5th International Conference

Digital Culture & AudioVisual Challenges

Interdisciplinary Creativity in Arts and Technology

Hybrid - Corfu/Online, May 12-13, 2023

The representation of death in video games and interactive media: a narrative, aesthetic and gameplay analysis
Date and Time: 12/05/2023 (14:30-16:00)
Location: Online
Christina Chrysanthopoulou
Keywords: video games, interactive works, virtual reality, gameplay mechanics, game narrative, game aesthetics, game audio, death, horror games, adventure games, artistic games

Video games and death go hand-in-hand since the invention of the medium as the latter often represents a losing condition for the player. Death, therefore, ends up being associated with a detrimental concept which, symbolically, is not as significant as death in other artistic media, such as cinema. However, if we fast forward from the simple video games of the 70s to contemporary works, we will discover more and more games that - whether they bypass the aforementioned convention or not - explore the concept of death in unique ways, creating powerful experiences for the players that seek more than entertainment. This paper aims to analyse interactive works which approach the concept of death in an existential way, and highlight the narrative, aesthetic, and gameplay elements that construct the user experience.

This research is focused on the following genres of video games and interactive media that tackle the concept of death:
Adventure games
Horror games
Experimental / artistic games
Virtual reality interactive works
Although the line discerning the categories is sometimes thin, most of the works that have been studied focus on user immersion with the implementation of dominant narrative elements, tied with digital worlds that are aesthetically consistent with the story. Even if a work itself is seemingly abstract, especially in experimental / artistic games, the extensive use of environmental storytelling elements allows for the creators to deliver impactful experiences that are however open to interpretation.

Games and interactive experiences often employ a “hero’s journey” type of narrative, however there are quite a few paradigms especially among horror games and experimental works that deviate from the monomyth structure by refusing to deliver a sense of atonement to the player. What is of imperative importance in such stories is the fact that narrative can be branching and dependent on the user’s input, making gameplay choices intricately connected to the story.

Visually, games that are set in three-dimensional realistic worlds - as opposed to stylized or two-dimensional graphics - either use first person cameras or third person cameras that follow an avatar. Especially in the horror genre, there has been a tendency over the past years to use almost solely a first-person view, in order to achieve a sense of embodiment and immerse the players. However, there has been a significant contribution to the genre of horror games with dominant death allegories, of works that integrate cinematic elements and make use of staged/fixed cameras, allowing for the creator to control what the players see at any given point. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the use of colour palettes which are also in compliance with cinematic works of the same thematology. Even when it comes to stylized or 2D graphics, games and interactive works that tackle the concept of death, make use of visual elements which aim to create an atmosphere that symbolises states of limbo, grief, and death anxiety. Player actions again play a significant role, as the atmosphere may also change as the experience progresses, so as to emphasise the switch from one state to another.

Audio plays a fundamental role in the user experience, as the combination of background music and sound design is what ties the narrative and graphics. Again, as with the visual elements, sound in games and interactive works of this context not only aims to give feedback to the users for their actions, but enhances their experience in a unique way, often unperceived by the players themselves. Sound, whether designed to accompany the players’ actions or to create an auditory background, can be used to induce anxiety, fear, or even calmness, not only in a subliminal way, but even in contradiction with the player actions and visual elements, allowing for a secondary narrative layer that may be consciously unrecognised.

All these elements will be detailedly analysed in the paper through specific paradigms of games and interactive works, in order to discern the narrative, aesthetic, and gameplay similarities among them. The ultimate goal is to combine these common elements in order to design an original project that deals with the concept of death, as a hero’s journey that ultimately celebrates life.

Christina Chrysanthopoulou

Christina Chrysanthopoulou holds a M.Sc. in Architecture Engineering from the NTUA, and a M.A. in "Art and Virtual Reality", a collaboration between the ASFA and the Paris 8 University. Currently, she is a PhD candidate at the School of Film Studies of the AUTH. She has several publications in conferences such as Hybrid City II in Athens, IEEE VR2015 in Arles, and VS-Games Barcelona 2017, and has participated in various exhibitions and festivals, such as the Ars Electronica Festival (Linz, 2015), the A.MAZE festival (Berlin, 2018), the ADAF 2020, and the Ars Electronica Garden Athens 2020.

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