This article was originally written for Who Dares Rolls (www.whodaresrolls.com) and is reproduced here with permission.
Note: This article also includes some references to personal experiences of death and loss, and discusses those themes in detail.
It took a lot longer than I initially assumed it would for me to find the right words to review Jeff Ellis’ (@manyeyedmonster’s) Death Sentence; I thought it would be a straightforward review, as I had very easily discussed the thematically similar 36 Minutes as an exploration of unglamorous death in military science-fiction. I think I needed time to unpack my thoughts, and perhaps the immediacy of my response to 36 Minutes was part of why I couldn’t launch straight into forming opinions on Death Sentence. Any game that goes into death beyond killing as a natural mechanic of conflict resolution is going to be personal, and potentially troubling, for the player. You could very well say that even in a game where the expectation is one will fight death should be personal and troubling.
I mentioned that 36 Minutes was a game that took a very long time to kill its character, and in the process worked through phases of grief and tragedy. It was far too much a musing on the closing moments of a life – those 36 minutes of real-time play could very easily represent the last months of someone’s life, or even a way of responding in fictional form to a diagnosis of terminal illness. Death Sentence – and the wordplay on sentence is intentional here – feels much more the “mecha” game. It’s not asking directly for the player to explore where they went wrong in life or who will remember them when they’re gone. It’s not asking the player directly to write the bargaining against fate that a dying person might feel. Ellis explains the premise simply: “You are recording your last will and testament… eventually your mech is destroyed and you die.” The theming is equally straightforward. You are the pilot who fights the heroic last stand, who has been abandoned, or betrayed, or simply volunteered to stay.
It suggests playing it in a very unchallenging space opera setting which is absolutely fine, because at its heart it should not matter what the conflict is to examine the questions the game is asking – how would you face a heroic death? Would it be heroic? But nevertheless, it can and should be adapted because in adapting it you can ask a lot more questions. Ellis suggests considering if you are in this position of a last stand because you want to be; why not extend this to ask if you ever wanted to be in this war? Or was the war ever anything but hopeless? This is a situation where the core subject has, I would argue, a clear intent; to get the player to question a trope lionised across military fiction, the soldier who gives their life so many might live. Put yourself in those shoes in a situation where the dice will not let you live, where the whole game is not written to promote heroism. Enter this fictional contract knowing you are writing a death scene in the first person.
There are barely any mechanics, which is absolutely fine. It does not need to be a mechanically dense game because all the density comes from the theme, and how the player interacts with it. Each “round” roll 3d6, and add that many words to your speech. One dice determines how you got hit; let your unit’s injuries shape the fiction. Once you have no parts left, write the last line and then your story is over save the epitaph. The arbitrariness is intentionally cruel. This is not a carefully-scripted scene moving at the speed of the plot, this is the bullet with your name on it coming before too long.
All of this sounds so straightforward, so thematically neat – and indeed such a nice integration of randomness into fiction it is almost too convenient. The whole package is slick, built around a wry linguistic joke. And so why did I find it so hard to review? Because it got me asking questions and I did not want to discuss the game without answering them, or at least trying to. No matter how much stirring orchestral music and lowkey aftermath mech anime adds to a last stand scene, it still stands in almost all cases as a character making something of themselves. Even if the attack fails, if the enemy prevails, the act of standing up and saying not today to an unstoppable enemy is often the focus. This dovetails in with a tension that criticism of the genre runs into a lot; how does a genre that lives and dies by selling the merchandise of war, and presenting exciting battles, adequately criticise war? Is watching a series for its action a willing betrayal of intended anti-war themes? Can something criticise conflict on a conceptual level while accepting that sometimes it happens, and people do great and heroic things in its course? These questions require nuance, and discussion of whether or not intended readings actually hold up in the light of cultural context. And they often invite deeper questions, I think, about the way in which society treats servicemen and the media treats war. For example the conflation of “pacifism” with “disrespect for those who serve”, and conversely the conflation of “understanding some wars were necessary in historical context” with “being innately in favour of militarism and nationalism.”
Put in this context a game which bids you imagine yourself a soldier carrying out a desperate act of heroism becomes significantly more difficult to parse, and I did not want to write about Death Sentence until I had my own thoughts on the matter settled. The first time I “played” it, I kept things as simple as possible, with a hero fighting an enemy ace and dying in a fit of righteous, hotblooded fury. It felt unsatisfying, in a way, because all I was doing was uncritically evoking what could be seen as the more militaristic parts of the genre. I wasn’t writing what I’d say, I was writing what a character I liked would say. Playing a role, for sure, but an unchallenging, uninteresting role. Divorced of the context of a longer series the scene had no emotional weight. The second, I turned it all on its head and wrote from the perspective of a scared, emotionally broken, abandoned teen mech pilot.
If Gundam and its ilk wanted the last stand to be a heroic act of resistance against tyranny, I wanted this to be an Evangelion-esque demolition of the teen war power fantasy. It was equally unsatisfying, in retrospect, because it drove me to write an almost exploitative scene of emotional breakdown that again, divorced from longer fictional context, felt like a cheap quick hit of melodrama rather than an earned moment of character closure. Parental abandonment works in those series that play on toxic family relationships in war because the viewer sees behind the veil, sees the abandonment, sees the longer-term tension. An isolated soundbite of a scared teen abandoned by their family and authority figures just feels, with distance, like going through the motions – or possibly even just getting cheap visceral thrills from dead kids (which I guess is the other moral aspect to military fiction that goes somewhat un-interrogated).
I couldn’t play Death Sentence again because I realised if I wanted to do anything more than write uninspired evocations of scenes given power because of their earned placement in the series (and that does not have to be too far in – Gai’s death in Nadesico comes very early but absolutely serves a narrative purpose that means it could not come at any other time, for example) I would have to dig deeper into how I’d respond to my imminent death, and that scared me mostly because I think even now, with much time passed, I have been changed by a personal loss. I’m no longer quite so quick to leap at tragic deaths or grimdarkness, because my personal outlook on death has changed.
It is a powerful game, and at the same time I think it is possibly too powerful in its simplicity. It is so easy to write what society or genre preconceptions would want you to write, to use it as a chance to play Kamina or Asuka or Roy Fokker or even Guld from Macross Plus. To explore heroism and deathbed redemption or even just desperate rage, the hotblooded moments of emotional release that are so memorable in the genre. But all you are doing there is, I think, continuing to miss the point of what Death Sentence is saying about those scenes. This is a game about writing your last words, about the arbitrariness and unheroic way you would probably die in a desperate situation. Not trying to cram scripted scenes carefully crafted to be exciting and heroic into a random framework. And the moment you start doing that, you might find it’s not an internal conversation you’re quite ready to have.
I have discussed above how these example playthroughs of Death Sentence feel unsatisfying, possibly even exploitative, in retrospect; I include them here for illustrative purposes to show how I initially, and quite possibly wrongly, responded to the game’s prompt.
I am Illis Cavall. Pilot of the mobile weapon Overguarder. I have fought to defend Earth for most of my life, it feels, and now I am going to fight the most important battle in the human race’s history. I have no backup. Earth has nothing more it can do for me. All I have are the weapons that have served me so well these past years, and the knowledge that every moment I can buy the people below will count. Will allow a few more to get to safety. Will let the bomb I am protecting get a little deeper into the enemy’s fleet.
What will happen next, I do not know. But this plan represents the only possible way to put an end to the war.
Transmission 1: 13 Words
“-I can see the enemy flagship in front of me. Right in front-”
[MAIN CAMERA OFFLINE. SWITCHING TO THREE DIMENSIONAL SENSORS]
Transmission 2: 5 Words
“ARCANGEL! I won’t let you-”
[GUARDER BLADE: DESTROYED]
Transmission 3: 17 Words
“I don’t know if you’re listening, Arcangel. But today, you’re going to lose, and I’m going to-”
[WARNING. POWER OUTPUT DECREASING]
Transmission 4: 11 Words
“I’m going to make you pay for everything you’ve done to-”
[WARNING. ENGINE OUTPUT DECREASING]
Transmission 5: 11 Words
“FOR EVERYTHING YOU DID TO EARTH, TO MY FRIENDS, TO EVERYONE!”
[PLASMA BEAM: DISABLED]
“You’d better hit that detonator, HQ.”
[CONTACT WITH OVERGUARDER LOST]
VIRTU? VIRTU? This is… this is Iwata. Second Team. There’s… there’s something coming from the sea. I can’t raise the others. Kondou’s vanished off the screen. Please advise, VIRTU Command.
Director Inoue? Commander Iwata? Please respond.
Transmission 1: 6 Words
“I’m going to retreat to point-”
[WARNING: LEFT ARM INOPERABLE.]
Transmission 2: 8 Words
“To point 4, please, send help, the island-”
[WARNING: RIGHT ARM INOPERABLE.]
Transmission 3: 13 Words
“They’re attacking the island, I can’t fight, I’m retreating, help me please help-”
[SENSOR SYSTEMS OFFLINE, REBOOTING- ERROR]
Transmission 4: 6 Words
“Can anyone hear me out there?”
[LEFT LEG: DESTROYED]
Transmission 5: 10 Words
“Director? Mother? Reiko? It’s- it’s Tomoko. Can you hear me?”
“Where is everybody? I-”
[VIRTU UNIT 2-3: SIGNAL LOST]