By Mento 4 Comments
I don't know what that title signifies, exactly. That this is a blog written by me? I think that's the only conclusion one could reliably draw.
As for what it's intended to signify, well, I want to look at the wider role of the Grim Reaper in video games and his malleable role as protagonist, antagonist, nebulous neutral party, agent of change, McGuffin and, perhaps most commonly, a sign that perhaps things aren't going too well. The idea of an anthropomorphised manifestation of the natural process of death is a persistent one, apparent in almost every major secular and religious culture on the planet. Presumably because the uncertainty of death and what follows, and how it'll come for all of us (hey, it's Halloween, it's the time for depressing thoughts), has made for some lengthy ratiocination on the matter. Making it a skinny dude with farming equipment, or regional equivalent, probably helps folk to process it easier.
I've presented a small sample of games below categorized by whatever role Mr G. Reaper might be assuming in that case, with an emphasis on those rare cases where is the main playable character. That so many designers find so many uses for the guy is tantamount to how enduring a concept it is.
Death as the Protagonist
A merciless skeleton with a badass scythe perhaps doesn't immediately strike one as a suitable protagonist, given the degree of sympathy and non-invulnerability players tend to expect from their heroes. Yet that is entirely the case with Darksiders II, a game I recently, eventually beat. The Death of Darksiders II isn't so much a permanent force of nature than a powerful nephilim (half-angel, half-demon, all-rider) that has gotten a rather dark reputation as the one responsible for much of his fellow nephilim's demise. The name of Death, in this case, is merely a symbolic acknowledgement of his genocidal but unfortunately necessary undertaking; a mark of kin-slaying shame that he is forever cursed to bear. That right there is how you make Death a sympathetic and vulnerable figure, though only relatively speaking in both regards.
What is a puzzlement, though, is how Darksiders II tries to have its cake and eat it. Death can, at times, assume a "Reaper-form", which is entirely the sort of indescribably powerful force of nature the original Grim Reaper is purported to be. The way it contemptuously cuts up monsters and Godlike entities alike during the game's many cinematic kills suggests that this is indeed the real Death, who just wanders around in a de-powered "casual" form to give his enemies a chance? I guess? It's a "Rule of Cool" conceit, to borrow an interpretation from TVTropes, where a massive Grim Reaper figure slicing through legions of creatures is sufficiently cool enough that no further clarification for the whys and hows behind it are necessary. Given the kind of audience Darksiders draws and indulges with its Spawn/Warhammer aesthetic, it's entirely explicable and thus acceptable.
As for other playable Reapers, I'd be remiss not to mention Manny Calavera, the star of Grim Fandango. He's just one of many reapers doing the day job in LucasArts' (now Disney's?) last great point-and-click before that whole genre deflated into an embarrassing, barely-interactive FMV mess.
Death as an Antagonist
A merciless skeleton with a badass scythe is precisely what strikes one as a suitable antagonist, given everything I just said about the scythe and him being a skeleton. That said, the most effective uses of Death as an antagonist is one where the protagonist is fighting a futile battle against his own irresistible fate and, by extension, the custodian thereof. Too many games just plop down a skeletal figure in a cowl to give you the willies without it being much more than an overly-aggrandized common bad guy, though there are just as many where he's an immortal enemy that can only be avoided rather than defeated.
Though not explicitly the Grim Reaper, the Dahaka of Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within fulfills the same general role, chasing down those who have cheated their own fates by changing it with time travel. He's an intimidating presence in the game and the goal of many acrobatic sequences is to stay one step ahead of him and his non-corporeal tendrils.
There's also Death of the Castlevania games, occasionally referred to as Dracula's "confidante"; which always puts in my head a mental picture of the two of them discussing relationships while Death's own affections go unrequited. While generally not given a huge role (no-one really does in Castlevania), he's often one of the strongest bosses the player will face and, in Symphony of the Night at least, is responsible for at least one hero's depowering shortly after the game begins. He's also afforded the final boss role in Lament of Innocence; as the Castlevania timeline was still in its pre-Dracula phase.
As for some non-narrative examples, which is to say non-story significant nigh unbeatable superbosses that you'd be best to run away from, we have the Reaper of the Persona games, who has a bit more of a guns and chains theme to it. There's also the early arcade Reapers of Paperboy and Gauntlet too. He's commonly a mechanic used by games to stop players from dallying too long in one area, a role he fills in Wizardry: Tale of the Forsaken Land but in many others as well (though he will occasionally delegate this task to his best bud Baron von Blubba).
Death as a Force of Nature
Lastly, we have Death in a neutral role, where his presence can have positive or negative (usually negative) connotations to it. Should you spot Death in The Sims or Theme Hospital, say, that probably does not bode well, but he's a far more affable presence in games like Painkiller, Maximo or Gregory Horror Show, where he simply tasks the hero to look for lost souls in his stead, usually involving an agreement to spare the hero from his own untimely demise in return. In Shadowgate he simply shows up to see what dumb way you managed to kill yourself this time, a role that becomes even more explicitly comical for his appearances throughout the three Discworld games.
I've brought him up before, but the Strange Man of Red Dead Redemption is one of the more fascinating encounters John Marston can have as part of the "strangers" series of incidental side-missions, activated by bumping into the right person on the road. The Strange Man's origins and reasons for why he knows so much of Marston's backstory are unexplained, though various hints are given to his true supernatural nature, most of which point towards some sort of grand arbiter of life and death given how each of the three quests he gives John have both a moral and immoral solution. Whether God, Devil or Death, he raises more questions than he answers and vanishes in a puff of enigma, creating one of the more thoughtful narrative threads among the many found across the Great Plains.
Without further ado, I'll now move on to death of a different sort: The death of art itself, with...