Regret, Consequences, and the Cold Equations of Command in Video Games

I recently played the Mass Effect series (you can go here to see another post about the first game, actually), and there’s still a lot of salt in that mine – the analogy here is that I’m going to the well again, the Mass Effect well. Make sense? Good? You probably know one of the things in the first game that was such a big deal was the death of a character. So let’s talk about that. Character death in video games.

OK, characters die in video games. Not all the time, but, you know, often enough. The Metal Gear games are littered with the body parts of the slain; Buzz-Buzz doesn’t make it through the introduction of Earthbound; and an entire Garden full of people die in Final Fantasy 8. But really what I mean is the death of characters you play in the game. If there’s only one player character that’s something different as well. End of game, character dies, well, ok. But mid-game, a party full of characters, what if one of them dies?

The most famous example, I suppose, is still Final Fantasy 7 and the death of Aeris Gainsborough. She’s the love interest for Cloud, at least sort of (the game hints that Aeris is just interested because she misses Zack, and Cloud feels responsible for her since he’s guilty over Zack’s death, but never mind). In a cut scene we witness Sephiroth appear from nowhere and kill Aeris. She was a valuable party member, with the best healing and some of the best limit breaks; she was integral to the plot and our understanding of the risks to the planet; she was painfully sweet in a terrible situation (she’s an example of the hopeful flower seller girl on the streets).

Which one of those things sticks out to you? To me it’s the information about her stats. The death of a video game character in a well-crafted narrative accomplishes all the things that a character death in a movie or a comic book does – but it also deprives the player of resources. If you used Aeris a lot in your party your entire game will be different. Every single second will be marked by the death of your friend and companion, because you were relying on her to be there. TV shows actually can get close to this, as well as very long novel or short story sequences, but only in that we come to rely on the character to be there for something else – their sense of humor, maybe. In extreme cases maybe they affect the narration itself and their loss changes the way we read. But in a game you are interacting with the world through these characters, and so the loss is one to you directly. You lost one of your ways into the world.

So I mentioned Mass Effect. If you haven’t played or read about it, here’s the deal: in one of the last missions you have to detonate a jury-rigged nuclear device to destroy a research installation and work with a team of Salarian spec-ops soldiers to get it in place. They assault the front gates of the installation and you lead your team in the back.

So you need to coordinate. Before you leave you are forced to send one of your crew members with the Salarians. They are unavailable in the mission and you will hear them on the radio as you go. It has to be either Ashley Williams or Kaidan Alenko. These are both choices for lover depending on how you play the game – they’re both hetero, for one, so you can only get with Kaidan if you’re a lady character. Ashley is a military brat, looking to make good because her family’s name was disgraced during the war between humans and Turians. Kaidan was experimented on as a youth to bring out his biotic (psychic / telekinetic / something something mass fields) powers. They’re both career soldiers – which sets them apart from the other characters in your “party.” There’s an archaeologist, a cop, a mercenary, and an engineer, but no other soldiers (interestingly, all the soldiers are human, and all the other “classes” are aliens, but let’s leave that for another post).

OK, I guess this is the point where I go through my Shepard’s choices, right, like in any Mass Effect post? I accidentally flirted with Ashley enough to make her mad when I started dating the archeologist, so I was invested in her character more than one might be. Kaidan seemed boring as hell – they improve that later. I guess that’s the reveal, right? I sent Ashley to her death.

Here’s what went down and how it plays out: I sent Kaidan with the assault team, thinking that would get him killed. It was not in combat, but in a camp, and the cold logic of playing a game, being entertained, dictated that I keep the more interesting character. But whoever you take with you volunteers to babysit the bomb once you get it in place. And eventually both of them are under heavy fire, so bad you have to go save them. You can’t save both.

I actually went to save Ashley, but died in the attempt. In a bid to explore a bit I saved Kaidan the second time but didn’t die in the big fight. So, actually accidentally, I let Ashley die. Oops?

So there are lots of narrative-related things that went through my mind, of course. But I was also forced, as both the commander of this military endeavor and the player of the game, to re-assess my team’s strength. Kaidan isn’t very good with guns but has strong biotics – and is entirely matched by another character, at least the way I played. Ashley was actually the only dedicated gun-user on the team. I lost my firepower, basically. And I considered that right after she died.

Which means – just like an actual military commander – I experienced both loss and tactical thinking at once. I was forced to think of how to play my game without the big gun as I was mourning the loss of a character. And remember, I knew about the decision going in, but messed up and actually saved the person I meant to leave behind (as Mass Effect does, this had more repercussions in the later games than simply which one survived – specifically, since I saved Kaidan I saved the spec-ops team, who helped me in the last game).

Well, what the hell, you might ask? That post I linked to above is about world-building. This one is about character building – specifically, yours. Sure, both Final Fantasy 7 and Mass Effect develop the main character through traditional narrative and visual means. Cloud has scenes where he’s angry, broody, what have you; Shepard gives speeches, regrets things alone in his room, so on. But the decisions the game forces the player to make further characterizes these people – anyone capable of leading such a group must be able to make such decisions. To play that character, you make that decision. And live with what it does to your team as well as your own psyche (all those feels).

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3 Comments

  1. I believe this link is relevant to your discussion about character deaths.

    Reply
    • cuchlann

       /  15 April 2013

      Well, I knew I shouldn’t have read that right before bed. Some of those pictures are pretty creepy.

      I assume you’re familiar with the “Ash is in a coma” theory about Pokemon? It works a lot like this.

      Reply
      • I am familiar with most theories along the same line of thought. Touhou had one (i.e. all the player characters are actually comatose patients on the real world, and Gensokyo is a collective figment of their fleeting consciousness), so I should know.

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