Death is a big thing in video games, and it’s often difficult to approach, as well as difficult to approach well. When we kill a character in a story, we’re not just impacting a plot points, we also risk taking away from the player. This then demands the questions of what we’re taking or if we should take anything.
The most famous death, of course, comes in Final Fantasy VII. Cait Sith’s incredibly moving self-sacrifice-
Wait, Aerith. People want to hear about Aerith.
So, Aerith was sitting and praying one day when some silver-haired pretty boy who wasn’t Inuyasha suddenly dropped down and stabbed her in the back. Very rudely, I might add.
At this point, people said “Hey, this is memorable!” and other people said “So, why didn’t they just use a Phoenix Down on her?”
Aerith’s death was memorable because it was abrupt and permanent. It wasn’t the first time a notable character had died, but it was without a doubt the flashiest for its time.
What was particularly notable about it from a design standpoint was that it actually did take away from the player. While FF7’s character set-up wasn’t the most intricate, Aerith still had her own unique weapons and abilities, and the void of her absence wasn’t filled by another character who could do and use the same things; the void wasn’t filled at all, in fact. There was always an empty character slot when Aerith died, never to be filled.
Now, granted, not everyone was affected by Aerith’s death. I admit, I cried like a baby (and also felt a little bad, because knowing Aerith would die ahead of time, I named her DoomedOne to fuel my own sense of irony, only to feel guilty about it later).
Some people didn’t like Aerith for her personality or her battle stats or just didn’t use her and used that as a measurement on how much they grew attached to her. I’ve heard some people say they were glad she died, to free up the battle slot or some nonsense- while the game’s story is still only fiction, isn’t it a bit rash to be pointedly glad when someone dies?
For better or for worse, Aerith’s death was most memorable because it was one of the most real. She suffered a mortal wound and experienced a natural death. She died doing something important (as revealed later in the story), but hers was a very down-to-earth demise.
I think a common knee-jerk is to want to make a character’s death more important by trying to make it more grand, somehow. If Aerith’s death was a classic self-sacrifice cliché, it would have undoubtedly cheapened the event.
Take Final Fantasy V, for a firm example of this. At the beginning of the game, the protagonist, Butz (I know they fixed it in the GBA version, but this is funnier) meets the other player characters, including an old man named Galuf.
Galuf has amnesia! Unheard of! But Galuf starts getting back his memories here and there, including a granddaughter he has. Later in the game, you return to his home and have a startling encounter with the tacky villain X-Death, in which… Galuf sacrifices himself to save the party.
Does it make the character less respectable? From a standpoint of the individual on his own terms, of course not. But the game’s structure works quickly to cheapen his death.
Firstly, because of the game’s in-depth job system, you only ever get four characters. You also know that there’s no way in hell they’re going to make you start with one person back at level one. As such, the moment Galuf dies, his granddaughter instantly gets all his power and takes his place.
This is a case where the designers strive to take away from the player without actually punishing them. While respectable from a standpoint (it may not necessarily be fair to punish the player for something they have no control of), it ultimately shows a lack of follow-through to create a death that has no real impact to speak of, even for a limited time.
Alternately of course, characters could always die for the sake of it. Before Aerith’s abrupt death, there was Pottle.
You’ve probably never heard of Pottle. Most people haven’t. He was a character in a Sega CD RPG called Vay. It was a decent game with a grossly imbalanced stat system (healing items worked with random values and party healing spells cost half your magic points to use!).
It also had a character, the first one who joins you in fact, named Pottle. Pottle was some little elf… guy… with some good magic ability and decent fighting skills. After finishing the third elemental location (ah, elements), the heroes are rushed out of the temple and Pottle is arbitrarily killed by an archer who snipes him from a window.
No real impact. I think there’s some brief mourning for ol’ Pottle, but his death doesn’t have any long-term effect on the story. Another character replaces him later on, I think even filling a similar role, and life goes on.
Pottle’s death seems to be indicative of death for the sake of death. Vay rotated a few characters out (the girl you get near the beginning leaves near the last act of the game more or less because she decides she’s just done), and Pottle’s death seemed to be part of this rotation for the sake of it.
A more recent example was the mish-mashed plot of Lunar: Dragon Song on the DS (note the cunning abbreviation!). The character of Rufus, whose screen time was almost non-existent despite being featured on the cover art, could be summed up as: “Hi! I’m a racist jerk! Perhaps I was wrong for being a racist jerk! Oops, I died!”
This sort of throwing characters on the sacrificial alter seems to do little more than force the characters into false drama for narrative purposes, but often does little for the legitimacy of the tale and is little more than an insult to a player looking for an engaging story.
Death isn’t always a failed plot device. Sometimes it can bring out a character’s finest moments, although writers and translators often fall short of delivery (as was the case with the aforementioned Lunar DS, where both parties failed equally).
Aerith’s aforementioned death to me was hammered with meaning not just because of the pretty-boy with the sword poking the girl in the back- I owed a fair amount of the impact to Cloud and his frustration and anger against Sephiroth’s indifferent cruelty.
Similarly, Chrono Trigger’s Marle got much of her best stuff from Crono’s death. Granted, she was blatantly set up as the token love interest/princess/white mage, but there’s something sad that has to be acknowledged when she pictures them having a life together that they may never truly realize.
One of the most unusual and earliest examples is undoubtedly Nei from Phantasy Star II. Nei is the first of the Numan species in the Phantasy Star series, before the current Phantasy Star Universe reduced them to glorified space elves. She is purported to age quickly (having apparently met protagonist Rolf prior to the story at a much younger age) and levels up more frequently than anyone else in battle.
About halfway through the game, Nei encounters another entity calling herself Neifirst, whom Nei apparently split off from. A fight ensues, and because of Nei’s physiological connection to her source, Nei cannot live without her sister and dies. Cloning (the standard method of resurrection in PSII) no longer works on Nei- she’s simply gone.
It’s a comparatively weird death, but it is spared from the usual self-sacrifice banter. Nei can be responsible for her own death (if she wins the solo fight against her sister), or the hero can be (in the ensuing fight assuming Nei loses- which she probably will).
From a writing standpoint, the concept is a bit obtuse and alien, so it may lose memorability points for some people compared to Aerith (since back stabbing is easier to grasp than dead clone-sister).
However, it also serves to explain the story of Nei, and does so effectively (considering the quality limitations placed on RPGs of the time). In fact, by focusing the event around Nei’s death, it allowed her to get screen time that the majority of the cast never got to enjoy.
But if death is to be accepted as a genuine writing device (when used with care), does resurrection cheapen death?
Part of this question depends on the player, and whether or not the void they feel is from a character’s absence or simply from a party member’s absence. If Aerith could be raised, would her death have had the same meaning?
Crono’s sacrifice in Chrono Trigger is still memorable as a major plot point, but as an event rather than a loss. The weight of his death is placed on Marle and how it affects her, and subsequently the rest of the cast. Crono himself is a silent protagonist, and thus it’s hard to imagine in greater detail as to what his loss really means.
However, the chance to resurrect him is presented not long after, though it’s not entirely straight-forward and in no way required. Crono is a powerful and useful character, but ultimately it is up to the player as to whether he lives again, which is at least a respectable touch from a design standpoint.
Nei’s classic death in Phantasy Star II was given a second chance in a Japan-only remake (to my irritation); however, resurrecting her involves having a save file from the first game and the completion of a side quest- so the player really has to go out of the way to get her back.
In this way, resurrecting Nei may be more of an Easter egg than a genuine plot element- to a point. On the bright side, reviving Nei does integrate her into the ending, which is more than FFVII’s optional characters ever got.
What this all really comes around to is that death in games is difficult to do well. People play with different expectations than what they watch, often times. The measure of life is different in a game; in TV it can often be a case of how someone makes you feel. In a game, it may be more of a matter of what they can do for you.
The trick, of course, is to unify these concepts- to make someone useful but to make them worth caring about when they’re gone. To have characters care for the loss of other characters, not because they’re written to miss them but because it’s genuinely in character for them to do so.
Major character deaths in serious narratives should be chosen for maximum emotional impact, not for shock value or to force a plot point- though kudos to the writers that can achieve all these things at once.
But all considerations given, if a character is killed merely for the sake of it, why bother killing them at all?