The list of deaths I’ve died reads like an obscene parody of a Broadway musical:
I’ve been shot, stabbed, crushed, impaled, dismembered and decapitated!
Sniped, nuked, beaten, poisoned, electrocuted, immolated!
Exploded and disintegrated!
These bottomless pits are really the pits—I’d rather just have suffocated!
Trouble. With a capital T, and that rhymes with D, and that stands for Dead.
Dying in games is a practicum in quantum immortality. There is no way to not survive. If I don’t respawn immediately after I die, I’ll be whisked back to moments before my death for a convenient do-over. Death is a temporary inconvenience at worst, a teachable moment at best.
Which is why the Karoshi series is such a curiosity. The goal of these browser and mobile puzzle-platformers by Dutch designer Jesse Venbrux is simple: clear the stage by killing yourself. Mr. Karoshi (loosely translated as “death from overwork”) must trigger switches, move obstacles, and devise other clever means to crush, burn, impale, shoot, and electrocute himself. It’s a creative, if morbid, twist on the genre. It’s funny. It’s dark. It’s frequently crude. It’s also disturbingly addictive. The Karoshi series remains popular despite its grim conceit. Or perhaps because of it.
A recent version of Karoshi introduces a new feature. Moving close to Mrs. Karoshi lifts Karoshi’s spirits, enabling him to jump higher and reach previously inaccessible areas. (The reverse is true with the Boss, whose presence depresses Karoshi, increasing the pull of gravity.) But there is never any doubt about Karoshi’s goal: it’s always suicide. At times you get to control Mrs. Karoshi as she lights herself on fire or triggers a falling block. The disturbing hints of murder-suicide are only somewhat dispelled by the cleverness of the solutions.
Character backstory isn’t really needed in a game like this. But as I guide my Karoshi sprite into spikes and under falling safes, I can’t help reading existential rage in his flat affect. Here is a man who wants, needs, to die, who is compelled to invent ever-more elaborate methods to end his suffering. And yet he exists in an endless Sisyphean loop, erupting in pixilated showers of blood only to find himself reborn in the next level, back at the bottom of the hill, unable to achieve the oblivion he so desperately seeks. It’s Groundhog Day by way of Samuel Beckett.
Unlike Five Minutes to Kill (Yourself), another Flash game in which workplace suicide is the goal, Karoshi requires dexterity both in the fingers and in the mind. The former plays like a one-note parody of an adventure game, as you navigate your sprite through a cubicle farm, assembling items with which to injure yourself. But if Karoshi is parodying anything, it’s Portal more than Super Mario Bros.: not only does the game demand precise movements, but it also continually rewrites its own rules, forcing you to discover progressively more elaborate means to off yourself. Sudden, unexplained constraints like being forbidden from moving left only provide more motivation to reach your goal.
It’s for this reason that Karoshi strikes a nerve. I might be alternately grossed out or amused by the grisly fatalities in Mortal Kombat or the sickeningly creative dismemberment of my avatar in Dead Space, but those games don’t get under my skin in the same way, despite their far more photorealistic and gruesome sights. Games have trained us to view death as a triviality. When your only goal is to repeatedly cause your own death, in increasingly complex ways, the act becomes more, not less, affecting. It exposes the horror of all games in which death is possible, where the act is robbed of its finality, its weight, its meaning.
I never used to be scared of dying. “Well,” I’d reply when asked why not, “What did you feel before you were born?” There was a certain degree of comfort in the idea that there would be no punishment or reward, no judgment, no limbo: just nothing, the same nothing the world was made of before I arrived in it. But poor Karoshi doesn’t get to return to nothing; a new level, or a new game, always awaits. And as I help him kill himself again and again and again, I wonder if the idea of nothing is actually a terror. Ask an existentialist: it’s tough to ascribe meaning to nothingness. And because we want our lives to have meaning, we need our deaths to have meaning too.
A few years back my physical therapist wife had a man die in her arms. She and the patient were walking through the cardiac floor, chatting about graduation parties or motorcycles or television, when the guy slowed to a halt, leaning into my wife’s outstretched arm. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. A nurse ran over with a chair and she and my wife sat him down. His skin went ashen, his eyes distant. My wife signaled the nurse to call the code as she and a med student pushed him into his room, his head slack on her shoulder. “Something’s not right,” he said, and died.
There is sometimes an identifiable moment, medical professionals will tell you, at which you can perceive life slide into death. It’s a sense those of us who rarely see death don’t exercise. This is how my wife tells it: The guy was there, and then he was just gone. You could tell. There were the outward signs: the glassy eyes, the clammy skin, the head lolling back. But there was something else, too, something intangible and arcane. In the moment, the weight of him sagging against her shoulder, it didn’t matter if the thing that was fleeing his body was his immortal soul or an electrical impulse or something in between. It was enough to know that it was gone. My wife is a scientist. She lives in facts, in empirical data. So to hear her talk in this way about the sudden nothing that overcame this man, this body that was just seconds ago a person, is doubly unnerving.
It’s strange that for all the chances games give us to experience and cause death, they very rarely give us the opportunity to process it in meaningful ways. And with a few notable exceptions, they almost never let us feel what it’s like to be left behind, to bear the responsibility of moving on. Jane McGonigal talks about games as being “returnist” rather than “escapist”: we return to the real world with the skills and understanding we’ve gained from games. Death may be ultimately incomprehensible. But if games are playgrounds for thought, they may be the perfect venue for testing our reactions to this unknowable thing. And because we use games to process experiences in a safe space, we can use them to confront in play what we never want to have to confront in reality. We can rehearse what we’ll do when death leaves us lost. Because it will.
Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time with Mrs. Karoshi playing Jack Kevorkian for her husband. I don’t want to imagine her helping him die—or worse, manipulate her as she does. I’m already complicit in his death; she should be spared from that burden. If I’m going to use her to rehearse anything, I don’t want it to be assisting a suicide. I don’t want it to be causing a death. I want it to be dealing with what comes afterward. God willing, I’ll never be responsible for someone’s death. But I will have to process what comes next when death claims those I love.
So when I play the game, I don’t imagine Mrs. Karoshi as an angel of mercy. I try not to think about what it means to love someone so much you’ll help him kill himself. Instead I picture her at the funeral. I see her creased face, a mask of forced stoicism as she greets relatives. I see her hands behind her back, fingers clenching and unclenching in an unconscious rhythm. And now I see her trembling, biting her lip to keep from shouting out, pounding on the coffin, screaming at the selfish bastard who left them, who left her and their infant son and the mortgage they can’t pay, in that house they were going to fix up, the nursery half-finished, his suit still at the dry cleaner, with no help and no future, no idea what to do next, nowhere to go, because he gave up, because he was too sad or too afraid or too weak, because he didn’t love them enough to get help, because he was too much of a goddamn coward, because how could you do this to us, to me, because I loved you, you miserable prick, I loved you so fucking much.