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Death in Games: Part 2

PolyBlog & Videos

Death in Games: Part 2

Brian

In Part 1, I discussed death caused by the player, and how some games try to make pulling the trigger feel like the grave, powerful and irreversible act it is. In this part, I'll be looking at the death of characters friendly to the player, and how these moments can illicit an emotional reaction in the player.

Author's note:  This post contains spoilers for Fable II and The Walking Dead.

Death of Friendly Characters

When designing Fable II, Peter Molyneux really wanted to illicit an emotional response from the player. How he intended to achieve this was to give the player a loyal dog that would be a constant companion throughout his/her adventures. Much effort was put into creating life-like AI for the dog to make it seem as real as possible, all with the goal of making the player feel emotionally attached to their four-legged friend. Then late in the game, as the player looks on helplessly, the dog is killed. This is where we were intended to feel something. But for me, the moment just didn't resonate.

Curiously, though, there was something else in Fable II that did achieve the desired emotional reaction for me: the murder of Barnum.  Here is a brief description of Barnum from the the Fable Wiki:

Barnum is a keen entrepreneur, always with a money-spinning scheme, who makes several appearances during Fable II. He has an unusual vocabulary, which he attributes to his purchase of a thesaurus from Mystical Murgo; he frequently uses ridiculous or made-up words in conversation.

The player encounters Barnum several times throughout the game, often lending him a hand with one of his schemes. As I played the game, I grew rather fond of Barnum. He was a bit goofy and eccentric, but he was also funny and good-natured. Whenever you encountered him, you knew you were in for some laughs.

At one point in the game, as you enter the mansion of a character named Reaver, you find Barnum has been hired by Reaver to take his photo. I thought, "Sweet, it's Barnum!" But as I approach the two, Barnum informs Reaver that it will take approximately 3 months to "developorize" the photo, and Reaver calmly shoots him in the face. This is where my emotional response occurred. Here, I had known Barnum a long time.  I'd helped him get out of jams here and there, and eventually helped him find success. I considered him a good friend. Then... BLAM.  He's gone.

This smug fucking bastard

This smug fucking bastard

But it wasn't just the fact that he was dead that bothered me. It was the way in which he was killed. Reaver felt inconvenienced, and thought that was reason enough to end Barnum's life. And to Reaver, it was like swatting a fly. There was no anger in killing Barnum, and no remorse for having done so. It all felt so unjust. Here, I had seen the kind of things Barnum was capable of; the potential for his future, and that was all wiped away in a flash simply because Reaver felt annoyed.

At that moment, I became angry. I immediately tried to avenge Barnum. Unfortunately, the game needed Reaver alive, so I couldn't hurt him. Worse yet, I had to follow Reaver, and work with him like he hadn't just murdered my friend right in front of me. I felt so strongly about this injustice, I even sent Lionhead Studios an email asking them to let me kill Reaver. Some sort of DLC where Reaver becomes an enemy you can kill. Needless to say, that never happened.

Authors note:  This next section contains major spoilers for The Walking Dead.

A similar incident occurred in The Walking Dead. Playing as the protagonist, Lee, I saved and befriended a reporter named Carley. As our little group of survivors fought to stay alive, Carley and I started growing close. As one of the most reliable, and relatable people in the group, I always looked forward to talking to Carley. We even started flirting.

Then, at one point about halfway through the game, during a heated argument, another survivor, Lilly, pulls out a gun and shoots Carley in the face. My jaw hit the floor. I couldn't believe what just happened. Not only did Lilly just murder someone in front of me, she murdered my love interest, and did so right in front of the 9 year-old girl I've been trying to protect.

But unlike Fable, Walking Dead gave me an option of how to respond to Lilly's betrayal. I left that bitch in the woods, to hopefully get eaten by zombies. You know a game has made an impact on you when you literally say "WHAT THE FUCK?" out loud, and then start saying things like "I left that bitch in the woods, to hopefully get eaten by zombies" about video game characters.

I'm not sure why Fable II's dog failed to create an emotional experience for me, especially since it is obvious that games are capable of doing so. Perhaps, I just don't get as attached to dogs as some people do? I imagine it has something to do with the fact that I could actually talk to Barnum and Carley, and feel like I know them. I came to value them as friends, and just didn't expect to lose them; at least not in the way that it happened. Perhaps if Carley had simply been eaten by zombies, my response wouldn't have been as powerful? In both cases there was an intense feeling of injustice, so maybe that's what gets me?

While games are full of death, few of them really resonate with the player. But when they do, they leave a lasting impact. That incident with Barnum is really the only thing I remember clearly from Fable II. What game characters' death impacted you the most? Let me know in the comments or continue the discussion with me on twitter @HokieBriz