It’s a cliche to say that I’m no good at funerals. No one is. Our culture is a bit anemic when it comes to mourning, I think. Our traditions are sparse, informal, and brief. Take a week, have an understated, quiet service in a church you may or may not visit any other time, and then try to get on with your life as if the death of someone you love didn’t just entirely derail it. There are exceptions, but death is generally something we prefer to hide away and deal with as little as possible, even when it cuts us to the bone.
That’s why, as much as I understand, I find it difficult to be that hard on a scene in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare that is getting a lot of mockery and disdain this week in the gaming press. In it, your character attends a military funeral and you are given an on-screen button prompt to participate: Hold X to Pay Your Respects.
This scene is tone-deaf and perfunctory, a shallow attempt to portray something approaching emotion in a game that is primarily devoted to killing nameless enemies by the droves, a quick aside that feels even less meaningful due to an interactive element that feels tacked on. An on-screen button prompt isn’t roleplaying; it’s Simon Says.
Call of Duty is terrible at mourning, but so am I. I find it hard to complain.
Earlier this year, I went to a funeral for my step-grandfather, a man named Jack. He was a firefighter. I’ve never been to a military funeral, but I have to imagine this was similar. There was a ballet to it, a pageantry. A kindly old firefighter performed a series of tasks to send Jack off and honor his service. He saluted, marched, and stood at solemn attention. An American flag was folded and given to my grandmother after the kindly man spoke on the history of firefighting as a profession and on the valor and kindness of Jack in particular. He played bagpipes as a rite of mourning, the sickly discordant thrums wailing like a widow.
I remember shaking the man’s hand before the funeral began, as he told me what a good man my grandfather was and what a painful honor it was to be a part of the service. He was wearing a dress uniform, and as my small hand went into his I couldn’t help but fixate on the cotton-white gloves he wore over his, which were large but gentle. The glove was soft and comforting to the touch, and for that moment I deeply admired this man.
The strict performance of a funeral like my grandfather’s is a ritual, a way to physicalize emotion and symbolism. People are rarely skilled at putting words to grief, and I remember almost nothing that was said at that funeral in specifics. But I remember the bagpipes, the handshake, the stiff formality of the firefighters in front of our family, saluting a man who was no longer there to receive the honor.
These gestures created space and image to go with feeling, and they became waypoints through which I can process and understand what was happening. This is what ritual does: it gives us a way to make sense of things that are beyond our understanding.
Rituals are systems, not unlike games. They have rules, mechanics, motifs and narratives. Rituals and games alike can be places to work out and contextualize abstractions. Games, I think, can be powerful and potent places to think about and experience mourning, to act it out in a quasi-ritualistic setting. Advanced Warfare doesn’t fail because it reads into a space where it shouldn’t go. It fails because it treads into that space without thought or depth. Through ritual and care, mourning can become a language we can speak. Call of Duty just can’t translate.
The first funeral I had an opportunity to go to, I skipped out on. I was seven, and my maternal grandfather had passed away, the first time loss entered my life. My mother gave me the choice of going to the funeral or going to school and carrying on like normal. I chose the latter, intensely frightened by the idea of a funeral.
Funerals still frighten me. I fear that I won’t react strongly enough, that I won’t conjure tears when I’m supposed to, that I’m going to move out of step with the sorrow around me. More than that, I fear the appearance of the corpse. I hate open caskets—the prepared bodies I’ve seen have never looked like the person they were before. I always suspect that the embalming process, by which a person is preserved for burial, has muddied their appearance somehow, stretching their lips too thin or casting their skin in the wrong color. One time I explained this suspicion to my mom and she said that it was death that had done that more than the embalming. Either way, it’s an intimacy with loss that I have trouble standing.
Maybe that fear is the reason why thinking about that shallow scene in Call of Duty unlocks so many memories for me, memories spent honoring the real dead and the fictional dead who hold them up to us as a mirror. Games fill a place in my life as mourning ritual when I’m too detached to confront the real thing. Games speak the language of mourning with me when I’m too cowardly to speak it with anything else.
Shadow of the Colossus, at times, feels like one long funereal rite. You begin the game watching the protagonist, a boy named Wander, carrying a dead girl, Mono, into a temple in a forbidden wilderness on the other side of a long stone bridge. Is she his sister? His lover? It’s not clear, nor is it really important. He places her on the altar there, and makes a deal with the god who watches over the temple. Wander kills the sixteen colossi who roam the land, and she comes back to life.
The rest of the game is the enacting of this deal in ritualistic precision. After the death of every colossus, you return to the temple in the center of the wild. The whole game moves around the axis of this temple. And in the middle of the temple, the altar and Mono upon it. The battle with every colossus is a puzzle, but each follow roughly the same script, tasking you with finding and attacking certain runes upon their bodies. Mono’s repeated presence, her corpse lying there before and after every fight, ties these fights up in mourning, making them dramatic enactments of Wander’s loss. With each monster I fight, I’m also fighting bereavement itself.
Shadow of the Colossus is a quest to turn back fate, folding death back like a scroll, but it also feels like one long wake, Mono’s body presented to us to revisit and ponder again and again. I’ll always remember the way birds gather around her altar, giving a sort of naturalistic beauty to her presence.
I would go up to her, sometimes, and simply linger there, learning the contours of her face, imagining how heavy a millstone Wander must have found her loss, to come to this place to get her back. Even if I can’t visit anyone else’s wake, I’ll always remember hers.
When Jack died, I was replaying Metal Gear Solid 3, something I find myself doing in times of turmoil. The last time I had played it was after a painful break-up. My love for the Metal Gear series has been well documented, and my periodic revisiting feels like a way of grounding myself in my own history, perhaps the way you might regress to things from your childhood to manage pain.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, someone important to the protagonist, Snake, dies. It’s a death that reshapes his character forever. When Snake visits this character’s grave late in the game, Metal Gear gets right what Call of Duty got wrong, using a brief but potent moment of interactivity to give participatory shape to Snake’s mourning, casting an invitation for you to participate in it alongside him.
Metal Gear Solid 3, like all the MGS games, is cutscene heavy, but this one introduces a way to interact gently with the cutscenes, a nod to the fact that players are probably watching them with a controller idly in their lap. At particular places, some of them marked with a symbol in the right-hand corner of the screen, you can press a button and change the perspective of the cutscene from third to first person, taking in the scene from Snake’s eyes, even looking around a bit.
These moments are used for a variety of purposes, ratcheting up the tension during a captivity sequence, providing crude jokes now and then, simply offering easter eggs in other places. Here, though, its use is sad and touching. As Snake visits the grave, you can press the button and look at the grave through his eyes. Your vision—his vision—is blurred by a tear. Then the perspective cuts back, and Snake salutes the grave as he silently weeps.
This moment is effective because it’s tight and choreographed without being obtrusive. It makes you a silent companion in this soldier’s mourning, a mourning that forms the core of his story. You cry with him, you salute with him, and you feel a part of his loss.
When I replay Metal Gear Solid 3, I have my own ritual. It’s silly, but every time, I put down my controller, and though I am the farthest thing from a soldier there is, I salute with Snake. I think of his losses and mine, the deaths that came and will come.
This most recent time, I thought of Jack. I thought of the firefighter at his funeral, saluting my grandfather’s coffin with those soft, gloved hands.
Jake Muncy is a freelance writer, editor, and poet living in Austin, TX. In addition to functioning as Loser City’s Games Editor, his writing appears on The AV Club, Ovrld, and anywhere else he can convince people to post it. You can contact him by email or twitter, where he tweets regularly about video games, the Mountain Goats, and sandwiches. He has very strong feelings about Kanye West.