Exploring The Themes of Grief and Loss Through Video Games

Taking a look at serious topics such as grief and loss through video games.

The Beginning

Death is something we all have to face. Sooner or later it will affect us, directly or indirectly. It is simply a part of life. But we do not want to talk about it. Until I went to university, I didn’t even think about it. But things changed- I met someone I cared about deeply, and at the same time became increasingly dissatisfied with my course, to the point of depression. I began to think about painful things: losing my partner, having regret in old age, and ultimately, my own mortality. Things got better though; I graduated, we became engaged, and I started work as an indie developer. I decided I wanted to make a game that would allow me to explore my feelings and try to rationalise them, so I started work on Beyond The Veil.

In 2016 my Granny was diagnosed with cancer. It was a shock to the whole family of course, but at the time we had no idea what the severity was, neither did the doctors. It was my last year of uni so I had a lot of work on my plate and I just couldn’t process all this at once. It was when she started treatment and started to lose her hair that it all really hit home. At first the treatment seemed to be working, and, though frail, she seemed much better than she had been. But then it got worse again, and it did not get better. She passed away in the winter of 2017, two days after Christmas. Thankfully we were able to be with her in her final days, but the hole left by her absence stunned us all.

All of what had transpired influenced the development of Beyond The Veil. It is a project that has helped me to grieve, to ask questions of myself, of others, and to come to terms with an inevitable part of our human condition. In Beyond The Veil you play as The Wanderer, a man driven to great lengths by the promise of redemption. Through him, and a number of supporting characters, I explore various aspects of mortality - hope, faith, death, despair, and grief.

Developing The Narrative

Death is certainly a difficult subject to tackle. It’s very subjective, and we all have our own viewpoints- none so different as those between religious and non-religious people. For me the purpose of Beyond The Veil has not been about reaching conclusions, but to ask questions, and to approach the subject from as many angles as I can. I approached this task by breaking down people’s reactions into two main categories: spiritual, and analytical. I then used these mentalities to guide the design of the two main characters.

Embodying the spiritual mentality is The Necromancer- a woman granted immortality but cursed to linger on as a spirit with no physical form. Her belief in the return of the gods gives her hope throughout her long life, in spite of her grim experiences.

The Wanderer represents the analytical mind, which cannot rely on faith to stay afloat. He cannot use faith to find solace in loss because belief cannot be forced. I actually wrote The Wanderer as myself, and so his struggle is also mine. It was relatively easy to write the part of the Wanderer, as I have a wealth of experience to draw from. Writing the Necromancer’s part, however, was difficult, and led me to be less critical of the spiritualistic approach to dealing with death.

But writing solely about mortality doesn’t make for a compelling narrative, just as a scientific journal does not make a good novel. Beyond The Veil needed a world to explore its themes more subtly, to draw the player in despite the grim subject matter. The most impactful experiences I’ve had within games, movies, and books have all hidden their messages deep within layers of fantastical world building. My primary inspiration has been Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie which hides its themes of hope and redemption beneath intense action. I wanted to capture that feeling, of being a stranger in a strange land, surrounded by lost history. So I created a world at the end of its days, with its civilisations brought to ruin by arcane forces. A perfect metaphor for a dying body.

One game that I think dealt with mortality wonderfully is Hyper Light Drifter. On the surface it’s a very pretty 2.5D adventure game. Dig a little deeper though and you’ll find it tells a story about living with a terminal illness- all without using a single line of text. From the four explorable regions that represent the four chambers of the heart to the strange affliction the main character periodically suffers from, it all links back to the underlying theme. Over the course of the game the player begins to realise the true subject of the story (though I will confess I had already seen an interview with the developer prior to playing). So, inspired by Hyper Light Drifter, I wanted to bring that kind of revelatory storytelling to my game, albeit with the use of text.

It is believed by some that there are five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It is no coincidence then, that the number 5 plays a pivotal role throughout the game. There are 5 gods, 5 environments, 5 rarities, and 5-way symmetry plays a prominent role in the art design. While I have not kept strictly to these stages, they have helped to inform the unfolding of the narrative and serve as an excellent platform to build from.

Reinforcing Mortality through Mechanics

Beyond The Veil is a video game, not interactive fiction, so the mechanics of its gameplay are of as much importance as the story itself. Mechanics, made flesh by visuals and audio, reinforce the atmosphere of the game. They set the pacing, the tone, and are responsible for engaging the player. I loved A Dark Room - a minimalist idle game where the player slowly accumulates resources to escape the devastated planet they are on. I wanted to replicate that experience for my users. However, I soon realised that Beyond The Veil is a different beast, and can’t use the same model for interaction- players need to be more engaged.

I settled on a two-speed model of sorts, where half of the mechanics focus on survival and the other half focus on combat. The intensity of real-time combat counterbalances slower survival mechanics. Combat forces the player to think about moment-to-moment survival, doing whatever they must to stay alive, whilst the slow pace of travel and crafting allows the player to reflect on their actions and plan long term survival goals.

This combination of fast and slow gameplay came about as I reflected on how we were living our lives up to Granny’s death. We would be so busy working, traveling, making dinner, and generally caring for her that we barely had a moment's rest. When things did slow down, however, we found ourselves able to long further into the future, and contemplate the reality of what was going to happen.

Of course, some mechanics exist simply because I found them interesting. I enjoy loot-driven games, and, when implemented properly, I enjoy crafting mechanics. At the time, working on features that engaged and excited me made for wonderful distractions when I found reality too tough to think about.

Designing a Dead World

The colours in Beyond The Veil were an obvious choice for me. Black and White reinforce the themes of hope vs despair, and the red highlights help both to add visual flair and give the world a dangerous, primordial feeling. I knew from the outset that I wanted the environment to be indicated solely by the shadows cast by the light of the player. Whilst the tiny light of the player creates a sense of isolation, it is also comforting to know that there is always a light, no matter how small.

Small details also help to drive home the narrative themes. The rarity scale of gear (Dark -> Radiant), ties in with the light vs dark, hope vs despair themes. So too do the names of the regions- the names of dangerous regions contain negative words (Death, Annihilation, Waste), whilst regions that offer a benefit to the player use more positive words (Embrace, Succour, Prize).

Initially, I had no plan to include a soundtrack, instead relying on overlapping drones and environmental noises to generate atmosphere. Playtesting revealed that though this did generate atmosphere, something felt lacking. My friend and audio designer Sam Windell offered to write some music, so we settled on some long ambient tracks, relying on haunting strings and deep percussion to create the desired ambience. These droning ambient tracks play during the slower moments of the game, evoking thoughts of darkness and world fallen to ruin. In contrast, the doomy, almost tribal, drums of the combat tracks turn ambient dread into tension, particularly in the boss fights.

The End

This wasn’t always going to be a game about my Granny directly, but life works in strange ways. I knew this project would be organic, and I let it unfold on its own. There have been a lot of unexpected changes, from a text-based game to a hybrid survival-shooter, but I hope that the message I want to pass on has remained intact. I don’t think I’ll ever make a game like it again, and I hope I don’t have to. It’s been a cathartic experience and one that has made me question many of the values and assumptions I used to have about death, mortality, and religion. And if anything, I hope it can offer some solace to at least one other person in the same position I found myself in last year.

Beyond the Veil is a very personal work. It began as a game that could allow me to work through my worries and fears. Now it has become an outlet for me to come to terms with my grief, and my hope is that it can help others to do the same. Every design decision that has been made has been made to align with the overarching narrative theme. Although we have seen some excellent titles in the past, it is my hope that more games will tackle these difficult topics, and take up an approach that encourages the player to ask questions of themselves.

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