The Earth Dies Twice: Death and Difficulty in The End is Nigh
The End is Nigh is a precision platformer in which you play as an adorable tumor named Ash. Despite being the last intelligent creature on earth, he spends his time streaming video games and talking to an empty chat. When his favorite game breaks (a Atari-style precision platformer called The End is Nigh in which you play as an adorable tumor trying to avoid spikes), Ash decides to brave the twisted post-apocalypse in order to gather the necessary pieces to stitch together a friend: a head on a far-away airship, a body burning in the depths of torment, a heart lost somewhere in a lumbering machine.
This is how The End is Nigh wants to talk about growth, about challenge, about skill: you are always playing at life but never living. Change is not merely psychological, but physical too, a new body built out of rotting pieces of the old one.
The game is in the business of eulogy. The visuals are equal parts cutesy and horrifying, edgy sensibilities used to craft something more somber, melancholy, mature. Design-wise, its simplicity crafts an intimacy with the player. The game is ridiculously difficult, but it’s a difficulty that’s organic, unmarred by flashy extra content. Each level is the length of a single screen. You need to get from one side to the other. You touch anything hazardous, you die. You can jump various distances at various speeds, and you can hang off corners and other special notches in the architecture, but that’s it. Despite the acrobatics inherent to the genre, The End is Nigh controls with a heaviness, a deliberate groundedness, that reflects its no-frills design. There’s no double jump, no wall jump, no running, no upgrades, no stat lines, no builds, no super moves, no items, no combat, no speech checks, no broken combos. There is only jumping and timing and death.
It flirts with deconstruction: a tough-as-nail platformer that’s interested in stripping the genre down to its barest mechanical state in order to fully explore the ramifications of its central interactions. What happens when the controls aren’t just smooth, but smooth enough to effectively remove reaction time, to make split-second decisions that live in the body? What happens when the game’s not just hard, but hard enough for stress, the monitoring and nursing and releasing of stress, to become a core element of gameplay, a system with its own native logistics, like health or stamina or mana?
I first encountered The End is Nigh during my first semester of grad school. My egg had been cracked for a while, though I was still trying to find use for the heftier shards I had kept (decorative wall art, a bowl for cereal, a sled for the otherwise bleak winters I had just signed up for). I wore slacks and cosplayed as an English instructor so my students wouldn’t realize we were the same age. Iowa City’s abysmal food scene exacerbated my binging and my fasting. I was, as always, studying white people’s smiles, relearning which were permission slips, which came with a certificate of authenticity, which were born of frothing insecurity like Venus from seafoam. I was writing, and I was making friends, but I couldn’t escape the reality of what I was, whether I was playing the game or not: an unperson, a prop, a thing playing at living, playing at the playing of living. The embers of a real someone stuck inside a brain stuck inside a body stuck inside a country.
Between the PC and Playstation versions, I have put nearly two hundred hours into The End is Nigh. This isn’t an epic open-world fantasy or a cozy management sim or some multiplayer thing where dozens of hours of practice are required for high-level play. This is a game where, if you know the proper techniques and don’t fuck up, entire worlds can be beaten in a few minutes. The game’s sense of time is exclusive to this breed of elegant difficulty, shrinking and distending as old levels are beaten and new plateaus are hit. The End is Nigh respects the mirror shine of its moment-to-moment twitch gameplay while creating a headspace where the scope of what it would take to beat the game, what it would mean, is omnipresent but not overbearing, clear but never corrosive. It’s a game that believes in salvation on the other side of frustration. It’s a game where dying over and over and over again can make the impossible possible, can turn you into a different person, a person who can do what they once could not. The game keeps score: I have died well over fifty thousand times.
The End is Nigh sports all the foundational elements of extreme difficulty made tolerable (near-instantaneous respawn times, brutal but ultimately fair level design), but the key to the game’s perfectly balanced difficulty curve is more philosophical. The game remembers what so many others forget: that how something feels to play is not only a central part of a game’s artistic experience, but the base unit of measurement used to reflect on said experience as well. It’s the context for the encounter, the reality and the reflection, the setup that allows for pathos, for immersion. A game’s difficulty curve and a player’s reaction to its contours, then, is a function of time, and thus, necessarily, a function of empathy. Difficulty is one of the medium’s most foundational lingua franca. By crafting such an expertly balanced series of escalating challenges, the player is invited into a real, dynamic relationship not just with the game’s world, but with the spiritual process of exploring that world as an interactive art object.
The End is Nigh wants to build something with you. It wants you to meet it halfway in discovering what kind of person you could become. It wants the processing of the playing to be an integral part of the process of playing. Because it is a game centered around the satisfaction of reflection, the catharsis of navigating obstacles you couldn’t dream of figuring out a handful of hours ago, The End is Nigh reveals itself to be, when wrestled with enough, about the death of the person you were, about what is sacrificed to “git gud”. The End is Nigh charts the anatomy of death, and thus of change, and thus of a kind of frenzied living. In this way, the game is about grief because it is about evolution, and it is about evolution because its mechanics are ultimately about Hope.
Of course, I’m a bit of a masochist when it comes to this stuff (this was the same semester where a student walked in on me playing a status-moves-only run of Pokémon Pearl during office hours), but the way The End is Nigh requires a player to engage with it seems remarkably singular. Even other games praised for their difficulty only manage to hint at the broader implications of their own designs. Cuphead’s emphasis is more on figuring out which power-ups and alternate weapons are suitable for each boss, the moment-to-moment speed of Celeste and Super Meat Boy doesn’t give players much time to properly sit with more complex emotions. Fromsoft games are generally masterful examples of using a difficulty curve as a way to map empathy, but the scope of the games ensure that the same linguistic techniques are being used to drastically different effect. The End is Nigh is a flawless verse on a rap song, the souls games are engrossing novels.
There is much about The End is Nigh that feels elegiac. After Ash has built his new friend, the world ends a second time, his confused cry of “How the fuck does the earth die twice??” ushering in a new set of levels with names like “Anguish” and “Blight” and “Ruin”. Each successive icon depicts Ash in a further state of decay. The old levels are referred to as The Past, while the new levels are called The Future. Of course, they are much, much harder. There’s a lack of subtlety that pairs well with the games punishing difficulty. One of the Atari-style worlds you can unlock is The Tower of Ascension, a collection of sub-worlds named after the five stages of grief. You have to beat all 32 levels back-to-back: every time you die, you start back at the very beginning of Denial.
Obsession as a default mode of artistic engagement is somewhat understandable, though I often wonder what this does to grief. Obsession is, after all, the only mode of being remotely capable of keeping up with the infinite slurry of content western culture’s social psyche hinges on. But obsession assumes verve, and most of us understand it more as a passive sacrament. Our focus isn’t on the process, but the result, not the doing, but the feeling of having done. Binging a TV show is not the same as dying four hundred times on a single level until muscle memory stitches a way forward into your hands. Failing isn’t a failure state if it’s what you’re supposed to do. Success must be earned because relationships are, after all, a two-way street.
At a cafe with too few outlets and too much milk in the chai lattes, I chat with a friend about audience. They say googling is part of reading now, and that it’s beautiful: not just a way for you to interact with the text, but for the text to interact with you, for the work of the work to spill out into your real life. It’s more edifying for everyone if you make the audience work for it. The key isn’t necessarily confidence or clarity of vision, but the elegant math of taste and type. The End is Nigh acts as a proof: you are thrilled by a genuine challenge, so others will be too.
It feels stupid to say that learning to walk away was the final lesson the game taught me, since, in many ways, the game isn’t interested in education. It’s a mirror, a conduit, a way of negotiating with your own internal systems of anxiety, a space where everything wrong with you stems from nothing more than the soft tilt of an analog stick, the slight inhale between button taps. But I have done virtually everything in the game. I’ve found all its collectables, beaten all its levels, uncovered all its secrets. The only thing left is the one-hundred-level-long Super Mega Cart. I’ve beaten it, beaten it again with less than 10 deaths, and beaten it a third time while collecting over five hundred rings, but I haven’t managed to beat it while collecting all one thousand. There is always more to do, more ways to beat the already beaten levels that inch closer and closer to an ever-shifting flawlessness, an impossible idea of perfection. Like its limited arsenal of gameplay mechanics, The End is Nigh knows what it has always known from the beginning: that because everything lives, everything dies. To play the game, then, is to mourn, to confront the limits of who you thought you were, to become.
Gyasi Hall is a writer and critic from Columbus, Ohio. Their essays “Alas, Poor Fhoul” and “Eminem Drop-Kicked Me in This Dream I Had” were both nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and their debut poetry chapbook, Flight of the Mothman: An Autobiography, was published by The Operating System in Spring 2019. Their work can be found or is forthcoming in Longreads, Guernica, Lit Hub, The Iowa Review, and The Black Warrior Review, among others. They received their MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Iowa, and they are currently working on a book about Black people and comics.