I was around the age of 11 or 12 when I had my first serious experience with the concept of death and dying.
That's not to say that I hadn't thought of it before; I was lucky that my parents weren't the type to hide the concept from me. Growing up, I had what most people would consider an “unhealthy” fascination with the morbid and the macabre. Most people, anyway. But my Dad would argue that there's nothing wrong with wanting to understand what comes next. Knowledge is never a bad thing.
I'm very grateful that my parents took this stance. They allowed me to watch a lot of horror-related things (granted, these were usually shows that were aimed at children) so long as they could be present to explain that no, what I was seeing wasn't real, and yes, they were there to answer any questions I had. Funny enough, when it came to booting up the NES console to play rounds of Super Mario Bros. (or any other game I could convince my mom to buy me from yardsales), the same amount of supervision didn't apply.
Even then, it seemed odd that this would be the case. Mario's adventures weren't scary, but wasn't there a lot of death involved? After all, if you fell down a hole or had your face burnt off by a fireball, most players wouldn't exclaim that “I lost that level!” Usually, instead, you'd say “I died.” This was enforced, of course, by having multiple lives. If you “died” in the game, you'd just come back, over and over again. There was no permanence in death, and it was treated as an annoying stop sign on the road to victory, instead of a terminal end.
As I mentioned earlier, around the age of 11 or 12 (I can't quite remember, but I was still a pre-teen at the time), I had what I can only describe as a small depressive breakdown. Sometimes I would cry, or seem as if I was in deep thought. It was a strange time for me, where my mind centred on one specific theme -- One day, I was going to die. My Mom and my Dad would also die. I had no peace of mind, no strong belief in an afterlife or reincarnation. I couldn't fully understand this concept, nor could I comprehend what an eternity of anything (or void of anything) would be like. It was like carrying a heavy stone around with me all the time, and since I would normally use videogames as an outlet from whatever was bothering me, it seemed like it was inescapable. Even though it wasn't explicitly called 'death', games carried that lurking reminder that all things move towards their end.
We've come a long way since those early days, and it's exciting to see games that deal with the permanence and consequences associated with death, or even positivity towards death. Games like Rogue Legacy really stand out to me because your character could (and is very much expected to) die for good. You could carry on their lineage as a descendant, and be reminded of your past attempts, but what's done is done.
Death isn't something that should be avoided, in media or in life. Especially in a global society where death positivity is being championed by groups like The Order of the Good Death, home funerals and wakes are coming back into vogue, and a simple Google search can bring you all kinds of information about death and dying, it needs to be faced head on. Instead of something to be avoided or ignored, it's more important than ever to show the consequences of death.
A lot of people who played Final Fantasy VII admit to being deeply touched by Aerith's death. I remember reading forums and having discussions where people mentioned that they cried during her death scene; it was unexpected and permanent. Her death was something that isn't often shown in games. In many games, death is treated so trivially that corpses of other players or NPC's (who are often there to be killed) will fade away and disappear. It's treated as some stunning thing when the corpse remains, however, it almost always stays intact. Decay and decomposition never come into the equation.
There have been a few articles written recently, revolving around the concept of death positivity in gaming, which spawned my thoughts on the topic. One was posted on Gamasutra on the 20th of August, and another posted at The Mary Sue on the 21st.
At the time that I had read these articles, I also found a discussion on the official World of Warcraft forums that essentially called for Blizzard to impose it's method of dealing with death on Asian servers (that is, to show gravestones instead of corpses, due to “cultural issues”) on other servers, where releasing a character from death results in a skeleton left behind. The person who posted this discussion suggested that it would be less creepy and gloomy. While a gravestone would still imply a level of permanence in death, I feel that this method still candy coats the idea to some degree.
I understand why old games didn't delve into these topics. Mario wouldn't be a fun game if you had to cry over every goomba you stomped or if the cartridge melted in your NES the first time you fell into a pit. But games have come a long way from then, gamers have come a long way, I think it's time we start having these conversations and dealing with these topics in our entertainment.
Going back to World of Warcraft, it manages to address the cycle of life while at the same time being a big stupid MMO where you can die twenty times during a dungeon and carve your way through endless hordes of meaningless murlocks without batting an eye. The Tauren, as a culture are devoted to the Earth Mother, the cycle of life, and every creature's place in it. While ostensibly allies with the Forsaken Undead, the Tauren cast a wary eye on them, seeing them as an abomination against the natural order of things. It becomes a plot point in several quests and points of lore.
Dark Souls is another franchise that adds a certain weight to death. While you can die an infinite number of times (and are expected to come close, given its infamous difficulty) death is recognized both mechanically and narratively as an important thing. You risk losing your hard earned souls every time you fall, granting a frantic, desperate meaning to every fight. In the background story of the game, the constant rebirth and seeming immortality of the undead is regarded as a curse that is ruining the world. Death is a natural and necessary part of life.
Games have a unique capability to address death in ways that other mediums can't. If more games presented a frank and realistic depiction of death, it may help us when it comes to dealing with it in the real world. Death is always going to be a hard, tragic thing, but the ways that we react to it and cope with it can evolve.