Warning: This article will contain spoilers!
We have all been there before; playing a game when a character dies and not caring in the least. The developer wants us to care but we've been given no reason to. There's no connection. We haven't engaged that character in any meaningful way yet we're supposed to mourn their loss. So how can we fix this and get a reaction from players?
From my experience games often play it too safe, killing off characters that don't overly matter to the player or held little importance to the actual story line. It is rare to see a lead character bite the big one unless you're at the very end of the game and even then you're often not given any reason to care.
Recently I beat Bioware's Mass Effect 2 and during the finale, depending on the choices you make, several key characters can die. In fact if you play your cards right your entire crew including Shepard will give their lives to save humanity. During my play through I stuck to using Grunt and Garrus on my team as I liked their personalities and found them to be extremely useful in a fire fight.
The others mattered very little to me. I wouldn't engage them in conversation between missions, their back stories didn't interest me, and as far as I was concerned after completing their side quest they might as well packed up and moved on with their lives. I know this isn't the experience everyone had but I'm sure all of you had at least one character you didn't care about.
During the finale I watched Legion, Mordin, Samara, Jack, and Garrus die. The only one that got me was Garrus. His death wasn't a big event or had any major dramatics attached to it. He was simply carried off by the swarm and consumed leaving me to carry on without him. Yet once he was gone I sat there staring at my screen in disbelief. Garrus had been with me nearly every step of the way, he was someone I took the time to get to know and he was someone I actually cared about being on my team.
That one death was enough to stop me completely and truly get a reaction from me. I wanted to reload my last save to try and spare him that horrible fate. Instead I opted to keep plowing forward letting his death fuel my fight against the Collectors and ultimately the Reapers.
Losing Garrus meant more to me than all the others combined because he was important to me. The problem with this is I was never given a reason to care about the others. Bioware never made it a point to make them important to me. Sure they had a side quest each but beyond that there wasn't a reason to talk to them or engage them in any meaningful. All of that was left up to the player and I never found any reason to bother talking with them.
A player's attachment to a character is key to their reaction over their death. If a character you know nothing about or don't care about is killed it is nothing to you. The entire time during Mass Effect 2's finale I really only wanted Jack to perish because she annoyed to me to no end.
One game that featured two popular deaths in the gaming community was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare from Infinity Ward. The game starts you off in the shoes of Yasir Al-Fulani, the overthrown leader of an unnamed Middle Eastern country, as he is lead to his execution leaving the player helpless to do nothing but look on in horror as they are shot in the face at point blank range. Later after witnessing a nuke being detonated the character Sergeant Paul Jackson meets his end shortly after.
Both of these deaths, while making a huge wave in the community, failed to hit home for me.
First off I knew nothing of Yasir, he was nameless, faceless, and voiceless. I spent a very brief time with him, only able to pan the camera around to see everything unfolding from the backseat of a car. I knew nothing of him, why he was in that situation, or what to expect. It was indeed shocking to be shot in the face but a few moments later I was in the shoes of the main character Soap involved in the game's first mission. Yasir was completely forgotten about as I was caught up in the sinking of the ship and saving Soap.
However Yasir wasn't meant to hit home for players I think. That section was simply designed to go against the grain of the player being invincible. No one expected to die like that. I know I didn't.
Sergeant Paul Jackson was a different story though. I found myself tossed into the boots of this American Army grunt as the Modern Warfare bounced between Soap along with his established team and Jackson along with his unit. Again he was voiceless and faceless, simply a vehicle for me to experience a different aspect of the unfolding conflict as the American forces pursued a terrorist leader. Jackson and his squad weren't established like Soap, Price, and the others of the British SAS.
After rescuing the pilot of a downed helicopter in a sequence very similar to Black Hawk Down I was able to watch from Jackson's perspective as the nuke was suddenly set off very close to his location. The pilot I had just rescued was thrown from the helicopter as it spun out of control crashing into the ground before the screen went black. I assumed Jackson had perished in the wreck or would die soon after being that close to ground zero but a few seconds later the screen came back up and I was in control of Jackson.
Crawling from the wreckage Jackson was wounded badly, barely able to stand and everything around him in ruins from the explosion. I was in disbelief that he was still alive after that but a few short moments later he collapsed then passed away.
To me his death didn't matter. The only thing significant about his demise to me was the nuke being detonated and what that meant for the rest of the world. I cared nothing for Jackson or his fate as I had no attachment to him. In fact I saw his death as a good thing since I would be getting back to the interesting group of characters without any more interruptions.
While characterizing Soap and his crew Infinity Ward had almost completely missed characterizing Jackson and his team mates. That sense of loss wasn't there, I couldn't remember the name of anyone who fought alongside him, I just simply played through his portion and they could have ended with him making it to camp safely then the nuke going off for all I cared. If it wasn't for the nuke that scene wouldn't have carried the impact it did in my opinion. Sure it was interesting to see a player controlled character die but we had someone else to fall back on. To make Jackson's death even more pointless he was never mentioned again or missed by those who remained.
Gears of War 2 from Epic Games featured a death that I had mixed feelings about. Dom had been searching for his wife through the first and most of the second game when he finally finds her. However she's a shell of her former self. Maria is unable to communicate, she's disfigured, and Dom decides it is best to end her suffering via a bullet. This is truly a sad scene though in my opinion more so because we actually think about what we'd do if faced with such a situation.
I felt for Dom, but at the same time her death didn't do much for me. We knew Dom had been searching for her but we never saw how it taxed him, having to worry about the Locust having his wife on top of fighting in the war humanity is losing. While everyone else worries about simply surviving Dom still holds out hope that he'll one day return to the loving relationship he had. From time to time Gears of War will briefly remind us of Dom's search before tossing him back into the action as if nothing was wrong.
Dom rarely let it be known that he was suffering deep down with Maria being MIA. Then afterwards the game continued on throwing you back into the action and within a few moments her death was entirely forgotten about. Dom acted a little colder and disconnected but it was never enough to truly bring me into it and make her loss something meaningful to me.
One game that always stood out to me for having a very notable death was Konami's Suikoden. Gremio sacrifices himself to save the main character and the rest of the party from flesh eating spores. He was a servant to the Hero's father and guardian to the Hero of the game. We saw him follow the Hero as he went from being an inexperienced fighter to the leader of the entire Liberation Army. Gremio was by his side every step of the way, even when he felt he wasn't needed.
His death was something that stopped me as a player. Reading his last words as he was consumed behind a sealed door, the Hero unable to help the man who have practically raised him. This truly a sad moment. Gremio had been involved every step of the way, voicing his opinions on important matters, he was a key member of my team, and ultimately he was a good guy that I didn't want to see die.
Where Konami had succeeded in building a tangible relationship Epic Games had failed.
Valve's Left 4 Dead actually managed to give me a number of instances where death truly hit me in a way I never expected. Not through scripted events or through the death of in game characters, though Bill's ultimate sacrifice is note worthy, but through player interactions online.
Playing co-op online for the first time was a truly amazing experience for me as I was tossed into the campaign No Mercy with three strangers. Through our adventure to the roof top of Mercy Hospital I got to know these guys, not on a personal level but as team mates, as people I could depend on and ultimately trust my life in their hands. I'd like to believe that they also trusted their life in my hands as we mowed down countless zombies and worked our way towards safety.
During the finale, holding out for the helicopter to arrive which would ultimately save us, things got hairy but we stuck together. Fighting off the undead horde we all watched with glee as the helicopter arrived and waited to carry us away on the landing pad. Together we ran out of our small shelter, firing round after round clearing the way, moving ever closer to our salvation.
Once on the landing pad though fate took a cruel turn as a Smoker nabbed one of our team mates and drug him off to his ultimate doom. We were helpless to aid him as he was overwhelmed and carried out of our reach. He simply told us to go on without him, knowing his fate was sealed, that there was no sense in us being killed or left behind to save someone who couldn't be saved.
Moments later the helicopter pulled away, he was gone, three screens got an achievement message, but one did not. Then we all saw in the credits that we had survived but he did not. It was a moment of awe for me as I took it all in. Even though I could still talk with him, that he wasn't truly gone, it was still amazing taking it all in. Knowing we had survived No Mercy but he hadn't, it felt like a loss to us and we even said sorry for not being able to help him.
Of course he was cool with it and understood. We joked about how intense everything got and how much it sucked he didn't get the achievement but there was that moment of silence as the credits rolled, none of us sure what to say or do.
Developers often fail to give us an attachment to characters. Instead relying on the simple shock value of seeing a character die instead of wanting the player to truly feel a sense of loss. Video games tell amazing stories yet frequently lack that sense of character depth, that attachment we get from doing so much with these characters. Sometimes it doesn't take much either, as I found out with Left 4 Dead. I never knew their names, I don't remember their gamer tags, yet I'll always remember that moment of realization when all four of us knew one wouldn't live to see the end.