Letting Go – How To Kill Characters

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I’m still bitter over this death, and always will be. #RIPReuben

Video games can take players on journeys to unexpected places, and the emotions they can evoke are often just as unpredictable. Very few could have predicted that the comedic elements of a puzzle game about portals would overshadow the actual puzzles themselves, or how in the sequel players would actually feel sympathy for the main villain, who has been removed from her gigantic mechanical body and placed into a potato. Because players are so willing to go on these strange adventures, video games are free to explore the very real human condition in some very surreal places.

Because of this, the medium is ripe for drama, and one of the most efficient ways to create drama is to kill off supporting characters. Spending 20 hours getting to know a character, only to watch them fall in battle at the hands of the enemy, is a great way to motivate players and engage them further in the story. Assuming, of course, that the character’s death was handled correctly.

I rarely spend much time thinking about the “correct” way for characters to die, but that was on my mind recently as I reviewed Minecraft Story Mode, Episodes 2 through 4. At the end of episode four, for reasons that still confound me, developer Telltale Games killed off the player’s primary friend and trusted companion, their pet pig Reuben. It felt cheap and exploitative, and I was so angry about it that I dedicated an entire portion of my review to the decision. This led to people asking me, specifically, what made this character death a failure? In thinking this through, I recalled some memorable character deaths, but also plenty that fell flat or betrayed the player’s emotions. Knowing when to let a character die is a necessary skill for developers, and there is groundwork that needs to be laid before characters can meet their untimely demise.

Establishing A Connection

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Fallout 4 doesn’t provide players with a chance to connect to their family, providing little motivation to follow the main story.

Before developers can even debate the merits of letting a character live or die, they must first build a bond between the character and the player. Establishing this connection is crucial, and it’s where many developers make mistakes that later result in a character death that either angers the audience for the wrong reasons, or one that barely registers on the player’s radar.

To understand why developers often make mistakes in this area, we have to go back to one of the first lessons taught in any Narrative Writing 101 course, a lesson that every creative person must learn – show, do not tell. Don’t tell me the protagonist’s father died and it made him very sad – show me those emotions, the pain and struggle, and how it impacts the protagonist’s life. Unfortunately, this very simple lesson is often ignored during game development. Maybe it’s due to the visual nature of the medium, but far too often developers simply tell the player to feel hurt, lost, betrayed – whatever motivator the developer feels the gamer needs to complete their objective.

This lesson doesn’t only apply to stories or settings, but to characters as well. In fact, this is often where I see this mistake committed most – developers tell the player to love this character, hate that one, and then they move onto other areas of interest. A very recent example of this is Fallout 4. The game opens up in pre-war Boston, where the player creates their character. The game allows the player total freedom to customize how they look, all the way down to placing scars exactly where they want on their character’s face, at the exact size they want. But then developer Bethesda Game Studios gives the player a brief ten minute introduction to their spouse and newborn child, before killing the spouse and kidnapping the infant, and most of that ten minutes is spent learning the basics of the controls and defining some RPG stats. The voiced protagonist boldly proclaims to find whoever murdered their spouse and stole their child, but the player does not share that motivation because no time was taken to establish the connection between the player, spouse and child. As of this writing, I have spent (between two characters) a little over 200 hours playing Fallout 4, and I feel very little motivation to find my son and avenge my wife.

The rushed opening to Fallout 4 is a puzzling decision, especially when you consider that the very same developer avoided this problem in their first take on the Fallout franchise. Fallout 3 opens up with the player character being born, and their mother dying in childbirth. But the player spends time with their father and their best friend, Amata. The opening jumps from one important moment in the player’s life to the next, such as a birthday party or an important test at school, but in each one the player is given an opportunity to establish a connect to their father and Amata. This sequence laid the foundation for the rest of the game because Bethesda allowed the player to establish a connection by providing plenty of time for those important moments to unfold. It’s not jarring when your father disappears, and it isn’t a cheap death when he later dies in the story, specifically because of the time Bethesda took to grow this relationship.

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Clementine isn’t just an object for the player to carry around – she’s a developed character the player ends up caring about.

Setting aside time to establish connections is important, but it’s not the only thing to consider – the player must also perceive a benefit in the relationship with these characters. Telltale actually provided a very solid blueprint for this in The Walking Dead: Season One. The player character, a man named Lee, is tasked with protecting a young girl named Clementine. Telltale provides plenty of time to establish the connection, but they understood that Clementine needed to be more than just an object the player carried from point A to point B. To strengthen that bond, Clementine helps Lee (and by extension the player) by providing an alternate viewpoint on some of their situations. She isn’t just a young girl that screams for help all the time – she is there to console him, to help motivate him to keep surviving when things go bad.

Compare this to another game that took plenty of time to establish a connection, but didn’t include any beneficial elements to it. Resident Evil 4 tasks the player with rescuing the President’s daughter, and eventually the game turns into one long escort mission. It devolves into this because the President’s daughter has no agency, no ability to make her own decisions or to offer any help, and therefore she becomes an object, not a character, one that is necessary to have in the player’s possession at all times. If developer Capcom had decided to kill this character, it wouldn’t have any impact.

In order for the death of a character to matter, a connection must first be established, and this connection needs to provide benefits to the player. That’s just the first step – the next is deciding when to actually pull the proverbial trigger.

Heading To See The Big Man In The Sky

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The way Vesemir’s death was handled in The Witcher 3 is a great example for other developers to follow.

One of the fastest ways to lose player engagement is if nothing is at stake – if the player is a god and enemies offer no resistance, then players often start lose interest in the story, characters and world. This can also apply to other mediums – if the viewer knows that the characters are invincible and untouchable, there is no tension.

One way to ensure that players stay engaged is the threat of death. Since video games can be such an immersive experience, gamers often become far more concerned with the death of the player character than anyone else. However, as storytelling becomes a bigger part of game development, and the medium evolves and grows, video games can use that immersion to create moments of drama that few other mediums can reach, moments that go beyond the player character dying. The sudden loss of a supporting character, especially one that has an established connection the player, can motivate in ways that great gameplay simply cannot. The issue that must be avoided when killing off a character is the killing of a character simply to increase drama. Death needs to serve a purpose, other than to make the player sad – without an additional purpose, death loses its meaning.

Sticking with relatively recent titles, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt features a perfect example of a character death done correctly. Throughout the franchise, the player’s mentor, an old witcher named Vesemir, provides the player with advice and counsel, although his role is drastically increased for part three. His role expands more into father figure territory, not just for the player, but for the rest of the witchers left in the world. The connection is established, and there is a mutual benefit to this connection. But as the stakes continue to rise throughout the franchise, it becomes clear that, for players to believe in these increased stakes, something dramatic and of importance must happen, or else the evil bad guys will appear to be more of an illusion than a real threat.

In what might have been my top gaming moment of 2015, an epic battle takes places at Kaer Morhen, the fortress of the witchers. This battle closes out the second act, and although the villains are delayed in their plans to take over the world, it doesn’t stop them from killing Vesemir. His death, while tragic, fulfills the conditions of a good death – there was more to his demise than to inject drama into the story. His death was a reminder of the threat the enemy poses, and because of the established connection it provided additional motivation for the player to defeat said enemy. That enemy also grew more sinister – they were able to do what many thought was unthinkable, and defeat one of the oldest witchers in the world. This helps grow the antagonist’s presence, without having to set time aside to dive into his history or his evil intentions. Additionally, Vesemir’s death was the result of self-sacrifice – he died fighting the ultimate villain one-on-one, a fight that, although he lost, allowed the player and the other characters to eventually win the war.

A death works when it’s used for more than just shock value – if it can serve multiple purposes, as was the case with Vesemir’s death, then it will motivate players to keep playing and finish the story. That’s a positive impact that any developer would be wise to use to their advantage. But when these conditions are not met, that impact can go from being a positive to a negative, so much in fact that it can actually tarnish whatever goodwill the developer earned throughout the rest of the game.

Stick Around For A While

I’d be willing to bet that just about every developer would love to pull off a death in their game that stacks up to Vesemir’s death. It’s one of the reasons the game has stuck with me after playing it, and because of that I’m buying DLC and eagerly anticipating developer CD Projekt RED’s next title. However, many developers go about this the wrong way, and the impact could end up having the opposite effect on gamers. More often than not, it’s better to keep a character alive that hasn’t been established, or if their death wouldn’t serve additional purposes.

I’ve touched upon this already in my review of Minecraft Story Mode Episodes 2 through 4. The reason that Reuben’s death didn’t feel justified was because it simply didn’t serve the conditions that Vesemir’s death fulfilled. Players had just beaten the main villain, and Reuben didn’t sacrifice himself to ensure that happened. With the final boss defeated, Reuben’s death didn’t further legitimize the main villain, and it didn’t teach the player any lessons other than your pets can die, too.

However, Telltale at least provided the opportunity for players to connect to the character. Many developers want to include these shocking moments, and they rush them into their game so fast that the player ends up shrugging off a character death instead of reflecting and lamenting over it. Toward the beginning of the original Gears of War, developer Epic Games wanted to show the player how dangerous the enemy was, while also bolstering the threat of the bad guy, an alien named General RAMM. They did this by having General RAMM stalk the battlefield and kill a soldier named Kim.

But this death happens so early into the game that no connection has been made with Kim. Given the reaction of the player character Marcus, the player is led to believe that Kim is an important person, and that this death should mean something, but since Kim was given no time to build a connection, his death ends up feeling meaningless, no more tragic that the thousands of other deaths that the player witnesses throughout the rest of the game. If developers don’t have time to establish that connection, then the death won’t matter, which means the character shouldn’t die. If death doesn’t matter, then the emotional stakes will lower to the point that there will be no tension (which ends up being one of the biggest faults of the Gears of War series).

If You’re Letting Go, Really Let Go

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Losing Agro was difficult, but seeing him magically come back to life was insulting to the player.

Another lesson writers are taught is to carefully, and sparingly, use twist endings. Readers, viewers and players invest their time and energy into these stories and characters, and to pull the rug out from under them at the last moment betrays a trust that is placed on the creator from the viewer. This is important to consider when deciding to kill a character, only to bring them back at a later point.

The character coming back from the dead trope is widely used in most art forms, so it’s no surprise that it gets adapted into video games. However, this trope can take what is otherwise a good death and turn it into something far worse. Unless the reveal that the dead character really isn’t dead plays directly into the story or expands upon the characters in any way, this tactic should be avoided.

Developer Team Ico seemed to understand when and how to use a character death to maximum impact in Shadow of the Colossus. Right as the player is approaching the final Colossus, the bridge that leads to the boss gives way. In his last moments, the player’s horse, Agro, bucks the player character off his back, and as the player lands safely on ground, Agro falls to his death at the bottom of a large expanse. It’s an intense, tragic moment that casts the final confrontation in a new light – this last battle isn’t just the climax to an epic story, it’s now personal and emotionally raw. The player cannot help but take on the final boss with just a bit more anger, seeing as their only friend throughout this adventure, one that helped them fight previous battles, had to sacrifice himself in order for the player to succeed.

But then, after the player beats the final boss (and turns into a monster himself, but still accomplishes his goal), it’s revealed that Agro somehow survived. How he survived remains a mystery, and a confusing and tonally inconsistent revelation. Shadow of the Colossus was extremely close to having one of the best endings of any game released during the sixth generation, and it was lost when Agro somehow showed back up to ride off into the sunset. If developers are going to use death to generate drama, then they need to respect the mechanic, and not go back and forth with it – if developers have a good reason to kill off a character and they choose to, then that character should stay dead. To undo that is to take a giant risk that the trust the player has placed in the developer will be lost.

The Final Goodbye

Death can be a great motivator for players – it can push them through tough moments in a game, and when done right can leave a lasting, positive impression. Developers need to make sure of that last part – that the impression is positive. Characters can and should be killed off, but only if they have an established connection to the player, and their death has meaning beyond making everyone sad. There have been many great video game deaths over the years, from heroes to villains, but there are many more inconsistent, tonally flat deaths that feel cheap. Developers should avoid those at all cost – if they don’t, the impact could reach further than they’d like. After the death of Reuben, I’m going to go into my next Telltale game a little more hesitant than before.