Don’t Kill Me Bro! The highs and lows of player character’s deaths
"There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at with no result." - Brooklyn’s own, Winston Churchill.
Hey. Lots of Spoilers here. Turn away if you don’t want to know how The Great Gatsby, and a bunch of other games end.
Leonardo DiCaprio dies in The Great Gatsby. I started with that little tidbit because killing off your main character is something that’s been used for as long as we told stories. Beowulf for example died when a dragon poisoned him.
Shakespeare used to do it all the time; Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Julius Ceasar, all of them died to serve as some sort of lesson to the audience or to move the story forward. Even Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes off and only because of fan outcry he brought him back.
At the risk of getting my face punched in by a few of my haute writer friends and several of my old college professors I say video games have a natural ability to engage the audience on a emotional level that traditional literature can’t touch. But it’s unfortunate that certain tropes that work well in books don’t work nearly as well in a video game. Many many many of you can agree that the interactivity creates a deep emotional bond between the player and the game. The story becomes your story. So when the player character dies in a cut scene it becomes frustrating if its not handled properly.
The first time I personally encountered it was with COD: Modern Warfare. You guys know the scene I’m talking about, the end of Shock and Awe. They discover the nuke, the Marines are EVAC’ing, everything is going crazy and then BOOM goes the nuke. The shockwave from the nuke brings down Paul’s helicopter, but he’s still alive. For a minute or two he walks around. The city looks like something out of Fallout, and then suddenly he drops dead.
As an FYI if you ever see a mushroom cloud it’s probably not a good thing
I’m pretty sure “holy crap” is a fair description of what we felt. In that scene killing off Sgt. Paul Jackson was an excellent narrative choice. There wasn’t enough of a connection to Jackson in order to create a tight bond. He didn’t speak and we didn’t know what he looked like; but with the FPS viewpoint and the fact they showed him struggling for life it forced players to confront death as
permanent and scary. Plus it had the advantage of being the first game to actually kill off the player character (to my personal knowledge) so it had that going for it too. So when COD: Modern Warfare 2 rolled around it wasn’t as nearly shocking when Infinity Ward killed off every other player character. It was annoying, repetitive, and sterile.
After getting shot in the face when at the end of No Russian and then getting blown into deep space at the end of Second Sun Roach’s death lost the emotional impact that it could have had. They even set him on fire, alive! And yet I still didn’t feel much but annoyance. After all if a player thinks that a character is going to die in a game why would they develop feelings for them?
It’s always tragic when a faceless and silent protagonist dies for vague reasons.
That was the problem in Halo: Reach we all knew that Noble Team was going to die. We might not have known how, but there was no point in developing any emotion for them. Even when Noble 6, the player character, finally died at the very very end I couldn’t help but feel ‘meh’ because I thought it would have been a pleasant surprise if Noble 6 made it through somehow.
My beloved Rockstar Games is guilty on at least two counts, Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire. The difference between both games is that there is a purpose behind John Marston’s death in Red Dead. Narratively the game was about Redemption, making up for the sins of the past, and sacrifice.
Much like The Great Gatsby (yeah because I know you guys loooooved The Great Gatsby in high school) a major theme in Red Dead Redemption is the American dream and how fleeting it is. When John finally gets his hands on his version of the American dream his past catches up to him and takes him down, much like how Gatsby dies at the end of his story.
John Marston; Rockstar’s half literate, straight shooting, animal murdering, version of The Great Gatsby. RIP.
L.A. Noire’s Cole Phelp’s death doesn’t have the same purpose behind it. Granted Cole dies to save the life of Jack Kelso and there was some redemption there however it just felt like a gimmick. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why Cole’s death felt that way. It’s probably because he was so wooden throughout the game.
In comparison to COD: Modern Warfare’s Sgt. Paul Jackson we knew a lot more about Cole. We knew he was married but in love with someone else. We knew that he loved rules. We knew that he was in WW2 and it haunted him. We knew how other’s felt about him and how he interacted with other people. However Cole doesn’t react to the situations that were around him. He doesn’t seem affected by throwing innocent people in jail or seeing mutilated murder victims.
Cole just keeps ticking along until he is finally caught cheating on his wife. There is no real emotion on Cole’s part to relate to as we would with someone like John Marston who feels the weight of his past throughout Red Dead Redemption. Cole’s story also doesn’t really connect with anything. There is no over arching story. The game’s entire plot consists of separate and barely related cases. The irony here is that Cole Phelps should have lived because of that, over John Marston whom players had a real bond with.
The last example I can think of is Shepard’s death in Mass Effect 3. Its tough to say if it is effective because the Mass Effect series as a whole treats the player character and the story differently from the other games I mentioned. Shepard is what the player wants him (or her) to be. He is the product of how a player wants him to look, the player chooses his background, and the player dictates how Shepard approaches situations.
Every player’s story was different throughout that trilogy. Even the ending had three different possibilities and then there was a variation depending on how the player goes through Mass Effect 3.
But did Shepard need to die?
I think this one depends on your particular interpretation. Some people might like the idea of Shepard sacrificing himself for the greater good, whatever that is. Some people, ok a lot of people, called bull on the entire ending as a whole. Honestly I can’t blame them.
But as for me I refused to play Mass Effect 3 until Bioware released the Extended Cut DLC. I got my intergalactic readiness up enough so it was hinted that my Shepard made it out alive.
My reasons for that are simple. The world is an ugly place. People die, people get hurt, there’s disease and senseless violence out there. A philosopher named Thomas Hobbes said it best in his book the Leviathan that the life of man is “Solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” The dude’s right. I’m too old not to know that life outside of my Xbox doesn’t have a lot of happy endings. So I try to absorb as many as possible. I like to think my Shepard crawled out of the Citadel’s wreckage. After he recovered from his injuries he reconnected with Miranda because I like a girl with an accent. They then retired somewhere in a small house by a beach.
If you’re my nephews yes you still have to read books. If you aren’t my nephews, what do you think? Am I right or wrong? Do you mind when a story kills off your character? Is there a game I missed? Let me know on twitter @mynameismylo #DontKillMeBro