Embodiment in Everybody Dies

At the inception of the “digital game”, two camps spawned fairly independently of each other. One was a game that had visuals but very little plot. Pong, Tetris, even Pac-Man and Mario are of this type. “Computer technology”, which for the time was just machinery with processors capable of doing algorithmic computations independent of human hand, was still in its infancy, and the mechanics strained that capability heavily (the visuals, movement, physics, etc.). Thus, most games of these types had very little narrative.

The other was the text based RPG, also called adventure games. The first of these were designed to be somewhat like a single player digital Dungeons and Dragons (or whatever Tabletop RPG is your preference) in that a setting is described to the player, who then had to decide what to do. Narrative was essential, as there were no graphics or skill/coordination based mechanics (platforming, fitting a 4 block shape into holes at increasing speed), and the creators were free to go wild with the narrative because the lack of visuals made them quite a bit less processor intensive, so the bottleneck was merely the size of the program.

As hardware improved, videogames with narrative became easier and easier to create, so text based games slowly faded from mainstream. As is the tendency of media, that which fades from public eye tends to form a cult following, in this case made up of scholars interested in how digitizing narrative and literature warps it in new and interesting ways.

Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe is a game that certainly does just that. You start out as Graham, a self-described metalhead who works at the local grocery store. He was assigned to “cart duty” that day, but as another coworker had already collected nearly all of the carts, he has only one option left if he doesn’t want to go back empty handed; go dig out the cart he and his friends had pushed into the nearby river years ago. As you may expect by the title of the game, he dies doing this. What’s interesting, and different from novels, video games and text based adventures, is that the story continues from here. The player is given the message “*** You Have Died *** followed by “And yet, somehow, the game continues”. The player’s location has been set to Void. Graham’s last thought, for the moment anyway, is that “I don’t feel like myself. In fact, I’m sure my forearms weren’t as… dark as that, last time I looked. Or as skinny.” Suddenly, you are in a bathroom stall, and your name is Ranni. He, and his manager at the grocery story, dies soon after. This is where it gets (even more) interesting. You “wake up”, and oddly enough, you are still Ranni. However, you have Graham and Lisa, your manager, in your head. You have also gone back in time a day. After this point, no new mechanics are introduced, and you can finish the game from here, with the people from the previous timelines in your head.

Perspective hopping (the switching of points of view) is mainly a text concept. Infinite Jest used it, extensively. In all of the text adventure games that I’ve played (take with a grain of salt, as I have a total of four under my belt), the player has stayed in one point of view the entire time, and in most of them, death was something to avoid. I’ve played a few video games with perspective switches, but in most of them, the first character you play as was a sort of tutorial, and the switch in perspective signified the start of the main game. In Everybody Dies, not only do you switch perspective several times but when playing from the point of view of a specific character, you have access to the perspective of other characters at the same time.

The unique variation of perspective in this game brings to mind the concept of embodiment in N. Katherine Hayles’ work. With three distinct voices chiming in from one body as you’re solving puzzles, being able to see through their eyes and the like, it makes the player very aware of the relationship between the consciousness and the body, which Hayles feels is being erased in the information age.

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2 Responses to Embodiment in Everybody Dies

  1. charlenejo says:

    I feel my understanding of digital “embodiment” is constantly shifting. In regards to text-based adventure games, of which I have as little experience as your (Skyrim and only a few others), I’ve rarely logged enough hours to connect with my character deeply enough to feel that he/she embodies my gamic-self. And yest, as I just said it, I have “gamic-self”–there is always a lingering thought in my head that my character embodies who I am. Why else would I spend hours playing WOW just to get the specific piece of gear that I want to outfit my character with? In a game like “Everybody Dies” the switch in perspective may highlight the relationship between consciousness and the body when you’re searching for such a connection, but I feel like being able to inhabit multiple characters actually lessons our attachment to embodied experience.

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  2. leficorn93 says:

    The presence of several different perspectives definitely heightens the reader’s awareness of existing outside the character. The leap from one character to another can keep the reader from truly experiencing embodiment of any one character (however, I have had instances where I feel embodied in the character whom I relate to most, while separated from the other characters). Although the existence of multiple electronic avatars heightens the awareness of the game player’s existence, it also can also heighten the intricacy and thrill of the game.
    In Mario Kart, the player chooses one character to play with per game, creating more embodiment. In Donkey Kong 1, 2, and 3, the player constantly switches between characters, which creates the mindset that I, the player, am controlling the game, rather than the character with whom I’m playing
    Which technique is better depends on the game or story itself, and which technique benefits the goal of the game/story best.

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