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The only thing that frightens people as much as life without meaning is death without meaning. For some odd reason, we find it difficult to cope with the loss of a loved one to an open manhole. The fact that random, absurd turns of events can end life does not sit well with people because we do not want to think we are ultimately irrelevant. Our desire for purpose in death has pervaded art and culture as a whole.

Movies, books, and games – really any narrative-heavy medium – have fought this feeling of irrelevance by pitting heroes against their mortal enemies, giving the lowliest peasant a worthy cause to die for, and offering everyone in between the comfort of knowing the creator of the universe himself decides their fate (and unless they have some loser god, it just so happens that their fate is endless life). Randomness negates meaning and is thus mostly avoided in narrative or used specifically to make a statement about life (No Country for Old Men) but the idea of chance is never just thrown into stories because it would corrode whatever meaning the author is trying to convey.

The ideas that dying with honor is worthy, dying for love is beautiful, and dying doing what you love is poetic cannot coexist with randomly falling safes. Video game designers know this as well as any other artist and so the vast majority of characters they create are absolutely immortal. Most of us have realized that characters who die in battle can be endlessly revived while a single cut-scene death will forever remove them from existence.

What’s less obvious is that for some characters death is simply not an option. The lead character’s death in a game interrupts space/time itself and much to the detriment of every farmer, slime and dragon, the hero’s entire universe resets upon his demise. There is no way for reality to continue without your character and so a do-over is declared. As open ended as some try to be, video games force a narrative on the player. This is mostly done out of necessity; writing diverging plotlines if characters are killed at point a, h or z would take too much time, yet ultimately video games have the same narrative pattern as other forms of art. Although games offer far more control to the patron than other mediums, death is still kept in the hands of the author so that he may add purpose.

A game like Fire Emblem challenges this idea by allowing most characters to die mostly uneventfully at the hands of any enemy, no matter how insignificant. A mighty warrior who has slain hundreds of men can be felled by a lone footsoldier with little fanfare. Yet this is deceptive; because these characters have clear goals and can only die while striving to achieve these goals any death that may come is given meaning. A soldier having a heart attack while on leave in Thailand is not very meaningful, but a soldier dying in battle, dies for his country, his comrades, and a moral stance the puppet masters of that war have taken. Fire Emblem has no ladyboy vacation quest and so only glorious deaths are possible. Games give us explicit goals for our characters and by endangering the lives of the characters to achieve those goals, their deaths can’t help but be meaningful.

It would be ridiculous to demand games divorce themselves from meaning, but after becoming aware of the nigh unavoidable glorification of death, designers may make different choices. In order to craft more interesting narratives, games could cope with the loss of characters more naturally. Besides obviously existential games like Fallout, death rarely fits in seamlessly with the rest of an RPG. Even including short ending story bits based on what happens when your character dies would foster the idea that the game world exists with or without you. Game Over vignettes would also serve to give consequence to your demise, or highlight your irrelevance. Players may never be given absolute control over our character’s fate but fleshing out the game narrative to cope with the demise of at least extraneous characters would only further immerse us in the worlds designers create.

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  1. Pingback: Now on Virtual Console: My childhood | videolamer.com on February 27, 2009

1 Comments

  1. christian said on May 22, 2008:

    Metal Gear Solid 3 has the best reason and reaction to the “you can’t kill that person” rule.

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