Editor's note: Suicide is never an easy topic to discuss, but as Richard shows us, it's one that comes up often in video games. Do you agree with his conclusion about the effect of these suicides on gamers? -Brett
*As this article is about death in gaming, and character death is often a critical turning point in the plot, be warned that this article is filled with spoilers.*
As long as there has been death in games, there has been the ability to commit virtual suicide.
At first, with an onslaught of barrels, alien invaders, and ghosts, simple inaction was an easy way to kill one's own character. Of course, the player was punished for such an act, either by having to restart the level or the entire game from the beginning. And in those days of coin-operated enjoyment, there was a negative financial consequence for death as well: a wasted quarter.
When games moved from the arcade to the home, narrative evolved along with graphics and gameplay. Parts of games became scripted, and the player simply watched brief snippets of the story unfold. Suddenly, the player was no longer able to control every action of a character. By the time of the 16-bit era, suicide had become a plot point in these more sophisticated game narratives.
Suicide first appeared in gaming as a heroic sacrifice: characters choosing to kill themselves in order to save others. Palom and Porom in Final Fantasy 4 are an early example of this. They decided to kill themselves by turning into stone to save the party from being crushed to death. Similarly, near the end of Super Metroid, the baby metroid uses all its energy to save Samus' life and allow her to finish off Mother Brain.
Today, this type of noble sacrifice is by far the most common form of suicide in gaming. During the final cinematic of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, for example, the Secret Apprentice absorbs the Emperor's lightning until it kills him in order to save the founders of the Rebellion. In Final Fantasy 10, both Tidus and Yuna secretly intend to give their lives to save the world — though only one succeeds. Several cyborg ninjas over the course of the Metal Gear series also give their lives in heroic attempts to save others.
The heroic sacrifice is an archetype deeply ingrained in our cultural consciousness. True heroes sacrifice themselves to save the world, or even just to save a friend. Being able to act out this archetype, even in the setting of a game, evokes a strong emotional response from the player. Simply put, being noble makes people feel good. And games like those mentioned above allow players to feel as if they have performed this most selfless of deeds.
The more tragic form of suicide — the one most people associate with the word — has been in gaming nearly as long as the heroic sacrifice. In Final Fantasy 6, after the mid-game climax, the main party is thought to be dead, along with everyone else in the world. Stranded alone on an island, Celes, the remaining party member, decides to end it all by jumping from a cliff into the sea. What follows is perhaps the most emotionally charged event of the 16-bit era, and easily the saddest.
A more recent example, God of War, begins and ends with Kratos' attempt to join his family in the world of the dead after avenging them in the world of the living. And in 2009's Brütal Legend, Ophelia, heartbroken and alone, kills herself in the same way as her Shakespearean namesake while Ozzy Osborne mournfully sings "Mr. Crowley" in the background.
While the heroic sacrifice archetype taps into a player's feelings of compassion, courage, and pride, the tragic suicide archetype taps into a sadder spectrum of emotions. This is, in many ways, harder for a video game to pull off, because the player must not only care about the character in question but be emotionally involved enough to empathize with that character at their lowest moment.
Why would players want to mirror the emotions of a depressed and suicidal character? Because embracing the low points in the character's life — in addition to the high points — makes them feel more real. A good story needs emotionally driven conflicts to remain interesting, and this archetype, done well, can be the driving force for the rest of a game.
Recently, a third type of suicide, in which characters mirror common suicidal images, has become popular in gaming. In the game Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, characters use gun-like devices to "shoot" magical personas out of their heads. Each character commits his or her "suicide" in a different but realistic way, complete with gun sound effects, impact recoil, and skull fragments. The entire point of Sony's downloadable title Pain is to "kill" your character in the most grotesque way possible by catapulting them into a crowded city. And in the fantasy game Dragon Age: Origins, mages may gain a full refill on magic if they slit their own throats and shower in the accompanying geyser of blood.
This graphic, non-fatal form of suicide is shocking and disturbing, but most of all, exciting. As with anything taboo, there is a charge from seeing it carried out. A suicide or a death in general is not something many of us will ever see. Yet games allow this taboo to be experienced in a safe way. No one is killed, no one is mentally scarred. The image of suicide is exploited, but the emotional impact and horror of the actual event are left alone.
There is no doubt that suicide is a taboo topic in today's world, and while it should be handled with respect, that doesn't mean it should be ignored. Suicide has been used to great effect in video games. When used well, it serves as a tool to deepen the player's emotional connection to the game — something that improves the art of gaming as a whole.