ThesisPDF Available

Player Agency in Game Depictions of Suicide

Authors:

Abstract

This thesis examines the degree of player agency in digital games that depict suicide. Central questions include how much control the player exerts over the outcome of the self-killing and which perspectives on suicidality are conveyed. The first half of this work summarizes the existing literature on self-killing, its relationship to the media, and the understanding of agency in games. It draws on findings from the fields of psychiatry, media studies, and game design. In the second half, six digital games are analyzed with respect to their portrayal of suicide. The main contribution of this research consists of a categorization of game depictions into three groups based on the level of player agency and the thematic focus: Group one comprises high-agency representations that allow the audience to prevent a non-player character’s suicide. In the high-agency games of group two, the player’s responsibility for a character’s self-killing evokes feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. The low-agency portrayals of group three illustrate the sense of constriction of a playable character whose suicide is inevitable. Following the close readings, the potential benefits and harms of each category are discussed. These reflections are guided by previous research on media effects, as well as public health perspectives on suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.
Player Agency in Game Depictions of Suicide
by Lars Kalthoff
larskalthoff@web.de
written in the Winter Term 2021/2022
for BA Digital Games
at Cologne Game Lab / TH Köln
supervised by Prof. Dr. Gundolf S. Freyermuth
submitted on 04.01.2022
2
Table of Contents
Abstract ............................................................................................. 3
Chapter 1: The Scientific Research on Suicide ................................ 4
1.1 General Information and Vocabulary .................................................................. 4
1.2 The Relationship Between Suicide and the Media .............................................. 8
Chapter 2: Suicide and Agency in the Real World ......................... 14
Chapter 3: Player Agency ............................................................... 18
3.1 Definitions ......................................................................................................... 18
3.2 Significance ....................................................................................................... 22
3.3 Taxonomies ........................................................................................................ 25
Chapter 4: Suicide and Player Agency in Digital Games ............... 28
4.1 Preventing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions ................................................ 29
4.1.1 LIFE IS STRANGE ......................................................................................... 30
4.1.2 CYBERPUNK 2077 ....................................................................................... 37
4.1.3 THE FORGOTTEN CITY ................................................................................ 41
4.1.4 Conclusion: Preventing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions ..................... 46
4.2 Causing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions .................................................... 48
4.2.1 THIS WAR OF MINE ..................................................................................... 48
4.2.2 LIFE IS STRANGE ......................................................................................... 53
4.2.3 Conclusion: Causing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions ......................... 56
4.3 Experiencing Suicidal Constriction in Low-Agency Depictions ....................... 57
4.3.1 WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH ............................................................... 57
4.3.2 ACTUAL SUNLIGHT ..................................................................................... 64
4.3.3 Conclusion: Experiencing Suicidal Constriction in Low-Agency Depictions
............................................................................................................................. 70
Chapter 5: Agency-Related Dangers of Suicide Depictions ........... 72
5.1 High-Agency Concerns ...................................................................................... 72
5.2 Low-Agency Concerns ...................................................................................... 75
Chapter 6: Research Findings and Open Questions ........................ 79
References ....................................................................................... 82
3
Abstract
This thesis examines the degree of player agency in digital games that depict
suicide. Central questions include how much control the player exerts over the
outcome of the self-killing and which perspectives on suicidality are conveyed.
The first half of this work summarizes the existing literature on self-killing, its
relationship to the media, and the understanding of agency in games. It draws
on findings from the fields of psychiatry, media studies, and game design.
In the second half, six digital games are analyzed with respect to their portrayal
of suicide. The main contribution of this research consists of a categorization
of game depictions into three groups based on the level of player agency and
the thematic focus:
Group 1 comprises high-agency representations that allow the audience to
prevent a non-player character’s suicide.
In the high-agency games of group 2, the player’s responsibility for a
character’s self-killing evokes feelings of guilt, shame, and regret.
The low-agency portrayals of group 3 illustrate the sense of constriction of a
playable character whose suicide is inevitable.
Following the close readings, the potential benefits and harms of each category
are discussed. These reflections are guided by previous research on media
effects, as well as public health perspectives on suicide prevention,
intervention, and postvention.
The assessment of the conceived real-life consequences of games that depict
self-killing constitutes a possible avenue for future scientific inquiry.
4
Chapter 1: The Scientific Research on Suicide
The present chapter provides an overview on suicide and the academic literature
surrounding the topic. Apart from describing the causes, risk factors, and
symptoms of the condition, it establishes the vocabulary that will be used in the
rest of this thesis. The final segment summarizes previous research on the
relationship between suicide in the real world and its representation in the media.
1.1 General Information and Vocabulary
“Suicide means death through one’s own intentional actions that are carried out
in the expectation of a lethal outcome.
1
According to the American Foundation
for Suicide Prevention, more than 47,000 US citizens died of self-killing in
2019.
2
The estimated number of suicide attempts was almost 30 times higher
than that.
3
Among teenagers, suicide represents one of the three leading causes
of death.
4
However, this information has to be viewed in light of the fact that
young people are less prone to a range of illnesses that produce lethal outcomes
in adults.
5
Nevertheless, self-killing constitutes a public health issue that has
given rise to a substantial field of research that studies the causes, symptoms,
and prevention of suicidal behavior.
Wolfersdorf proposes the following terminology: suicidal acts denote all
deliberate efforts that aim at self-inflicted death. If such behavior results in the
person’s death, it is referred to as suicide or self-killing. A suicide attempt, on
the other hand, presupposes the survival of the act.
6
1
Michael Karle, ‘Management suizidaler Krisen bei Kindern und Jugendlichen’, Kinder- und
Jugendmedizin, no. 1 (2001): 4448, here p. 45.
2
‘Suicide Statistics’, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2021,
https://afsp.org/suicide-statistics/.
3
Ibid.
4
Madelyn S. Gould and Rachel A. Kramer, ‘Youth Suicide Prevention’, Suicide and Life-
Threatening Behavior 31 (March 2001): 631, https://doi.org/10.1521/suli.31.1.5.6.24219.
5
‘Leading Causes of Death’, National Center for Health Statistics, 2021,
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm.
6
Manfred Wolfersdorf, ‘Suizidalität’, in Psychische Erkrankungen: Klinik und Therapie, 5.,
vollst. neu bearb. Aufl (München: Elsevier, Urban & Fischer, 2015), 721732.
5
Self-destructive impulses, thoughts, and actions are generally subsumed under
the umbrella term suicidality.
7
Someone who contemplates self-killing engages
in suicidal ideation.
The demographic data on self-killing consistently shows an unintuitive finding:
although women are more likely than males to attempt suicide, the majority of
completed suicides are carried out by men.
8
Mergl and his colleagues ascribe this
difference to a male preference for more lethal methods such as hanging,
jumping, and using firearms.
9
Apart from gender, other demographic risk factors include unemployment,
higher age, and living alone.
10
Further, the importance of mental illnesses in self-
killing must be stressed: around 90 percent of suicides occur under the influence
of at least one psychiatric disorder, the most common ones being depression,
schizophrenia, and alcohol addiction.
11
An exception to this tendency can be
found in adolescent suicide attempts, which generally appear to be caused by
acute social crises rather than psychopathologies.
12
Conflicts within the family
or breaking up with a partner are typical examples of adolescent crises.
13
Eink and Haltenhof point out that the state of suicidality closely resembles the
symptoms of depression.
14
For instance, both conditions are characterized by the
disappearance of interests, constant rumination, sleeplessness, and feelings of
7
Michael Eink and Horst Haltenhof, Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen, 5., erweiterte
Auflage, Basiswissen 8 (Köln: Psychiatrie Verlag, 2017).
8
Thomas Joiner, Why People Die by Suicide, 1. Harvard Univ. Pr. paperback ed (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).
9
Roland Mergl et al., ‘What Are Reasons for the Large Gender Differences in the Lethality of
Suicidal Acts? An Epidemiological Analysis in Four European Countries’, ed. Thomas
Niederkrotenthaler, PLOS ONE 10, no. 7 (6 July 2015): e0129062,
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0129062.
10
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
11
Ulrich Hegerl, ‘Depression und Suizidalität’, Verhaltenstherapie 15, no. 1 (2005): 611,
https://doi.org/10.1159/000083697.
12
Keith Hawton, ‘ATTEMPTED SUICIDE IN CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS’, Journal
of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 23, no. 4 (October 1982): 497503,
https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1982.tb00093.x.
13
Günther Klosinski, ‘Suizidale Krisen bei Kindern und Jugendlichen: Allgemeine Aspekte,
Ursachen und Psychodynamik’, Kinder- und Jugendmedizin, no. 1 (2001): 4043.
14
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
6
powerlessness and hopelessness.
15
Additionally, an analysis of suicide notes
indicated the presence of guilt and shame, a sense of overwhelming suffering,
and the lack of meaning in the suicidal person’s life.
16
In the research on self-killing, outlining models that break down the pathway
towards suicidal behavior constitutes a key objective. Mann et al. illustrate an
accessible model in their work on suicide prevention.
17
According to the authors,
stressful life events on the one hand, and psychiatric disorders on the other hand
contribute to suicidal ideation. On the way from suicidal ideation to self-killing,
several factors like impulsivity, hopelessness, access to lethal means, or
imitation of other suicides might be at play, facilitating the person’s decision to
end their life.
Thomas Joiner contributes another perspective in his book Why People Die by
Suicide.
18
He identifies two elements that are present in people who end up
killing themselves: the wish to die and the acquired capability for self-injury.
Regarding the second component, he writes:
Everyone who dies by suicide has to work up to the act, certainly over the
long-term (through getting used to pain) and sometimes over the short-term,
by trying out the means of death in a milder, non-lethal way.
19
Thus, people who got used to pain by experiencefor example by cutting
themselvesare at an elevated risk for suicidal behavior. Joiner also specified
two factors that govern the wish for one’s death: the absence of meaningful
social bonds and the feeling of being a burden to others.
20
Finally, Hegerl and Heinz compare two models that clarify the relationship
between life adversities, mental illness, and suicide.
21
Model A assumes that
15
Ibid.
16
Tom Foster, ‘Suicide Note Themes and Suicide Prevention’, The International Journal of
Psychiatry in Medicine 33, no. 4 (December 2003): 32331, https://doi.org/10.2190/T210-
E2V5-A5M0-QLJU.
17
J. John Mann et al., ‘Suicide Prevention Strategies: A Systematic Review’, JAMA 294, no.
16 (26 October 2005): 206474, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.294.16.2064.
18
T. Joiner: Why People Die by Suicide.
19
Ibid., p. 14.
20
Ibid.
21
Ulrich Hegerl and Ines Heinz, ‘Reflections on Causes of Suicidal Behaviour’, Epidemiology
and Psychiatric Sciences 28, no. 5 (October 2019): 46972,
https://doi.org/10.1017/S2045796018000562.
7
social factors, like an ongoing economic crisis, cause psychiatric disorders and
self-killing. Model B takes the opposite view and posits that existing mental
illnesses produce undesirable circumstances and suicidal behavior. An example
of this would be a person who suffers from depression, loses their job because
of the disorder, and then decides to kill themselves because of the depression
and unemployment. The two authors remark that although the evidence supports
model B, “model A is favoured by lay people, sociologists, but also many
professionals in the health care system and by health politicians.”
22
Attempts to reduce suicidal behavior rely on three coexisting approaches:
prevention, intervention, and postvention.
Gould and Kramer consider the referral of vulnerable individuals to
professionals and the removal of risk factors central tenets of suicide
prevention.
23
For instance, particularly lethal means like firearms could be made
less accessible. Also, guides that inform journalists about ways of covering
suicide stories that minimize harm are considered preventive efforts. Westefeld
et al. advocate for the training of qualities that protect against suicide.
24
Such
programs might be designed to strengthen interpersonal communication or to
convey problem-solving techniques. Overall, suicide prevention concerns the
general public and may thus be addressed on a societal level. Ideally, these
efforts help to inhibit suicidal impulses and prevent them from transforming into
self-destructive actions.
Intervention deals with the immediate resolution of an acute crisis.
25
It may
involve therapy, medication, and the formulation of short-term goals.
26
Consequently, advances in suicide intervention predominantly affect the work
of mental health professionals. Moreover, the helper must assess the person’s
suicide risk and adjust their procedure accordingly.
27
22
U. Hegerl/I. Heinz: Reflections on Causes of Suicidal Behaviour, p. 469.
23
M. S. Gould/R. A. Kramer: Youth Suicide Prevention.
24
John S. Westefeld et al., ‘Suicide: An Overview’, The Counseling Psychologist 28, no. 4
(July 2000): 445510, https://doi.org/10.1177/0011000000284002.
25
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
26
Ibid.
27
J. S. Westefeld et al.: Suicide: An Overview.
8
The focus of postvention programs lies on the so-called survivors:
Furthermore, each suicide is estimated to impact at least six other people
intimately. Since 1971, 1 of every 59 Americans has become a survivor of
suicide (i.e., emotionally related in some way to a person who committed
suicide).
28
Eink and Haltenhof point out that survivors are associated with elevated risks of
committing suicide themselves.
29
Thus, supporting them in the process of coping
with loss and averting follow-up suicides represent core objectives of
postvention.
30
Efforts in these regards often target specific communities and
families.
The term suicide refers to an individual’s deliberate act of taking their own life.
Self-killing is considered a serious public health issue and belongs to the leading
causes of death among certain age groups. In the majority of cases, psychiatric
disorders underlie suicidal ideation and behavior. The issue of self-inflicted
death is addressed through public prevention programs, individual intervention,
and community-based postvention efforts.
1.2 The Relationship Between Suicide and the Media
So far, research on self-killing in the media has revolved around two lines of
inquiry: media effects and media representation.
The first area investigates the real-life consequences of media products that
cover suicide. Mainly, such studies attempt to ascertain whether or not rates of
self-inflicted death are affected by the amount, frequency, and popularity of
suicide stories. Most of the research in this realm has concentrated on non-
fictional news media.
Sisask and Värnik conducted a systematic review that confirmed the existence
of negative media effects:
28
Ibid., p. 446.
29
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
30
M. S. Gould/R. A. Kramer: Youth Suicide Prevention.
9
The vast majority of the studies support the idea that media coverage of
suicidal behaviours and actual suicidality are associated.
31
This potential of mass media to trigger self-killings is understood as a form of
contagion that causes imitative suicides.
32
Evidently, the extent of this effect
depends on the publicity of the story:
The magnitude of the increase is proportional to the amount, duration, and
prominence of media coverage.
33
Further, Sudak and Sudak warn that glamorizing or dramatizing reports amplify
the contagion.
34
Similarly, the possible degree of identification with the suicide
seems to be of crucial importance: Schmidtke and Schaller remark that [s]tudies
based on real stories as opposed to fictional stories were 4.03 times more likely
to identify an imitation effect.”
35
Moreover, the contagion mostly affects people
of the same gender and age group as the person represented in the media.
36
Madelyn Gould has proposed media guidelines to prevent the imitation of
suicidal behavior.
37
Her recommendations caution against the romanticizing of
self-killing, over-identification with the victim, and dedicating a disproportional
amount of space to suicide stories. She also encourages informing the audience
about mental illnesses and local professionals. Similar guidelines have been
implemented in various places with some remarkable effects: for example,
subway suicides in Vienna decreased by 80 percent after journalists adopted the
recommendations of the Austrian Association for Suicide Prevention.
38
31
Merike Sisask and Airi Värnik, ‘Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systematic Review’,
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 9, no. 1 (4 January 2012):
12338, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph9010123, here p. 131.
32
Madelyn S. Gould, ‘Suicide and the Media’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences
932, no. 1 (25 January 2006): 200224, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05807.x.
33
Ibid., p. 201.
34
Howard S. Sudak and Donna M. Sudak, ‘The Media and Suicide’, Academic Psychiatry 29,
no. 5 (1 December 2005): 49599, https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ap.29.5.495.
35
Armin Schmidtke and Sylvia Schaller, ‘The Role of Mass Media in Suicide Prevention’, in
The International Handbook of Suicide and Attempted Suicide, ed. Keith Hawton and Kees van
Heeringen (West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2000), 67597,
https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470698976.ch39.
36
M. Sisask/A. Värnik: Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systematic Review.
37
M. S. Gould: Suicide and the Media.
38
Elmar Etzersdorfer and Gernot Sonneck, ‘Preventing Suicide by Influencing Mass-Media
Reporting. The Viennese Experience 1980–1996’, Archives of Suicide Research 4, no. 1
(January 1998): 6774, https://doi.org/10.1080/13811119808258290.
10
The imitation of medial depictions of suicide is also known as the Werther
effect.
39
The term references Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther,
which ends with the protagonist’s self-inflicted death due to his unrequited
love.
40
Following its publication, the novel has been linked to a wave of suicides:
The story has been reported to have had imitation effects in two ways,
namely the “Werther’s dress” (blue tailcoat, yellow waistcoat, yellow
trousers and brown bucket-topped boots) and suicidal behaviour by young
men who shot themselves with pistols. The extent of this imitation effect has
been a matter of debate, but the “Werther Effect” has often been cited as the
earliest recorded evidence of imitative effects on the occurrence of suicide
being produced by literature.
41
Although the term comes from a piece of fiction, a scientific debate has emerged
around the question of whether fictional media may also elicit the Werther effect
or whether it is confined to non-fictional news coverage. Ferguson concluded in
his meta-analysis of suicide depictions:
As indicated, overall results did not support a relationship between fictional
media portrayals of suicide and suicide behaviors, thoughts or depressed
mood among consumers.
42
Van der Weele et al. cite a recent study that found contagion effects of the series
13 REASONS WHY
43
and point to the heterogeneity in Ferguson’s results.
44
They
comment that fictional media may have negative, neutral, or positive
consequences and that it depends on the specific portrayal which of these
outcomes occur.
The counterpart of the Werther effect was coined by Niederkrotenthaler and his
colleagues:
39
M. S. Gould: Suicide and the Media.
40
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Penguin Classics (London,
England ; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin, 1989).
41
A. Schmidtke/S. Schaller: The Role of Mass Media in Suicide Prevention, p. 677.
42
Christopher J. Ferguson, ‘13 Reasons Why Not: A Methodological and Meta‐Analytic
Review of Evidence Regarding Suicide Contagion by Fictional Media’, Suicide and Life-
Threatening Behavior 49, no. 4 (August 2019): 117886, https://doi.org/10.1111/sltb.12517,
here p. 1182.
43
13 REASONS WHY (USA 2017, D: Brian Yorkey)
44
Tyler J. VanderWeele, Maya B. Mathur, and Ying Chen, ‘Media Portrayals and Public
Health Implications for Suicide and Other Behaviors’, JAMA Psychiatry 76, no. 9 (1
September 2019): 8395, https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.0842.
11
Based on Papageno’s overcoming of a suicidal crisis in Mozart’s opera The
Magic Flute, we conceptualised any suicide-protective impact of media
reporting as a Papageno effect.
45
Thus, a story that contains a character who experiences suicidal thoughts without
succumbing to them may function as a positive model for the audience. The
authors referred to these stories as mastery of crisis media and linked such
depictions to lowered suicide rates.
46
The research group described two possible explanations for the protective
qualities of the Papageno effect: first, it may reduce the stigma that is attached
to suicidal ideation. Second, vulnerable individuals might think of alternatives
to self-killing more readily after the exposure to a story in which a person
overcame a suicidal crisis.
47
In a different publication, Niederkrotenthaler states that whereas the objective
so far has been to avoid the Werther effectby following guidelines for
responsible reporting, for examplemedia creators may now play an active role
in suicide prevention by depicting a character who prevails over their self-
destructive impulses.
48
Apart from harmful or beneficial real-life consequences, the nature of suicide
portrayals in the media has become a subject of research.
For example, Pridmore and Walter examined 71 fictional depictions of self-
killing with respect to the underlying motivations.
49
They found that in the
majority of cases, social and situational factors were presented as the main
45
Thomas Niederkrotenthaler et al., ‘Role of Media Reports in Completed and Prevented
Suicide: Werther v. Papageno Effects’, British Journal of Psychiatry 197, no. 3 (September
2010): 23443, https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.109.074633, here p. 234.
46
T. Niederkrotenthaler et al.: Role of Media Reports in Completed and Prevented Suicide:
Werther v. Papageno Effects.
47
Thomas Niederkrotenthaler et al., ‘Increasing Help-Seeking and Referrals for Individuals at
Risk for Suicide by Decreasing Stigma’, American Journal of Preventive Medicine 47, no. 3
(September 2014): S23543, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2014.06.010.
48
Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, ‘A Suicide-Protective Papageno Effect of Media Portrayals of
Coping with Suicidality’, Injury Prevention 22, no. Suppl 2 (September 2016): A8,
https://doi.org/10.1136/injuryprev-2016-042156.20.
49
Saxby Pridmore and Garry Walter, ‘Does Art Imitate Death? Depictions of Suicide in
Fiction’, Australasian Psychiatry 21, no. 1 (February 2013): 6572,
https://doi.org/10.1177/1039856212460601.
12
causes for a character’s suicide. Only twelve instances of self-inflicted death
were directly or indirectly attributable to a psychiatric disorder.
Stack and Bowman identified a similar pattern in their analysis of movies from
1900 to 2009.
50
They concluded that cinematic representations highlight the
importance of external problems in suicidality:
Cinema provides a highly sociological definition of suicide. […] Rejection
in love, financial problems, disintegrating relationships, shame, and other
extra-individual factors are portrayed as the root causes of suicide, although
psychiatric morbidity (e.g., depression) may mediate the relationships.
51
Such views match Hegerl and Heinz’s description of model A, which assigns
social determinants a causal role in the development of self-destructive behavior
and neglects the influence of mental illnesses on life adversities.
52
The two
authors considered this model incompatible with the evidence. Media portrayals
that are based on an inaccurate understanding of self-killing may reinforce public
misconceptions and thus complicate suicide prevention, intervention, and
postvention.
53
According to Mann et al., there are two main objectives the media should strive
for: avoiding the imitative Werther effect and educating the audience about
suicide.
54
The second goal requires that media creators learn about suicidality in
general and the significance of psychiatric disorders in particular.
Swing points out that responsible media coverage of suicide “[…] can serve to
brush aside the veil of secrecy that sometimes adds to its allure.”
55
Further, such
depictions may counteract the stigmatization of mental illness and encourage
vulnerable people to seek professional help.
56
Lastly, the exposure to stories
about the mastery of a suicidal crisis may function as a protective factor against
50
Steven Stack and Barbara Bowman, ‘Durkheim at the Movies: A Century of Suicide in
Film’, Crisis 32, no. 4 (July 2011): 17577, https://doi.org/10.1027/0227-5910/a000121.
51
Ibid., p. 177.
52
U. Hegerl/I. Heinz: Reflections on Causes of Suicidal Behaviour.
53
M. Sisask/A. Värnik: Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systematic Review.
54
J. J. Mann et al.: Suicide Prevention Strategies: A Systematic Review.
55
Georgia Hanshew Swing, ‘Choosing Life: Adolescent Suicide in Literature’, The English
Journal 79, no. 5 (September 1990): 7882, https://doi.org/10.2307/818385, here p. 79.
56
T. Niederkrotenthaler et al.: Increasing Help-Seeking and Referrals for Individuals at Risk
for Suicide by Decreasing Stigma.
13
self-killing. Beneficial consequences of this kind are referred to as the Papageno
effect.
14
Chapter 2: Suicide and Agency in the Real World
Before turning to the discussion of player agency and suicide in games, it is
necessary to inspect the relationship between agency and self-killing in real life.
At the heart of this issue lies the question whether or not suicides are the
expression of a person’s free will. Without such considerations, it would be
impossible to assess the accuracy of games that depict suicidality. For the
following reflections, a preliminary understanding of agency as “[…] an
individual’s capacity for independent thought and action” suffices.
57
In chapter
3, the concept of agency is developed beyond this initial notion.
Wolfersdorf remarks that the perception of suicide has undergone an enormous
transformation:
In the course of human history, no thought or action has been subjected to
such differing assessments as has suicidal behavior. Its evaluation ranges
from suicidality as an expression of utmost freedom all the way to an
expression of severest constriction through physical illness or restriction of
mental, bodily, or social nature.
58
Living in the times of ancient Rome, Seneca considered self-killing a basic
liberty that was accessible to people of every social status.
59
Modern scientists
recognize that, although the possibility to choose death is embedded in human
nature, real suicides are rarely the result of a free decision.
60
This conclusion is
supported by multiple lines of evidence:
First, the overwhelming majority of suicides are completed by people who suffer
from psychiatric disorders.
61
Mental illnesses like depression
62
or
57
Marcus Schulzke, ‘Critical Essay—Models of Agency in Game Studies’, Technoculture 2
(2012), https://tcjournal.org/vol2/schulzke, para. 1.
58
M. Wolfersdorf: Suizidalität, p. 721.
59
Alfred Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
2002).
60
U. Hegerl: Depression und Suizidalität.
61
Ibid.
62
‘Symptoms - Clinical Depression’, NHS, 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/mental-
health/conditions/clinical-depression/symptoms/.
15
schizophrenia
63
strongly affect and control the person’s thoughts, actions, and
perceptions. Moreover, Mann et al. write that
Psychiatric disorders are present in at least 90% of suicides and more than
80% are untreated at time of death.
64
Thus, a suicidal person might not even be aware that they are under the influence
of a mental illness that could be diagnosed and treated.
Second, nine out of ten people who attempt self-killing are glad about their
survival.
65
This finding shows that a suicidal person does not so much oppose
life itself as they reject their current condition.
66
However, that assessment may
fluctuate greatly and, after some time, a former suicide attempter might no longer
be able to understand their decision.
67
Third, cognitive therapy constitutes a common way of addressing suicidality. At
its core, cognitive therapy concentrates on breaking free from harmful thought
patterns and aligning the patient’s beliefs with empirical data.
68
A randomized
controlled trial by Brown et al. confirmed the efficacy of these techniques:
Specifically, participants in the cognitive therapy group were approximately
50% less likely to attempt suicide during the follow-up period than
participants in the usual care group.
69
The effectiveness of cognitive therapy in preventing suicides suggests that self-
killing is not determined by the amount or severity of negative events in the
person’s life. Instead, it is the distorted perception of such adversities as
unbearable and irresolvable that leads to self-destruction.
70
63
‘Symptoms - Schizophrenia’, NHS, 2019, https://www.nhs.uk/mental-
health/conditions/schizophrenia/symptoms/.
64
J. J. Mann et al.: Suicide Prevention Strategies: A Systematic Review, p. 2069.
65
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
66
Ibid.
67
Ibid.
68
J. S. Westefeld et al.: Suicide: An Overview.
69
Gregory K. Brown et al., ‘Cognitive Therapy for the Prevention of Suicide Attempts: A
Randomized Controlled Trial’, JAMA 294, no. 5 (3 August 2005): 56370,
https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.294.5.563, here p. 569.
70
J. S. Westefeld et al.: Suicide: An Overview.
16
Since all of these findings indicate that suicides do not stem from free, self-
determined decisions, the question remains what they represent instead.
Ringel deems the state of constriction central to self-killing.
71
He describes it as
a process in which the suicidal person becomes ever more confined in their
thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That development reaches its peak when
suicide is viewed as the only option left.
72
Westefeld and colleagues liken
constriction to a form of tunnel vision in which self-killing appears as the last
possible escape from suffering.
73
Instead of being an expression of agency,
suicide thus becomes a compulsion for someone who is no longer aware of the
available alternatives.
In fact, suicidality has been associated with a lack of agency in multiple ways:
for example, low self-efficacy has emerged as a predictor of adolescent suicide.
74
Klosinski remarked that suicidal youths displayed weak problem-solving skills.
75
Joiner’s model of suicide lists perceived burdensomeness, which results from
extreme feelings of ineffectiveness, as one of the two most important reasons for
welcoming death.
76
Further, as has been discussed in chapter 1, older people are
more likely than young people to commit suicide. It has been hypothesized that
this tendency is related to the decrease in autonomy and self-efficacy that
accompanies the aging process.
77
Foster’s analysis of suicide notes revealed that
Notes of elderly suicides were more likely than non-elderly notes to contain
the theme “burden to others” (40% versus 3%, p = 0.03).
78
If the lack of agency predisposes towards self-killing, it follows that its presence
might forestall suicidal impulses. Joiner views self-efficacy as the direct
opposite of perceived burdensomeness and considers it a protective factor
71
Erwin Ringel, Der Selbstmord: Abschluss einer krankhaften psychischen Entwicklung: eine
Untersuchung an 745 geretteten Selbstmördern, 11., unveränderte Auflage (Eschborn: edition
klotz, 2017).
72
M. Karle: Management suizidaler Krisen bei Kindern und Jugendlichen.
73
J. S. Westefeld et al.: Suicide: An Overview.
74
Ibid.
75
G. Klosinski: Suizidale Krisen bei Kindern und Jugendlichen: Allgemeine Aspekte, Ursachen
und Psychodynamik.
76
T. Joiner: Why People Die by Suicide.
77
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
78
T. Foster: Suicide Note Themes and Suicide Prevention, p. 323.
17
against suicide.
79
Prevention efforts based on skills training emphasize problem-
solving, decision-making, interpersonal communication, and self-efficacy
enhancement.
80
Finally, Eink and Haltenhof introduce another relevant point in
their recommendations on suicide intervention: they state that the ultimate
decision to stay alive always resides with the suicidal person.
81
Thus, restoring
their sense of agency takes precedence over the attempt to fix their problems for
them.
In conclusion, self-killing generally occurs under the influence of cognitive
constriction and mental disorders. As such, most suicides resemble the direct
opposite of a self-determined, independent decision. Although self-destructive
behavior has been associated with freedom in the past, modern researchers have
abandoned this perspective. Whereas the lack of agency predicts suicide risk, its
presence might play a protective role in preventing suicidal ideation and actions.
79
T. Joiner: Why People Die by Suicide.
80
M. S. Gould/R. A. Kramer: Youth Suicide Prevention.
81
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
18
Chapter 3: Player Agency
The following sections lay the foundation for the upcoming game analyses by
exploring the concept of player agency. First, various definitions of the
phenomenon are presented and contrasted. The second segment investigates the
role of agency in interactive media and its connection to well-being in the real
world. Lastly, this chapter introduces a selection of taxonomies that differentiate
between particular manifestations of player agency.
3.1 Definitions
In her game studies classic Hamlet on the Holodeck, media scholar Janet Murray
offered a popular definition of player agency:
Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results
of our decisions and choices.
82
Subsequent descriptions of the phenomenon have fallen into two broad
categories:
On one side, there is the system-centric view of agency as the options and
consequences embedded in the game structures. For instance, Salen and
Zimmerman regard the connection between the player’s actions and the
responses they trigger in the game systems as the source of meaningful play.
83
They also remark that this relationship should be “[…] integrated into the larger
context of the game,”
84
meaning that the player’s decisions must affect the game
state in the short and long term. Andreen shares the sentiment that choices are
imbued with meaning by the consequences they create.
85
82
Janet Horowitz Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace
(Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998), p. 126.
83
Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals
(Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003).
84
Ibid., p. 35.
85
Michael Thomas Andreen, ‘Choice in Digital Games: A Taxonomy of Choice Types Applied
to Player Agency and Identity’ (Dissertation, 2017), http://hdl.handle.net/10735.1/5446.
19
This conceptualization of player agency is closely aligned with the idea of the
possibility space, a term that comprises all the different states a game might
assume. From the system-centric perspective, the degree of player agency
afforded by a game becomes evident in the extent of its possibility space.
86
Because of the focus on objectively assessable consequences, this view
disregards the potential power of choices that promise differential outcomes
without ever realizing them:
Similarly, if the game provides illusory choices […] these quickly become
equivalent to no choice at all. Since there is no effect from choosing one
option or another, the decision becomes arbitrary and thus as if it didn’t
exist.
87
On the other side, player agency may also be considered from a
phenomenological standpoint that emphasizes the audience’s subjective sense of
whether or not their actions have meaning. Game designer Jesse Schell deems
the player’s feeling of control more important than the actual amount of freedom
inherent in the gameplay.
88
He advocates for the use of subtle techniques to guide
the player’s decisions to deliver an optimal experience while preserving their
sense of autonomy and mastery. Thue et al. express the same thought:
Although much of the games industry is concerned with providing more
agency to its players, what seems to matter more is how much agency each
player will actually perceive.
89
The fact that players are rarely able to assess the entire possibility space of a
game constitutes one reason for the primacy of perceived agency.
90
In another
paper, the same authors hypothesized that the feeling of agency is influenced by
86
Michael Sellers, Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach (Boston: Addison-Wesley,
2018).
87
Ibid., p. 108.
88
Jesse Schell, Die Kunst des Game Designs: bessere Games konzipieren und entwickeln,
trans. Maren Feilen, 2. Auflage (Frechen: mitp, 2016).
89
David Thue et al., ‘A Computational Model of Perceived Agency in Video Games’,
Proceedings of the AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence and Interactive Digital
Entertainment 7, no. 1 (October 2011): 9196, here p. 91.
90
Ibid.
20
factors internal to the player such as the foreseeability and desirability of
consequences.
91
Tanenbaum and Tanenbaum understand player agency as “[…] the process by
which participants in an interaction commit to meaning.”
92
According to their
view, players choose their actions based on the intents they wish to express. The
sense of agency ensues if the game reacts appropriately to the player’s intentions.
Consequently, even a situation that appears to be an illusory choice on a
structural level may in fact honor the player’s intents and instill the feeling of
agency.
93
Similarly, Ting points out that instead of causing significant changes in the story,
a player may experience agency simply by identifying with the playable
character and helping them complete their objectives.
94
Both positionsthe objective system-centric perspective and the subjective
phenomenological viewilluminate a particular aspect of player agency. We
might refer to the first set of definitions as describing the theoretical agency of a
game, whereas the second category deals with its perceived agency.
95
The
distinction between the two terms facilitates the conversation around the topic at
hand. For instance, a false choice, in which all options eventually lead to the
same result,
96
represents a source of perceived agency that is not reflected in the
theoretical agency.
91
David Thue et al., ‘Player Agency and the Relevance of Decisions’, in Interactive
Storytelling, ed. Ruth Aylett et al., vol. 6432, Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Berlin,
Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2010), 21015, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-
16638-9_26.
92
Karen Tanenbaum and Theresa Jean Tanenbaum, ‘Commitment to Meaning: A Reframing of
Agency in Games’, 2009, here p. 5.
93
Ibid.
94
Kway Li Ting, ‘IT’S NOT THE END, BUT EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: AN
EXPLORATION OF PERCEIVED AGENCY AND THE INTERTWINED FATES OF THE
PLAYER, PLAYABLE CHARACTER AND NPCS IN STORYGAMES’ (Thesis, 2020),
https://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/handle/10635/167747.
95
D. Thue et al.: Player Agency and the Relevance of Decisions.
96
Sarah Stang, ‘“This Action Will Have Consequences”: Interactivity and Player Agency’,
Game Studies 19, no. 1 (2019), http://gamestudies.org/1901/articles/stang?fbclid=IwAR3-
wsiag8BThUFv-CkYjci7qYhpW9wamfDRMNoOjZcq37Jv6_BZUWxT13A.
21
Although there are proponents of both concepts among designers and scholars,
Ting claims that
In recent years, this discussion has shifted to understanding agency as a more
perceived sense, one that emphasizes the emotions and evocative
playthrough that players experience.
97
In the upcoming chapters, this thesis considers both the theoretical and perceived
player agency of the analyzed games. Cases in which the two properties differ
significantly are examined closely and the potential effects of the mismatch are
discussed.
Lastly, the research on player agency has expanded in various directions: Stang
elaborates on a different form of agency that takes into account the reception,
interpretation, and discussion of digital games through player communities.
98
The public exchange that surrounds the work shapes its socio-cultural meaning
as well as the expectations of new players. That way, this type of agency
eventually affects the actual play experience of the audience.
Schulzke writes about player agency in the context of media effects.
99
This notion
of the term explores the
[…] extent to which players are passive receivers of information or actively
involved in constructing their experiences.
100
Low agency in this regard means that the audience adopts the message of a game
without reflecting on it critically.
Although such views represent valuable additions to the understanding of player
agency, their consideration exceeds the frame of this research. The present thesis
concentrates on the agency within the game world that a player experiences
during their playthrough.
97
K. L. Ting: IT’S NOT THE END, BUT EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: AN EXPLORATION
OF PERCEIVED AGENCY AND THE INTERTWINED FATES OF THE PLAYER, PLAYABLE
CHARACTER AND NPCS IN STORYGAMES, p. vii.
98
S. Stang: “This Action Will Have Consequences”: Interactivity and Player Agency.
99
M. Schulzke: Critical EssayModels of Agency in Game Studies.
100
Ibid., para. 1.
22
Definitions of player agency revolve around the possibility for meaningful
interaction with the game world. Scholars and designers disagree as to whether
agency refers to a subjective feeling that arises in the player’s mind or whether
it represents an objective property of games that depends on the number of
different states embedded in the systems. This research utilizes both the
experience-based understanding of perceived agency and the system-centric
notion of theoretical agency to generate insights.
3.2 Significance
According to the authors of Rules of Play, [p]laying a game means making
choices and taking actions.”
101
Janet Murray lists agency, immersion, and
transformation as the three core aesthetics of the interactive medium.
102
She uses
the term aesthetics to refer to the characteristic features of the experiences digital
games can generate. Moreover, game developers use the coupling of player
actions and game outcomes to elicit a unique range of emotions that is
inaccessible to other media.
103
For instance, a player who chooses to ignore
another character’s pleas for help may feel guilt when their inaction causes more
suffering for the NPC (non-player character).
The feeling of being in control appears to be central to the attractiveness of
player agency.
104
Wrayton characterizes this sense as an empowering
experience.
105
More generally, agency seems to constitute a desire that needs to
be fulfilled in the virtual and the real world:
101
K. S. Tekinbaş/E. Zimmerman: Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, p. 33.
102
J. H. Murray: Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
103
Katherine Isbister, How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, First MIT Press paperback
edition, Playful Thinking Series (Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The MIT Press,
2017).
104
M. T. Andreen: Choice in Digital Games: A Taxonomy of Choice Types Applied to Player
Agency and Identity.
105
Danielle Wrayton, ‘Agency in Digital Games’, accessed 2 January 2022,
https://www.academia.edu/34895465/Agency_in_Digital_Games.
23
The ability to have an effect on the world (i.e., a person’s agency) is a
fundamental craving of human nature, having been linked to emotional well-
being, improved performance, and good health.
106
Kent Hudson equates player agency with the notion of autonomy in self-
determination theory.
107
The theory indicates that humans are motivated to
satisfy three universal needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
108
Autonomy refers to the desire to be a causal agent of one's own life.
109
Rigby
thinks that the satiation of this feeling lies at the core of modern digital games.
110
He also stresses that autonomy must not be confused with independence, a
meaning that is often associated with the term in common parlance. Instead, he
highlights the importance of volitionthe sense that one is acting according to
their own will. The psychologist names marriage as an example of a decision
that reduces independence while strengthening volition. Thus, the sense of
autonomy described here exhibits remarkable similarities to previous definitions
of agency.
A variety of game scholars and designers have pointed out the opposition
between player agency and authorial control. Jesse Schell writes that the
question of freedom defines the conflict between gameplay and narrative.
111
Granting agency to the player inevitably endows them with the power to disrupt
the story.
112
Fullerton contrasts agency and empathy, describing the former as
“the practical function of a character to serve as a representation of the player in
the game.”
113
Empathy, on the other hand, results from the opportunity to connect
to and identify with another character. She argues that:
106
D. Thue et al.: A Computational Model of Perceived Agency in Video Games, p. 91.
107
Kent Hudson, ‘Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?’ (Game Developers
Conference, 2011), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qie4My7zOgI.
108
Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, ‘Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of
Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.’, American Psychologist 55, no. 1
(2000): 6878, https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.55.1.68.
109
R. M. Ryan/E. L. Deci: Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic
Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.
110
Scott Rigby, ‘The Freedom Fallacy: Understanding “Player Autonomy” in Game Design’
(Game Developers Conference, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vct13OhIio.
111
J. Schell: Die Kunst des Game Designs: bessere Games konzipieren und entwickeln.
112
Tynan Sylvester, Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences, First edition
(Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2013).
113
Tracy Fullerton, Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative
Games, Fourth edition (Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, CRC Press, 2019), p. 109.
24
Game characters that are controlled by the player do not always have the
opportunity to act on their own. The player is assuming agency for the
character’s actions, which limits the degree to which characters can
demonstrate their own personality and inner thought processes.
114
Cole agrees with this sentiment when she outlines how the current focus on
player agency restricts the depth of non-player characters.
115
Finally, game developers are able to withdraw agency from the player to express
ideas and induce feelings.
116
Murray anticipated that interactive media will train
their audience to regard the presence of agency as a default condition.
117
Whereas
a reader naturally accepts that the story follows a predetermined path, a player
who cannot exercise control is confronted with their broken expectations. This
subversion of conventions then encourages the audience to reflect on the
message of the game.
118
The findings in this segment suggest that player agency represents an essential
component of games that characterizes the experience of play. As such, its
absence may be used as a powerful tool to create novel artistic expressions.
Agency gives rise to a sense of control, empowerment, and volition that humans
seek in reality and virtuality alike. Potential drawbacks of high degrees of agency
lie in the difficulty to tell a cohesive story that withstands the audience’s
interference and the shallowness of characters that only exist to serve the
player’s intentions.
114
Ibid., p. 111.
115
Alayna Cole, ‘Connecting Player and Character Agency in Videogames’, TEXT, 2018,
https://www.academia.edu/37081825/Connecting_Player_and_Character_Agency_in_Videoga
mes.
116
M. T. Andreen: Choice in Digital Games: A Taxonomy of Choice Types Applied to Player
Agency and Identity.
117
J. H. Murray: Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
118
Miguel Cesar, ‘Playing with the Player: Agency Manipulation in Shadow of the Colossus
and Japanese Computer Games’, G|A|M|E 1, no. 8 (2019), https://www.gamejournal.it/playing-
with-the-player-agency-manipulation-in-japanese-computer-games/.
25
3.3 Taxonomies
The extensive topic of player agency has been broken down into various strands
that examine specific manifestations of the phenomenon.
Mateas and Stern distinguish between local and global agency:
When the player’s actions cause immediate, context-specific, meaningful
reactions from the system, we call this local agency.
119
Global agency refers to games in which the player’s decisions determine the
development of the whole experience. If the protagonist engages in a
conversation with another character and the player chooses a disrespectful
dialogue option, that NPC might display an angry reaction before ending the
exchange. That would be an example of local agency. If, however, the NPC feels
so offended that they switch sides and fight against the protagonist in the final
battle, the game offers global agency instead.
In a talk about FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS
120
at the annual Game Developers
Conference (GDC), Josh Sawyer introduces a different distinction.
121
He
reserves the term story agency for situations in which the player’s actions
influence subsequent plot events. Apart from that, the audience may experience
character agency if the choices lend themselves to the expression of the
protagonist’s personality. Since it is not mandatory to engage in role-playing, the
player can also use such decisions to bring their own opinions and values into
the game world. Nevertheless, this form of agency assigns priority to how a
certain action should be performed instead of the consequences that follow from
it. Andreen describes a scene in HEAVY RAIN
122
that exemplifies the concept of
character agency:
In the trial where Ethan must remove a finger within five minutes, for
instance, players have a variety of gruesome options. […] A player who
believes in tough stoicism might reach for the nearest itemthe sawand
119
Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, ‘Structuring Content in the Façade Interactive Drama
Architecture.’, 2005, 93–98, here p. 97.
120
FALLOUT: NEW VEGAS (Bethesda Softworks 2010, O: Obsidian Entertainment).
121
Josh Sawyer, ‘Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout:
New Vegas’ (Game Developers Conference, 2012),
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LR4OxNfzTvU.
122
HEAVY RAIN (Sony Computer Entertainment 2010, O: Quantic Dream).
26
remove the finger within moments of initiating the trial. Someone more
medically minded might seek out the treatment options first, and yet another
player might simply look for the most humane tool.
123
The term character agency is employed by various people to denote different
phenomena. Cole uses it to describe “[…] whether the characters within a text
have the perceived ability to influence their narrative.”
124
This conception
extends beyond the particularities of games and may be applied to fictional
characters in any medium. Hudson classifies the set of actions the player may
perform as player agency and the protagonist’s capabilities as character
agency.
125
Thus, in case the hero does something in a cutscene that the player
cannot replicate during gameplay, player agency and character agency are in a
mismatch. Seeing that character agency is laden with ambiguous meanings,
Sawyer’s initial notion might be more appropriately captured with the term
expressive agency.
In The Game Narrative Toolbox, Heussner dedicates a section to moral agency:
Whenever a player makes a decision in a game that can be framed as “right
and wrong” or “good and evil,” this is moral agency.
126
They consider such choices a design challenge because they force the developers
to anticipate the player’s reasons for preferring one option over the other and
referencing them in the resulting consequences. In addition to that, they warn
about the potential harms of punishing players who picked the immoral options.
Despite these concerns, numerous games provide their audience with moral
agency. The Little Sisters in BIOSHOCK
127
constitute a well-known example of
ethical decision-making: the player may either kill them to gain additional
resources or save them for a much smaller reward.
128
123
M. T. Andreen: Choice in Digital Games: A Taxonomy of Choice Types Applied to Player
Agency and Identity, p. 150.
124
A. Cole: Connecting Player and Character Agency in Videogames, p. 2.
125
K. Hudson: Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?.
126
Tobias Heussner, The Game Narrative Toolbox (New York: Focal Press/Taylor & Francis
Group, 2015), p.114.
127
BIOSHOCK (2K Games 2007, O: 2K Boston, 2K Australia)
128
Ty Arthur, ‘Bioshock Little Sisters: Rescue or Harvest?’, GameSkinny, 2020,
https://www.gameskinny.com/d2euz/bioshock-little-sisters-rescue-or-harvest.
27
Chapter 3.1 already established a final categorization: theoretical agency
encompasses the choices and consequences that truly exist in the structure of the
game. Perceived agency refers to the player’s subjective sense that their actions
matter. Although the two concepts interact with each other, perceived and
theoretical agency may differ substantially within the same game. For instance,
the player might encounter a series of decisions in which all options eventually
cause the same outcome. Unless the player reloads the game multiple times to
try various options, their perceived agency remains intact despite the lack of
theoretical agency. The opposite imbalance is also possible: a hypothetical game
could offer many valid paths through the story and gameplay but fails to inform
the audience about the available alternatives. Thus, the low degree of perceived
agency would obscure the scope of the theoretical agency.
In conclusion, player agency may be deconstructed into several components: the
distinction between local and global agency alludes to the severity and temporal
limitation of the consequences of an action. Further, choices can be considered
meaningful when they affect the progression of the story or when they allow the
player to express themselves or the character they are controlling. If these
decisions occur in an ethical context, they grant the audience moral agency.
Lastly, games can be analyzed through the lens of the theoretical agency inherent
in the game systems, the perceived agency experienced by the player, or the
relationship between those two considerations.
28
Chapter 4: Suicide and Player Agency in Digital Games
Due to the fact that death is frequently modeled in game systems, suicide is a
possibility in numerous games.
129
In a game where failure leads to the death of the playable character, this state
may be actively brought about by the player, perhaps as a shortcut to resetting
the level or starting the game anew. Deliberately jumping into a pit in a
platformer game qualifies as an example of this behavior. In games that put the
player in charge of a character’s survival, neglecting vital needs like hunger,
health, or morale can be conceptualized as a another version of ludic suicide.
These forms of emergent, player-induced suicide, which result from linking
death or survival to the player’s actions, differ from games in which the depiction
of suicide was a conscious decision by the developers. Nagenborg and Hoffstadt
propose the terms game-world internal and game-world external suicide to draw
this distinction.
130
The self-killing of the playable character or an NPC that
makes sense within the game world is labelled internal. If the act is driven by the
player’s logic instead, it is external to the game world.
A discussion of game-world external suicide and whether such behavior even
matches the definition of self-killing is beyond the scope of this thesis. The
following analysis will be limited to game-world internal depictions in which
suicide is either a fixed component of the narrative or a consciously designed
possibility embedded in the game systems. Both playable and non-player
characters will be examined.
The present thesis identifies three categories based on the portrayed aspect of
suicidality and the player’s degree of agency:
129
Michael Nagenborg and Christian Hoffstadt, ‘A Life No Longer Worth Playing: Some
Remarks on in-Game Suicide’, Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds 1, no. 2 (1 December 2009):
8395, https://doi.org/10.1386/jgvw.1.2.83/1.
130
Ibid.
29
First, there are a number of digital games in which the player has the ability to
prevent an NPC from committing suicide. Such depictions may appear as central
events in the stories of narrative adventure games like LIFE IS STRANGE
131
or as
standalone quests in role-playing games such as CYBERPUNK 2077
132
or THE
FORGOTTEN CITY.
133
The examples in this category are characterized by a high
degree of player agency and because of the positive role assigned to the player,
they are suited to educating the audience about suicide intervention and
prevention.
In the second category, the completed suicide of a character is presented as a
direct consequence of the player’s actions. These games also provide a strong
sense of agency, however, the player takes on a negative role, contributing to a
character’s decision to end their life. The sense of complicity inherent in these
depictions evokes emotions like guilt, shame, and regret that are unavailable in
traditional media. THIS WAR OF MINE
134
and the failure to prevent the suicide in
LIFE IS STRANGE serve as examples of this category.
Finally, digital games like ACTUAL SUNLIGHT
135
or WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH
FINCH
136
represent the suicide of a playable character as the inevitable end of
their storyline. These types of portrayals illuminate the cognitive constriction of
a suicidal mind and the development towards eventual self-killing. The absence
or illusion of player agency are used as expressive tools to underscore the games’
perspectives on suicide.
4.1 Preventing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions
131
LIFE IS STRANGE (Square Enix 2015, O: Dontnod Entertainment).
132
CYBERPUNK 2077 (CD Projekt 2020, O: CD Projekt Red).
133
THE FORGOTTEN CITY (Dear Villagers 2021, O: Modern Storyteller).
134
THIS WAR OF MINE (11 Bit Studios 2014, O: 11 Bit Studios).
135
ACTUAL SUNLIGHT (Will O’Neill 2013).
136
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH (Annapurna Interactive 2017, O: Giant Sparrow).
30
4.1.1 LIFE IS STRANGE
LIFE IS STRANGE is a third-person adventure game that was developed by
Dontnod Entertainment and published by Square Enix. The content of the game
is split into five consecutive episodes that were released throughout 2015.
Narratively, LIFE IS STRANGE revolves around the protagonist Maxine “Max”
Caulfield, who returns to her former home town to study photography at the
renowned Blackwell Academy. After a nightmare of a giant tornado that is
heading for the town, Max finds out that she can rewind time. The rest of the
game deals with her attempt to uncover the mysteries of missing students, time-
travel, and her apocalyptic visions. A selling point of the game lies in its promise
that the player’s choices, large and small, affect the course of the story.
Exploring locations and talking to other characters represent the main building
blocks of the gameplay. Occasionally, Max’s rewind powers are required to
solve puzzles, but for the most part, they are used to navigate social interactions
to the player’s desired outcome.
LIFE IS STRANGE depicts the potential suicide of Kate Marsh, one of Max’s
fellow students at Blackwell Academy, as a consequence of bullying. The
portrayal spans multiple episodes and includes the build-up, the suicide
attemptwhich may or may not be prevented by the playerand its aftermath.
Kate is studying at Blackwell to become an illustrator for children’s books. She
is characterized as innocent, friendly, and deeply religious. Kate’s problems start
when a recording of her on a student party goes viral. Listening to the comments
of the students, it seems that the video shows an intoxicated Kate kissing and
touching several different men. The bullying at school that ensues and the
reaction of her conservative Christian family throw Kate into a depressive state
that ends in a suicidal crisis.
In the first episode, the player is introduced to Kate being bullied and has the
option to learn more about her current situation by talking to her and reading
Max’s journal entries. Her depression becomes apparent, however, she does not
31
ask for help nor confide in Max. Later that day, Max observes Kate in a
confrontation with the school’s head of security David Madsen. As a player, you
can either intervene and help Kate or stay hidden and take a photo as proof
instead. The game marks this moment as a significant decision and Kate is either
grateful or angry at Max based on the player’s choice.
Kate’s storyline takes center stage in the second episode. Max and Kate meet in
the shower and engage in a brief conversation. The tone of the exchange depends
on the player’s previous decision. While Max is under the shower, a group of
girls enter and harass Kate about the video until she runs off. Kate’s utterances
in this scene clearly point to her contemplating suicide: You’re going to be sorry
someday.”
137
Before leaving, one of the girls puts the link to the viral video on the mirror. The
player can decide to erase the link. Similarly, throughout the first two episodes,
there are mean messages on a slate at Kate’s room that may be removed.
After getting dressed, Max enters Kate’s room to return a book to her. The room
is filled with objects that indicate depression and suicidality: the mirror is
covered by clothes, the bin is filled with tissues, her recent artworks are dark and
full of skulls, Kate no longer plays the violin, and there is a photo of her friends
at Blackwell, although Max remarks that she never saw Kate in their company.
Social withdrawal, the loss of former interests, an obsession with death, frequent
crying, and a conflict of self-image are represented through a combination of
environmental storytelling and Max’s commentary. This selection of hints
closely resembles the list of warning signs for real-life suicide in the psychiatric
literature.
138
Apart from the warning signs, the room presents an opportunity to learn more
about Kate and her family. While her mother and aunt put their religious
convictions over Kate’s well-being, the relationship to her father and, most of
all, her two sisters is characterized by love. Further, there is a copy of the Bible
with two quotes written down by Kate: A passage from the Gospel of Matthew
137
LIFE IS STRANGE (Square Enix 2015, O: Dontnod Entertainment).
138
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
32
that was highlighted by Kate and an excerpt from the Proverbs that she crossed
out.
After exploring the room, Max talks to Kate who opens up about the party and
the video. Max suspects she was drugged by another Blackwell student and Kate
wants to know how to proceed. This creates another key decision for the player
who can either tell Kate to inform the police or to wait and look for further proof
of her story. Encouraging Kate makes her euphoric for a brief moment, advising
patience leads to a hopeless and angry reaction.
Later in the episode, Max is spending time with another friend of hers when she
receives a call from Kate. Accepting or declining the call is once again presented
as a choice with severe consequences. If you take the call, Max talks to Kate on
the phone and although the player can only hear Max’s responses, it sounds like
Kate is panicking and Max manages to calm her a little.
In the dramatic climax of episode two, a student disrupts Max’s class and yells
about something that is about to happen at the girls’ dormitory. Max follows her
class mates outside. A crowd of students is watching Kate standing on the roof
of the building and eventually jumping off. Max watches her fall and rewinds
time to prevent her suicide. In this moment, she unlocks previously unavailable
powers that allow her to freeze time so she can get to the rooftop before Kate
jumps. Due to the side effects of her new ability, Max is unable to manipulate
time in the scene that follows.
Max and Kate engage in a conversation in which the player can try to prevent
Kate from committing suicide. The outcome of this scene hinges on the dialogue
options chosen by the player and their past behavior towards Kate. If the player
erased the messages on Kate’s slate, intervened in her confrontation with the
head of security, removed the link to the viral video, encouraged her to inform
the police, or answered her phone call, this will be mentioned in the conversation
and there are fewer questions the player has to answer before they manage to
convince Kate. Eventually, Kate claims that nobody cares about her and Max
replies with one of the following options: your mother, your father, your brother,
your sisters. The player can only answer this question if they examined Kate’s
33
room closely and remember her positive relationships with her sisters and father.
A right answer will steer the conversation to one final question in which Max
appeals to Kate’s faith. She can either recite the Matthew passage, the quote from
the Proverbs, or tell Kate that suicide is a sin. Only choosing the quote from the
Gospel of Matthew that was highlighted in Kate’s bible will fully convince her
to abandon the idea of self-killing.
Saving Kate results in a hopeful ending of the second episode and a lighter
beginning of the third one. Also, the player receives additional text messages
from Kate in later episodes and an exclusive playable scene in the fourth episode
in which Max visits her in the hospital. There is no alternative scene for players
who failed to prevent Kate’s suicide.
LIFE IS STRANGE offers an usually high degree of player agency for a game of
the narrative adventure genre.
One of the origins of the player’s sense of control is the strong presence of what
Day and Zhu call Agency Informing Techniques (short: AITs).
139
AITs are ways
in which developers heighten the player’s sense that their actions matter in the
game world. Essentially, such techniques directly target perceived agency
without affecting theoretical agency. An example of an AIT in LIFE IS STRANGE
are the UI cues. Completing any action that produces future consequences
triggers the animation of a butterfly flapping on the screen. This references the
butterfly effect, which entered the public mind as the idea that the movement of
a butterfly may set off a tornado in another part of the world.
140
The animation
represents a way of communicating to the player that what they just did was
meaningful. Additionally, the fact that the UI cue appears even after mundane
139
Timothy Day and Jichen Zhu, ‘Agency Informing Techniques: Communicating Player
Agency in Interactive Narratives’, in Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on the
Foundations of Digital Games (FDG’17: International Conference on the Foundations of
Digital Games 2017, Hyannis Massachusetts: ACM, 2017), 14,
https://doi.org/10.1145/3102071.3106363.
140
Jeremy Deaton, ‘The Butterfly Effect Is Not What You Think It Is’, The Washington Post,
2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2020/02/02/butterfly-effect-is-not-what-you-
think-it-is.
34
actions like watering a plant creates the sense that even little things may have
disproportional consequences in the future.
Another Agency Informing Technique can be found in the visual representation
of major decisions. These special moments in the game have a distinct look and
time is literally freezing as the player contemplates their options. This design
decision communicates to the player that, although small actions may also have
consequences in LIFE IS STRANGE, the current choice will definitely leave a
significant impact on the game experience.
Kate’s storyline shows that Dontnod Entertainment delivers on its promise of
meaningful choice. Leading up to her suicide, the player faces three major
decisions that concern Kate: her confrontation with the security chief, her
question about talking to police, and her phone call. Apart from these carefully
crafted moments that every player experiences, there are also small, optional
ways of helping Katelike erasing the bullying on her room slatethat are
easily overlooked. In the conversation on the rooftop, both the significant
choices and the less prominent actions are brought up and facilitate the
prevention of Kate’s suicide.
Further, Max’s ability to rewind time represents a source of local player agency
that does not exist in most narrative adventure games. It allows the player to
make a choice, watch some of the consequences that unfold, and then rewind to
study the alternatives. That way, the storyline of LIFE IS STRANGE becomes a
result of conscious, thought-through decisions made by a player who also has
some sense of where the other options might have led. In their paper, Day and
Zhu explicitly list the rewind mechanic as an Agency Informing Technique.
141
Being able to examine all the different short-term consequences of a particular
choice produces another effect: the player’s perceived agency gradually
approximates the theoretical agency truly afforded by the game. Thue remarked
that “given that any players play the game only once, they may not be able to
141
T. Day/J. Zhu: Agency Informing Techniques: Communicating Player Agency in Interactive
Narratives.
35
assess the true amount of agency that the game actually provides.”
142
Thus,
games can rely on an illusion of agency only because they are rarely replayed by
the same person. Doing so would reveal the low degree of theoretical agency
afforded by the game’s structure. The rewind mechanic in LIFE IS STRANGE
grants the player the ability to restart entire scenes and eliminates the possibility
for the developers to rely on illusory perceived agency.
It is interesting to note that Max’s time powersone of the main sources of
player agency in the gameare not available during her conversation with Kate
on the rooftop. The player’s success or failure in this scene does not depend on
their mastery of the rewind mechanic. Rather, it is their capacity for what Belman
and Flanagan call “empathetic play” that is being tested.
143
According to their
definition, playing empathetically means putting effort into learning about the
characters and their feelings in a game. The developers at Dontnod
Entertainment require their audience to invest time and effort into the character
of Kate Marsh if they wish to save her. Ultimately, the suicide can only be
prevented if the player investigates her room, draws the right conclusions from
the visual clues (such as the happy photos with her sisters or the highlighted
Bible passage), and recalls them during the rooftop scene.
The focus on empathetic play is further underlined by the lack of gamified
elements during Max and Kate’s conversation. Whereas, in other parts of the
game, special dialogue options that the player unlocked through investigation
are underscored, there are no such hints during the rooftop exchange. No matter
what the player discovered in Kate’s room, the dialogue options are always the
same and none of them are emphasized visually. Thus, it is not enough to just
briefly interact with every object in Kate’s room. Instead, the player must
consciously take in the information and remember it without any aid from the
game systems.
142
D. Thue et al.: A Computational Model of Perceived Agency in Video Games, p. 91.
143
Jonathan Belman and Mary Flanagan, ‘Designing Games to Foster Empathy’, Cognitive
Technology 14, no. 2 (2010): 515.
36
The message shaped by these design decisions is clear: it is not the time-
travelling superhero that saves Kate Marsh from suicide. Only a friend who
deeply cares about her can avert this tragedy. This central message reflects the
frequently cited research result that social bonds are among the most powerful
protective factors and that often, it only takes one personbe it a friend, a family
member, or a therapistto prevent a suicide.
144
A final Agency Informing Technique may be found in the choices menu which
is displayed at the end of each episode. It lists all the major and minor decisions
made by the player, presenting the different possible outcomes and how many
players chose each option. Apart from offering a way to compare one’s
playthrough to the global audience of LIFE IS STRANGE, the menu acts a bridge
between perceived and theoretical agency, essentially showing the player all the
possibilities in the underlying game structure. This also erases any doubts as to
whether or not a story event has been predetermined by the developers or
whether it was just one of many possible outcomes.
For instance, if a player does not manage to prevent Kate’s suicide, they might
incorrectly think that her death was inevitable. The choices menu then clarifies
that saving Kate was indeed an option and presents the player with one last way
of exercising their agency: to load a previous save file and act differently this
time. There is at least anecdotal evidence that some players made use of this
“meta-rewind” to prevent the suicide.
145
In summary, LIFE IS STRANGE is an example of representing desired real-life
behavior in game mechanics, something we might call positive modeling.
146
The
game offers the player the opportunity to prevent the suicide of one of the
protagonist’s fellow students by identifying symptoms of suicidality, standing
up to bullying, offering emotional support, and reminding Kate of her personal
144
E. Ringel: Der Selbstmord: Abschluss einer krankhaften psychischen Entwicklung: eine
Untersuchung an 745 geretteten Selbstmördern.
145
Holly Green, ‘Saving Kate and Saving Myself in Life Is Strange’, Paste, 2016,
https://www.pastemagazine.com/games/life-is-strange/.
146
J. Belman/M. Flanagan: Designing Games to Foster Empathy.
37
reasons to live. Ultimately, Kate’s suicide may only be prevented by playing
empathetically which is enforced by the lack of gamified elements in the
conversation on the rooftop and the decision to temporarily disable Max’s
supernatural ability to rewind time.
4.1.2 CYBERPUNK 2077
Developed and published by CD Projekt, CYBERPUNK 2077 is a first-person role-
playing game set in the open world of Night City. It was released in 2020.
The main storyline follows the protagonist V, an upcoming mercenary of Night
City, who is forced to implant a special biochip into his own body. As a
consequence, V’s psyche is shared with Johnny Silverhand’s, a domestic
terrorist from the past who was stored on the chip. V’s central quest consists of
finding a way to safely remove the biochip before his consciousness is fully
overridden by Johnny’s.
CYBERPUNK 2077 offers an open world to explore and a plethora of side quests
that may be completed through a combination of traversal, investigation,
conversation, and combat. Finding superior equipment, learning new skills, and
acquiring vehicles shape the game’s sense of progression, which constitutes a
key component of the RPG genre.
The side job Happy Together deals with a potential suicide that may or may not
be prevented by the player. This quest is available from the beginning of the
second act, shortly after V’s best friend and partner Jackie died during their heist
for the biochip.
Near V’s apartment, two police officers named Mendez and Petrova are
knocking at a door, asking the person inside to come out. In order to start the
quest, the player must talk to the officers, who inform V that the person in the
locked apartment is a former colleague named Barry who recently lost a good
friend. Whereas Mendez does not take the situation seriously and considers the
behavior of his co-worker a cry for attention, Petrova is concerned and asks V to
talk to his neighbor Barry.
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The player can knock on the door, however, they receive no answer and the quest
goal indicates that they should return at a later point in time. After a few hours
of in-game time, V can start to talk to Barry, convincing him to come to the door.
In the conversation that follows, the player has to choose the right dialogue
options to be allowed entry into Barry’s apartment. These options include telling
Barry that you are just here to talk to him, admitting that you were sent by his
friends who are worried about him, or relating to him by talking about V’s own
experiences with loss.
Choosing impersonal platitudes like encouraging Barry to stay strong and live
his life result in him closing the door, saying that he wants to be left alone.
Although the player still receives a reward from the officers for having talked to
Barry, this leads to him committing suicide after some in-game time. There is
nothing the player can do to prevent that outcome.
If the player manages to enter Barry’s room, they can read through his emails
and talk to him again to learn that Barry has been traumatized by the violence he
witnessed as a police officer and his inability to bring about change because of
the corrupted police department. Shortly after these events, Barry’s best friend
Andrew died, which lead to his current state of depression and withdrawal.
Asking Barry about his colleagues, he indicates that they are not the kind of
people he needs right now: Petrova is unable to deal with situations like the one
he is in and Mendez believes that police officers have to be tough and
emotionally unaffected by their work. He also admits that he did not tell them
much about Andrew.
If the player decides to ask further questions about Andrew, an optional quest
goal to visit his grave appears. The conversation ends in one of two ways: V
either comforts Barry and leaves him in a much better mood or he demands that
Barry forgets about the dead. This causes him to react irritably before
terminating the conversation.
Barry’s suicide can only be prevented if the player visits Andrew’s remains
before talking to the police officers. The inscription on the grave reveals that
Andrew was a pet turtle and not a human being, which was strongly implied up
until this point. With that knowledge, V can convince Mendez of the severity of
39
Barry’s crisis, leading to a significant change of attitude. Mendez opens up about
his own experiences as a policeman and how they still haunt him. Barry invites
Mendez and Petrova into his apartment and his suicide has been averted.
Happy Together is a standalone quest that does not affect the main storyline of
CYBERPUNK 2077. Whether or not Barry commits suicide does not result in
significant consequences and the player is rewarded regardless of their success
in this side job, although preventing Barry’s suicide leads to a slightly bigger
monetary reward.
Compared to LIFE IS STRANGE, there is a lack of Agency Informing Techniques
in this depiction of suicide. Even though Barry’s decision depends entirely on
the player’s actions, there are no UI cues indicating which of them had
meaningful consequences. Further, the fact that Barry’s suicide may only be
prevented through choosing dialogue options and completing quest goals that
are marked as optional makes it seem as if the designers are deliberately trying
to disguise the player’s theoretical agency in this sequence. Similarly, the quest
log lists Happy Together as a completed job no matter what happened to Barry
and the job description does not hint at the existence of an alternative solution.
The absence of Agency Informing Techniques ensures that the player cannot just
follow gamified cues to prevent a suicide. Instead, their success in this quest
hinges on their ability to intuitively do the right thing, regardless of whether or
not the game systems point them in this direction.
Structurally, there is only one way of preventing Barry’s suicide: you have to
convince him to let you enter his room, learn from him about Andrew, and visit
the grave before talking to the police officers. Choosing the wrong dialogue
options or completing the quest goals in a different order leads to Barry’s certain
death and the player cannot do anything besides waiting for the suicide to occur.
The many ways in which this quest may be failed create the sense that preventing
self-killing is a challenging task in which little details can be of great importance.
40
That endeavor may only be completed by listening to the suicidal person and
responding with empathy. Reciting impersonal platitudes or imposing one’s own
worldview on a stranger only worsens the situation.
In that sense, Barry is similar to Kate Marsh. However, in LIFE IS STRANGE, Max
has to discover Kate’s reasons to live and bring them up in the conversation on
the rooftop. In CYBERPUNK 2077, the player must find out about Barry’s real
reason for contemplating suicidethe fact that his only meaningful relationship
was between him and a turtlein order to save him.
In an unconventional design decision, the developers at CD Projekt Red took
away some of the player’s sense of agency to create a more appropriate message.
After learning about Andrew at his grave, the player does not get to talk to Barry
directly to prevent the suicide. Instead, V shares his discovery with the two
police officers and convinces them of the seriousness of Barry’s crisis. It is their
change of attitude and their subsequent exchange with Barry that ultimately avert
the tragedy of his death. The effect of this decision is two-fold:
First, portraying Barry’s relationship with Mendez and Petrova as his reason to
stay alive stresses the status of social bonds as a protective factor against suicide
and the role that colleagues, friends, and family members can play in suicide
prevention.
147
To a lesser degree, this idea is also present in V who engages in
the quest as a concerned neighbor and talks to Barry about their previous
interactions to get him to open the door.
Second, this depiction feels more believable because it does not contribute to the
power fantasy of a hero who rescues the world and all its inhabitants single-
handedly. If V were to save a suicidal neighbor, whom he barely knows, through
a single, brief conversation, Barry’s potential suicide would lack the gravitas that
the topic deserves.
In her GDC talk Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days
and Beyond, Meg Jayanth advocates for stealing some of the player’s agency
147
E. Ringel: Der Selbstmord: Abschluss einer krankhaften psychischen Entwicklung: eine
Untersuchung an 745 geretteten Selbstmördern.
41
and redistributing it to the non-player characters.
148
That way, the characters are
more authentic and the player’s overdeveloped sense of importance is inhibited.
Happy Together implements this ideaat least in the final part of the questby
granting Petrova and Mendez the ultimate ability to prevent Barry’s suicide,
creating an effect that is very similar to what Jayanth envisioned.
Thus, CYBERPUNK 2077 represents another example of a digital game that
models desired behaviors in suicide prevention: the non-judgmental
conversation style and the investigation into the true cause of Barry’s suicidality
as the preconditions to success in the quest help shape the audience’s attitudes
and behavior regarding depression and suicide.
Apart from constraining the player’s sense of omnipotence, the role Mendez and
Petrova play in dissuading Barry from killing himself points to the significance
of preexisting social bonds in suicide prevention.
4.1.3 THE FORGOTTEN CITY
Originally designed as a modification for THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM,
149
THE FORGOTTEN CITY was released as a standalone game in 2021.
150
The first-
person roleplaying game was developed by Modern Storyteller and published by
Dear Villagers.
Set in an ancient Roman city, the game is built on the premise of the so-called
Golden Rule that affects all aspects of life: if one person commits a single sin,
all inhabitants of the city will be wiped out. The player controls a modern-day
human who finds himself transported into this strange town and stuck in a time
loop. If the Golden Rule is broken, the day begins all over again. Contrary to the
Roman townspeople, the protagonist retains his knowledge and items from
previous loops. While looking for a way to escape, the player investigates the
148
Meghna Jayanth, ‘Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and
Beyond’ (Game Developers Conference, 2016),
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLtATD6CF0E.
149
THE ELDER SCROLLS V: SKYRIM (Bethesda Softworks 2011, O: Bethesda Game Studios).
150
‘The Forgotten City’, Nexus Mods, 2015,
https://www.nexusmods.com/skyrim/mods/70219/.
42
citizens’ secrets, the logic of the Golden Rule, and the nature of the mysterious
city.
The core gameplay of THE FORGOTTEN CITY consists of gathering information,
finding items, and solving the problems of the residents. Occasionally, special
sequences add variation to this formula by introducing platforming, action, and
horror elements.
The role-playing game depicts the suicide attempt of Ulpius, a young man who
is planning to throw himself off a cliff, in a quest titled A Permanent Solution.
A bystander urges the protagonist to prevent his suicide, arguing that it might
break the Golden Rule.
The player may engage in a conversation with Ulpius to dissuade him from
jumping. Although there are different dialogue options, they all lead to the same
result: Ulpius commits suicide. In the first encounter with Ulpius, there is no
way to prevent this outcome. However, the game offers a choice between
different statements about suicide during the exchange: self-killing is
fundamentally wrong or it may be acceptable given extraordinary circumstances.
Also, the player may refrain from a general statement and tell Ulpius that they
are interested in his particular problems instead. Although this decision remains
without consequences, it presents an opportunity for the player to express their
own opinion regarding suicide or to characterize the protagonist they are
controlling.
Ulpius’s eventual suicide in the first time loop is not only inevitable, it is also
necessary for the story to progress. The impact of his fall opens up a path into a
building that was inaccessible to the player before. Further, his death does not
break the Golden Rule, leading to the conclusion that suicide is not considered a
sin in THE FORGOTTEN CITY.
Right before jumping, Ulpius reveals that he is in love with Sentilla, a young
woman who has gone missing. The quest goal is updated and now prompts the
player to use this information to prevent the suicide once the day resets.
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In subsequent time loops, the protagonist may talk to Ulpius about Sentilla in an
attempt to convince him from stepping away from the cliff. Through the
conversation that follows, the player learns that Sentilla’s disappearance is not
the only reason for the man’s tragic condition: he also engaged in a suicide
pact—defined as ”an agreement between two or more people to kill themselves
together at the same time”
151
with another character called Iulia. Ulpius and
Iulia were both forced into draconian labor contracts by a man named Malleolus
to pay off their debts.
Looking for a way out of her predicament, Iulia poisoned herself with hemlock,
a common way of committing suicide in ancient Rome.
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However, the dose
was not sufficient to cause death, leaving her in a state of severe illness. Iulia
can be saved by finding a rare medicine and giving it to the woman that looks
after her. If the player did not manage to heal Iulia before talking to Ulpius, he
feels pressured to fulfill his part of the pact and jumps. Informing Ulpius that
Iulia is alive and well, on the other hand, leads to him staving off the suicide
momentarily and revealing the final reason for the desire to end his life.
That reason consists of his inescapable work contract with Malleolus, which the
game has already alluded to before. The player can solve this problem in
different ways: for instance, they may acquire a considerable amount of money
and donate it to Ulpius so he can pay off his debts. Alternatively, the player may
blackmail Malleolus, forcing him to set Ulpius and Iulia free. Either way,
releasing Ulpius from his contract finally convinces him to abandon the suicide
attempt.
The depiction of self-killing in THE FORGOTTEN CITY reflects the sentiment that
suicides are the results of complex processes that can rarely be attributed to a
single cause.
153
In the case of Ulpius, his desire for death stems from a web of
layered, interconnected reasons: his hopeless status as a servant to Malleolus, the
151
‘Suicide Pact’, in Cambridge Dictionary, accessed 2022,
https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/suicide-pact.
152
A. Alvarez: The Savage God: A Study of Suicide.
153
‘Depiction of Suicide and Self-Harm in Literature’, Samaritans, 2020,
https://media.samaritans.org/documents/Suicide_and_self_harm_Literature_FINAL.pdf.
44
disappearance of his love Sentilla, who helped him bear his tragic circumstances,
and the sense of duty to fulfill his suicide pact with Iulia, who is also indebted to
Malleolus. These causes are uncovered one by one as the player converses with
Ulpius and travels back in time to repeatedly try to avert his death. In the end,
the suicide can only be prevented by addressing all of the aforementioned
reasons: the protagonist must help Iulia recover, talk to Ulpius about Sentilla,
and offer him a way of terminating his contract with Malleolus. An analogy can
be drawn to CYBERPUNK 2077, in which the player’s success also depends on the
discovery of the real reason behind a non-player character’s potential suicide.
In general, Ulpius’s rationale for ending his life focuses on external,
circumstantial reasons, often concerning his relationships with other citizens.
This matches an overarching trend of sociological depictions of suicide that
Stack and Bowman identified in movies.
154
Pridmore and Walter reported on the
same phenomenon in their analysis of narratives from various media.
155
Because Ulpius’s current situation is at the root of his suicidal inclination,
prevention is only possible if the player exercises their agency to change the
circumstances. This represents a striking difference to CYBERPUNK 2077 and
LIFE IS STRANGE, in which the focus was on getting to know a character and
talking to them empathetically. Although the player must learn about Ulpius’s
love for Sentilla, this is an inevitable consequence of witnessing his jump in the
first encounter. In the other two games, learning about the suicidal character was
an optional opportunity that the player had to engage in consciously. Similarly,
the conversations between the protagonist and Ulpius are of little importance.
They are not about choosing the sympathetic answers but merely represent a way
of informing Ulpius that all of his suicide reasons have been taken care of. This
becomes clear once the player has discovered a way of saving Iulia and
blackmailing Malleolus. Then, the player can entrust Galerius, a character who
functions as the protagonist’s assistant, with these tasks so that Ulpius may be
saved without their own interference.
154
S. Stack/B. Bowman: Durkheim at the Movies: A Century of Suicide in Film.
155
S. Pridmore/G. Walter: Does Art Imitate Death? Depictions of Suicide in Fiction.
45
The emphasis on correctable circumstances and the possibility of outsourcing
the suicide prevention define this depiction of self-killing: Ulpius is a puzzle to
be solved, not a person to be comforted. Still, THE FORGOTTEN CITY can be
regarded as an example of positive modeling that invites the player to take care
of the practical problems of a suicidal person instead of finding the right way to
talk to them.
Regarding the degree of player agency in this quest, we must distinguish between
the conversations with Ulpius and the player’s efforts to ameliorate the Roman’s
circumstances.
Although there are different options in the verbal exchanges, they are not critical
to Ulpius’s decision and thus inconsequential to the plot. However, they might
be seen as ways for the player to reflect on their own opinion about suicide or as
a chance to role-play their protagonist, something that Sawyer labeled character
agency.
156
The insignificance of the dialogue options is made obvious by the fact
that Galerius can save Ulpius without the protagonist’s help once he has all the
necessary information.
The real sense of agency lies in the player’s power over Ulpius’s dire situation
as they gradually disentangle and resolve the web of causes that led to his
suicide. At the same time, the layering of the different reasons leads to a constant
feeling of progress towards eventual prevention. Further, success in this quest is
deeply connected to the protagonist’s time-travel abilities. This core mechanic
that allows the player to shape the events in the Roman city by using their
knowledge from previous time loops constitutes another significant source of
agency. On that level, THE FORGOTTEN CITY stands in stark contrast to LIFE IS
STRANGE, in which Max cannot rely on her rewind ability during Kate’s suicide
attempt.
Lastly, there are two unique examples of Agency Informing Techniques that the
developers employed in this role-playing game. First, Ulpius’s suicide cannot be
prevented in the first time loop. The player definitely watches him die at the
156
J. Sawyer: Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout: New
Vegas.
46
beginning of the quest, which establishes that his death is not only a possibility
but a certainty if the player does not interfere. Second, when Ulpius jumps, the
quest is not failed. Instead, it now prompts the player to talk to him about
Sentilla. Throughout the whole quest, the goals update to reflect the next
problem the protagonist has to take care of. Thus, the player always knows how
to achieve progress in preventing Ulpius’s death and although he might have
already jumped in the current timeline, the quest log acts as a reminder that the
citizen may still be saved in the next loop.
THE FORGOTTEN CITY depicts the suicide of Ulpius as the result of a multitude
of external reasons. His suicide may be prevented by taking care of practical
affairs like his debt or his suicide pact with another character. Watching Ulpius
perish of his hopeless circumstances in one timeline and using one’s time-travel
abilities to save him in another shape the strong sense of agency afforded by his
quest A Permanent Solution.
4.1.4 Conclusion: Preventing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions
The chosen game examples in this category all portray the suicide of a non-
player character that may be prevented through the player’s actions. As such,
they offer a high degree of theoretical agency, although the player’s perceived
sense of agency differs from case to case.
For instance, the lack of Agency Informing Techniques in CYBERPUNK 2077 and
the decision to disable Max’s rewind ability during the critical rooftop scene in
LIFE IS STRANGE force the player to engage with the fictional world and its
characters empathetically. Simply following the cues from the game systems or
mastering a certain mechanic does not result in success in these depictions.
Further, the developers deliberately steal agency from the player to create more
appropriate and relatable messages. In CYBERPUNK 2077, Barry’s suicide is
ultimately averted by his colleagues, which stresses the importance of
preexisting social bonds during times of crisis. In LIFE IS STRANGE, it is the
47
player’s conscious decision to care about Kate—not Max’s supernatural
powersthat saves her.
An element of learning about a character is present and crucial in all three
portrayals. In CYBERPUNK 2077 and THE FORGOTTEN CITY, the player must first
understand a character’s reasons for suicide before they can help them. LIFE IS
STRANGE takes the opposite approach and focuses on finding Kate’s reasons to
live instead.
Although the games differ as to how the suicides are ultimately prevented, they
all model some form of desired real-life behavior. Both LIFE IS STRANGE and
CYBERPUNK 2077 present symptoms of suicidal ideation that may be recognized
by the player. These include social withdrawal, hopelessness, help-negation,
foreboding verbal utterances, the loss of former interests, and an obsession with
death. After comprehending the implications of these warning signs, the player
can study the personality of the suicidal character, as well as the causes for their
acute desire for death and potential factors that might convince them to abandon
the idea of ending their life. The information gained from this process combined
with non-judgmental, empathetic conversations leads to successful suicide
prevention in these two games. Thus, LIFE IS STRANGE and CYBERPUNK 2077
present genuine social relationships as the key protection against self-killing. In
contrast, THE FORGOTTEN CITY neglects the role of empathy and shifts the
player’s focus to solving the suicide’s practical problems. This portrayal is less
about the emergence of protective factors than it is about the amelioration of
oppressive circumstances that predispose towards suicide.
Al Alvarez writes in the preface to his book on suicide:
Instead of offering answers, I have simply tried to counterbalance two
prejudices: the first is that high religiose tone […] which dismisses suicide
in horror as a moral crime or sickness beyond discussion. The second is the
current scientific fashion which, in the very process of treating suicide as a
topic for serious research, manages to deny it all serious meaning by
reducing despair to the boniest statistics.
157
He points out two opposing poles that a sensible treatment of suicide must
avoidcondemnation and indifference. In fact, all three examples in this
157
A. Alvarez: The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, p. 14.
48
category offer the player the opportunity to impose their own morality onto a
suicidal character. Ulpius kills himself regardless of the player’s belief and in
LIFE IS STRANGE and CYBERPUNK 2077, condemnation leads to certain failure in
trying to prevent the suicide. Similarly, if the player is indifferent to the NPCs
in these two games, they will not be able to prevent the suicide because it hinges
on their voluntary engagement with purely optional game elements. These
factors suggest that digital games which focus on suicide prevention want the
player to pursue a third way between the extremes of condemnation and
indifference: one that is characterized by a genuine interest in a fictional
character and the ability to withhold judgment in order to immerse oneself in the
perspective of a stranger.
Lastly, a discussion of this first category calls for an examination of the
Papageno effect, the positive consequences of being exposed to media that
display the mastery of a suicidal crisis.
158
LIFE IS STRANGE, CYBERPUNK 2077,
and THE FORGOTTEN CITY each present a non-playable character whom the
player encounters either in a state of suicidal ideation or an ongoing suicide
attempt. Since prevention is a possibility in every case, these portrayals may be
accurately considered stories about overcoming a crisis that could have ended in
suicide. It remains an open question and an avenue for future research to what
extend the player’s involvement in resolving this state of emergency influences
the potential Papageno effect.
4.2 Causing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions
4.2.1 THIS WAR OF MINE
THIS WAR OF MINE, a 2.5D hybrid between simulation and survival game, was
developed and published by the independent 11 Bit Studios. It was first released
for PC in 2014.
158
T. Niederkrotenthaler et al.: Role of Media Reports in Completed and Prevented Suicide:
Werther v. Papageno Effects.
49
The player controls a group of civilians who have found shelter in a devastated
and besieged city during war times. Surviving as long as possible constitutes the
overall goal of the game. Mechanically, the gameplay centers around the
management of scarce resources to fulfill the basic needs of the survivors.
During the day, the player may explore their shelter, retrieve items, and craft
new technology and furnishings for their residence. In addition to that, they must
take care of their characters by providing them with food, medicating the injured
group members, and making sure they get enough sleep.
At night, each survivor can be assigned a task such as guarding the dwelling,
sleeping in a bed, or scavenging. If the player has determined a scavenger, they
can enter various places in the city to search for resources and other citizens.
These non-player characters offer a range of interactions: they may try to kill
and rob the survivor, offer a trade, or simply ask for help. The player can choose
to avoid them, accept their requests, attack them, or steal their possessions.
In THIS WAR OF MINE, suicide is a possibility embedded within the game
systems. Apart from physiological needs like hunger and sleep, each playable
character has a morale status that reflects their current psychological condition.
On the negative side, the survivors may progress from sad to depressed to
broken. Each of these states is accompanied by drawbacks for the gameplay that
mirror the severity of the character’s mood. For instance, a sad survivor becomes
slower and less responsive than someone with a neutral morale. Depressed
characters move lethargically and may abandon the tasks the player has assigned
to them. If one of the survivors transitions to the broken state, they can no longer
take actionseven those necessary for survivaland have to be taken care of
by other members of the group. Further, depressed and broken characters suffer
from sleep issues and stay tired as long as their condition persists. Occasionally,
this also affects other survivors who are kept awake by the sobbing of their
comrades.
The state of despair and hopelessness of a depressed character is represented in
various text lines that might appear. Examples include “There is no point
50
anyway…”
159
or “I need sleep. Yet, whenever I close my eyes, the worst things
I saw come back to haunt me.”
160
Sometimes, other members of the group
indicate their concern for certain survivors, thus making the player aware of a
situation that requires their attention and intervention.
If a character remains in the broken state for too long, they end up leaving the
group or committing suicide. Both of these options have major consequences for
the rest of the game. The groups of survivors in THIS WAR OF MINE are small
and success depends on making optimal use of every single character. Thus,
losing one of the group members entails significant setbacks that are difficult to
recover from. Also, a character’s decision to commit suicide or abandon the
group may negatively impact the morale of the remaining survivors.
There are many actions that lead to a worsening of morale, although they can be
sorted into three main categories:
First, neglecting the basic needs of the survivors results in status effects like
hungry, injured, or tired. Over time, these conditions produce a deterioration of
mood.
Second, the player can force the characters to engage in immoral actions. These
include ignoring neighbors in need of help, stealing, and attacking or even killing
unarmed civilians. The inner conflict of a survivor who breached their moral
code to gain material benefits leads to a drop in morale.
Third, witnessing tragic events like the injury or death of a comrade results in a
similar effect on the group’s spirit.
The morale may be raised through a variety of options such as consuming luxury
goods (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, or coffee), getting sufficient sleep, and spending
time listening to music or reading a book. Depressed and broken characters
benefit from talking to another member of the group about their current
159
THIS WAR OF MINE (11 Bit Studios 2014, O: 11 Bit Studios).
160
Ibid.
51
condition. These conversations occupy two survivors for a considerable amount
of time and, strikingly, only lead to an improvement of morale if one of the
participants is in a better mood than the other. This can be interpreted as an
implementation of the idea that depressed people pull each other down.
In THIS WAR OF MINE, the possibility of suicide reminds the player that their
survivors are not just human resources that have to be managed in the most
efficient way. They are individuals who, in confronting the horrors of war, may
choose death over survival under unbearable circumstances. A key element
contributing to this message is the morale system and its significance. In this
survival game, psychological well-being is as vital as satiation, rest, and health.
If the player misses this realization, suicide becomes a likely outcome.
What is more, the audience plays a causal role in a character’s decision to end
their life. A depressed or broken condition is an immediate consequence of the
player neglecting a survivor’s basic needs or forcing them to violate their own
ethics. This produces a number of warning signs that an empathetic player might
associate with severe depression or suicidal behavior: hopelessness, despair,
sleeplessness, lethargy, and apathy. Ignoring these symptoms and failing to
rectify the character’s critical condition may eventually lead to their suicide.
The fact that this tragic outcome is a direct result of the player’s agency evokes
a particular range of emotions such as guilt and regret that depend on a sense of
personal responsibility for a misdeed. Game scholar Katherine Isbister theorized
that “[b]ecause they depend on active player choice, games have an additional
palette of social emotions at their disposal.”
161
THIS WAR OF MINE provides a
clear example of this unique emotional palette of games in its depiction of
depression and suicidality.
A special case that warrants further analysis is the scenario in which the player’s
immoral actions cause the suicide of the character who carried them out. Here,
the sense of complicity and guilt are strongest. Especially during the scavenging
161
K. Isbister: How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, p. 9.
52
at night, the player is constantly offered choices between doing the right thing
and doing the profitable thing. For example, attacking unarmed civilians and
robbing them afterward may violate ethical standards but it is a safe and effective
way of procuring essential resources.
Engaging in decisions of this type may be referred to as moral agency.
162
If such
moral choices lead to a survivor’s suicide, that act may be interpreted as a
rebellion against the player’s way of playing and a character’s final effort to
uphold the values they once personified. Hanford concluded about
Shakespeare’s portrayal of suicide: “It is the last defiance of an unconquerable
mind to the decrees of a brutal and resistless fate.”
163
Alvarez presents a similar
thought in regards to totalitarian states. He points out that, through suicide, an
artist may refuse to submit to an oppressive regime in order to preserve the
integrity of their life’s work.
164
The developers at 11 Bit Studios have
implemented these sentiments into the systems of their survival game.
THIS WAR OF MINE depicts the potential suicides of playable characters as a
result of the player’s immorality and negligence. The act is preceded by
symptoms of depression and warning signs for suicidal behavior that are deeply
embedded within the game’s morale system.
Losing a group member to self-killing evokes feelings of guilt and regret, as well
as presenting the player with extensive consequences that restrict their agency
for the rest of the game. In a genre where much of the player’s success depends
on rational and effective resource management, the extreme outcomes of the
morale system act as a wakening call, reminding the audience of the humanity
of the characters they are controlling.
162
T. Heussner: The Game Narrative Toolbox.
163
James Holly Hanford, ‘Suicide in the Plays of Shakespeare’, PMLA/Publications of the
Modern Language Association of America 27, no. 3 (1912): 38097,
https://doi.org/10.1632/456656.
164
A. Alvarez: The Savage God: A Study of Suicide.
53
4.2.2 LIFE IS STRANGE
Chapter 4.1.1 provided a detailed description of LIFE IS STRANGE and the events
leading up to, surrounding, and following Kate Marsh’s suicide. The present
segment examines how the play experience differs if the player refuses to help
Kate and fails to prevent her suicide.
A key component of experiencing agency is located in the relationship between
choices and consequences.
165
In Dontnod Entertainment’s adventure game,
ignoring Kate’s problems produces consequences on different levels:
First, there is her immediate reaction to the player choosing another option than
the one she had hoped for. For instance, advising Kate to look for further proof
instead of going to the police causes her to express despair and hysteria.
Second, Max receives emotional text messages from Kate in which she refers to
the decisions made by the player and how they affected her. The tone of these
messages becomes furious, hopeless, and disappointed in the case of not helping
her:
Max. Sorry to have bothered you by asking for your advice. I guess I
shouldn’t do anything but let people enjoy my video all over the world. […]
And sorry for bothering you this morning. Guess you were too busy to
answer. I was about to have a serious breakdown and I needed somebody.
166
Third, Kate may recall previous choices in subsequent interactions. If the player
does not intervene in her argument with the security chief, Kate confronts them
with this decision in the second episode, demanding an explanation.
Fourth and most importantly, when Max tries to intervene in the suicide attempt,
Kate accuses her of all the unsupportive choices she made in the past. Here again,
the player has to justify their decisions, for example, why they did not answer
Kate’s phone call when she needed someone to talk to. Choosing the wrong
options triggers the suicide.
165
M. T. Andreen: Choice in Digital Games: A Taxonomy of Choice Types Applied to Player
Agency and Identity.
166
LIFE IS STRANGE (Square Enix 2015, O: Dontnod Entertainment).
54
It is curious to note that, in the significant decisions, the choices that Kate
disproves of are often the more rational and foresighted options. If Max does not
defend Kate against Blackwell’s head of security, she takes a photo as proof
instead. This can later be used to inform other teachers about the incident.
Similarly, dissuading Kate from going to the police is motivated by the thoughts
that Max does not possess sufficient evidence yet, that the officers are unlikely
to believe Kate, and that her situation may even get worse through rash actions.
Despite the understandable reasons that underly these options, it is their
empathetic counterparts that lead to an improvement in Kate’s condition because
she requires emotionalnot intellectualsupport.
This tight coupling between the player’s actions and the negative consequences
they may have on Kate creates a sense of responsibility for the student’s
depressed mood and her potential suicide. The ensuing emotions are those of
guilt, regret, and shame, which is defined as “a painful emotion caused by
consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.”
167
In particular, the realization of a personal shortcoming is amplified by the
ubiquity of Agency Informing Techniques. The choices menu that is displayed
at the end of each episode presents the player with everything they could have
done to help Kate. It conveys that the suicide may be prevented and that other
players have done so successfully. Thus, the player is forced to conclude that it
was their decisions—not the designers’—that led to the death of a fictional
student. Further, Max’s rewind ability allows her to watch the short-term
consequences of her major choices concerning Kate, contemplate them, and
change them if necessary. This robs the player of the chance to blame the bad
outcomes of their decisions on accidentally pressing the wrong button or not
knowing what a certain dialogue option entails.
The feelings of guilt and regret are also present in the way Kate’s suicide
recontextualizes past actions. An unempathetic player might miss the various
167
‘Shame’, in Merriam-Webster, accessed 2022, https://www.merriam-
webster.com/dictionary/shame.
55
warning signs hinting at suicidal ideation. Consequently, they would
underestimate the severity of her crisis and assume that declining a phone call is
hardly an issue. If the player chooses this option, Max even writes in her journal:
“Kate called, but I didn’t answer because Chloe was giving me the stink eye.
And to be honest, I don’t like Kate being so needy toward me.”
168
In light of
Kate’s suicide, both the decision to ignore her call and Max’s comment gain a
new significance, potentially leaving the player ashamed of their own behavior.
A final question deserves exploration: why does the failure to prevent the suicide
in LIFE IS STRANGE induce emotions that other games which depict potential self-
killings like CYBERPUNK 2077 and THE FORGOTTEN CITY do not provide?
On the one hand, the player has already spent two entire episodes talking to and
learning about Kate Marsh when they see her on the rooftop. By contrast, Ulpius
and Barry are perfect strangers to the player.
Also, their suicides do not produce nearly the same impact as Kate’s. In THE
FORGOTTEN CITY, the day constantly resets, rendering the death of an NPC in
any particular time loop irrelevant. Barry’s suicide in CYBERPUNK 2077 is not
reversible but the consequences are restricted to a few remorseful voice lines by
his colleagues and police tape at the door of his apartment. However, failing to
prevent Kate’s death drastically alters the mood of the story going forward and
the player misses additional text messages and playable scenes that could have
been accessible to them.
Apart from that, the impact of the player’s choices on Kate’s attitude and the
way she accuses Max of her wrongdoing before jumping imply that the
protagonist contributed to Kate’s wish to die. In that regard, the depictions of
suicide in THE FORGOTTEN CITY and CYBERPUNK 2077 are remarkably different:
the reasons of the non-player characters to commit suicide preexisted the
protagonist’s arrival and have nothing to do with them personally. Although
prevention is a possibility, these games never indicate that the player is
168
LIFE IS STRANGE (Square Enix 2015, O: Dontnod Entertainment).
56
responsible for the person’s death. Concerning the suicide, the protagonist may
only play a positive or a neutral role, not a negative one.
Lastly, the use of Agency Informing Techniques ensures that the player knows
about the alternative outcomes in Kate’s storyline. The developers at CD Projekt
Red did not implement such elements in Barry’s quest. In case the player fails to
prevent the suicide, it remains an open question whether or not there was
anything they could have done differently. If they assume that Barry’s death was
inevitable, they have no reason to blame themselves or to question their
decisions.
To sum up, LIFE IS STRANGE presents Kate’s deteriorating condition and her
eventual suicide as a consequence of the player’s refusal to engage in empathetic
play. The presence of Agency Informing Techniques and the direct connection
between unsupportive actions and negative outcomes produce feelings of guilt,
regret, and shame. Extensive changes in the game’s content and tone only
amplify these emotions.
4.2.3 Conclusion: Causing Suicide in High-Agency Depictions
Despite the fact that LIFE IS STRANGE and THIS WAR OF MINE belong to distinct
genres, their portrayals of suicide display notable parallels:
In both games, neglecting the psychological needs of a character may lead to
their suicide. Kate requires emotional support and a genuine friend, whereas the
survivors care about their health, leisure, and moral integrity. An empathetic play
style is central to preventing suicidal behavior. Focusing on purely rational
decision-making only exacerbates the character’s crisis.
The player’s complicity in causing self-killing triggers a range of emotions that
are only possible because of the sense of agency afforded by games. These
include feelings of guilt, regret, and shame.
Moreover, the self-inflicted deaths in this category are associated with major
consequences, either by dramatically increasing the difficulty of the gameplay
57
in THIS WAR OF MINE or by altering the story and its reception in LIFE IS
STRANGE. The resulting effect is twofold: on the one hand, the intensity of the
emotions is amplified and on the other hand, the act of suicide is imbued with a
significance that is lacking in a game like THE FORGOTTEN CITY.
A key difference between the two depictions can be found in the player’s degree
of control over the suicidal person. Kate is a non-player character whose
decisions can only be influenced indirectly. In contrast, the survivors in THIS
WAR OF MINE are all controlled by the player. This allows the game to express
a unique facet of in-game suicide: having a survivor engage in immoral actions
may cause them to end their life, permanently removing them from the player’s
group. In that sense, a suicide may represent a character’s desperate attempt to
rebel against the player’s agency over them.
4.3 Experiencing Suicidal Constriction in Low-Agency Depictions
4.3.1 WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH
The adventure game WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH by Giant Sparrow was
published via Annapurna Interactive in 2017. Most of the time, the three-
dimensional world is experienced from a first-person perspective.
Edith Finch, the protagonist of the game, returns to her abandoned family
residence in an attempt to uncover the mysteries surrounding the Finches and the
tragic curse that befell them: almost all members of the family have died under
unusual circumstances. As Edith explores the old house, she discovers the rooms
of her relatives and reminisces about their fates. The story of the game is
transmitted through a combination of environmental storytelling and Edith’s
narration.
Apart from traversing the house as Edith, the player temporarily controls other
members of the Finch family to relive the final moments before their death. The
gameplay, story, and visual style varies immensely throughout these self-
contained scenes, which forms the anthological structure of this adventure game.
58
Within the playable vignettes, the interactions range from leaning back and forth
on a swing to crawling around a ship as a monster that devours human beings.
Among accidents, home invasions, and animal attacks, there is also a case of
suicide in the family. This is the story of Lewis Finch, Edith’s older brother, who
worked in a fish cannery. A letter from Lewis’s psychiatrist to his mother
narrates the events leading to his death.
The sequence starts with the player repeating Lewis’s monotonous work routine:
they grab a fish, move it to the guillotine to remove its head, and shove it onto
the conveyor. The dark and desaturated cannery is shown from a fixed camera
perspective and the player merely controls one of the protagonist’s arms.
When the psychiatrist indicates that Lewis began to daydream at his job, another
scene that represents his imagination overlays the view of his workstation. The
player must navigate Lewis through his fantasy world while still attending to the
fish. Initially, he is imagining a 2D, monochrome labyrinth, presented from a
top-down perspective. As the sequence progresses, it transform into a colorful
3D world filled with cheerful characters. The camera shifts from top-down to an
isometric, third-person, and, finally, first-person view. At the same time, the
screen space that Lewis’s fiction occupies keeps increasing until it fully replaces
the cannery scene. These elements reflect the growing complexity of the
protagonist’s daydreams and his complete immersion within them.
Whereas the aesthetics of the imaginative world are continuously changing, the
gameplay remains the same: the player moves Lewis along a linear path to
advance the story. They cannot interact with the non-player characters and there
are no decisions to be made. The only exception to this structure is a short
interlude in which the player steers a boat across a stylized map. Here, there are
divergent paths that resemble alternative versions of Lewis’s adventures. For
instance, the game displays “In Lewisburg, he heard rumors of a …”
169
and the
player may choose between two routes, one labelled “beautiful prince” and the
169
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH (Annapurna Interactive 2017, O: Giant Sparrow).
59
other reading “handsome queen.” However, these decisions only produce
cosmetic changesthey do not affect the story or gameplay.
Narratively, the psychiatrist’s letter conveys that Lewis became so obsessed with
his imagination that he stopped conversing with other employees and even forgot
to go home after his shift. In his mind, he turned himself into a mayor, conqueror,
and “king over all the lands of Wonder.”
170
Eventually, Lewis identified more
with his fictional version than with his real self.
His story comes to a sudden end during his coronation. As he bows down to
receive his crown, a fade to black is followed by the sound of a guillotine. The
wording of the letter and the depiction of the final scene imply that Lewis
committed suicide through the blade that he previously used to separate the fish’s
heads from their bodies.
The depiction of suicide in WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH closely follows
Erwin Ringel’s formulation of the presuicidal syndrome.
171
Ringel believed that
suicides are generally preceded by a pathological development that exhibits three
particular symptoms: constriction, fantasies, and aggression.
In a state of constriction, the suicidal person loses their ability to think in future-
oriented ways. Instead, their life is governed by a seemingly inescapable loop in
which the same thoughts lead to the same actions that produce the same
undesirable outcomes as before.
172
The patient becomes unaware of the choices
they could make to such a strong degree that they regard suicide as the only
option left.
173
Based on Ringel’s description, we might regard constriction as the
direct opposite of perceived agency.
Lewis’s sense of constriction is conveyed through a variety of elements: for
instance, the fixed camera perspective in the cannery constantly shows the same
170
Ibid.
171
E. Ringel: Der Selbstmord: Abschluss einer krankhaften psychischen Entwicklung: eine
Untersuchung an 745 geretteten Selbstmördern.
172
Ibid.
173
Ibid.
60
depressing scenery and occludes everything but the task at hand. This is
contrasted by the fantasy world in which the view is always moving and
transforming. Further, the player is forced to endlessly repeat the protagonist’s
dull work routine. Although this resembles some form of gameplay, there are no
options to contemplate and no decisions to be made. Lewis’s psychiatrist
explicitly references the restriction inherent in his real life:
Newly sober, I believe Lewis first noticed the monotony of his daily life. He
kept working at the cannery but he withdrew part of himself.
174
Lastly, it is mentioned that the young man became so fixated on his work that he
no longer talked or went home. That condition can be understood as an example
of the loss of expansive powers that Ringel deemed central to the state of
constriction.
175
The importance of fantasies in this sequence can hardly be overstated. In fact,
the ever-intensifying absorption within the worlds created by one’s own mind
represents the main theme of Lewis’s storyline. During this sequence, the
imagination slowly takes supremacy over the real world. This progression is
reflected in different parts of the letter:
He said he started small, imagining a labyrinth. […] He knew it was all in
his head, but he took it very seriously. […] And then it struck him that the
real Lewis was not the one chopping salmon, but the one climbing the steps
of a golden palace. “My imagination is as real as my body,” he told me.
176
This development reaches its climax in the portrayal of his suicide. For the
fantasy Lewis to be coronatedto achieve the peak of his fictional existence
the real Lewis must die.
Ringel points out two tendencies of fantasies that precede self-killing: they gain
in significance while real-world efforts tire out and they start to feel like actual
reality rather than a supplement or replacement.
177
Both of these elements are
174
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH (Annapurna Interactive 2017, O: Giant Sparrow).
175
E. Ringel: Der Selbstmord: Abschluss einer krankhaften psychischen Entwicklung: eine
Untersuchung an 745 geretteten Selbstmördern.
176
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH (Annapurna Interactive 2017, O: Giant Sparrow).
177
E. Ringel: Der Selbstmord: Abschluss einer krankhaften psychischen Entwicklung: eine
Untersuchung an 745 geretteten Selbstmördern.
61
present in Lewis’s episode. As the player becomes ever-more occupied with the
traversal of the imaginative world, the work routine fades into the background
and eventually disappears completely. Also, they experience the fiction as more
real than reality because it transforms to offer stronger immersion: the
environments and characters transition from abstract representations to colorful
3D models. Likewise, the distance between the camera and the playable
character is eliminated as we progress from a bird’s eye perspective to a first-
person view. Even on a pure controls level, WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH
presents a development that eventually favors the fantasy: at the beginning, the
player manages the actions of the real Lewis. Then, they move both the real and
the fictional man at the same time. At the end, the player only controls the
imaginative Lewis on the way to his coronation.
Another point to examine is the nature of Lewis’s mind construct. Ringel
discovered that his patients created fantasies that resembled direct opposites of
their real life conditions.
178
One of these contrasts stood out to him in a particular
way:
Anyway, there is a pair of opposites that is most characteristic and universal
for the transformation into opposites caused by the fantasy: restriction
omnipotence.
179
Being an unfulfilled factory worker with a highly limited range of tasks in real
life, Lewis grants himself the unbound agency of a god in his fantasy of
opposites.
Aggression, the final component of the presuicidal syndrome, is also present in
this sequence, although to a lesser degree. Ringel remarks that if a person does
not find appropriate ways to relieve their aggression, they may turn it inwards,
strengthening their desire for self-destruction.
180
The psychiatrist’s letter
provides evidence for the occurrence of these processes in Lewis:
178
Ibid.
179
Ibid., p.148.
180
Ibid.
62
I think it pained him to remember Lewis, the cannery worker. He began to
despise the man with a royal contempt.
181
In that regard, Lewis’s decision to kill himself can be understood as an attempt
to fully separate his idealized self from his detested real-world existence.
Although Lewis’s imagination is described as a fantasy of agency and
omnipotence, the player does not get to share these feelings. Their degree of
interaction is constrained to moving along a path that was predetermined by the
developers. Despite all of the differences between Lewis’s monotonous work
routine and the vibrant fictional world, neither of them allows the player to take
meaningful action.
Janet Murray draws a distinction between activity and agency, stating that the
latter presupposes the player’s ability to formulate intentions, choose among
various actions, and experience effects related to their intentions.
182
The
navigation of Lewis’s daydreams lacks all of these components and must be
classified as an activity rather than a source of agency according to Murray’s
taxonomy.
The authors of the game design classic Rules of Play: Game Design
Fundamentals offer a slightly different framework. They claim that meaningful
play only arises if the player’s actions affect the current game state and future
possibilities.
183
If that condition is fulfilled, “[…] the relationship between action
and outcome is integrated into the larger context of the game.”
184
Neither
chopping up the fish nor traversing the fictional world meet this definition for
meaningful engagement.
Effectively, the only choices in this sequence are presented during the ship
interlude in which the player fills in the blanks of Lewis’s adventures. Even
though these decisions invoke the idea of alternative storylines, the extend of
their consequences is limited to slight changes in the visuals and sounds of this
vignette. From a narrative or gameplay perspective, they might be considered
181
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH (Annapurna Interactive 2017, O: Giant Sparrow).
182
J. H. Murray: Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
183
K. S. Tekinbaş/E. Zimmerman: Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.
184
Ibid., p. 35.
63
false choices since “[…] the different options eventually lead to (mostly) the
same outcome.”
185
At best, they resemble Sawyer’s idea of character agency
because, while not affecting the overall story, they allow the player to express
Lewis’s preferences.
186
The complete lack of player agency in WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH delivers
a crucial message: the players experiences Lewis’s constriction as a factory
worker first-hand and welcomes the introduction of the fantasy world with its
different gameplay and colorful aesthetics. However, despite the continual
transformations of the imagination, its mechanics remain static, never providing
anything beyond the illusion of agency. This may be interpreted as the realization
that although daydreams can offer temporary distraction, in the final analysis,
meaningful engagement is only to be found in the real world.
Further, the absence of choices clarifies the player’s role in this depiction of self-
killing: it is not their job to intervene or to prevent. Instead, they are witnessing
a psychological development that inevitably ends in suicide. Knowing about
Lewis’s death in advance and not being able to alter it in any way, the player’s
only task is to understand how it came about.
Murray wondered how player agency may be combined with the inevitability of
a tragedy.
187
Instead of trying to reconcile the two, the developers at Giant
Sparrow decided to sacrifice the former to evoke the latter.
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH portrays a playable character’s unavoidable
development towards suicide. Through the absence of true agency, Lewis’s
episode conveys his restriction in the real world, the inability of his dream world
to generate lasting fulfillment, and the player’s powerlessness in the face of an
unavoidable death. As a result, the first-person adventure game offers insights
into the constriction of a suicidal person who seeks refuge in fantasies of
185
S. Stang: “This Action Will Have Consequences”: Interactivity and Player Agency, para.
24.
186
J. Sawyer: Choice Architecture, Player Expression, and Narrative Design in Fallout: New
Vegas.
187
J. H. Murray: Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace.
64
omnipotence that, although beneficial at first, ultimately fuel their desire for
suicide.
4.3.2 ACTUAL SUNLIGHT
ACTUAL SUNLIGHT is a 2D top-down adventure game created by the independent
developer Will O’Neill. In 2013, the first version of the interactive story was
released through his company WZO Games Inc.
The narrative offers a glimpse into the life of Evan Winter, a depressed man in
his thirties who wrestles with suicidal thoughts on multiple occasions. His
unfulfilling job, the absence of meaningful relationships, and his inability to
restructure his existence constitute the reasons for his wish to die. The
storytelling relies on a combination of dialogue and text fragments, such as
transcripts, notes, and essays written by the protagonist, that provide information
about his backstory and personality.
Mechanically, there are only two actions available to the player: moving and
interacting with objects and other characters. Due to the lack of gameplay
systems and its story-centric nature, ACTUAL SUNLIGHT belongs to a category of
games that are frequently referred to as walking simulators in public
discourse.
188
In the opening sequence, Evan requires multiple attempts to get up and out of
his bed. At the same time, one of his essays is displayed on the screen, conveying
the protagonist’s condition: Evan is overweight, lonely, and addicted to
pornography. His writings make no secret of his suicidal inclination:
There has never been a better time in the history of mankind to be
completely, cripplingly, devastatingly alone, and yet here you are: Thinking
about giving up on the good times.
189
188
Elizabeth Ballou, ‘The Walking Sim Is a Genuinely New Genre, And No One Fully
Understands It’, Vice, 2019, https://www.vice.com/en/article/wxeqzw/the-walking-sim-is-a-
genuinely-new-genre-and-no-one-fully-understands-it.
189
ACTUAL SUNLIGHT (Will O’Neill 2013).
65
After waking up, the player gains control of Evan and may explore his apartment
before going to work. Lecture notes and the transcript of a talk show indicate
that the protagonist used to be a successful author and creative writing instructor.
His essays express a deeply cynical world view mixed withand potentially
caused byan extraordinary degree of self-loathing.
Also, Evan remembers various conversations with a doctor, presumably a
psychiatrist, who has been seeing him to treat his depression. In the shower, he
recalls one particular exchange in which the therapist asked him about suicide.
Evan replied that he was thinking about it a lot and already engaged in milder
forms of self-harm in the past, however, he did not have specific plans to kill
himself. At that moment, the suicidal thought appears on the screen: “Go to the
roof of the building and jump off.”
190
In the early parts of the game, Evan is still
ambivalent about suicide and his self-destructive tendencies are counterbalanced
by self-preserving ideas that stop him from ending his own life.
After showering and eating breakfast, the player can leave the protagonist’s
apartment and use the elevator to get down to the street or up to the top of the
building. If the players chooses to go to the roof and approaches the edge, instead
of jumping off, Evan merely remarks that he has to work.
The story progresses when Evan commutes to his workplace in a streetcar. The
player may choose between different seats, however, Evan refuses to sit next to
other passengers, leaving only option available. At work, the protagonist can
engage his colleagues in brief conversations before starting his shift. As there
are no dialogue options for the player to consider, the talks always develop and
end in the same way. What exactly Evan Winter does for a living remains
unclear. His descriptions suggest a generic office job with little utility to society.
In the evening, Evan finds himself in a store. Even though there are several goods
he would like to purchase, like healthy groceries or a new washer, the only item
the player can (and must) buy is a video game to satisfy the protagonist’s
addiction. On the way home, Evan finds new excuses as to why he cannot sit
190
Ibid.
66
next to the other people. Once again, the player is forced to take the isolated seat
at the end of the row.
The memory of another conversation with his doctor interrupts a collection of
scenes that capture his dull daily routine. It is revealed that Evan never began his
therapy and that the psychiatrist only exists in his imagination. Likewise, the
protagonist’s past as a writer and professor was pure fiction. From this point on,
the doctor personifies the self-destructive aspects of Evan’s psyche and
encourages him to commit suicide.
Some years later, Evan wakes up in a tantrum, bent on demolishing his
apartment. Interacting with the various objects causes Evan to destroy them
while he is commenting on their futility. Although the protagonist’s thoughts
exhibit serious numbness and once again revolve around self-killing, he
experiences a change of heart and grants himself one more chance to turn his life
around.
Back in the office, the player learns that Evan’s former coworkers have either
been fired or decided to leave the company themselves. He gets into an argument
with the new boss that ends in his resignation.
An unspecified amount of time passes as the game approaches Evan’s suicide.
The scene starts in the protagonist’s flat where every interaction displays the
command to kill himself. If the player wants to leave the apartment, the game
ask them: “Go to the roof of the building and jump off?”
191
Their choice is
between “Yes” and “Yes. Similarly, the elevator that could previously take the
player to the roof, the apartment, or the street, now offers three identical rooftop
options.
On top of the building, Evan reflect on his life and the decision to end it as he
walks towards the spot where he could jump off. Although the protagonist’s
suicide is not shown explicitly, his monologue eliminates all doubts regarding
his plans:
There is a part of me that doesn’t want to do this. But I’ve never heard it so
softly. […] I feel like I should say something here: Something profound, or
interesting. Some type of summation of my life, or something I’ve learned.
191
Ibid.
67
But I can’t. It was all worthless, and selfish, and I never loved anyone or
anything. […] And as I turn around to look back, I feel relieved that nobody
is there that there isn’t anybody standing there who has no choice but to
pretend to care.
192
Apart from the determination expressed in these lines, the whole sequence feels
like a final release from suffering: the last frame of the game consists of an
illustration of Evan leaning on the railing of the roof, gazing into a sunset that
bathes the city in a warm orange light. Throughout the scene, he points out the
paradoxical beauty of this moment:
I’ve never felt the wind like this before. It makes me feel completely outside
of my body. […] But it feels good. I feel an unbelievable burden come off
my shoulders. I feel lighter than I have in years. Like I can finally stop
fighting. Like I can fly.
193
ACTUAL SUNLIGHT is the portrait of a man who is stuck in a seemingly
immutable life of isolation, despair, and meaninglessness. Evan comes to view
self-killing as the only way to escape his unbearable circumstances, a perception
that is characteristic of suicidality.
194
Alvarez likened this state of mind to a
closed world in which suicide resides as a constant temptation:
Once a man decides to take his own life he enters a shut-off, impregnable
but wholly convincing world where every detail fits and each incident
reinforces his decision.
195
In Evan’s case, his self-destructive thoughts are more of an imperative than a
lure. During the game, they repeatedly impose themselves on the protagonist and
proceed to dominate his consciousness. At the end of the game, they have
replaced all of his other concerns and come to the surface in every possible
interaction.
The degree of player agency afforded by Will O’Neill’s adventure game ranges
from minimal to non-existent. Walking around, examining objects, and talking
to NPCs represent the few actions to which the player is restricted. The short
192
Ibid.
193
Ibid.
194
M. Karle: Management suizidaler Krisen bei Kindern und Jugendlichen.
195
A. Alvarez: The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, p. 144.
68
interactive segments are frequently interrupted by texts that limit the player’s
control even further.
There is nothing that can be done to prevent Evan’s suicide or to improve his
situation. On the contrary, the protagonist even rejects the player’s input if they
try to help him. Examples of this include the attempts to make him sit with
another person in the streetcar or to buy him nutritious food in the store. Both of
these actions are impossible in the game, although they might have solved some
of Evan’s problems.
The player’s sense of powerlessness is taken to an extreme when the game
presents them with choices composed of absolutely identical options. Instead of
relying on an illusion of agency, ACTUAL SUNLIGHT emphasizes its absence.
Thus, Evan’s suicide is not depicted as an expression of choice but a compulsion
stemming from his cognitive constriction, a view that is closely aligned with the
psychiatric literature.
Game designer Jesse Schell considers the feeling of agency central to playing
games, although he remarks that this sense must not match the agency truly
afforded by the game systems.
196
He advises designers to exert indirect control
on the player so that they experience the freedom of making their own decisions
while, in reality, they are following the plans of the developers. The protagonist’s
refusal to carry out the player’s commands and the unmistakably false choices
represent an antithesis to Schell’s approach: they subject the player to direct
control, forcing them to steer Evan towards the unavoidable end of his story.
Evidently, the developer agrees with Knoller, who argued for the preservation
of the artist’s right to subvert existing notions of agency.
197
196
J. Schell: Die Kunst des Game Designs: bessere Games konzipieren und entwickeln.
197
Noam Knoller, ‘Agency and the Art of Interactive Digital Storytelling’, in Interactive
Storytelling, ed. Ruth Aylett et al., vol. 6432, Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Berlin,
Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2010), 26467, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-
16638-9_38.
69
Ting proposes a different conception of agency that focuses on the player’s
identification with the fictional entities they are controlling.
198
In this view,
learning about a character, expressing their personality, and progressing towards
their goals are understood as sources of perceived agency. ACTUAL SUNLIGHT
offers minimal choice in this regard: most of the interactions with objects or
characters in the game are optional, yet they offer additional insights into Evan’s
backstory and his current perspective. The player’s only meaningful decision
within the adventure game consists of whether or not they want to read the
various text fragments about the protagonist. However, even this type of agency
is disrupted in the course of the story when it turns out that Evan only imagined
the therapist and his successful past as a writer. Having been exposed to an
unreliable narrator for the entire game, the player can no longer trust the
information they received and they are left wondering how much they really
know about the protagonist.
In her book Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating
Innovative Games, Tracy Fullerton represents empathy and agency as opposing
ends on a spectrum, writing that the latter
[…] limits the degree to which characters can demonstrate their own
personality and inner thought processes.
199
In accordance with Fullerton’s observation, the low level of agency in ACTUAL
SUNLIGHT reinforces that the game is about Evan Winter, his situation, and its
inevitable conclusion. The role of the player consists in momentarily sharing
someone else’s life and viewpoint without being able to interfere, to assist, or to
prevent.
ACTUAL SUNLIGHT depicts the severe depression and eventual suicide of Evan
Winter, the protagonist and playable character of the game. The lack of
198
K. L. Ting: IT’S NOT THE END, BUT EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN: AN EXPLORATION
OF PERCEIVED AGENCY AND THE INTERTWINED FATES OF THE PLAYER, PLAYABLE
CHARACTER AND NPCS IN STORYGAMES.
199
T. Fullerton: Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative
Games, p. 111.
70
theoretical and perceived agency deprives the player of their ability to solve the
problems of fictional characters. Instead, the game sheds light on the subjective
perception of a suicidal person that is characterized by cynicism, powerlessness,
and constriction. In a game where prevention is not an option, understanding
takes precedence.
4.3.3 Conclusion: Experiencing Suicidal Constriction in Low-Agency
Depictions
WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH and ACTUAL SUNLIGHT portray the inevitable
suicide of a playable character and the cognitive development that preceded the
act. Both games provide insights into the mind of a person on the brink of self-
destruction in general, and the narrowing of thought and action known as
constriction in particular. Likewise, Evan Winter and Lewis Finch view death as
their only way out of a stagnating life with an unfulfilling daily routine.
The gameplay in the examples of this category is composed of simple actions,
like moving around, that deny the player the opportunity for meaningful
decision-making. In the moments that appear to offer a choice, the sense of
agency is either illusory or directly subverted by the game itself.
If the present category is characterized by a low degree of agency because the
events in the story have been predetermined by the developers, the question
arises in what way it differs from depictions of suicide in other media such as
films or books. Andreen provides a thought-provoking answer:
The power of agency lies in the sense of control it provides, and careful
engineering of choice and consequence is a part of such provision. Denial of
choice, however, is just as powerful. […] [I]f players come to expect choice,
then bucking that expectation has power.
200
Player agency is so essential to games that the audience comes to accept it as a
default condition. Hence, its absence can be utilized as an expressive tool. An
analogy may be found in movie makers who refrain from cutting to produce a
particularly immersive or cohesive effect. The fact that games can restrict and
200
M. T. Andreen: Choice in Digital Games: A Taxonomy of Choice Types Applied to Player
Agency and Identity, p. 134.
71
challenge their audience’s sense of agency represents a unique property of the
medium that might be of equal importance as the ability to interact in the first
place.
201
The player acts upon the game just as much as the game acts upon the
player.
The low degree of agency in the cases at hand fulfills a variety of purposes:
firstly, it allows the player to share the feeling of constriction with the suicidal
person. Secondly, it draws the attention away from the player’s thoughts,
emotions, and behaviors to those of the fictional character they are controlling.
Robbed of their power to affect game outcomes, the player is free to learn about
their characters and to sympathize with them. Lastly, the lack of agency creates
the sense of an impending tragedy that cannot be avoided. Both ACTUAL
SUNLIGHT and WHAT REMAINS OF EDITH FINCH amplify this particular
experience by hinting at the eventual suicide early on.
Although the games in this category neither model desired behavior nor offer an
alternative to self-killing, they may still produce positive real-life effects: for
one, they portray a multitude of symptoms and warning signs of suicidality.
These include Lewis’s social withdrawal and his fantasies of omnipotence or
Evan’s self-loathing and the sudden improvement of his mood after reaching the
decision to kill himself. In addition to that, these games could also enhance their
players’ capacities to put themselves in the position of someone in a
psychopathological crisis. Empathy for the suicidal person and an awareness of
the various manifestations of self-destructive ideation are critical components of
effective suicide intervention, prevention, and postvention.
201
A. Cole: Connecting Player and Character Agency in Videogames.
72
Chapter 5: Agency-Related Dangers of Suicide
Depictions
In the previous section, several digital games have been analyzed with respect to
their portrayal of self-killing and the degree of agency granted to the player.
Beneficial real-life outcomes such as the perception of crises as surmountable as
well as the sharpening of knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding
suicidality have emerged as conceivable effects of engaging with such
depictions.
The present chapter examines the potential dangers of games that deal with self-
destruction. Apart from suggesting areas of future research for scholars and
scientists, the discussion presents practicing developers who are aiming at a
sensible treatment of the topic with a variety of pitfalls they should take into
consideration.
Since player agency constitutes the primary game element that causes these
issues, high-agency and low-agency problems are considered separately.
5.1 High-Agency Concerns
In writing about suicide prevention, Eink and Haltenhof point out two extremes
that effective helpers must avoid: powerlessness and omnipotence.
202
A person who succumbs to the second fallacy thinks that every instance of self-
killing can be averted and thus views the failure to do so as the result of
someone’s—often their ownmisbehavior.
203
The category of games that
portray a suicide in which the outcome fully depends on the player’s actions
carry the risk of promoting this unhealthy sense of omnipotence.
Since the non-player characters thoughts and feelings are not under the player’s
control, helping them is sometimes equated with solving external problems. In
202
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
203
Ibid.
73
the case of THE FORGOTTEN CITY, this results in a depiction that resembles a
caricature of the nature and severity of a suicidal crisis: once the player, who is
essentially a stranger in the Roman city, took care of Ulpius’s practical affairs,
he quickly abandons his suicide attempt without hesitancy or afterthought. Such
representations may
[…] contribute to the tendency to overestimate external and psychosocial
factors as causes for depression and suicidal behaviour.
204
Sisask and Värnik warn that inaccurate media portrayals misinform the public,
creating barriers to the success of suicide prevention efforts.
205
Games with a
high degree of player agency could reinforce the notions that self-killing is the
consequence of social adversities, that every suicidal person can be saved, and
that it is within the audience’s power to complete this task.
The illusory sense of omnipotence becomes particularly problematic when it
clashes with the person’s inability to prevent the suicide of someone they knew.
In this scenario, a sense of responsibility or even guilt plagues the mind of the
unsuccessful helper as they obsess about all the ways in which they should have
behaved differently.
206
Indeed, those were the precise emotions that LIFE IS
STRANGE and THIS WAR OF MINE elicited if the player caused self-killing or
failed to avert it: guilt, shame, and regret.
Although Isbister regards the capacity to evoke such feelings as a unique quality
of games, we must question whether they are appropriate in the context of the
topic at hand.
207
For instance, Westefeld et al. describe the overcoming of guilt
and remorse after a suicide as one goal of effective postvention programs.
208
Eink
and Haltenhof elaborate on this point, stressing that although such emotions are
common, they are not productive and strain the relationship between
professional helpers and survivors.
209
In addition to that, the two authors disclose
204
U. Hegerl/I. Heinz: Reflections on Causes of Suicidal Behaviour, p. 469.
205
M. Sisask/A. Värnik: Media Roles in Suicide Prevention: A Systematic Review.
206
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
207
K. Isbister: How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design.
208
J. S. Westefeld et al.: Suicide: An Overview.
209
M. Eink/H. Haltenhof: Umgang mit suizidgefährdeten Menschen.
74
that said survivors are at a higher risk of committing suicide themselves.
210
A
possible explanation of this finding is that intense feelings of guilt are often
present in suicidal persons and likely play a causal role in shaping their
condition.
211
This opens up a concerning question that warrants