Diego Garcia, a game maker, wasn't really comfortable with saying his video game was about suicide. "I mean," he told me, "I just think it's a game about making the best out of a bad situation."
Sunburn is an upcoming game that is cute in appearance and grim in concept. Inspired by the Ray Bradbury story "Kaleidoscope," which was also Sunburn's original name, you are a captain of a destroyed space vessel, tasked with the grim duty of rescuing your drifting crew, tethering them to yourself, and then jumping, together, side-by-side, into the Sun.
"All these people are going to die by themselves, alone," says Garcia. "It's really about coming together and sort of making sure you make the most of the time you have."
The game itself is a fun, simple physics puzzle game. Navigating around different pieces of space junk, planets, comets, black holes, magma chunks, glass spheres, and moveable rocks, you have to use your limited oxygen to zip around the darkness of space before thrusting into a big gassy star.
Due to some anomaly, it's a fate you have to relive over and over—well, level after level. To give some flavour, your crew is a quirky cast of familiar faces: a mechanic, a botanist, a TV news crew. But the one cartoon cohort that players have the strongest connection with, which both Garcia and maker Aaron Freedman say is uncanny, is the space dog. Like Laika, people don't want to see the pooch perish.
"People have a lot more issues when sacrificing the dog and the cat than they do the other companions," said Freedman.
"Maybe it's a weird uncanny valley thing," said Garcia. "The humans are so clearly not human, who cares. But you see this cute little dog shaped pixel flailing its legs in space? People get sad."
While the style of game is in ways a cosmic Kevorkian Angry Birds, people who have tried it out just can't get over the context. That makes perfect sense, but it's also funny how it begins a discussion to make the existence of the very game moot in order to save these fake astronauts.
"People just ask why they don't hang out on a planet until the time comes, I don't know," said Garcia. "I would rather be with my friends and go out, than drift alone in space and eventually asphyxiate. Some people really have a problem with the death to win mechanic, and they'll try to find holes in it. Wouldn't it be better if everyone lived in the end?"
"You see people who are made a little bit anxious about what they're doing in the game, so they try to find ways of excusing themselves from continuing," said Freedman. "Like, why am I doing this if they aren't going to survive anyways?"
Death is usually the marker for failure in a video game, not success. That's a failure particularly rubbed in some games more than others, like watching Mario suffocating underwater to the serene "Dire, Dire Docks" theme, or watching 101 gruesome ways for Lara to bite it in the last Tomb Raider. In Sunburn, contrary to all the other games, dying is the chequered victory point. A bitter-sweet win. When your crew and you do get absorbed by the sun's flames, there's even a sense of impact similar to nailing a combo in Street Fighter.
When I asked which of the typical space deaths they'd choose over the other, in the fury of a Sun, the removal of their helmet, or the horrifying mystery box of the universe by getting siphoned into a black hole, Diego chose the box. Aaron said the idea was intriguing, but added that "it could be the most horrible pain imaginable, or it could just put you in an empty space."