The Legacy of Der müde Tod in Last Day of June: Creating Tragedy in Games

Group project summary, by leader Leo Alvarez

Tragedy is hard to pull off in video games, a medium so driven by the player’s desire to accomplish tasks and achieve the goals set forth by the game designers. What’s more, joining the formerly separated roles of the viewer and the on-screen character into one presents unique challenges in terms of creating motivation and working with the newly bridged psychical distance to create an effective tragedy. With all of these obstacles in its way, how can a game like Last Day of June possibly hold a candle to a tragic film like Der müde Tod? In its use of an episodic structure, a “retry narrative” and a final sacrifice, Last Day of June carries and builds on the legacy of Fritz Lang’s silent film Der müde Tod, ushering the death-defying romantic tragedy template into the era of video-games, and exemplifying how tragedy can be possible in a game.

In examining the legacy of Der müde Tod as tragedy, one of the most obvious aspects carried into Last Day of June is its segmented structure, and its examination of universal loss and the invincibility of death. Lang’s Der müde Tod follows a structure of “verses,” enveloping three unrelated stories of lost lovers within the framing device of a woman’s attempt to get her lover’s life back from Death himself. While the framing device only takes place in one night, from ten to midnight, the other stories travel across time and space, from Italy to China. The inclusion of various settings creates a sense of universality to the story of the dead lover, which has historical basis in various culture’s mythology: Orpheus and Eurydice from Greece, Izanagi and Izanami from Japan, etc. By incorporating the same cast within these stories, Lang also emphasizes the universality of the experience of love and death. Last Day of June is separated into sections like the film, with each section diving into the lives of the people surrounding the “main” characters of the story. While Carl’s lost relationship is the framing device for his adventures with the paintings, the lives and stories of each of the other four villagers are also on full display, especially when looking at the “memories” that can be collected throughout the game. Connecting all of these characters is one theme: loss. Just as each woman in the stories of Lang’s film loses their lover — each killed by Death himself, either by burial, poisoned blade, or arrow — every villager in Last Day of June has experienced a painful loss as well. The Child has lost his friend, the Best Friend her chance at love, the Hunter his childhood and father, and the Old Man his wife. As Death states, he is “invincible,” impossible to overcome, no matter the setting or perspective. By the end, both the lovers in Der müde Tod and Last Day of June come to realize that, and either choose to join their lover in death or sacrifice their life, respectively. Yet, the unique plot structures of both the film and the game comes not from this submission to death, but from the main characters’ attempts to overcome it, through what we might call the “retry narrative.”

Both Lang’s film and Last Day of June involve some level of magical realism that manifests in what could be called the “retry narrative,” in which the characters are given chances to avoid their misfortune by retrying through others’ actions. Just like in Der müde Tod, the supernatural aspect of Last Day of June is introduced incredibly casually, with no questions from the main characters. The player simply wheels Carl into the painting room, and all of a sudden they are able to go backwards in time and control the actions of the other residents of the village. However, this is noticeably distinct from the common video-game trope of respawning. While one might be tempted to call any game where respawning is common — ala Super Meat Boy — one with a “retry narrative,” retrying is not given a grander narrative significance in most games. The majority of games with life-threatening danger treat retrying as simple video game magic, but Last Day of June integrates it into the very fiber of the game’s story, in a wholly unique way. The plot depends on Carl’s retrying, for it wouldn’t exist without his ability to rewind; his goal revolves around retrying. The player cannot progress beyond certain phases of the game without returning to previous sections and changing small details in order to finally achieve the goal of “saving her.” For example, the Hunter cannot enter the area where the blue bird has hidden his medal without the player ending his level unsuccessfully, returning to the Child’s level to knock over the vases in the way, and then returning a third time as the Best Friend to retrieve the blue rope. The game’s goals rely completely on retrying, cementing it as a shining example of the retry narrative, in the same vein as Der müde Tod, even ultimately displaying the futility of rewinding over and over again. While the characters in the film and game are given an opportunity to attempt to save their lovers in some supernatural fashion, Death always shows itself to be invincible in the end. No matter how much Carl or the woman in Der müde Tod try to save their lover, unavoidable obstacles consistently fall into place that make the task impossible. By the end of both the film and the game, the main characters are forced to stop running from Death, but to cope with it and even accept it. Yet, how can a tragic ending such as Der müde Tod’s be recreated in a game, where the player may not be willing to die just to be with their fictional lover?

As we’ve discussed in class, tragedy is an incredibly difficult effect to pull off in an interactive medium, in which players are so fueled by positive achievements, and a certain psychical distance — as present in film and theater — has been eliminated. Despite the challenges of tragedy’s paradox, Last Day of June is able to tell just as tragic of a story as a film like Der müde Tod by adapting to its chosen medium and creating a sense of achievement, even in death. Similar to Jesper Juul’s example of the ending of the story to Red Dead Redemption, Last Day of June chooses to create tragedy by guaranteeing the failure of the main character, while still making the player feel accomplished in some way. This method is accomplished through, as RDR utilizes, a final sacrifice that kills the main character but saves his wife and child. It is impossible to save June through any means other than this sacrifice, and the game doesn’t allow the player full control in the final moments before the imminent car accident. No matter how many times the player tries to tell June that something is coming, Carl can’t do it. This is a sensible way to create tragedy in a game, where player agency and desire to achieve a goal makes it difficult to allow for a purely poetic ending, as in Der müde Tod. What if the player doesn’t want to die to be alongside June, since it feels purely like a failure? By creating a sense of achievement in the ultimate sacrifice, the designers can almost convince the player that the sacrifice is worth it, even if the character that they’ve been playing as has to die. In Lang’s film, RDR, and Last Day of June, children are brought in at the very end to evoke the future and give a feeling of hope in the last moments of their tragic stories. Ultimately, Last Day of June doesn’t shy away from allowing the player the opportunity to create their own tragedy for their own reasons, and sets an example of how tragedy can be possible in an interactive medium.

In conclusion, Last Day of June is able to build on the tragic formula offered by Der müde Tod in order to usher tragedy into the era of the video game, in which the player’s decisions and agency are paramount. While the player must sacrifice themselves for the lives of June and her child, the game twists the knife even further through the Old Man’s episode. The game makes the player almost feel responsible for June’s death, since we are put in the place of the Old Man who must bring the gift to the couple’s house no matter what. In that case, we are tempted by the goal of completing the section into bringing the gift to the couple’s house not once but three times, essentially confirming the invincibility of death by inhabiting the role of the Reaper, and undermining all of the work that we’ve put into the previous three episodes of the game. If the player can even be coaxed into erasing all of their work in pursuit of the game’s completion, what more could video games accomplish in the tragic genre, totally unique from film? Could the removal of psychical distance actually provide for more opportunities for deep emotion and an even more effective form of tragedy, in which the player feels personally involved?

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