From Losing to Loss: Exploring the Expressive Capacities of Videogames Beyond Death as Failure


  • Sabine Harrer IT University Copenhagen, Denmark



Loss, human experience, game design, procedural expression, fiction, metaphor, cultural studies


In games, loss is as ubiquitous as it is trivial. One reason for this has been found in the established convention of on-screen character death as a signifier for failure (Klastrup 2006; Grant 2011; Johnson 2011). If that’s all that games have to offer in terms of addressing an existential trope of human experience, the worried protectionist concludes, shouldn’t we dismiss this intrinsically flat medium as inferior to more established media forms such as film or literature? (Ebert 2010). Contrary to this view, this paper discusses gameplay examples that shed light on how this medium might leverage its expressive resources to arrive at rich representations of loss.

First, the notion of loss implied in Sigmund Freud’s work “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917) will be discussed in relation to losing in games. Looking at procedurality, fictional alignment and experiential metaphor as three expressive gameplay devices identified by Doris Rusch (2009) will help explain the expressive shortcoming of losing and lay out what is at stake with profound gameplay expression. Moreover, it will serve as the keywords structuring the following analysis of three videogames, Final Fantasy VII (1997), Ico (2001) and Passage (2007), and their design decisions fostering deep representations of loss. Keeping the Freudian notion of loss in mind, we can trace its repercussions on the three expressive dimensions respectively. Following a separate analysis of each gameplay example, the last section will discuss some commonalities and differences and arrive at the identification of desired object, permanent disruption and linearity as design aspects modeling loss in more compelling ways than losing.



Final Fantasy VII (1997) Square Product Development Division 1 (developer), PlayStation.

Ico (2001), Team Ico (developer), PlayStation2.

Passage (2007), Jason Rohrer (developer), PC.


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Theme: Pursuing the Trivial