THE KILLED CHARACTER
Games certainly aren’t the first medium to utilize the trope of a character’s death, but it is in a unique position to take advantage of the impact. Immersion helps players feel the loss more directly. Provided that the experience isn’t broken, the effect can be quite powerful because we participate in the game world. This blog series looks at some examples of the trope used in games, how effective they are, and why. I won’t be looking at player-controlled deaths, but ones dictated to be unavoidable by the storyline and occur before game’s end.
Major spoilers abound!
“GREMIO” FROM SUIKODEN
Losing a steadfast friend and bodyguard halfway through young McDohl’s rebellion lends a great deal of credibility to the game’s depiction of civil wars and the cost of fighting them. It’s expected that dear lives will be lost. Yet Gremio’s self-sacrifice manages to be gut-wrenching because even an over-protective nanny can grow on you. Frequently he puts himself into the 6-person roster, thus giving an incentive for us to pour money into upgrading his weaponry and armor. His stats are decent and his presence becomes helpful and familiar.
Then, he’s taken away. Marking the scene is a new acoustic version of a previously heard Theme of Sadness, and it’s pitch perfect. Even finding only his green cloak and axe remaining, and the protagonist’s subdued and silent goodbye was so powerful. Thematically, the event also fits. Young McDohl takes another step out of his father’s shadow to bring the people out of the Empire’s. He’s forced to grow up, live, and fight without his ‘security blanket.’
The dev cost seems to have been reasonable. Since all of the game takes place within its sprite-based engine, all that was needed was a few custom sprites and animations. The secondary Theme of Sorrow was also re-used elsewhere in the game and got a lot of mileage. The trick in Suikoden was that all ‘cutscenes’ were quite lo-fi. The flashiest moments are both low-key and sparse enough that we don’t come to expect them. It’s also vital that McDohl’s reaction is heartbreakingly subdued. Understatements tend to be more effective than exaggerations.
I’m conflicted about Gremio’s optional revival at the final battle. Yes, any time a life extinguished is restored, death loses gravity. But the effects of his death don’t reverberate throughout the plotline. Further, McDohl had already lost so many people and gone through so much, you can’t help but be glad that when he disappears from the nation he saves, he does so accompanied by his best friend.
“AERITH GAINSBOROUGH” FROM FINAL FANTASY VII
As a counterpoint to the above, Aerith’s death is an example of a character you really can’t bring back because it’s so interwoven with the plot. Her spirit needs to remain in the Lifestream for the duration of the game after she’s killed for the planet to be saved from Meteor.
Like Gremio, Aerith’s death has such an impact because we encounter her so early in the game, and she quickly establishes herself as a magical powerhouse. Not only can she deal heavy damage to swaths of enemies, she can also heal the party with her Limit Breaks. She’s also characterized well through cutscenes and dialogue, and this is where she shines. Where Gremio might have been a pill at times, Aerith is someone Cloud (and the player) always wants to have around.
Pulling off her death scene took a great deal of resources, however. Final Fantasy VII is famous for its use of pre-rendered cutscenes, and I can’t even imagine the cost of what players see at this moment in the game. One can’t argue with its efficacy, though. Many players recount tearfully watching Cloud lay Aerith to rest in the pond.
But it isn’t without its fiction problems as well. If the pond is shallow enough for Cloud to walk through, how can it also be deep enough for Aerith to sink so deep within it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to lay her to rest right down there in the waters where her “useless” materia dropped?
“JOHN MARSTON” FROM RED DEAD REDEMPTION
This character death is the one to rule them all. With RDR structured into three modular areas, we meet and part from characters frequently throughout the game. Our constants are only our enemies and we hunt them only to see them die. John is the true constant. He is our agency made flesh, or rather pixel. To see him die is to feel the whole experience turn on its head. We don’t lose an ally. We lose, in a way, a part of ourselves.
In this case, all the tools building immersion and player identification play into the effect of John’s death. The payoff reaps its reward from the very core of player experience. Further, in narrative and gameplay, his death is justified. This is the key to all the examples above. It isn’t enough to have a likeable character that we come to know over a certain period of time. The interactive nature of the medium demands that the character also be useful in some way to the systemic interactions.