Death Plays Favorites — Postmortem: One Must Die

by Jim Bevan

Postmortem: One Must Die is one of the few games that knows how to illustrate the concept of player choice effectively. As an agent of Death, the player must claim the life of one of six people at a fundraising event in Galicia, a nation torn apart by civil unrest. The results are not only determined by who dies but also by interactions with the potential targets before the decision is made.

Each nonplayable character has personal views regarding the national conflict, with quality dialogue trumping the need for voice-overs (though there are a few insignificant spelling and grammatical errors). Some characters advocate preserving traditional culture by any means necessary either because of deeply ingrained pride for their heritage or outdated prejudices. Other characters favor progress no matter what, not caring about those unable to adapt or believing that social advances should be reserved for a select few. Conversing with the characters provides the opportunity to learn more about their views and to challenge thought, whether to alter agendas or, at the very least, to inspire reconsideration of more extremist opinions. Newspaper clippings and journal entries provide further information on the national conflict, which can further influence your decision.

Once the player takes a life, articles will appear describing the national implications of the death. Did your decision prolong or shorten conflict between rival factions? Did Galicia become more progressive, or did it remain stuck in the past? The final outcome is unpredictable since conversations with the nonplayable characters, both the prominent members of society and the common people, have a greater effect than originally considered. In my first playthrough, I inadvertently convinced a waiter to quit his job, persuaded a young student to join a violent rebel group, and, most shockingly, influenced a woman to become a serial killer because she needed human corpses for medical research. The game is a great analysis of how something seemingly insignificant can create a strong ripple effect, how “the right decision” can result in something much bleaker than intended. In this way, the game reflects current feelings on the electoral system. In almost every election voters must select from several undeserving candidates by deciding which of them is the “lesser evil,” hoping that they’ll choose someone who won’t necessarily make things better but less worse.

Poor Richard’s Almanac had a short poem titled “For Want of a Nail” that examines how seemingly innocuous events can lead to massive consequences. Postmortem is one of the strongest pieces to embody this concept. While each playthrough can be completed relatively quickly (about 20 or fewer minutes, depending on how invested players become in conversations), I imagine many will return to the game in order to see how different decisions play out, to see if they’ll finally claim the necessary victim and influence people in a way that will bring about peace. The dilemma of whether we can foresee the results of our political actions makes Postmortem a relevant challenge.

Rock Bottom Celebrates Life over Death

by Jed Pressgrove

It would be oversimplification to say Rock Bottom makes death in platforming less of a drag. The game does reject the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” cliche, but only to establish its initial platforming concept. To advance to the next level in Rock Bottom, you have to jump higher. To jump higher, you have to find ways to fall to your death. Missing the lowest piece of ground represents the new platforming failure. But unlike a lot of games, Rock Bottom is ultimately about something more profound than the dynamics of video game death.

Other games like Planescape: Torment and The Useful Dead have tried to make death a part of success, but Rock Bottom surpasses these efforts. It’s still generally preferable to avoid death in Planescape: Torment, and unlike The Useful Dead, Rock Bottom doesn’t feel like a gimmick or a proof of concept. The game also doesn’t present itself as a take on another puzzler or punisher. Rock Bottom aims to be a satisfying, unique experience.

Rock Bottom is clearly the work of a sophisticated artist, not a charlatan exploiting the cynical disposition of contemporary culture (see Ground Zeroes). So many gamers and critics think “subversive” design is enough to call something “genius” — that’s why Rockstar can keep insulting the United States and making fools of everyone with Grand Theft Auto, a series that challenges everything but its own flimsy concepts. Rock Bottom isn’t lazy like that; after establishing its atypical death mechanic, it subverts its own main idea. The game’s platforming reaches a new level of articulation: avoiding death to die at the right time. This is how cliches become poetic again.

Developer Patchwork Doll (led by Amy Dentata) has created a platforming masterpiece that some (perhaps even the developer) might not consider a full-fledged game yet. Although Rock Bottom could be expanded with more levels and another gameplay wrinkle, the current version is a rare triumph in gaming. The ending of Rock Bottom is just as satisfying as the journey, if not more so. Like the conclusion of Grand Titons and the entire Castles in the Sky, Rock Bottom emphasizes the freedom of jumping. It’s a simple but elegant reminder that life is meant to be enjoyed despite struggle.