Spoiler Warning for Call of Duty, Halo, God of War, Resistance, and Crysis 2. You’ve been warned.
At the end of Resistance 2, Nathan Hale and Joseph Capelli escape the Chimeran fleet and crash in New Mexico. Hale has progressed 99% into becoming a full Chimera at this point, and to save his commanding officer from a fate worse than death, Capelli shoots him in the head. Gamers waited until the end of the credits to see if there was an extra scene where the crater in Hale’s head would magically regenerate, but nothing came. And there were three words to sum up everyone’s feelings: “WHAT…the f*ck?!” It comes out of nowhere in shocking and well portrayed way, but there’s a problem: you don’t really know or care about Hale enough to feel any emotion other than bewilderment.
It goes without saying that many video game characters are very beloved. Characters such as Mordin from Mass Effect and GLaDos from Portal have reached high acclaim from fans and critics who praise their development and writing. Killing that character is the gaming equivalent to an ex showing up to gloat about their successful life. If you go to Youtube and type in a character who died, alongside the videos that showcase said character’s death, you will find at
least five ‘in memoriam’ videos on the first page. Look no further than the thousands of videos for those who died in Mass Effect 2. Like love at first
sight, a character can touch a gamer’s heart just like that.
If you kill a character, you have to make sure it is done in a fitting way that doesn’t make them look like a chump, aka the “Call of Duty death” strategy. In
the Call of Duty series, death means you think you’ve completed the objective and out of nowhere, you get a round in your skull and set on fire as a “reward”,
as was the case in Modern Warfare 2. You cannot have a seemingly random moment where you get impaled by some big spiky thing longer than a giraffe’s neck, a la Crysis 2. In addition to having a gruesome fatality, you have to make sure the death has an impact on the story and the character as a whole that makes it stick.
The best deaths in video games are often ones that let you participate in your final moments, like in Halo Reach. The game’s opening pretty much gave the ending away with a flashforward to your destroyed helmet, but seeing and participating in the final fight makes it memorable. You have a personal stake as opposed to watching yourself die in a two minute cutscene. Similar feelings can emerge from being forced to kill yourself at the end of God of War III, or watching your Shepard hopelessly attempt to seal their suit in Mass Effect 2. As much as the former’s ending irked me for coming out of left field, it sticks with me because, with few exceptions, no other games have button prompts that result in your suicide. The same can be said of the famous nuke sequence in Call of Duty 4, where you struggle to escape and suddenly are gone. You don’t even realize your character died until the next mission.
As gaming matures, so do the stories that come with it. Treating a character’s death properly is a good step in getting to that point, but developers have to
remember that it’s a game. The gameplay is ultimately what matters, but that does and should not excuse poor handling of events in the story.