Editorial: Of Games and Death

Hello, readers! You have been eaten by a grue. Do not fear, though! Lusipurr.com is able to reach even this place between life and death. Death is an incredibly powerful concept. In the real world, death is tragic, unavoidable, and irreversible. When a person dies, their loved ones grieve their loss. Saying goodbye to a dead or dying person is often the most difficult thing that anyone will have to do in their lives, because they know that, whatever their religious beliefs, they will never again see that person in this world. Because of death’s permanency and the pain that it causes, killing a person is considered one of the worst crimes in human society. A person who kills another is considered to be deranged, broken, and evil. But for the same reasons that people fear death, they are fascinated with it.

Bah, I am sure he will be fine.

You will be waiting for me here when I am done, right? Right? Uncle?

Death is a common occurrence in media, but it is especially prevalent in video games. Death is often the motivating factor for a protagonist’s actions. For example, Link’s adventure in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past begins as he follows his uncle into the castle, only to find him dying. Link’s uncle then bequeaths his sword and shield unto him and perishes, leaving Link with the task of defeating the evil wizard Agahnim and saving Princess Zelda. Were it not for his uncle’s death, Link would have remained a simple child without the desire or the means to rescue the princess. Plenty of other games begin with dramatic death; for example, Tidus’ adventure in Final Fantasy X begins when his entire city is destroyed and all its inhabitants killed. And death doesn’t need to take place at the beginning of a game to be meaningful. Many remember the sorrow they felt when playing Final Fantasy VII and witnessing Aerith’s death. It was a perfect way to cement in the player’s brain a deep hatred for Sephiroth, and make the player eager to continue on in hopes of defeating the villain.

Spoiler: You are not going to make it.

That is certainly a frightening sight.

Sometimes, the death is not intended to motivate the player, but instead to convey the gravity of the situation that their character is in. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic begins with a tutorial level in which a character named Trask helps the player to learn the game. The player is soon reminded that they are in a horrible war when Trask is unceremoniously cut down by a Sith Apprentice. Players can sometimes forget their suspension of disbelief when playing a game for an extended period of time, and a well-timed, well-scripted death can bring them right back into the world of the game.

In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare there is a mission in which Sgt. Paul Jackson is attempting to rescue some of his comrades from a city that has been overrun by terrorists. Just as it appears that the player has prevailed, the terrorist leader detonates a nuclear device in the center of the city, wiping it out in its entirety and causing Jackson’s helicopter to crash. Sgt. Jackson crawls out of the helicopter and watches as buildings crumble to dust around him. As he realizes that there is no way out, the screen pulses red and finally fades to black. The player is shocked to discover that their character has died. In most games, the main character is a sort of immortal creature; to kill a main character in such a way can add realism to a game. When the player realizes that even the people who are supposed to represent them cannot escape death, they may play a bit more cautiously.

Fire Emblem is a series that employs that line of thinking. In most Fire Emblem games, if the player loses a character, that character is dead and cannot be brought back. If that character’s survival is listed as a mission objective, the player gets a game over. If the character’s survival is not a mission objective, the player must simply continue through the rest of the game without that character. I admit, while playing Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, I abused Battle Saves so I could ensure that none of my characters would die. I frantically fought to keep my party alive because I grew attached to them, and I knew that if they all made it through alive, I would be treated to a concluding text during the end credits telling me what they did and where they went after the events of the game. If they perished, I would only receive a cruel reminder of their death.

As a result, killing them does not feel wrong.

By wearing masks, their humanity is effectively concealed.

While games teach the player to value the lives of their own character and their comrades, they also place the player in a position of moral authority. The player is almost never punished or chastised for committing murder. The player is expected to kill as many faceless soldiers, aliens, or monsters as they can in order to survive and keep their allies alive. In many games, the player’s victims are sentient beings, often humans. The player is expected to destroy them with ruthless efficiency and is even encouraged to sate their bloodlust through a system of points awarded for sheer number or brutality of kills. But, of course, the people that the player is expected to kill have one of two qualities: they are either faceless, or they are well-developed as villainous monsters. It is easy for a player to kill a faceless person because they show very little emotion and do not register as something worthy of attention on the emotional scale. A developed villain is often shown to be remorseless and evil, the sort of creature that the player knows will only cause pain, destruction, and death. So naturally, the player is generally meant to feel good about destroying the villain.

But, readers, how different would it be if the game placed a face on one of these countless minions? What if the villain you have fought so hard against confides in you that all they have done has been for their own village, which is dying of a mysterious illness? What if they were simply trying to save their loved ones, as you are trying to save yours? Would you still mercilessly destroy them? Are games so effective at breaking themselves from reality that killing a person in them who is shown to have a family, to be capable of love, anger, jealousy, regret, is easy? I know that it would most likely not be easy for me. What does that say about me? What would it say about you if you had no reaction? I am curious.

6 comments on “Editorial: Of Games and Death”

  1. Almost all of the villains of the first Suikoden are identifiable characters who act only out of loyalty to their country, but I had no problem fighting or killing them. Even a realistic game is still only a game, after all.

  2. The death of characters, esp. those close to your main character, is a trait common to all of the Suikoden games. The attempt is to make the storyline more realistic–and this it does, though it is sometimes shocking for those not familiar with the franchise.

  3. Two games I can think of that made me question my killing are BioShock 2 and Heavy Rain.

    There are three separate occasions in BioShock 2 where you can choose to spare or slay a certain character. There was one specific occasion where I was quite distraught over my decision – but finally ended up lighting the dude on fire. Because I really felt like he deserved it.

    In Heavy Rain, (SPOILERS)you’re put in a situation where you either have to gun down a man, holding up a picture of his daughter, at point-blank range, or forfeit your quest to save your own son. I killed him too, since I’m apparently a psychopath – but I didn’t feel very good about it.

    The point is that games CAN make the act of killing a weighty thing, if they so desire. Same with any other medium. While watching The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, you don’t feel remorse for every faceless Gondorian soldier splattered by a Nazgul Rider, but you do shed tears as Theoden lies dying on the battlefield.

  4. The game that had the biggest impact on me about killing was the first God of War game, in the part where you have to drag that caged guy up a hill and he is screaming and asking you to let him go. I only did that because I wanted to continue the game and it really hurt to do it, the rest of the game is things (usually monsters) actively attacking you so those don’t feel bad to me.

  5. @Oliver: Bioshock 2 was a vacuous game, devoid of redeemable or interesting characters. How do you feel anything about killing any of them?

    The only death I regret in the Bioshock universe, is that of Andrew Ryan.

    The game that really blew my mind, and had me questioning my killing, was MGS3 (with respect to it’s heartbreaking ending).

  6. @Noob: I really do agree with you (largely) concerning BioShock 2; I do, however, recall that the first kill-or-spare scenario was actually quite involved for me. I can’t even remember who it was or what the backstory was, but I remember being very unsure of my decision.

    @EmmerMonster: Yeah, I remember that scenario was a little disturbing – but I couldn’t really take it *that* seriously; just a little too campy, as much of God of War tends to be.

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