Death doesn’t hold a lot of water in video games. It’s a leaky boat with you dumping out your liquid doom as fast as it’s coming in, but every once in a while, it pulls you under. But then it always comes right back up. Maybe a little worse for wear, but you’re floating either way. It’s only a matter of time, though, until you go back under.
MMOs can only thrive on this flow, such as it is (and they are). The corpse run is an idiomatic reference to the entirety of this surrealistic loop, dying and going back to loot your own shell of former existence. Some games now address this systemically and infuse its reasoning into a narrative impetus. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor simply makes you an undying fusion of a wraith and a Ranger. Assassin’s Creed makes you a literal digital avatar of another digital avatar. NeverDead actually just made you an immortal.
But then this rise of Dark Souls-like games, where this loop is entirely vital to what makes the game work. There’s minimal consequence to death, but death comes often and swift. It’s the gradual slope to overcoming this brutalization that makes such games any sort of intriguing.
This is what makes Edge of Tomorrow so interesting. It takes the gamut of concepts from the industry regarding a live’s terminus and makes it all fit so well in a movie. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a media relations officer in the US Army. Pretty normal save for the fact that the entire world is all but lost to an invading alien race known as Mimics.
The nations have banded together into the United Defense Force, but they’re fighting a losing battle. That is until a woman named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a sergeant, proves that a new armored/mechanized exoskeleton is a proven weapon against the insanely fast and deadly Mimics. After being forced into combat for the first time in an all-or-nothing counter-invasion by the UDF, Cage falls after managing to take out one of a seemingly exotic species of Mimic.
Or rather, he only appears to die. He actually gets stuck in a time loop where he lives the same day over and over again, fighting and dying in the same mean and fatal combat each time but retaining every memory from every iteration. But with training from Vrataski, Cage improves. He eventually begins proficient in killing the enemy and is well on his way to forming a plan to defeating the Mimics once and for all.
(Spoiler Alert: To further discuss what makes Edge of Tomorrow a success, I’m going to discuss its plot development, which includes elements of its ending. It may be all the way out of theatres by now, but it also only came out in May of this year, so heed this warning if you still want to watch it. (And you should.) Or just read on anyways. You’re a big kid. Make your own decisions.)
It turns out, though, that it’s due to a melding of the rare Mimic’s blood—an Alpha, actually—with Cage’s that forces him into this loop. And after sustaining a major injury, he receives a blood transfusion, which essentially removes his temporally confined existence but also removes humanity’s greatest weapon against figuring out how to beat the Mimics.
And that is where the genius comes in. For every moment prior, we are treated to nearly trivial representations of death. There are no life counters, no ticking tracker of one-ups counting down to a game over, and no punitive measures. It’s pure respawn. Counter to the likes of Borderlands deducting funds from your wallet for reviving you, you simply start over and try again.
In fact, Edge of Tomorrow trains us to think that respawing is only ever a good thing, too. Cage learns to fight after only surviving his first outing for as long as he did through good luck and good hair. Vrataski, Cage, and their scientist buddy eventually discern the location of the Omega Mimic, the key to defeating the alien foe once and for all. We come to trade the cringes and laughs of Cage’s early fatalities for the knowing observation of his growth into a viable warrior and possible savior for Earth.
Then, when Cage loses this ability to revert each day’s activities, it becomes strikingly apparent what it means to die. The contrast is shocking, like jumping into a pool in fall. That crutch that the game taught us to lean us is suddenly gone, and every scratch on Cage’s face starts to look less like a reason to call it a casual wash and more like a reason to be scared.
When J Squad asks Cage what to do after they land/crash in Paris and he says he doesn’t know, that he’s never lived this day before, it hits home. It hits hard because it tickles a now-rarely touched or noticed part of your brain, the chunk that retains your days of playing Mario or Castlevania.
Who hasn’t been in that exact same situation in one of those games? You’ve blasted through your health and your lives to get to the last boss. You managed to abuse your previous trial and error knowledge to cheat your way through hard bits and pieces, sacrificing resources where necessary. But now you’re at the end, the end that you’ve never seen or tried or even heard of.
And you can’t die now. Eat it and you might as well not pick up the game again, like, ever. This life has meaning. And as you get beaten down, back against a wall, you realize that all the lives that you had before meant just as much. You learned, you grew, and you made it here all through biting and clawing and fighting.
Edge of Tomorrow capitalizes on that notion so well. It expands just from the physiological improvement of Cage’s combat and the knowledge gained from understanding that the Omega has to be found and killed but also that Cage learns his love for Vrataski can blossom so quickly and irrevocably. It’s not a fluke, and neither is his success.
It’s a delicious sentiment, especially in the context of video games. Our iterations have meaning beyond a number in a sequence. And Edge of Tomorrow lays it out so well through a wholly transformative and fulfilling intersection between films and video games.