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Life in a video game is cheap. Odds are you bite it on a fairly regular basis just bopping through the campaign. Your character explodes in a shower of meaty parts or he simply ragdolls, letting out a manly, yet shrill scream. But then the game resets, you’re up again, and everything’s back to normal. Certain death averted, however many tries it takes.
So it’s a little shocking when death sticks. And when it happens to a fantastic character, someone we’ve spent hours playing with (or as), we feel it a lot deeper.
These often become touchstone moments in our lives as gamers. As scripted events tucked into our interactive experience, they also impart a certain sense of powerlessness. We can wipe out entire armies but fail to save one life. You might not take anything else away from a game, but that instant where a friend slips away and we can’t do anything to stop it? That stays with us. And here are five deaths in video games that we’ll carry around for a long, long time.
Who: Aeris Gainsbourgh
Game: Final Fantasy VII
Cause of Death: Shish kabobed
It came out of nowhere. Flower girl-turned-freedom fighter Aeris Gainsbourgh had just won a battle of wills against her love interest, brainwashed and broody main protagonist Cloud Strife, before he could kill her. Then a shadow fell out of the darkness and ran its sword clean through her.
If players didn’t hate Sephiroth, her murderer, before that particularly vicious backstab, they sure did now. But the real blame goes to a late-night call between designer Tetsuya Nomura and series creator/producer Hironobu Sakaguchi. Nomura suggested killing Aeris off and bringing Tifa Lockhart forward as Cloud’s girl, and Sakaguchi — tired of his series’ habit of killing off characters only to resurrect them later — signed on. Their twist felt so wrenching that many players simply didn’t buy the finality of it. Even today, rumors persist that a way to save Aeris exists, hidden deep in the code. But it doesn’t, and 15 years later, Aeris remains a poignant metaphor for loss.
Who: Mordin Solus
Game: Mass Effect 3
Cause of Death: A sense of responsibility
Let me briefly describe one of the most complex characters in gaming history. He's a hyperactive alien with a 40-year lifespan, and a black ops-trained, super-genius biologist whose work effectively neutered an entire species…something he both justifies as necessary and harbors deep guilt over. He drops unnecessary words from his rapid-fire speeches just to save time. He believes some problems are best solved with a gun. He can belt out showtunes with full-bore gusto. Ladies and gentlemen, Mordin Solus.
Mordin becomes your quirky (but entirely reliable) advisor and confidant in Mass Effect 2. In Mass Effect 3, gets the opportunity to undo his magnum opus: the genophage, which kept the warlike Krogan in check through drastically reduced birthrates. Naturally, a Reaper attack changes that gesture into a suicide mission…one Mordin accepts without hesitation or regret. "Had to be me," he says. "Someone else might've gotten it wrong." Naturally, he goes out with a satisfied smile, knowing he'd done his part, and quietly singing Gilbert and Sullivan to himself.
It's possible to stop Mordin's cure by shooting him in the back — which only makes his doomed efforts much more gut-wrenching — or even talk him out of sacrificing himself. But going into the fire to do what's right is what makes Mordin the very model of a scientist Salarian.
Game: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Cause of Death: Helicopter crash, nuclear bomb detonation, radiation exposure, etc.
You just slammed through some of the thickest, meanest, bullet-solid gunfights in gaming history. When one of your birds went down, your squad went in and extracted trapped American soldiers out of a Middle East coffin, because that's what heroes do. And then the nuke goes off.
Call of Duty's never been shy about offing a few characters, but what happened next didn't play by any rules we knew. You didn't just die…you played through the excruciating final moments of Sergeant Paul Jackson's life. Only since Jackson barely existed as a name, really, it felt more like you, the player, who woke up in the rubble of your crashed helicopter. The world around you looked blurry — you were obviously concussed, not doing well, barely able to move. Your buddies dead all around you. You could chose to slowly, painfully crawl forward until you saw the mushroom cloud in the distance…then control of your body gently slipped away, everything went white, and then everything went dark.
In a medium that frequently trivializes personal mortality, Modern Warfare made you live it. Dying in a video game never felt like this before. Or since.
Who: John Marston
Game: Red Dead Redemption
Cause of Death: Low-down dirty snakes
You’d have to argue that maybe John Marston — former outlaw and gunman, husband and father, frontier philosopher, and small-time farmer — deserved a little better than what he got. Corrupt government agent Edgar Ross kidnapped his family and forced him to hunt down members of his former gang, and while he resented the motivation, Marston did it. Part of him even believed he deserved these labors. He’d walked away from that evil life, but he’d never paid penance for his role in it…until now.
And that just wasn’t good enough for Ross. Closing the cycle meant sending Marston, the last surviving member of Dutch van der Linde's gang, to his final reward. To that end, Ross led an all-out assault on the Marston farm. John held them off long enough for his wife and son to escape, promising them he'd stay out of trouble. Then he stepped out into the open, and a dozen U.S. Deputy Marshalls shot him down like a dog.
For a man who'd tried so long and so hard to take a better path, shown kindness to women and strangers, and provided such easy, knowing wit, it felt like a particularly bitter end. But nobody ever said the road to redemption would be easy.
Who: Andrew Ryan
Cause of Death: 9-iron, Ayn Rand
While others on this list sacrificed themselves for a higher purpose, Andrew Ryan adhered to a strict, pure-bred Objectivist philosophy…meaning his only “higher purpose” was himself. Under no circumstances would Ryan, the architect of the failed underwater utopia Rapture, ever allow anyone to impose their will over his. So when you show up, having killed your way through a few hundred heavily armed psychos, he’s less than impressed. You’re merely a pawn of his enemy. You’re nothing. He is resolute.
Rather than allow lead character Jack (who also happens to be Ryan’s illegitimate son) to kill him, Ryan decides his own fate. He hands Jack a golf club, uses the pre-programmed code phrase “Would you kindly” to override Jack’s mind, and then, in a terrifying act of will, orders Jack to beat him to death. Ryan dies gurgling the words that sum up every decision he's ever made: "A man chooses…a slave obeys."
Hey, I didn’t even mention Dom (or Carmine?) from Gears of War! Tells us what death scenes got to you in the comments below!