Shadowgate Uses Death to Enhance its Horror Atmosphere
Death is something you usually want to avoid when playing a game. Hard to make it through a story when you’re a corpse, after all. Well, most of the time. Typically, dying, even if you’re playing a horror game, is a bad outcome. It’s a failure on the player’s part. While all of that is still true when playing Shadowgate, the game also makes death into a fun, mood-enhancing part of its play. You may not want to die while playing it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an enjoyable thing. And a thing that adds this sense of unpredictable danger as you explore.
The Warlock Lord is trying to raise a Behemoth to take over the world. Since you don’t want that to happen, you head to his castle to get him to stop. The Lord and his creature are far from the only dangerous inhabitants of the castle, though. The place is full of monsters, illusions, traps, and shoddy workmanship. It’s also pitch black without a torch, which creates its own problems for our clumsy protagonist. Death lies in wait almost anywhere in this place.
Shadowgate is very creative with its deaths as well. The game only uses a few visuals, so much of what happens plays out in a text window. Because the creators did not have to animate every single way to die, they were free to type out any kind of gruesome end they could think of. To give you an idea of what that entails, you can take the torch you start the game with and set yourself on fire. It takes a few tries (your character isn’t real keen on immolating himself), but eventually, you’re free to light yourself up.
“You finally set your hair on fire. The rest of your body soon follows!!”
The game sets you free to make whatever foolish decision you want to make as you explore. Find a sword? Go ahead and stab yourself. Want to plunge the arrow you just found into your stomach? Go nuts. Leap in a lake of fire? Jump out an open window? Swim with sharks? Drink unmarked potions? Punch cyclopses? While many games might try to steer you away from these decisions or not have an option to make them, this one allows you to undertake any dangerous or lethal activity you like. If you don’t want to be cautious, the game won’t stop you.
The best part is that Shadowgate offers some in-depth text to accompany every one of your deaths. “Bellowing like a fool, you leap off the bridge and into the blaze!! You are instantly fried.” “You try to pass the slime but it engulfs your body, dissolving it in seconds…You die instantly. No pain, no nothing. You were slimed.” “The gargoyles, angered at your presence, spring from their frozen state and rip you to pieces. There’s not enough left of you to even feed the birds.”
These deaths are conveyed in bone-breaking detail, often with a mocking, sickening, or joking tone. You get to read, in vivid detail, how your error cost you your life. You read all about breaking your face in the dark, oozing self-inflicted wounds, and what a shapeshifting wolf intends to do to your throat. The game is full of these sorts of brutal or taunting deaths.
As Shadowgate is an adventure game at its heart, you’ll be dying a lot as well. Figuring out which items work to help you progress can require a lot of thought or guessing. Finding which doorways and mechanisms are safe requires a lot of experimenting as well. You have to gamble with your life every time you try something out. The true path forward can be difficult to discover, so these deaths, while almost graphic, at least provide you with a bit of fun when you get yourself killed for choosing the wrong hallway.
Like I said, death means you’ve failed. It’s rarely fun. Here, though, you die very, very often while figuring out the safe path or correct items to use. If you died in the same way each time, things would get a bit dull. With all of these varied deaths, though, there’s at least some fun to be had in dying to dragons, cliffs, and snuffed torches. It’s almost pleasant to get a new type of death while you’re experimenting. There’s usually some new surprise each time you die. It makes it fun to stumble across some new, horrible death. Honestly, to the point where I started going out of my way to see how I could get myself killed.
While these deaths can be entertaining, they also give Shadowgate an unsettling mood. The prospect of meeting a horrible, graphic death really makes the player feel a sense of danger while exploring. Every decision you make feels like could end up being your last. Very few actions feel safe. You can’t even transition to a new screen through a door or gate without wondering if something is going to kill you for trying. These deaths give the game an incredible sense of dread as you explore. You feel like you could die at any moment from every move you make.
It also gives the game this ability to be gory and sickening without having the visual capability at the time to really do it. I’m not saying pixel artists can’t do gore, but it would be a challenge to make a realistic, gory scene in pixel art. Also, the imagination can be a much more powerful tool to evoke horror than a game’s art style can.
With so many ways to die, it would have created a great deal more work for the game’s artists. Especially with the deaths that you suffer in Shadowgate. Using a text description let the creators really set up a sickening image in the player’s mind without worrying about representing it well with artwork. It creates that gore in your imagination without making you take in a pixelated representation of it. The creators could also make as many deaths as they felt like typing out, adding as many text-based deaths as they wanted without needing to do anything more than add a bit of writing to the game.
Text-based deaths offer some creative, gut churning ends in Shadowgate. They let the player really soak in a sense of danger in the place because ANYTHING might kill you. Every decision is filled with fear as death happens constantly. However, death is made entertaining instead of irritating though the game’s clever use of text over artwork, and allows the imagination to conjure up some truly disturbing ends. It’s a fantastic example of how death can be a positive gameplay mechanic, and offers up some deaths I remember to this day.
“Shouting a battle cry, you catapult yourself off of the platform. You are brave, warrior, but stupid!! Your body explodes as you plunge into the lava.”