We had a death in the family this week. I didn’t get much work done.
I think death is often dealt with poorly in games. To those that experience loss, it can feel trivial. And for those who haven’t experienced it, sometimes the way the characters handle it seems like an overreaction.
Part of it, like with other kinds of media, is that death is used as a writer’s tool. Usually to move the plot forward or help another character grow. In books like Slaughterhouse-5, death is trivialized to aid the theme that all life is fleeting. In A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), death is there to lend character to the world, give it a realism that isn’t as common in fantasy, and promote the sense of real danger that comes with any interaction.
Video games have another tool that helps. Where books deal more with emotions of the characters, video games let you actually feel the help another character gives. When a capable party member like Gremio (Suikoden) or Aerith (Final Fantasy VII) dies in an RPG, or someone that’s aided you during the entire playthough like Agro in Shadow of the Colossus or Estelle in Tales of Vesperia temporarily goes away, you feel that real sense of loss. You’re weaker without them.
But video games are much worse at dealing with non-useful figures. People that are with you, that provide moments of joy, but are largely just there and occasionally make your goals more difficult to complete. The real experience.
I don’t have a solution, per se. These are just idle thoughts.
But it’s important to be aware of any medium’s strengths and weaknesses. With video games, story death is better handled when mixed with gameplay. When you want a character’s death to be felt, make sure that character was very useful. Make sure that no other character can easily or perfectly replace them.
This is what made the deaths in The Legend of Dragoon so laughable. Although I enjoyed the game, whenever you lost a party member, you’d immediately gain a new party member that had all of the same skills. The spear-wielding knight dies. He was a great party member. You feel that sense of loss for all of two minutes before the king strolls up and says he’ll help and, don’t worry, he trained under the knight so he has all the same skills. When your healer leaves later in the game, another character just pops on by with the same skills. It’s a re-skin. Aside from a little change in dialogue, there is no loss.
Books (and words in general) deal with mental emotion and inner thoughts. Movies deal with facial emotion and that sense of believability that comes with seeing real people moving around.
Games deal with interaction. Loss, and all emotions you want a player to experience, need to be tied to that interaction to be felt as completely as possible.
But how to deal with the death of a character that had no use? Either it’s a problem waiting to be solved, or just simply better left to other media.