Let’s face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It’s the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people’s lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I’ll be looking at how death plays a role in the interactive world of video games.
Oh, and since we’re delving into character deaths, I’ll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. Also, I’ll be counting permanent deaths only.
Now I know this may be going way off topic for what I do, but bear with me. Video games as an effective storytelling medium are still little more than babes, but already they draw on lessons from books, movies and television when creating their narratives. And as with any dramatic narratives, there are deaths. Including yours. Yes, you – the player character – are probably going to die at some point in the vast majority of games that have ever or will ever be made. And in a large proportion of them, you’re probably going to be killing as well. Some games and franchises, such as the Drakengard/Nier series or some very select shooters such as Spec Ops: The Line, use the mechanic of the player killing enemies to deconstruct the very nature of many video games; someone finds rewards in killing in the real world is considered insane, so why shouldn’t game protagonists with that same mentality and motivation likewise be insane. While still in the minority, it’s worth tracking down those few video games which criticise the player for the very act of playing such a violent experience for fun.
Choice is something that is typically associated with role-playing, with the role-playing books that offer different scenario paths being the origin of the famous branching narratives adopted by many prominent video game developers including CD Project Red, Ion Storm and later Eidos Montreal, and perhaps most notably Atlus. Choice plays into what deaths can take place. In the vast majority of Atlus’ titles, an element of morally ambiguous dialogue and gameplay choices means that you will lose people, with their Megami Tensei series being the best example. There are very few games throughout the Megami Tensei franchise that do not involve a character dying because of differences in loyalty or goal directly generated by the player’s choices. CD Project Red’s seminal adaptation of The Witcher book series takes this to new heights, with none of the choices made by you as Geralt of Rivia being unilaterally good or evil, but a fusion of the two that is unsettlingly similar to real life. Ion Storm and Eidos Montreal’s Dues Ex games put choice and consequence at their core, even extending to whether you sneak and talk your way through or blast everything before you into oblivion with your cybernetic or nanotechnological Augmentations.
The death of a companion can also have an impact on gameplay. Permanent death (commonly abbreviated to permadeath) is a feature many people can find infuriating, but with a story justification it can be quite something. The first two Fallout games and the entire Fire Emblem series use permanent death as both a gameplay mechanic and a story element. BioWare’s story-driven role-playing games use this mechanic too, with their long-running stories carrying the consequences of character death into subsequent entries. The most notorious permanent death in video game history is undoubtedly Aerith Gainsborough from Final Fantasy VII, a death which multiple critics hailed as one of the most shocking in the genre’s history, and a key turning point for the story with lasting impact on later narrative expansions. One of the most emotional deaths I’ve ever encountered was in Dawn of Mana; after striving the entire game to save his beloved Ritzia, protagonist Keldric is forced to kill her to end the cycle of destruction plaguing their land, leaving both himself and us as the player heartbroken.
One of the things several people will often be shocked by is the main protagonist’s own death. While it is quite common in fiction, it still strikes hard for video game players; you yourself have been embodying this character, and now that character is dead. Of course, death can be subjective due to either story or gameplay, but there are some games where the death is certain. Noctis Lucis Caelum in Final Fantasy XV is particularly hard to watch due to the fact that he was chosen for a role ending in death since his childhood; some paths taken in Heavy Rain result in the player characters dying; death forms a central part of both Odin Sphere and Muramasa, with player characters often dying in one of their many endings; and in a unique twist, Drakengard 3 heroine Zero dies in every single timeline, with varying degrees of impact.
Some people might say that death in video games is frequently cheapened due to respawn mechanics and such, but it can be just as relevant as in other storytelling media. In other media you are carried along as an observer, but in video games you are an active participant by design, with more narrative-driven titles often having the option of allowing you to cause the deaths of those close to you. Quite often modern games don’t give you the option to save everyone, reflecting the real world. In a medium where the consequences for dying are often just being dropped at the last checkpoint, the gravity of death as a narrative device has come to the fore. Whether it follows the same rules as other storytelling media or strikes out, death is important to the interactive storytelling of video games. Just remember to save so you can see those other outcomes.
Next week, I’ll be talking about how I approach the task of working death into my fiction. It has to be solid, dramatic, impactful, not at all contrived, foreshadowed without being blatantly obvious. I enjoy handling deaths, and as my skill in writing has improved, so has my portrayal and handling of death.