It should be easy to argue that a violent death is transgressive; that murder is a transgression is pretty obvious, but the depiction and the “virtual” experience of it is a lot more complicated. Fiction is saturated with gruesome death and killings described in varied details. Games are not only filled to the rim with dead bodies, it makes us perform the wicked deeds themselves – we are no longer merely bystanders to the massacre. So how come we don’t consider game (in video games and other game) killing transgressive as a rule? Because players don’t seem to react negatively to it in the majority of cases. There are however situations where they (who are we kidding, we) react with shock, with dismay, with terror, grief or a whole list of other negative emotional responses. What makes these deaths special? And is there an element of transgression here? This is of course way too complicated to answer in a simple blogpost, but a recent killing had me pondering my reaction a bit.
Being the total geeks that we are (Kristine and myself), we are playing a retro fantasy Pathfinder campaign with a well-known Norwegian journalist and author as a GM. It’s the sort of campaign that takes us far from the field of transgression, but deep into the geekier side of play and games. Or so one would think. The fact that I’m playing a slightly racist elven magician with an unhealthy appetite for phrenological studies and eugenics is of course crossing some boundary or other. But it’s hard to resist highlighting the racialized aspects of fantasy role-playing games – which should probably be a future blogpost [Note to self].
So here we were, minding our business, fouling up the GM’s plans at every opportunity. As fantasy heroes are wont to do. He throws up a big sign screaming plot to the left, we hack down the troll to the right. We are sent to exterminate kobolds? We make a deal with them – because why not? And after all, my character argues, we make deals with humans all the time, there’s not much difference. Causing the humans in the party to groan. And then we set out to set up shop in a small village for us to lord over in-between quests. You know, typical adventure stuff.
In one of our latest adventures, our little village (now a barony under our benign rule) came under attack from a group of orcs. We mounted a brave defense, arming the peasants and 0-levelers with sticks and stones, hoping that they could keep the baddies occupied long enough for us to kill them. And kill we did. We hacked, we slashed, we set them on fire and we skewered them with arrows. Following the ebb and tide of the battle, we found ourselves at the local temple where several orcs had gathered. We made our way through them and into the temple where we found the village priest losing a desperate battle against the orcs. As we made ready to enter the fray, the GM described matter of factly how the cleric’s head was severed from his body with a single cut of an orc blade, falling to the ground with a thump, followed by his slumping body.
This should not have given us pause. But it did. A minor NPC. We’d interacted with him only a couple of times. Our momentum lost, we stared at the GM with open mouths! “He killed the priest?!” Then we looked at each other. Bemused by the other’s reaction. And still, a few days later this bemusement stuck with us. As well as a slight sense of grief for the dead cleric. Why was this? Out of how many dead NPCs? 50 at least died in that battle alone. Like the local sheriff, whom we’d actually bonded a little bit with. Why this priest?
There’s of course the religious factor. Killing a priest is considered transgressive, even in modern warfare. It’s almost up there with bombing a hospital. Both of which are done, but people react negatively to it. The house of God, like a hospital, is considered a sanctuary for civilians, and a cleric is an extension of that sanctuary. And he is thus offered some sort of protection – in theory. In a way the cleric could be considered a non-combatant or an innocent trying to defend his sanctuary. And this could be the reason for our reaction.
We shouldn’t rule out that our reaction was one of surprise. It was a definite shock. There was no expectation of a major death. He was a named NPC after all, an ally. And he was dispatched so unceremoniously. There was no build-up, just a quick and brutal death. There was no embellishment in the GM’s description, and while it caused a pause for us the players, the characters we were playing had no such luxury. Stop for a breath and then continue with the killing. The cleric dead on the temple floor, one body among many. The shock stayed with us players. It was the first then we talked about after the game. And we still return to it two weeks afterwards.
In the same battle the town’s sheriff was killed. We’ve had a lot more dealings with him, as he also ran the local inn. The nexus of all adventuring activity. But we didn’t think much of the reports of his death – maybe because we didn’t witness it personally? Or maybe because as a sheriff and a former adventurer we expected him to have a violent death? In contrast to the death of our priest, our reaction was damn, we need a new sheriff. And an innkeeper!
The cleric was a named NPC, not one of the faceless peasants or merchants that we had conscripted to our service. He was one of the first characters we encountered when we arrived in the village seeking information about nearby tombs (yes, we are… tomb raiders). So he was “somebody”, even if we’d dealt with only a few times. And we considered him part of the infrastructure we were building in the village. We took him for granted. Our reaction to seeing him killed may be kin to the kind of empathy you feel for characters you consider innocent and outside the realm of conflict. Like the dogs of Skyrim and Fallout, or the children in war movie. Certain characters are exempt from death in a fictional realm, and killing them is crossing a boundary – a transgression. I remember watching with glee how children were killed in the original Piranha (1978) by Joe Dante. Because it’s just something you just don’t do. Or rather you do it to push boundaries and evoke true horror. This plays into the priest’s assumed protected role as well.
So maybe that’s what caused our reaction – it was a mix of surprise (or shock even), of our empathy with an innocent and a protected character. And not least of all, the breaking of our expectations of what could happen in this game. Somehow the game went from adventurous romp, to deadly serious at that moment. Even more so than in the following session when my wizard character was near death twice in the same conflict and only prevailed through luck (and some well-placed magic missiles). So maybe
our reaction was not just to the fact that an innocent was killed in front of us, but the realization that the game was a lot more deadly and serious than we had imagined. Retro fantasy role playing doesn’t just mean high adventure and silliness, it could mean that our characters could killed by a bad roll of the die? Was this a warning shot? A sign of things to come? I can hear the GM chuckle in the back of my mind right now…
Whatever the reasons, our reaction was real. It was a sudden surge of emotions, but the question is whether or not these emotions were negative, and whether they were caused by a transgressive act within the game? Was the killing a transgressive act? Did the GM break a taboo by killing a holy man? Did he push against our boundaries for what the game was, and how either we or innocents would be treated?
Transgression, and maybe the resulting emotions, occur somewhere in between the act and the individual responding to it. It is therefore also necessary to consider whether or not our reaction was a negative one. Did we only feel shock, or was there genuine grief for the fallen cleric? There was no hint of anger, we laughed (though mostly about our own reaction and felt no ill-will towards the GM) and carried on. Our pleasure was definitely tied to our interest in the transgressive. We were enthused by our own reaction to the cleric’s death, and this is probably also a reason for us to keep talking about it. The question is if the laughter and our pleasure and taking revenge belie a sense of grief for the cleric. Is that the feeling we’ve been feeling for the last couple of weeks? Not a lot, but just a tinge of grief for that inconsequential named NPC in a fictional universe? In which case the act of killing him was a transgressive act, like if the GM had killed off an equally fictional cat or pet familiar.
I’m on the fence here. The grief may be there, but I believe the shock was more prevalent, the breaking of our expectations from the game and the situation, the matter-of-factly presentation of the death left a profound. To quote the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics Manifesto, transgressive aesthetics are sublime: “immediately experienced and then turned into aesthetic through appreciation and awe.” Simply put, the death of the cleric shocked us, and may have grieved us, an experience that was transformed into pleasure and fun because the game itself had somehow influenced us emotionally. Not in a large way, this was not a deeply profound experience, but it was an emotional experience nonetheless. Just a small taste of what transgressive aesthetics within the context of a game can bring. So whether or not this was a truly transgressive act or experience, becomes a question of how much of an impact it had. In this respect, I fear the death of the cleric falls short.
But hey, it was pretty fun! In the way a wholesale slaughter in a game is fun!
What gaming death has influenced you? Why do you think we react to these deaths as we do?