Putting On A Tough Face: The Insecurities of Dead Cells

I hate Dead Cells a lot.

I didn’t initially. I spent a bunch of hours getting a bunch of unlocks and achievements, feeling out the controls and dying a lot. That was fun, because learning is fun. But the more I played, the more annoyed I got, partially at all the dying, but not primarily. It gradually became clear to me that the theme that unites Dead Cells as a text is insecurity and overcompensation; scared of being seen as weak or too serious, it presents itself as rough, rude, badass and ironic. This theme runs through its writing as well as its marketing, and arguably even its mechanics.

First things first, though. After a well-received early access period, Dead Cells dropped its release version in the summer of 2018, and the patch notes for version 1.0 mention a new addition: “lore”.

Isn’t that incredible? Through several years of development and iteration on the game’s systems in open access, neither the devs nor any of the people who paid to be its beta testers thought this was an essential feature. Then, at the last moment, it gets crammed in just in time for launch.

What even is “lore”? It’s certainly distinct from narrative, which I think is present in every video game, no matter how simple. The narrative of Pong: you bounce a ball around in an abstract representation of ping pong. The narrative of Tetris: you rotate and match the falling blocks. The narrative of Space Invaders: space invaders are invading from the top of the screen. Even if a game is not constructed with a story in mind, it – I would say necessarily – can be shown to have a narrative structure when considered as a player’s experience, because stories are our fundamental way of ordering knowledge about the world.

So Dead Cells already had a story before 1.0, told through the progression of levels from prison and sewers to ramparts to fishing village to castle, through the side-scrolling and pixellated aesthetic meant to evoke beloved classics, through sound design, enemy design, the way controls translate to on-screen movements and everything else that combines to make a game. Many people thought that the way in which this experience was put together was remarkable enough to warrant following its development more closely, throwing some money its way even despite its unfinished state and seeing how it unfolds. I don’t know how exactly it played before the full release, but I have to imagine it was pretty good.

And then they added the lore.

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If compelled to define lore, I would have to use the ugly word “intra-diegetic”, that is, internal to the story, sort of but not precisely what’s sometimes described as “in-universe”. (Being an insufferable pedant, I take exception to that term due to its implication that the fictional universe precedes the story or exceeds its scope, but that’s a whole another conversation.) Lore is typically thought of as “scraps” or fragments of story-within-story, in the form of journal entries, audio logs, letters, graffiti and so on, usually understood to originate with a specific if vaguely defined character, and has some overlap with “environmental storytelling”, that is, skeletons in funny poses.

As obviously annoyed as I am by the term itself – we’ll get to that – I think it’s good to have “lore” if your goal is to evoke a world populated with believable characters, and decenter the player character’s perspective in favour of other viewpoints within the fiction.

By any understanding other than the one you’d obtain from game culture, “lore” means a type of knowledge that is unwritten and communal, based on word-of-mouth, passed around among a group that shares an interest. This suggests a multiplicity of voices, a lack of codification and a certain degree of ambiguity that is constantly being worked out in conversations between equals. Of course that’s a bit hopeful compared to how most communities work out in practice, especially once they start organizing themselves around a publication or a central figure; still, in any fandom, that element of back-and-forth and creative reinterpretation is always present to some degree.

As hard as I try to look for it, there isn’t much of anything to creatively reinterpret in Dead Cells, and crucially, no viewpoint but your own. There was a zombie plague on an island, and now everyone is zombies, and also time is being looped by a magic clock, which presumably explains why you’re supposed to play the same six levels over and over. The vignettes through which all this is told are, first of all, largely superfluous – I can tell everyone is zombies from all the zombies walking around that are trying to kill me. Second, they present the player character as a comically disinterested asshole in a way that harshly contrasts with the actually quite tragic scenes being depicted, as if they’re afraid you’ll actually take them seriously: “hey don’t worry it’s all make believe! anyway time to loot the bodies lol”. Either this is who the game thinks you are, or it’s who it wants you to be, or else it’s so desperately insecure in itself that it wants to both have its grisly zombie prison island plot and the ability to say that it was all just jokes in case you don’t like it. Knowing what I know about the culture it’s a part of, I believe it’s the latter.

Third, and following from the earlier point, the “lore” doesn’t decenter the player’s perspective at all, unless you’re inclined to count the unsubtle hinting at the existence of other player characters running around. There are no conflicting accounts. Every other NPC in the game is either dead, an obstacle or exists for your convenience, and this applies as well to the ones you never meet and their journal entries that lay out in needless detail that yes, there were spooky evil experiments, and yes, there’s a big monster chained up in the sewers for some reason. It’s a very strange situation where spelling out less of the plot – the state the game was in before 1.0 – would make it much more compelling by sheer virtue of the satisfaction you might get from deriving an interpretation out of ambiguities, visual hints, the way the levels are connected and so on. By making sure you won’t have to struggle with anything of that sort, Dead Cells not only makes it clear how little it thinks of your ability to put two and two together, but also asserts – in what, once again, I can only describe as an act of textual insecurity – that there is a correct reading to uncover, in case you might stray too far from what was intended. This is especially funny for yet another reason: Dead Cells wants to be one of those supposed Difficult Games everyone likes to talk about now.

I’ve been skirting around bringing up Dark Souls again, because frankly, I’m sick of how everything ends up drawn into its orbit, but in the case of Dead Cells it’s unavoidable. The game wears its inspiration with From Software’s games openly and proudly, and that, more than anything else, is what makes me hate it.

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This particular screenshot courtesy of Rose over at Video Game Choo Choo. Thanks, Rosie!

Dead Cells isn’t really inspired by Dark Souls and Bloodborne so much as by the game many people imagine Dark Souls to be. That imaginary game is, first of all, celebrated for its brutal and unforgiving difficulty, the overcoming of which is held up as a feat of great power and mastery (and gendered along the same axis as “power” and “mastery” generally are), epitomized in the insufferable phrase “git gud”. Which is a very funny look into what some people consider overcoming hardship, because getting “good” at Soulsbornes is a matter of learning and pattern repetition, with very unambiguous criteria for success and barely any consequences for failure. At the same time, the textual challenge of these worlds is disregarded or misunderstood, or considered in isolation from the environments and mechanics, this divide being the main reason for how jarring Dead Cells ends up being with its lore.

I want it to be incredibly clear that I’m not engaging with whether or not the games in question are actually “hard” or “easy” even for a second. Any problem I already possess the skills and predispositions to solve is going to be easier for me than for someone who doesn’t, and that says very little about the problem itself. My interest is in what is communicated – and what isn’t – when people talk about “difficulty”.

What this discourse of difficulty accomplishes in practice is not describing or interrogating the games at all, but designating a social space and the rules of behaviour within it: as a fan of the Difficult Game, you must be rugged, hardened, callous, proudly independent and dismissive of everyone who isn’t, and constantly demanding that they pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The uncritical acceptance of this discourse, even by people who would like to think they know better, has had consequences for game criticism reaching far further than just a Youtube comments section. As the discourse of difficulty demarcates this ideal of gamer masculinity, even its ostensible opponents begin to argue with this phantasmatic, hegemonic Gamer, often going to some lengths to find and display some nobody’s misguided opinion just to prove that yes, the enemy is real, he is strong, and he is everywhere. The lines are drawn, and it becomes almost impossible to speak of the text and the ways in which we relate to it as people; rather, one must speak of the target demographics, and declare one’s allegiance either to the Gamer, or against him. This is what is being said when someone, for instance, tries to make it painstakingly clear that they hate Undertale because of the fandom: the game itself is at best tertiary to their desire to declare what kind of person – what kind of consumer – they are, and who they want to be associated with.

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(Another point on which I want to make myself clear: gamer culture is full of trivially swayed stooges for right-wing ideas, proper fascist recruiters, and people who were always going to end up as some kind of reactionary due to neither being very attentive to nor very negatively affected by the ever-present elitist and chauvinist undertones of the cultures we live in. A honest and direct reckoning with this issue is always necessary. Buying Wolfenstein because some guy from Bethesda said it’s cool to shoot Nazis, or Fallout 76 because it made gamers angry, as I’ve seen someone propose to do recently, is in no way a contribution towards that.)

This is neither a very new phenomenon nor a very interesting observation to make. “What I buy defines who I am” is as simple a definition of the consumerist mindset as you could hope for. The problem I’m observing – which is tangential to Dead Cells, but essential to understanding how marketing distorts both games and our reception of them – is that these categorizations come to supersede critical engagement. We want to sell Cells to the people who think they like challenging games, so we talk about “unforgiving combat”, “skill” and “sadistic devs” in our sales pitch; we want to sell the latest AAA open world behemoth to the 28+ middle class middlebrow demographic, so we make it out to be a thoughtful meditation on whatever lets people feel like their sensitivity and intelligence is being flattered. Do these terms have any relevance to the game as it is experienced by a living person? It doesn’t matter, because everyone accepts whatever we put on the Steam page as the a priori terms of the discussion.

Ideas implicit within this notion of difficulty and the difficulty-overcoming Gamer have poisoned the well to such an extent that many writers seemingly can no longer make a distinction between “easy” and “usable by disabled people”, as every discussion of accessibility in games almost immediately swerves into insulting talk about easy modes, rather than anything relevant to people’s specific needs. This, I feel, is another consequence of loudly rejecting Gamer Culture on the surface while accepting one of its unspoken assumptions without question: namely, that opposed to the striving, achieving, mighty Gamer there is an implied social category of the weak and unfit, except that instead of dismissive superiority, the treatment is one of condescending pity.

Personally, I found Dead Cells pretty hard even on the second difficulty level, and there’s at least three more after that. I get overwhelmed, I panic, I forget a boss’s patterns, you know how it is. It’s frustrating, but I don’t hate that in itself. If I’ve already doomed myself to making Dark Souls comparisons, here’s my final one: the thing that makes the hostility of From’s worlds be anything more than nihilistic is how they demonstrate that we are so good at forming emotional connections with others, and that those connections are so important to us, that we’ll latch on to NPCs based on six lines of vague monologue and keep putting up with bullshit ambushes and mimics just for the chance to see Siegmeyer or Lucatiel again. Even when we know it won’t be a happy reunion.

There’s no one remotely human in Dead Cells except yourself. It’s not lonely; it’s self-centered to the point of solipsism. Your main interaction with other players is the daily challenge leaderboard; there’s also some really interesting stream integration features which, in the end, seem to be there to foster an antagonistic relationship between a streamer and their Twitch chat, as if the latter needed any help with that. It’s hard not to see the thematic coherence between that and the colossal asshole the “lore rooms” make the playable character out to be. Once upon a time I may have entertained the thought that this is a “subversion” that’s supposed to “make me think” about how games turn us into self-centered assholes. (Do they? I don’t think they do.) The problem is that, even if that were true and not a cheap rhetorical trick, Cells offers no counterpoint, no bright spot. If this is the bad thing, what’s the good thing? There is no good thing. Just zombies.

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All of this adds up to a game that, to my mind, celebrates alienation and nihilism. And it’s not even bad, as jumpy-stabby platformers go, although there’s a lot about its mechanics that I question the wisdom of.

On the higher difficulties, the power of the turret build makes the least fun and most passive way to play possibly the most effective one. This comes back once again to the principle of insecurity that underlies the whole of Dead Cells. The combat really shines when you’re making use of your mobility, getting in enemies’ faces and dodging back out, taking risks. It seems that the intention may have been to emphasize this active, aggressive playstyle by copying the “rally” system from Bloodborne: after getting hit, if you counterattack quickly enough, you can mitigate the health loss by the amount of damage you deal back. The problem is that while in Bloodborne it’s sometimes possible to regain enough hit points to make trading hits worthwhile, in Dead Cells this is never the case past the starting difficulty. Every trash mob hits like that one fucker with the Chikage. What you really want to do is employ some combination of running past everything and taking out priority targets from safety with high-DPS turrets or a big overpowered spell like Death Orb.

I find this really interesting, because it’s reverse progression: the further in you go, and the more gear you unlock, the weaker you get relative to the enemies. The most consistent solution to the high-octane combat system becomes to not engage with it. This is where Dead Cells could have been really good: by seizing on this sense of insecurity and vulnerability emerging from the mechanics and emphasizing it narratively, showing a transformation of the main character from self-assured snarky asshole to someone more cautious, deliberate, thoughtful and probably kind of terrified. But, being itself an insecure text, instead of a text about insecurity, it just can’t let go of the pretense of high-skill power fantasy for even ten seconds before lapsing back.

The end. No conclusion. Go back to the first paragraph and start again.