‘The player is gone’: Digital Meditations on Mortality in a Fictional Video Game

Britta R. Moline

There is a common trope of internet urban legend that starts like this: the author of the story has attended a yard sale or thrift shop and stumbled upon a used video game cartridge. This physical video game is familiar in some ways – typically identified as a popular late 90s, early 2000s video game franchise – but bootleg in others, often missing official artwork or labelling. Upon playing the game, the protagonist is initially presented with a familiar and comforting reminder of childhood – Sonic the Hedgehog, The Legend of Zelda, Pokémon, etc. – only to find soon enough that the darkness of mortality has crept into this innocent space. The video game is corrupted with the knowledge of death. 

In the climatic segment of What Happened to Crow 64? (2020), the ‘unfiction’ film we will be dissecting today, the player/author is confronted with the presence of death. Upon booting up the colorful, joyous faux-N64 game, after some odd glitches and unexplainable changes in the game occur, the player crow avatar enters the room of a child. Decorated with innocent crayon drawings and colorful toys, marked with the unmistakable presence of childhood, they find an eerily realistic (if still abstracted) crow, struggling to breathe while attached to life support (Fig. 1). The sounds are unmistakably human, unmistakably child-like, and unmistakably dying.

Fig. 1

Before we can fully discuss the dying crow, and the work as a whole, we will need some definitions. First of all, what is ‘unfiction’? According to Nick Nocturne (host of Nightmind on YouTube, a pre-eminent scholar, and leading guide of unfiction), this emergent medium is “any form of storytelling that bucks the traditional formats of storytelling we’ve known as a society to such a degree that it becomes impossible to categorize it … often incorporates an immersion factor (or “play along” factor) for the audience in order to engage with and enjoy the narrative experience.” At these times, unfiction converges with another new medium, which is the ARG, or Alternate Reality Game. This style of narrative depends on the participation of the audience in solving riddles, ciphers, clues, or other puzzles to expand the narrative. The ARG is inherently dependent, then, on the direct participation of its audience.

One of the difficulties of writing about ARGs is what we can consider the “text” to be. In short, What Happened to Crow 64? (which will be shortened to Crow 64 frequently) is an exploration of a fictional lost video game titled Catastrophe Crow. The text Crow 64 is presented in the form of 17 videos hosted on eight separate YouTube channels, all created and uploaded by the text’s author and director Adam Butcher. Butcher also appears onscreen as the film’s narrator in the longest video, “What Happened to Crow 64?”, a fictional documentary about the lost game. I will specify when I’m speaking about the work as a whole by indicating ‘Crow 64 (expansive)’, which includes community involvement, the filmed series by Adam Butcher as ‘Crow 64 (film)’, and the specific primary YouTube video as “What Happened to Crow 64?” (YouTube documentary). Crow 64 (expansive) is an ARG, and as an ARG consists of and necessitates interaction from the community and analysis, the text itself can be as broad as all fan theories/interactions, decoded messages, analyses, and more. However, I will be using as my primary text only the “What Happened to Crow 64?” video uploaded to Butcher’s own channel for the purposes of this article.      

The aforementioned struggling crow on life-support is the most striking moment of horror in Crow 64 (film). Until then, the gameplay has been unnerving, but perhaps only because of the game’s seemingly unfinished state and our anticipation of horror. Even if the fictional player is not anticipating to find something sinister in this lost media, the audience goes into the video with mounting dread. Digital glitches are inherently somewhat unsettling and Crow 64 (film) has them in spades. Visual glitches may allow the characters to wander into the Uncanny Valleywhere they are sufficiently recognizable to be familiar but just distorted enough to be frighteningwhile audio glitches are discordant and unpleasant. The analog nature of the recording (typically replicating the experience of watching a film on VHS) adds another layer of both nostalgia and unease. Overall, the horror in the film firstly works through subverted expectations: we are seeing all of the hallmarks of an N64-era kid’s game, but we recognize that it is corrupted in an unsettling way. 

The horror of the crow on life-support, however, is an all-too-real horror: the mortality of our loved ones. As the player crow–bespectacled and concerned–approaches the bed, we see a shockingly effective depiction of a father facing the imminent death of a child. The complexity of the emotions depicted here is truly impressive in the limited 3D-rendered anthropomorphic crow model. Crow 64 (expansive) works by reminding us of our time as children, where the knowledge of death and the horror of mortality has not fully sunk in but instead lingers on the edges of our awareness.

The specter of mortality haunts videogames innately. You have “hearts” in The Legend of Zelda which indicate your health, you have an oxygen meter in Sonic the Hedgehog which sparks drowning when it reaches its limit, RGPs typically function on HP or “hit points” that reduce when attacked, the list goes on. As early as Spacewar! (1962), a two-player game developed at MIT, one player would “die” upon colliding with a star, a torpedo, or the opposing ship. Later games introduced the save state, which then also introduced the concept of the 1-up, the extra life, “more guys,” the ability to resurrect. Even games with permadeath mechanics, like Rogue (1980) (the origin of the term ‘rogue-like’), can be cheated through ‘save scumming,’ that is, saving before a difficult fight and restarting if your character dies. Mortality, while ever-present in video games, is also ever-malleable, and it is this desire, the desire to transcend death, that Crow 64 taps into.

The narrative presented within “What Happened to Crow 64?” (YouTube documentary) is roughly as follows. Eccentric game designer Manfred Lorenz was designing a game called Catastrophe Crow for the Nintendo 64. The game promised “fearless exploration of unfamiliar worlds” and something groundbreaking called the “eternal revival system.” This “eternal revival system” was Lorenz’ alternative to the death and game over mechanic. To quote an interview shown on-screen: “in the event that you die, your soul remains constant, but the world around you inevitably changes” (Butcher). 

However, as the game was delayed further and further, rumors circulated that Lorenz hadn’t left the office for months. When one employee approached Lorenz to plead with him to finally release the game, begging him to “think of the player,” Lorenz replied: “the player is gone.” Lorenz, and all copies of the unfinished Catastrophe Crow, eventually disappeared. The game was considered “lost” after this point, until the narrator finds a cartridge for sale on eBay. 

This is the story presented in the narrator’s introduction. An analysis of the gameplay that follows reveals an additional portion of the mystery. Lorenz was inspired to create the game based on a crayon drawing his daughter did of the primary character, a crow with a bandaged wing, near a hospital (Fig. 2). The gameplay is said to revolve around saving your father’s company from an evil corporate takeover. From this, we can guess that it was Lorenz’s daughter who was the intended player, the player who is now “gone.” As the be-spectacled crow stands by the side of the mangled crow on life-support, watching the child be consumed by water and finally snatched away by eerie figures, we can guess that Lorenz’s daughter likely died while he was working on the game.

Fig. 2

The gameplay we see illustrates the concept of the “eternal revival system.” Each glitch in the game resets the player back to the beginning, the world around them slightly altered. The glitches and failures are then to be understood as deaths and revivals. After the first revival, a scarecrow figure appears near the start, morphing into a crow figure who leads the player to a ringing telephone, which cannot be answered. Perhaps this is the phone call informing Lorenz of his daughter’s death, or impending death. Following this, the player appears to clip through the level and walks out into a black void beyond the frame of the game (Fig. 3), which can no longer be re-entered.

Fig. 3

These ventures beyond the frame work in both a narrative and a meta-narrative sense. Narratively, Lorenz was attempting to venture beyond the bounds of life and death (“fearless exploration of unfamiliar worlds”) in order to create a space that defied the boundaries of mortality itself. If we want to do the impossible, create an “eternal revival system,” we have to break through what was previously seen as reality, as the framework that defines life. On a meta-narrative level, these frame-breaks serve to mirror the work as a whole. What Happened to Crow 64? (expansive), as a whole text, also breaks out of its frame; it is not solely one video on one YouTube channel. This work is collected on eight different channels, and its true form exists in codes, comments, emails, forum discussions, a real physical magazine, and an entire host of analysis videos. The form of Crow 64 (expansive) spills out of the frame willingly, almost defiantly. 

In his 1902 essay “The Picture Frame,” Georg Simmel wrote that the frame around a piece of art functions to enforce the sanctity of that art, to separate it from the mundanity of life. The frame, “excludes all that surrounds it, and thus also the viewer as well, from the work of art, and thereby helps to place it at that distance from which alone it is aesthetically enjoyable” (Simmel, 11). Directly, it seems, Crow 64 (expansive) and Adam Butcher–perhaps ‘unfiction’ and ARGs entirely–look at this and defy it. No, art cannot be separated from us. We, the viewers, are a part of this art, we both create and interpret that creation. Art is inseparable from its community, and it spills from its frame whether we like that or not. Adam Butcher is the creator of a work of art in Crow 64 (film), but that work does not have value because of its separation from its audience, it instead has value because of its proximity to us. 

And yet in another way, Crow 64 (expansive) validates Simmel’s vision of art and frame. There is something disturbing, and certainly not “aesthetically enjoyable,” about the breaking of the frame, the escaping of art into life. There is something inherently unsettling about seeing the crow wander from the bounds of the level, unable to return to the safer confines, just as there is something inherently unsettling about seeing Crow 64 (film) presented as reality on a medium where non-fictional documentaries are hosted. Our simple definitions of “fiction” and “non-fiction” are disturbed when the delivery method and platform are so deeply blurred. The uneasiness of Crow 64 (expansive) is difficult to put into words, but the breaking of the frame – the frame which quarantines fiction from life – is an essential element. 

Beyond the frame of the level, the player encounters a sailing ship, adrift in a void, recalling Lorenz who was never found after leaving with his ship. A larger crow, presumably Lorenz, leaps from the ship holding what appears to be stones, presumably to his death. The player crow follows, and ends up in a mysterious and foggy wilderness. The opening line of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy (1935) comes to my mind: “Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark” (Dante, lines 1 – 2.) The player crow approaches an open grave with the weeping larger crow beside it. The headstone is identical to the N64 cartridge our narrator received. As soon as the player hops into the grave, the phone once again begins to ring. The bell tolls. 

The crow falls and glitches in such a violent manner that it imitates a seizure.  Scarecrow-like entities approach ominously. Reset. Revival. Instead of the small crow with a broken wing, the player is now the older, bespectacled crow. Instead of heading forward on the path towards a building labelled ‘Work,’ he turns back towards his house. This is where he approaches to find the dying crow on life support.  

For every glitch, every out-of-bounds venture the player encounters in Crow 64 (film), there is a ‘reset’, a re-do, a re-spawn. The crow ends up at the beginning where they started, in an attempt to try again: to find the correct path, or to solve the next cipher, or to uncover the next secret. The only event which cannot be undone is the death of the daughter. This death cannot respawn and she gets no ‘do-over’. 

Ever since mankind has been making art, we have been grappling with the knowledge of mortality, the desire to remember those we love forever. We build monuments to them, paint their portraits, write their names in poems, sing songs and epics devoted to their life, take photos with them, make clay imprints of their hands or death masks of their faces. While the form is complex, the heart of What Happened to Crow 64? (expansive) is devastatingly simple: death takes our loved ones away, and leaves behind an unspeakable void. Did Lorenz learn to pass through that void, to break free from the frame separating life and death? 

The player is gone, but we remain. 

*All figures are screenshots from Adam Butcher, “What Happened to Crow 64?” 

Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy, vol. 1 (Inferno), translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1935.

Bissinger, Caleb. “Sociology and the frame, or The painting’s pimp: a dissertation for the LSE.” The Frame Blog, 2018.  

Butcher, Adam. What Happened to Crow 64?, YouTube. Uploaded October 15, 2020.

Butcher, Adam. Entirety of What Happened to Crow 64? Playlist, compiled by Rosw Lalondw. YouTube. Uploaded 28 March, 2021.

Nick Nocturne/Nightmind. Crow 64: The Lost Nintendo Game ARG. YouTube. Uploaded 3, February 2021. 

José Ortega y Gasset, and Andrea L. Bell. “Meditations on the Frame.” Perspecta, vol. 26, 1990, pp. 185–90.

Simmel, Georg. ‘The Picture Frame: An Aesthetic Study’. Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 11, no. 1, 1994, pp. 11–17.


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