Major spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2 up to the Epilogue Part 1.
Video games are nothing if not weird. They love to tell us our playable character has “died” when the character’s life-bar has depleted, whereas the characters are just temporarily unavailable until we reload a checkpoint or saved game. Most of the time, the stories do not bend or adjust to your character’s death, but fade into the background into some temporary purgatory, awaiting your Divine-like intervention to resurrect that status of the games’ universe moments or minutes before the playable character’s demise. The Souls’ games love to scream “YOU DIED!” when you are murdered by some monster, but it should rather say “YOU’RE INCONVENIENCED!”. Indeed, upon reload, we come back smarter, more prepared for that which ended our character.
This temporary inconvenience is Death Lite, where the game’s universe locks down, freezes and awaits the return of our immortal character – she emerges perfectly fine, as if nothing has happened, maybe with less currency. Then the cogs of the universe begin turning and the plot rolls out again. I’m not criticising or complimenting Death Lite, merely describing it for the sake of clarity.
I have just finished my penultimate year of law school exams. While preparing, I watched a family member lose to an inoperable tumour. We buried him not long before my first paper. The cogs of the world did not stop, nothing froze into temporary purgatory to give us space to breathe. Ghosts are the names we give to the absence people leave in the world, around which the flow of our lives must now bend. They give effect through their once existence, the deeper their impact on our lives, the more our lives must bend. Death is experienced only by the living. My concern was therefore for my loved ones who most experienced this absence.
After the combined stress of death and exams, I threw myself into Red Dead Redemption 2 recently. Here was Death Lite operating as normal, my character “died” numerous times, only for him to magically return after a brief reload screen, untouched and unmenaced.
Then Arthur began coughing.
At first, it was barely noticeable: After a massive shootout, brawls, falling in mud, swimming, it was unremarkable for him to be coughing a little. But then he began coughing while having conversations. Then he began couching so viciously, the screen blurred and there was blood and he collapsed in the street. The doctor tells Arthur he’s got tuberculosis.
The game bends to this: All your stats suffer as a result, people comment on your coughing and certain moments of Arthur being a badass collapse with him on the ground, in a coughing fit. One oily snake-like character calls him Black Lung.
In keeping with the franchise’s dark theme, Arthur eventually dies – but this is not Death Lite. This is actual death, resulting in the game continuing in an Epilogue. You are no longer playing as Arthur, but as returning hero John: you occasionally meet those who also knew Arthur and discuss his death, his life, what he meant. This is one of the few games that actually deals with the hole left by a main character, someone who actually dies. There’s no reloading to get Arthur back and continue: the flow of the story has bent permanently around the ghost of Arthur.
I had grown to be really fond of the Arthur I had created. He had tried to be decent, respectful and righteous. He tried to make up for his past wrongs. He stood up to injustice and against the brutality of the men around him, who used their power to belittle those who were weaker. My Arthur hugged veterans, respected women, listened to the stories told be people of colour about their experiences of slavery and racism. And now he is dead. After the experience in my actual life of losing a family member, I felt echoes of genuine loss and grief. I was deeply affected, struggling often to play, knowing Arthur was dying.
The game makes no apologies for this. There’s no cure or magic that will save Arthur and he brought this illness on himself: a stunning metaphor for his past evil catching up to grab him by the heart – or rather lungs.
There were too many chords that echoed the grief I’d seen and experienced around me. The game came out at a time when I was trying to escape the slow impact of death and loss, yet it carefully and deliberately forces you to experience it with the very character you shape and learn to appreciate. I am furious and impressed with Rockstar, due to how much emotion I experienced. Naturally, it had all to do with timing but to me it also shows the façade of Death Lite that other games shove at us – and the impact actual death has. How the world does not stop. How life does not freeze. It bends but continues on, never pouring into the hole created by the late person’s absence. There is no reload for life and Arthur’s story reminded me of that, powerfully.