Permadeath

By

I knew the video game would be painful. In my early twenties, when I played Heavy Rain, my day-to-day was full of misery, depression, and anxiety and a preoccupation with death. I’d heard the premise before I started: a psychological thriller where a father, Ethan, must complete a series of intense challenges to rescue his son, Shaun, from the Origami Killer. Why turn to a screen to see pain when pain was what I was already living?

But when it’s a game the pain is different because when it’s a game you can win. In Heavy Rain, there are no respawns; if one of the four playable characters dies, they’re dead, but higher stakes means more responsibility, more satisfaction for each moment of progress. I wanted to rise to that challenge.

When it was time to complete the first challenge toward finding my son, I, as Ethan, had to drive the wrong way down the freeway—something I, in a different context, have considered. I had to make it through safely to get the pieces of the address to find my boy, Shaun. I chose the lanes to switch into, swerved when I needed to swerve.

When I had to crawl through tunnels of shattered glass my claustrophobia activated, but I chose the route and made it through. I bandaged the wounds and moved forward.

For the third challenge, I walked into an empty, run-down apartment and sat at a table. The killer’s instructions were delivered with a recording saying, “Are you prepared to suffer to save your son? You have five minutes to cut off the last section of one of your fingers in front of the camera.”

I panicked. I didn’t want to do it but I didn’t want to run out of time. First things first, I knew I didn’t want the saw sitting on the floor next to the table. Definitely not the scissors (seriously, who the hell would pick the scissors?). I thought: maybe I should cop out and intentionally fail this one? But then I wouldn’t get this part of the address for where to find my kid, and even with completing all the other challenges, what if it wasn’t enough?

I settled on the butcher knife, pulled it from its place stuck in the wall. At different times in my life, I considered options for the purpose of self-harm: Gillette razor, fruit knife, corkscrew. But in the video game, I, Ethan, sat back down at the table. All these choices and there was no way around it. I was going to harm myself. With a breath I extended my left pinky. It took two cuts—and I had to disassociate myself from the man on the screen.

 

As a kid, I didn’t yet know how to think about my mental state of misery (and apathy) as a health concern, didn’t yet understand how my depression first manifested, long before college, where, in my final year, the chance for escape would often call to me from the bottom of the campus’s many ponds. It took me a long time to find language to characterize how I felt: the haze I walked in, the physical aches, the confusion, the memory loss. The many ways the real world felt less valuable than a scripted one, one where everything has purpose, or at least intention, because it’s been preprogrammed.

I often asked myself, “How am I going to make it to adulthood?” The underlying question was whether I wanted to. Could I hold on long enough to feel like living in this world would someday be worth it? Was I prepared to suffer to save myself? Did I know how to be anything but depressed and anxious? Could I learn?

In games like Heavy Rain, the consequences of your thoughts and opinions are made real through decisive action. Perhaps this is what draws me to role-playing and decision-based games: there is something specific and actionable to be done about how I feel and a clear, emerging cause and effect. As a kid, I couldn’t feel invested in my own life, but I could find myself invested in these virtual lives, in lives with observable opportunity in their scripted futures, in lives where I could understand how death matters. Where I could, for example, be a tactician in Fire Emblem caring about a stray arrow piercing the wings of Florina’s pegasus, and I could choose to live with my failing, or start the chapter over, reload, care enough to do better. Or not.

 

By the end of Heavy Rain, I’d made notable mistakes but the killer was caught, and Ethan and Madison—a reporter who’s also a playable character—ended up together. As they settled into their new home with Ethan’s son Shaun, she said, “We’ve earned the right to be happy.”

Curious, this framing—happiness as a right to be earned, not something inherent we should all be afforded. I often don’t feel like happiness is something I have earned. Even playing video games, sometimes I forget to do the enjoying part and the game becomes a series of goals, a list of my potential failures, a need to get everything right.

But my ending is only one potential ending. If I were to continue to play to earn all the PlayStation gamer trophies, I’d have to complete the one called “The Perfect Crime.” In this scenario (because everyone dies who could have learned the identity of the murderer), the killer gets away. Due to your mistakes and decisions, multiple playable and non-playable characters are dead. The story ends with the death of Ethan’s son, Shaun, followed by Ethan’s suicide.

And this isn’t the only ending in which Ethan dies by suicide. In any ending where Ethan is alive but Shaun has died, Ethan kills himself. A game presumably driven by your decisions but if you’ve made enough mistakes, enough bad choices, then you have to watch it happen. Your agency in the script has limits. All your efforts and still you must reckon with this end.

 

Perhaps one of the most well-recognized elements of video games is respawning, where death is more a setback than a finality. This manifests in different forms; for example, the old-school arcade model of “lives” before a Game Over; the checkpoint model where if you die, you revert back to a checkpoint; and having a team of allies who revive after each battle.

In many of these games, each life has a set value. Sacrifice and risk can be calculated. A “revive” item costs four thousand poké-dollars; “phoenix down” costs one hundred gil in Final Fantasy X; the respawn points (New-U Stations) in Borderlands 2 costs seven percent of your total money per death. One could argue, if it costs fifty cents to play Ms. Pacman, and Ms. Pacman has three lives, then each life is worth about seventeen cents. You lose time and some progress, but the redo is a feasible option, especially if money isn’t a concern.

As an adult I’ve become less and less interested in lenient respawn mechanics, in approaches to death that allow it to feel casual. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a death is easily quantifiable in simple terms, and/or that its impact can feel negligible. However morbid it feels, I find comfort in getting to see the character’s dead body, knowing this is an end—even if resurrection happens through the loading of a previously saved file. I appreciate, for example, the death screen Dark Souls features: a darkening screen with the words “YOU DIED” in red font and all caps (similar to Mass Effect, except in that game it’s the words “Critical Mission Failure”), to make sure you know: you fucked up, you’re dead, don’t let this go unnoticed.

One of my favorite game series, Fire Emblem, a fantasy turn-based strategy game, features a permadeath system for (most of) your allies: they can be killed and they don’t come back. In Fire Emblem you play a tactician commanding a team of units, all of whom are named and have backstories and families and dreams for after the war. While a protagonist death results in a game over, a fallen friend in battle usually means that friend is dead. They have a final quote, something like, “It’s going to get terribly dark now… but that’s okay… I’ll be brave,” and that’s it. With each of the six installments of the game I’ve played, I still experience the feeling of, I’ve failed you. I put you in harm’s way. This is my fault.

Still, I find this context oddly comforting, the idea of death resulting from specific and measurable missed opportunities, parts of a script now unused and not to be experienced by the player. If I were to die—by my own decision or otherwise—there’s no file with specific data listing what I might have later said if I’d lived. But there’s something comforting about not knowing, too—an incalculable uncertainty, to be determined.

 

When I stood at the edge of a pond on campus in college (or the many times I walked or ran by them and considered stopping), somehow it wasn’t a sense I had so much ahead of me to achieve that kept me from walking in. It was that I knew my family and friends would feel badly. Would miss me. Would perhaps blame themselves. I thought of the people who told me they loved me, even if at the time I wasn’t capable of feeling that love, and I knew if I decided to stop existing their pain would still exist. If I decided to not live with my mistakes, they would still go on living with theirs, and also with parts of mine. Those parts would carry on in this world. I knew, for example, how much my father loved me, how he’d said more than once he would struggle to go on living if something happened to me or my sister.

And even if I were to die, I wouldn’t be able to see my own dead body. How would I even know for sure I was dead, and therefore feel the satisfaction of having ended my pain? The hope was to no longer exist, no longer be real, but that’s an impossibility—there are parts of us that keep on. I remember that even after the end of Heavy Rain, Ethan lives on the disc, ready to have another go at saving his son.

I think it’s both true that suicide is a choice and that depression is a disease that kills—though to say the first is true without the second feels irresponsibly incomplete. With my body at the bottom of the pond, what would have killed me: the water, the illness, or myself? When Ethan strings up the noose, who’s to blame? I don’t know, though I know in some moments of self-harm it has felt more like I was watching the harm happen than doing it to myself. Depression and anxiety might feel inevitable, as might an early death, but without a programmed script I hold onto the hope that maybe they’re not.

What I do know is this: when depression robbed me of my ability to care, I turned to video games and found everything to be won and despair to be beaten. I know when I play these games with the knowledge the characters could die, I feel alive when they don’t.  However hard it might be, if there’s a skill I can develop to keep my characters away from some harm, maybe I can learn that skill for myself. I know when I was Ethan, I saved him. From certain death. Maybe I can save myself, too.

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Rumpus original art by David Dodd Lee.

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). If you’re a journalist reporting on suicide, suicide prevention, or mental health and mental illness, you can find guides and resources to help you in your work at ReportingOnSuicide.org. This is a personal essay and represents the thoughts and feelings of its author first and foremost. Overall, we have tried to adhere to many of the suggestions at ReportingOnSuicide.org while editing this essay; however, we have also respected the author’s wish to communicate what it’s like to live with suicidal ideation to those who don’t experience it, which means we’ve included some material that might not be appropriate in a traditionally reported journalistic piece. – Ed.


Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit and is the author of the poetry chapbook Capable Monsters (Bull City Press, 2020). A graduate of University of Michigan's MFA in poetry, his work has found homes through Indiana Review, TriQuarterly, Waxwing, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. You can find him online at marlinmjenkins.com. More from this author →