My grandmother’s feet resemble tortured bacon, but she has bigger problems. Sunk into a row of identikit beds in an overheated hospital, tubes inelegantly hanging from her nose and midriff, surrounded by the dull-eyed, the grey-haired, the paper-skinned, the terminally bewildered, her challenge is to simply stay alive. It would not make a great game.
Hospital picture from Shutterstock
Whenever I think about death, I end up thinking about games. Immortality is the constant that links the history of computer gaming, from Pong all the way to Ninja Gaiden Sigma. No matter how badly you mess up, no matter what weird end-of-level boss squelches into view, you can always have another crack. The worst consequence is wasted time and needless repetition.
Real life is also repetitive, but in a different way. The best games capture something of its open-ended flavour, but someone has always written a script and defined a conclusion (or a set of them). It’s harder to write a script for slowly dying in a hospital, even though the ending seems inevitable.
That’s not a criticism of games. Entertainment mimics real life, but edits out the segments that don’t suit the medium. Games are no exception. In the gaming world, death is a frequent but temporary condition, if only for commercial reasons. If no-one had been allowed to play Donkey Kong again after the first time Mario was hit by a barrel, modern civilisation would have taken a very different path, and Kotaku Australia editor Mark Serrels would be a rock-climbing hobo in Aberdeen.
I don’t know why Mario and Mark are on my mind when I make my near-daily visit. The hospital is aggressively low-tech. Most processes that don’t involve bodily waste consist of someone making a hasty scrawl on a paper chart. There’s a nifty device that measures your blood oxygen level simply by being placed on your fingertip, but that and the smartphones visitors end up deleting texts on while waiting for their relatives to wake up are the only visible signs of modern technology.
My grandmother sleeps fitfully and nurses bustle, but there’s still something alive about her that the most well-rounded console protagonist will never match. Even at this late stage, there’s no telling what fresh sequels await.
She always controlled narrative like a master novelist. An incident in 1930s Grafton was connected to something that happened at breakfast this morning, and it made sense despite the lack of any simple obvious link. In this hospital mode, the sentences that create those links are shorter, but her conviction is absolute. We have no choice but to go along for the ride. Human software has already determined our destination.
Death comes as the end, but it may not come today. On some days my grandmother is awake and talkative, keen to hear family news and ask questions. On others, she slumps, present largely as an indentation on the electrically-inflated bed. I can’t see any pattern to this; there are no elegant fractals to discern. She may come out of hospital, or this may be where she sees out her days.
If this is any game at all, it’s a labyrinth of classical design. The space is enclosed; we slowly make our way forward, not certain if the path leads towards our goal or represents a diversion. Any sense of progress is uncertain. There’s a fixed destination in the dark heart of this maze, but we won’t know we’ve arrived until the lights go out.
I wrote most of this a year ago. My grandmother is dead. And now I know why I was thinking about gaming and writing about gaming while that happened. It was a way of ignoring the vicious reality I encountered every day in those antiseptic corridors.
I’m the editor of Lifehacker, but confronting how life ends was too raw a prospect, too harsh, too actual. It was the job I was supposed to do, and I was too scared to do it. If I wrote something for Kotaku, that was a hobby, a diversion, a venture into somewhere playful. In that world, anything seemed possible. A final breath was not final. Press a single button and the quest would resume anew.
And so I pretended it was a game. But the GAME OVER message still appeared. Not just GAME OVER. LIFE OVER. Sometimes there is nowhere else to go.