No Reprieve To Be Found – How Video Games Deal With Grief

by Javy Gwaltney on Apr 30, 2016 at 11:15 AM

This feature was originally published on April 27, 2016.

Heads up: This piece includes spoilers for the last episode of the Michonne miniseries, Max Payne 3, and That Dragon, Cancer.

There’s no moment quite like when you experience grief for the first time. I’ve had friends tell me it’s come upon them violently, heartrending outbursts of agony in grocery stores and theaters immediately after finding out who or what they’d lost: parents, jobs, relationships, pets. For me, it was a slow process, like mist creeping under a door and filling a room. I was in a new city a thousand miles away from home. I had sacrificed precious things for a job I wanted, given up one life for another, and news kept reaching me in texts and across social networks reminding me of that. Close friends were getting married. A grandfather I loved died and I couldn’t make it home to be with my family during the funeral. It all built up over a period of a few months before I finally unraveled in the hallway of my apartment complex, sobbing and chuckling and red-faced and unable to make myself stop for about an hour.

It’s a hell of a thing, grieving. Everyone’s pretty familiar with the five stages of grief (a quick review: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) by now given just how often it shows up in pop culture. This model, named the Kubler-Ross model after its creator, is often recognized as a symbol of comfort for those dealing with loss. Unfortunately, its usefulness is grounded more in popular narrative than actual truth: Kubler-Ross herself said she regretted writing it in a manner that suggested everyone deals with grief the same way and ultimately achieves peace of mind. The reality is bleaker: we have to deal with the darkness in our heads on our own terms and for some people that battle just goes on, with no reprieve or resolution in sight.

Video games are often created as products of blockbuster action entertainment, with the player intended to dispense death to untold numbers of foes and not confront loss longer than the time it takes to show the protagonist shedding a tear over a beloved comrade’s demise. It’s rare games present us with people who are grappling with their grief in a constant, unbreakable state.

The Walking Dead’s Michonne is such a person. Telltale’s new mini-series, which focuses on the fan favorite character, just wrapped up and while the first two episodes were duds, the last one is a fantastic hour of interactive storytelling. The series hops back and forth between the present and the past, following Michonne as she struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and as she confronts her own inner demons: namely, the hallucinations of her two daughters, Colette and Elodie. The two spend the series haunting her and dragging her into painful memories. It’s never made explicit if they died – only that Michonne couldn’t find them when she searched for them at their father’s abandoned apartment after the world went to hell. They could still be out there, alive or undead, and that possibility torments Michonne in her every waking moment.

Having a character’s guilt and loss manifest to them as terrifying hallucinations is not a new trick in games (Dead Space says hi), but it’s particularly effective here because of how the miniseries portrays that grief. By the finale, regardless of the player’s choice, Michonne is unable to definitively escape this torment. Having survived the violent situations of the final episode, she turns and sees hallucinations of her daughters in the distance, watching from the woods, an eerie and tragic promise they will follow wherever she goes. Her expression falls. She takes one last, hard look and then walks away, pushing forward as best as she can. What else can she do?

Our heroine might be one of the most badass zombie-slayers who ever lived, but she’ll likely never outrun the overwhelming horror of her own loss. However, that inability to escape ends up being a large part of what makes Michonne such a great character. She’s a capable survivor, more capable than nearly everyone she comes across, but she still aches constantly in a way that’s all too human. Her portrayal embodies the notion that we can still be strong people and get along in our lives in spite of devastating, ever-present hang-ups; it’s an ultimately optimistic, if bittersweet, perspective.

Continue to page 2 to read about more games that tackle grief.

The Max Payne series takes a different approach. Where Michonne’s turmoil made her an even stronger survivor in a hard world, Payne’s accumulating grief over the death of his wife and child has all but destroyed him. By the third game, he spends his off-hours popping pills and drinking himself into oblivion. He walks a line between life and death, totally apathetic about which side he winds up on and unable to make meaningful human connections. He’s broken and stuck in a loop trying to redeem himself for failing to save his family.

During the course of the third game, Payne goes to visit his wife’s grave and remarks on her death, “We’d only been married a short time. By now, she’d been dead longer than I’d known her.” It’s a hard line that says everything about the man. His grief is all-consuming and he can’t let go even though some part of him knows he should. Michonne’s curse is that she can’t escape what happened to her daughters; his is that he doesn’t even bother trying to escape the past anymore. It is, at this point, his only home.

Even the supposedly happy ending of Max Payne 3, with Payne walking into the sunset on some beach after saving two innocent lives and bringing down an organ trafficking operation, is drenched in melancholy and ambiguity. Countless people are dead, and there’s no guarantee Payne can escape the cycle of violence he’s spent the last decade living out. The expression on his face before the credits roll suggests aimlessness and confusion. Payne’s survived, sure, but does he even want to move forward with his life is the real question – one that Max Payne 3 refuses to answer for us.

Perhaps the game that has the most crushing examination of grief is That Dragon, Cancer, an autobiographical narrative-driven title about two parents watching helplessly as their child dies from cancer. It’s an unrelenting story about powerlessness and what people do when life cruelly snatches loved ones away from them. For the parents, Ryan and Amy, this meant grappling with the void and turning to Christianity in search of meaning and hope. As someone who’s agnostic, That Dragon, Cancer’s focus on how the two grappled with their faith made me uncomfortable because it left me wondering what kind of support I would cling to in the midst of such a tragedy. Other people? Something in myself? What would help me weather such a storm? Is there any true way to grieve and emerge unscathed from it?

I don’t know. I don’t think most people know, and the reason these games that address grief head-on are so interesting is they tap into that fear and take this interactive medium into unsettling, but thoughtful places. Perhaps in the end, playing them is a means to prepare ourselves better to take on that sort of inner darkness or, maybe, just to put ourselves in others’ shoes for a brief time and better appreciate the tattered but alluring tapestry of the human experience.