I first became aware of my own mortality, not merely as a possibility but as an inevitability, when faced with a game over screen in a mediocre licensed game for the Sega Genesis. That much I know for sure. That much I remember. I don’t, however, remember my thought process. I don’t know how or why I arrived at that precipice, only that I did, and that it sucked. I was six or seven years old. It was a quiet, peaceful, unremarkable evening. The game, in case you’re wondering, was Tom and Jerry: Frantic Antics. It was colorful, cartoony, a little bland in retrospect (although I was enthralled at the time, mainly because it was what passed for “next gen” back then). I’d seen hundreds of game over screens before, and I already knew, intellectually, what death was. It was nearly bedtime. I was allowed one more try. I fell into a pit.
That’s when it struck me. Someday, after a certain amount of time had passed (and nobody could predict exactly how much), I, along with every single person alive, will die. For good. Game over. No continues. No save games. I’d had a fairly secular upbringing, so my thoughts didn’t turn to celestial palaces, eternal country clubs, or eventual resurrection. In fact, the concept of an afterlife didn’t occur to me until years later, and even then in the purely theoretical sense. To be frank, I didn’t really know how to process it at the time. And I basically still don’t.
I remember going to bed and staring at the darkness. It was the inevitability part, I think, that was new to me, the concrete understanding that just as my birthday, no matter how far away it would sometimes seem, eventually came around, just as the summers and the winters eventually came around, so too would the moment of my own death.
I wish I could remember what it was about that particular game over screen that did the trick. But, unfortunately, I can only speculate. And my speculations on the matter aren’t especially interesting. Since then, I’d torn through more avatars than napkins (most of them in Dark Souls, though Hotline Miami is probably close behind), and I like to pretend, like most adults, that I’ve come to terms with the reality of death, so unlike the common fictions and conceits of the medium.
The panic attack I’d experienced while grinding my way, death by death, through Heide’s Tower of Flame and the Lost Bastille and simultaneously listening to the recent This American Life segment on hospice care is surely nothing to be alarmed about. It was just incongruous, confronting the permanent and inescapable nature of actual death while thoughtlessly eating lance after lance, while watching the words “you have died” flash on the screen again and again, and knowing that no, I actually haven’t, not just yet.
When I hear accounts of actual war, it is not uncommon for me to feel guilty about occasionally enjoying simulated violence. Sometimes (too often), I feel guilty about writing in such serious tones on a medium that is still often conflated with child’s play, while all kinds of awful and serious things are happening all across the globe. But this, well, it’s different. For a moment there, I did feel a twinge of guilt. Where do I get off, resurrecting at the nearest bonfire like it’s nothing while real people are suffering through painful, and irreversible, endings!? Then I realized how stupid that sentiment was. It assumed, once again, that I was somehow exempt, that I wasn’t going to end up on one of those hospice beds sooner or later, without any power ups or magical rings to save me, just as surely as taxes are due every April. This was a problem that my several layers of privilege can’t protect me from. Some people die old, and some people die young, but all people die (transhumanist fantasies aside).
I once lived next door to an elderly artist. He’d take walks around the neighborhood sometimes. As I passed him on the street one bright, spring day, I smiled, said hello, and asked him how he was doing. “I am over ninety years old,” he answered. “Just yesterday, I looked young. I looked like you.” He didn’t bother asking how I was doing in turn. He sort of just kept walking. And while his demeanor might have been outwardly cantankerous, he’d earned the right to say what he wanted, and he exercised it when it suited him. I liked him for that. He died in hospice about a year later.
I had no reason to feel guilty. Yesterday, he looked like me. Tomorrow, I would look like him, and that’s only if I’m very lucky. I’m fairly sure that he ate more conscientiously than I do, and exercised to boot. I, on the other hand, have been playing fast and loose with my future corpse (shudder, shudder, shudder) since a fairly early age.
Ornstein…umm…the Old Dragon slayer, ran me through again. I rose to my feet beside the bonfire, on the edge of a vast sea, among the sunken ruins of a once thriving, now long dead, civilization. Unreasonable guilt gave way to perfectly reasonable existential dread. But, in the end, I kept listening, and I kept playing. What can you do? So it goes.