk.

In a metaphorical sense, beating a Super Meat Boy level is a symbol of what great things we can accomplish when we refuse to give in. But in an actual, literal, sense? The great thing you accomplished was beating a Super Meat Boy level.

click to enlarge The sun will rise tomorrow — but it will also set. The trick, Hades taught me, is to find the beauty in both events.
The sun will rise tomorrow — but it will also set. The trick, Hades taught me, is to find the beauty in both events.

THERE IS NO ESCAPE

It's 2020. The real world is a mess — a plague, riots, politics. Inside, at least, the brutal world of my video games is comforting.

I am Zagreus, son of Hades, god of the Greek underworld. And I'm running away from home. I slip out the door of the House of Hades and start my perilous journey out of Hell. A handful of battles later, I face my ex-girlfriend, the Fury sister Megaera, and she swiftly destroys what little health I have remaining.

As my vision fades, "THERE IS NO ESCAPE" unfurls across the screen.

When I wake up, the river Styx has washed me right back to daddy's doorstep.

"Don't be sad!" the god Hypnos says when greeting me. "Pretty much everybody dies sometimes!"

It's a message to the player, says Greg Kasavin, Hades' lead writer. I didn't screw up. Losing is all part of the game.

"That was our explicit goal," he tells the Inlander, "trying to alleviate the sting of failure."

Every time I die in Hades, I'm rewarded. Death lets you spend the keys and gems you gathered on your last run, permanently unlocking new weapons and new strengths: Golden fleece meets golden parachute.

"That was our explicit goal. Trying to alleviate the sting of failure."

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It's a perfect match for the game's theme. What is the purpose of myth — or even religion — but to grapple with the "cheap" and "bullshit" problems of death and failure? If you don't triumph in this life, perhaps you will triumph in the next. The meek inherit the earth. You suffer, but never in vain.

"All of our games have been concerned with this moment of failure," Kasavin says. "It takes a lot of life experience to turn failure around and understand that that is the source of learning."

It's appropriate, then, that when you meet Sisyphus — punished to eternal drudgery by the Greek gods — he doesn't act tortured. He's found a sort of zen, a sort of peace that passes all understanding, amid his boulder-rolls-up-boulder-rolls-down cycle of failure.

Hell, for months, the game worked the same way. You'd get to the surface, only to be unceremoniously sent back to the start, being told that, oops, Zagreus had died by, say, stepping on a farming implement.

That changes in September of 2020, when the completed version is finally released. So once more, I dodge the gorgons' stares and the Hydra's flames and the minotaur's axe, and once more, I face down my disapproving father. Once more, I defeat him.

But this time, Zagreus does escape. As he trudges through the snow on the surface, a gorgeous song, one I've never heard before, starts playing. He approaches a cliff, and we see the Grecian sunrise for the first time, stretching over the Mediterranean.

And my eyes start to well up.

I'd spent six months in lockdown, cut off from my coworkers, cut off from my friends, cut off from family. Six months I'd been toiling in this COVID underworld, chained to this boulder, no hope of reaching the surface. All the angst I'd been using video games to block out began rushing in.

Then — spoiler warning for a year-old game and a 2,500-year-old myth — Zagreus meets his birth mother, Persephone, for the first time. She's waiting on the surface in her beautifully tended garden. I hadn't seen my own mom or her garden in person for months and months and months.

And she still cares for you, and still loves you, and is happy to see you. I'm shedding tears — not happy tears, or sad tears, but closer to a desperate form of hope. I can be a bit of an unfeeling asshole, but nothing triggers tears like a clear reflection of a person's true self, their needs.

Zagreus starts to cough. Because, of course, victory is not that simple. Because of course, death comes in more than one variant. Of course, you wake up back in the House of Hades.

"Hades was not lying when he said there's no escape," Kasavin says.

But this time, the climb up seems easier, because I know who's waiting at the end. Success means just a few more moments of conversation with someone you love, and that's enough.

Yet here's the final piece of brilliance: That's your reward for losing, too. Each time you're defeated, you're given more story. The game's narrative unfolds in the moments after you've died. You wander the halls of the House of Hades, and chat up the other residents, like the hero Achilles ("the pain of death is but another obstacle") and your father, Hades ("Stupid boy"). You can even pet, pet, pet Cerberus, the family dog.

Bit by bit, after each failed run, the characters begin to mature. You patch things up with Meg, eventually sharing a hard-won glass of ambrosia together. Zagreus becomes a bit less of a smartass, but a bit more compassionate. Even Hades' cruelty begins to wane with time.

I can almost hear the King's Quest chime ring out as my own epiphany clicks into place: There is no escape. We may succeed in brief moments, but for the most part, it's fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, until the final Game Over. But those failures are where life's complexity and richness and true beauty comes from.

I've never grown closer with anyone by bragging about all the achievements I've unlocked. Sharing failures and fears, angst and weakness — that's the stuff that intimacy is made of.

All we really need is to have a home to return to, a community waiting down the river, and someone to share that glass of ambrosia with, to rant with about our bouts with dysentery and fights with minotaurs; to laugh with about the Meat Boys we matched with on Tinder; to commiserate with about the boulders we're still stuck rolling.

"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," French philosopher Albert Camus once wrote. "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

He's almost right. But it's not the single-player struggle that's the key: It's the multiplayer. It's the co-op. It's about watching each other play, rooting for every jump, and supporting each other's anguish when we fail. Sometimes it's about picking up a friend's thrown controller and encouraging them to try, try again.

Other times, it's about turning off the game entirely, and proposing a radical alternative:

"Let's ride bikes!" ♦

About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

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