Monday 5 September 2011

The End - A Philosophical Game About Death: Worth Writing Home About?

Preloaded and Channel 4 have finally gotten around to releasing their much anticipated (by me, at least) edutainment (groan) game, The End. It's a platformer that asks the player to consider, better understand and (arguably) question their beliefs around death.

The game itself - like The Curfew and Privates before it - is the product of C4's educational budget being thrown at interactive endeavours and, like those games, proves an ambitious, valuable, yet somewhat flawed offering.

The platforming is just god-awful. The framerate stutters, the level design is pedestrian and sometimes downright obscure, and there is simply nothing of import to do in the world beyond bagging a few collectables and reaching the philosophical query at the end. It's ironic that player death is treated so simplistically in a game which takes that topic as its muse, and it becomes very clear very quickly that all this running about is filler, unrelated to what lies at the heart of the experience: that promise of existential exploration.

I first became aware that Preloaded were shooting for something interesting when I met them at World of Love, and that ambition shines through in the metagame and community hub they've provided as part of the experience. Each level explicitly asks the player something about their beliefs: 'Is there a soul?', 'Should we have the right to choose when we die?' etc. Each answer helps to plot your position on a chart as compared to other players / friends / famous thinkers, and place you into one of four categories. I got the Truth-teller, which basically means I'm a cold-hearted rationalist who doesn't give a damn if no-one agrees with him. Which is largely bang-on; although given the very broad strokes used to categorise (essentially are you rational or spiritual, and are you empathetic or an anti-social tosser like me?) perhaps this shouldn't be too much of a surprise.

Where the educational angle comes in is that for every question answered a brief discussion of the topic is displayed, along with links to further reading and philosophers who thought similarly. It's somewhat telling of where Preloaded's real passion lies that they actually allow you to participate in this part of the game without completing more than one level: the questions can all be answered in the profile tab.

While this side of the game clearly isn't aimed at Philosophy grads, there is one immediate criticism I can see being brought to bear, which is that this method of feedback seems like it may instigate a loop. Let's say I'm a 13 year old with a faintly Christian upbringing (which I was, once) and by default I tell the game that I believe in the soul and an afterlife. The game then validates my unreasoned faith by categorising me as something romantic like 'The Mystic', and seals the deal by referring me to a bunch of philosophers who think the same way. Have my beliefs been brought into question, or simply given a new kind of legitimacy? While the game goes someway towards addressing this by providing a neutral discussion of each topic and telling players in no uncertain terms whether their beliefs are predicated on reason or blind faith, there's a pervading sense that encouraging the audience to think about the validity of their beliefs (as is done successfully here) is a lesser priority than simply encouraging them to start thinking.

This, of course, is arguably no great criticism. Most great thinkers began (and many continued) by searching for legitimate reasons to believe whatever they wanted to believe; the very best often failed and started again from scratch. Preloaded's modus operandi here has been to provide support to a British teenage audience that has grown up in a largely secular society where neither spirituality nor philosophy has been readily available to help them understand topics like mortality.

In this respect - as a gateway to a way of thinking far more powerful than anything taught in schools - The End is a success. I hope next time Preloaded will succeed in integrating their ambitions into a more appealing game.

Polish: 1 out of 2
Tilt: 1 out of 2


  1. Have you played the game? What category did you score?

  2. I gave this game 2 chances of grabbing my interest on 2 different occasions. I just couldn't get past the god-awful platform side of the game (and in my laptop it's incredibly slow to boot). So I gave up even before completing a level, which means I didn't even come across the philosophical questions.

    It seems like they spent most of the time in the character personalization screen than anything else, regarding their presentation. So I'm sorry, they're going to have to do much better than this to grab my attention. Much much better.