#DigitalFables is Alex Ziebart's column about the boons and banes of storytelling in video games.
We all love to have our hearts broken. Well, specifically, we love when stories break our hearts — whether we think of it that way or not. A story is more satisfying when it includes both highs and lows. Moments of joy make tragedy more meaningful; tragedy makes joy all the more poignant. Great stories include both elements, and deep down, we love when a good story toys with our emotions.
Video games all too often rely on a singular form of tragedy: the death of a character. While character death can certainly be effective, games treat it as the only possible form of tragedy. And sometimes, character deaths handled poorly fall flat on their face.
Warning: This column contains spoilers for multiple games and TV shows.
When Death Doesn't Work
Games often use character deaths as a cheap pop. If you're unfamiliar with the term, cheap pop is pro wrestling jargon. Essentially, it's investing the least amount of energy to get a rise from your audience. When you're at a concert, the performer calls out the name of your city, and the crowd goes wild? That's a cheap pop. They work in the moment. They get the crowd roaring and ready for what might come next. That pop itself doesn't leave a lasting impression, though. That's not the part of a performance you're going to remember for years to come.
That's the problem with how character deaths are often employed in video games. More often than not, the character who dies had little to no prior screentime. You barely interacted with them. Once they're dead, there are few if any lasting ramifications. They existed only briefly and died without warning, purely as a cheap pop to segue into the next boss fight or action sequence. Alternatively, they try to set the stakes of the narrative by killing someone, but you didn't care about that person to begin with, so the attempt falls flat.
Once the action sequence has concluded, that character's death won't be memorable in any emotional sense. At best, it'll leave a sour taste in your mouth.
Take Tomb Raider, for example. Lara Croft's mentor is suddenly killed off and you're meant to be emotionally invested, but you didn't even know him. Sure, Lara would be emotional, but were you? The guy was barely in the game. In recent World of Warcraft expansions, characters are killed off left and right in such rapid succession, it seems the developers are killing everyone they can get away with in the hopes at least one of them will resonate.
Oh, and if your franchise has established resurrection as being commonplace? You probably shouldn't bother with dramatic deaths. It all becomes arbitrary.
Successful Deaths Need Meaningful Life
Characters need to live before they can die. A death means nothing if you never really knew the character — if you never saw their personality, their history, their hopes, and their desires. If a character never meant anything to you, their death isn't a loss at all.
#GameOfThrones (and the novels which spawned it) is the reigning champ of character death in terms of sheer numbers. Despite those numbers, every death is poignant. Why? Because the series ensures you get to know every single significant character who meets an untimely end. Characters don't get screentime purely to look cool and then die. Through their screentime, we learn who they are, where they came from, what they want, and where they hope to be. Their deaths matter because, at some point, they seemed very alive.
Games Can't Take Shortcuts And Ignore Gameplay's Role In Heartbreak
In video game terms, where gameplay is just as important as narrative — if not more important — player agency in potential tragedy can be a useful tool, too. When we've come to know a character and whether they live or die is placed in the player's hands, the personal stakes go through the roof. Knowing you failed to save a life is the ultimate interactive tragedy. Successfully saving that life, however, is a wonderful victory.
While purely choice-driven, narrative-focused games employ player agency in character death to great effect, other games can pull it off, too. During a sequence in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, whether or not Adam Jensen's pilot and friend Faridah Malikh dies is dependent on your ability to protect her while she repairs her downed craft. The sequence plays out entirely through the action. Whether the scene ends in tragedy or victory is entirely in the player's hands.
#MassEffect's second installment is almost completely built upon these concepts. The entirety of Mass Effect 2 is about recruiting a team for a suicide mission. In the first act, you recruit your team. In the second act, you familiarize yourself with them. In the final act, you finally embark on your mission. Who survives depends on your ability to make wise choices. Because the game spent so much time breathing life into its characters, every loss is a punch in the gut. However, if you manage to get your crew out alive, there's no sweeter victory.
Putting a character's fate in the hands of the player is a powerful thing. In some cases, you can even ignore silly things like "characterization." Consider games such as XCOM and Darkest Dungeon. Your soldiers are, essentially, blank slates. They're meat for the meat grinder. However, by putting them entirely in the hands of the player, the player comes to rely upon them. The player infuses them with personality of their own accord. They become attached to this collection of pixels and humanize them. When gameplay ultimately kills off one of those characters, the heartbreak is real.
The death of a character with no personality whatsoever is truly tragic when the player has been given the time to become attached to that avatar. Introducing a character out of the blue simply to kill them off with no element of interaction? That's never going to hit its mark.
Player agency isn't a requirement for a meaningful death, but it'll surely shore up your weaknesses elsewhere. Establishing a character before killing them off doesn't require the entire duration of your game, either. While the death of Rost in #HorizonZeroDawn was incredibly predictable, we saw enough of him in the earliest parts of the game that we felt the loss regardless.
Heartbreak Comes In Many Forms In Entertainment
While there are many ways of handling character death both good and bad, big budget games are often too reliant upon it as a source of tragedy. Death is hardly the only road to heartbreak. Sometimes, a simple goodbye can feel like a knife in the chest. If you want a course study in tragedy more entertaining than a lecture, I recommend watching Cowboy Bebop, regardless of whether or not anime is your thing.
The 26-episode run follows the exploits of its four main characters: Spike Spiegel, Jet Black, Faye Valentine, and Edward. The history and motivations unfurl over the course of the series. Ultimately, each character meets a tragic end with only one death among them.
- Spike is simultaneously running from his past and searching for his lost love. When he finally finds her, she dies in his arms. After her death, he chooses to face his past head-on and pays for it with his life.
- Faye spends the series trying to find where she came from — the place she could call home. When finally she finds it, the place is in ruins, and she is alone.
- Edward begins the series as a drifter in search of a place where she belongs. She joins the crew of the Bebop, but in the end, she says goodbye and continues her search, still adrift.
- Jet serves as the crew's paternal figure. He cooks, he cleans, he keeps everything in working order, and he protects his family. In Jet's final scene, he is alone. His family is gone.
The series brought all four characters to life in vivid color. In the end, all met heartbreak, but all in different ways. Spike lost everything and threw his life away. Faye pursued a dream and discovered only a bleak dead end. Edward fails to find her place in the world. Jet is left alone. Death is only one of many options.
At the conclusion of the final episode, Cowboy Bebop displays its end card and its farewell one last time: See you space cowboy. The show itself is playing with your heart by saying goodbye.
For what many will dismiss as a silly cartoon, Cowboy Bebop mastered tragedy.
Indie Titles Tend To Do Heartache Better
Indie games continue to take strides in regards to writing tragedy — more often, indie games are willing to play with your heart in ways other than character death.
Supergiant Games' Bastion spins heartbreak in a positive direction: the player is given the option to not only take mercy on an antagonist figure, but extend a gesture of friendship at great risk.
Gone Home subverts the expectation of death in games. A game completely driven by its narrative and atmosphere, Gone Home sets a tone of creeping isolation. You've returned home after a long globetrotting trip away and your family isn't there. Exploring an empty home is your only method of discovering what you missed while you were away.
Your discover that your sister, Sam, grew up without you around. She struggled, faced crises, and grappled with coming out as queer post-adolescence. As you progress toward the end of the game, your concern mounts. She needed you and you weren't there. By the end, you have every expectation something horrible has happened. You begin to believe she might have taken her own life. You're thrown into panic, and you run through the house to the attic, expecting to find the worst. But in the final moments, you learn she's okay. She isn't there, but she's alright and she's happy.
Gone Home is an emotional rollercoaster that ends in heartache, but it's a beautiful heartache. The relief and joy you feel is only possible because the assumed tragedy beforehand felt real, too. No one needs to die to stir your heart.
We Can Do Better, As A Medium, Together
Games are often simply far too reliant on death as its source of tragedy and motivation. We're never going to remember the no-name schmuck whose sole purpose is to die for drama. The tragedies we remember took the time to get us invested, and often, the ones we remember didn't involve death at all. Beautiful tragedy is worth the effort. A well-executed broken heart can catapult your game to the head of the pack, rising above every other big budget Shootyman 5000 game.
Don't kill your characters simply for the sake of killing your characters. Saying goodbye can be even worse. Make us feel.