Games and gore. They go together like Paul W.S. Anderson and cinematic atrocity. In this modern age of immaculately rendered viscera, brutal death is taken for granted. But current-gen gaming certainly doesn't have the monopoly on horrifying video game mortality encouragement.
No, the games of years gone-by hold some truly horrific sights and sounds, providing a vertitable butcher's slab of disturbing untimely ends. Some are graphically distressing. Others psychocologically. Some are both and a whole lot more. So why don't you join me, as I host a tour through the archives of retro pain?
Kirby, whatever you may think, has a tough life. Tougher than Mario, tougher than Link, tougher than a starving Victorian orphan falsely charged with murder and forced to fight through the depths of Hell using a rotten banana to clear his name.
“But Dave, you big misguided mental!”, you may cry. “His world is all sugar-coated kittens and pink unicorns made of cushions and the innocent prayers of children! Whatever hardships could the nonsensical pastel puffball ever have to cope with?”
This. This is what. The seething, eldritch, Lovecraftian embodiment of hatred that is Zero. He’s the final boss in Kirby’s Dreamland 3, and he’s friggin’ horrible. His second-stage form sees him turn into a giant, lacerated eyeball, who attacks by squirting his own blood out of razor-thin slits in his gooey flesh. And then when he's on the ropes, and facing imminent death... Oh God, just watch it for yourself.
After years of super-happy-family-friendly-fun-time, Nintendo was to change things for the N64. More adult games were on the way alongside the usual Mario and Zelda fare, and as the last first-party game to be released on the SNES, Zero’s horrific countenance and Cronenbergian death animation were perhaps Nintendo’s way of saying “Toughen up, bitches! Soon we’re going to have Turok and Shadowman and everything!”
Above: Bleak enough to make an eyeball-slicing surrealist pause for thought
Salvador Dali himself freaked out when he beat Zero, despite his antics with Un Chien Andalou. Which may or may not be true, given the fact that he was dead when the game came out.
The first horrific death on the N64 however, came not from Turok or Shadowman, or even Killer Instinct. No, it came in a much more understated way, and from a much more unexpected source. And that made it far more disturbing and insidious, like getting through a horror film unscathed, only to leave the cinema and find that your car keys have turned into a dead vole in your pocket.
Above: The shift in tone is like a Disney film suddenly turning into an X-rated gore-fest
Super Mario 64. That’s the bugger. Not only did it sneak a mind-blending horror of a death animation into the most bright, joyful celebration of pure fun that gaming had so far produced, it held it off long enough to lull you into a false sense of security in the lead-up. Shigeru Miyamoto. Solid-gold sadistic swine.
I am of course using all of these words to put off having to discuss the drowning animation. But I’ve hit the point where I just have to face up to it. When playing any swimming level, should you be strong enough of mind to ignore all those harrowing, frantic pinging noises and keep Mario underwater when he was running out of air, this would happen:
The grasping. The choking. You can feel the anguish and panic searing through Mario’s soul. But that’s not the worst bit. No, the worst bit is when he just stops and goes limp. And makes not another move. And the camera lingers on, just to make it clear that he isn’t going to move ever again. And unless you really messed up when playing around in the moat early in the game, this black little secret was hidden away from you until you’d unlocked at least three stars in Super Mario 64’s friendly, gleeful, all-welcoming earlier levels. Miyamoto. Sick in the head.
Traditional Hollywood logic says that you can’t harm dogs or children. French game designer Eric Chahi? He says “F*ck you, traditional Hollywood logic. You're a great big massive ponce”. Then he smacks it in the face with a toddler and eats a Chihuahua.
Chahi, you must understand, made Another World. It was one of the most groundbreaking platformers never to be called Super Mario 64, and it was packed with random and instantaneous deaths. Hmmm, pionerring platformer developers and death. I’m onto something here…
Above: Chahi's earlier career in playground design was eventful but short-lived
Anyway, Chahi wasn’t going to give up his predilection for single-plane killing just because his new game featured a kid as its protagonist. Getting the animal abuse out of the way right at the start by having the boy’s dog kidnapped by nightmare shadow creatures, he then set about abusing his young lead in countless unnervingly animated ways. Okay, not countless. Watch this video and count them:
Mauled, mangled, broken, maimed, eaten, guts pulled out… Andy has a crap old time. Some of the deaths get away with it by being lovingly choreographed with attention to comedic detail in mind. Plenty of others have been lovingly crafted with attention to detail lavished upon creating the exact opposite effect. There’s one Hollywood tradition that Chahi does pay attention to though. You can get away with any certificate you want as long as you don’t show any blood. And he did, when Heart of Darkness got an E-rating.
Disturbing deaths in video games don’t come about merely as a product of gore. They’re the evil twin of good comedy, in that they require convincing, underplayed delivery and split-second timing in order to be genuinely affecting. Get any of that wrong in comedy, and it isn’t funny. Get it wrong in a death scene, and it definitely is.
Above: Only once has a wizard had a worse day than the protagonist of The Immortal
The graphic artists of The Immortal understood this, and rendered each of its many, many death animations with exactly the right body-crumping detail, using choreography that lingered on each frame like a bad smell lingers over a rotten corpse.
Above: Sadly, the best Immortal deaths video on the 'net doesn't allow external embedding. So watch it here
The gore and extravagance is the stuff of pure splatter-laugh gold, but the execution has just the right level of grim visceral realism to push the needle on the harrowing-meter well into the “Weeuauurgh” zone. Every single torturous near-escape has you half-expecting your Unluckiest Wizard In The World™ to make it out, but alas, bleak inevitability always, always has other plans. Usually very messy ones. And given The Immortal’s brutal and uncompromising difficulty, the threat of bleak inevitability’s success is pretty much said wizard’s only reliable companion along his journey. And as companions go, it’s a bit of a wanker.