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Deaths of main characters

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In game storylines, the death of a main character is usually used as motivating factor to create hatred of the villian that did the killing (ie Final Fantasy VII, with the death of Aeris) Can the death of a main character also be used as a way to make the player character progress in ways that were not otherwise possible? The end of a story I'm working on now includes the deaths/permanent departure of every main character introduced, save for the player character. I had hoped that this would A) serve as a motivation for the player character to move forward with his adventure, and bring about national revolution (traditional use) B) serve as a sort of "cutting of strings" to leave nothing for the player character to linger over that he feels he needs to come back to, or preserve. It allows his revolution to be total and complete, leaving no remnants of the past to corrupt the future (of course, the future is corrupted anyway, it always is) Does this seem cold, or unnecessary, to kill or remove every shred of the past and leave nothing but the future to look to? Also, what would be the psychological ramifications of losing literally everything that ever meant anything to him? Would he be more determined to succeed and move foreward? Or would he be crushed and broken, unable to act until he gains more closure on the departure of all his friends?

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Psychologically speaking, if you eliminate everything a player has become attached to, he'll learn to distrust the game, believing that everything good will be in some way taken from him.

As a result, he's less likely to become attached to anything else, and may even go so far as to avoid playing the game, for fear of losing security. This is especially true if the player is unable to anticipate, or isn't told from the beginning that s/he's going to lose everything in the near or distant future.

In situations where the player is told up-front, they instead fail to become attached in the first place. This results in them not becoming distrustful, but instead forces/encourages them to enjoy elements of the game not associated with the things or characters you eventually plan to eliminate.

This is generally a Bad Thing(tm), however if you know what you're doing, it can be used for good. As well, if you leave something...something extremely important behind that the player has already become attached to, it will further reinforce the attachment, building a more trusting relationship between both the player and the game, and the player and the agent or entity which has remained.

/discuss

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I agree with everything said above. The only counter is in a circumstance where you are trying to create that hero that has nothing left to lose. You take away everything so they no longer have anything to risk losing.

However I don't think this would work quite as well in a game as one would hope. I tend to think Jeromy is correct about what will most likely happen.

[Edited by - NickGravelyn on September 16, 2007 1:08:39 AM]

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I think it depends on the type of impact you wish your game to have. If it's a revenge game, then logically nearly all of the main characters are killed off. This killing is likely going to be part of the inciting incident. After this, the only characters left are player character and the ones whom the player character is after.

In Kill Bill, Mad Max, and even the Metroid games, the player character loses all attachments to the world other than themselves. I don't think a game which focuses on isolation can't be done, given that the Metroid games shine in their isolationist elements.

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I don't believe he's talking about a situation such as Metroid in which the player character begins with nothing. I believe he's referring to a situation in which the player has attained something, which is then taken away.

However, there is no real comparison with metroid because the player never becomes "attached" to anything. That is to say, the game is not structured in such a way that you would feel a psychological loss at losing something. The closest example you might find for Metroid would be at the very end, just before facing the Mother Brain, if you walked into an exterior chamber and suddenly all of the special abilities and equipment you'd attained over the bast 25+ hours were suddenly stripped away and you were forced to fight bare handed.

However, even this pales in comparison, as it doesn't leave the player with the "hopeless" feeling, as they know there's only a single battle remaining. Additionally, meta-game thinking allows you to surmise that the developers of the game provided you with upcoming challenges that would no longer require the gear. So there's no sense of loss if in this.

/discuss

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I've always thought that learning more about the personalities of the main characters was most of the fun associated with moving ahead to new situations and locations. Removing those characters wouldn't do anything positive for me.

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An important part of literature has always been a purging or shedding the old for the new. As such, this can be worked into games. I'll work with a previous example of mine (because I'm a sucker for the series), Mad Max. In Mad Max, the entire movie is spent revealing the bond between Max and his wife, then she (and his newborn son) are taken away in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. Keep in mind his best friend was previously burned alive, and he left his life as a police officer, so all he has is his family. When he loses this, he does lose all attachments to the world, and, as an audience, all of our emotional investment is poured into Max. As a character, the only thing Max has left in the world is himself and his sense of justice.

Translating this into games can also work, despite the psychological hardships involved in the process. If the player is stripped of everything they've acquired previously in the game (character relationships in this case), having them push forward to the end would reinforce their resolve and would actually be a good jumpoff point for a franchise. The act of them losing all outside relationships could be the inciting incident, and their decision to continue (or discontinue) on their current path is simply the break into the second act. Once again, this is basically the structure employed in the Mad Max series, but I'm confident it could be translated into an interactive narrative just as it is used in non-interactive narratives.

Just because it may be emotionally difficult for the player, doesn't mean it can't work. Emotionally difficult narratives have always been around. The Oedipus plays, Beloved, Casablanca, Mad Max (you knew it was coming), hell even Eternal Darkness and Killer 7 are all examples of narratives which provoke emotional reactions that aren't necessarily easy to handle.

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Sulphix, I see what you're saying and for the most part agree, but be careful not to confuse the character, with the player.

In Mad Max, and the remaining series you mentioned, the hero is a Hero precisely because the persevered in the face of hardship or extreme loss. As an audience reading the epic novel, or watching the movie, we're fascinated by such heroism.

However, when we're playing an interactive game, we're put in the role of the protagonist. In this case, having all of our family, etc...stripped away from us requires US to be heroic. Many people don't have that amount of reserve energy. And just as most non-heroic characters in movies would have abandoned the cause at the point of loss, many players will as well.

Watching a hero in action, and being required to actually be a hero, are two different things.

Thoughts?

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I think death is a very powerful thing that is usually downplayed in most video games as a minor annoyance. I still remember when I was hanging out with my friend who had a lvl 90 hardcore diablo 2 sorc and I convinced him to (sneakily) pk another lvl 90 hardcore barbarian. Luckily the server was local, and we actually heard screaming through the open window from the unfortunate victim. That death really meant something.

Putting death in a game in perspective would be a great tool. Killing the main character (who is usually the player) probably isn't...unless maybe it's at the very end of the game. This is also assuming that the player hasn't died 200 times already in getting there - that's going to lessen the effect of death quite a bit...

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, other than to say that death isn't used properly in most games. That being said, I'm not sure what a great way to go about having death written into your story is, except maybe killing off the love interest towards the end...

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Original post by JWalsh
Many people don't have that amount of reserve energy. And just as most non-heroic characters in movies would have abandoned the cause at the point of loss, many players will as well.

Watching a hero in action, and being required to actually be a hero, are two different things.

Thoughts?

I agree completely with your analysis, when dealing with real life situations. But not in a video game. Even without the concept of loss, players of video games already are Mad Max. Killing characters off that are close to the player will likely cause anger and aggression (maybe hatred) toward the killers, and most players will go stomping off to get revenge.

However, if the game continuously takes characters away from the player, as suggested in the original post, it will begin to stop having that effect. Eventually, the player will blame the game instead of the bad guys. They won't need to lose hope to decide to stop playing.

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Jwalsh, I do understand and agree that there is a difference between watching a hero and playing the hero. However, I still don't think it unreasonable that the player would continue to play a game through to the end when all the player character's close ties are cut.

There is still the one relationship that remains intact no matter what happens, and that is the relationship between the player character and the player. If the bond between the player and their character is as strong as it should be, we as the player should want to see the character through to the end.

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Original post by JWalsh
Psychologically speaking, if you eliminate everything a player has become attached to, he'll learn to distrust the game, believing that everything good will be in some way taken from him.

As a result, he's less likely to become attached to anything else, and may even go so far as to avoid playing the game, for fear of losing security. This is especially true if the player is unable to anticipate, or isn't told from the beginning that s/he's going to lose everything in the near or distant future.
...


Now..that's true. I think that's why I never finished FF7

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I think a lot of it matters in how the character is killed.

In FF7, Aeris is murdered. Plain and simple with no chance to fight back murdered. This also occurs after enough time to become attached to her in the game which leads to anger, complete disrespect for the antagonist and the desire for revenge regardless of the cost.

Similar to this is in Jade Empire where the Fox Spirit kills the traveler from the inn and then tries to kill you. I was ready to fry that spirit until I found out that all the people at the inn were actually undead creatures and the attack on my player was an accident.

On the other hand, death can occur due to voluntary combat. If an enemy challenges one of your allies and defeats them there is still the desire for revenge but there is no loss and perhaps even gain of respect for the enemy which can have different effects.

A third type of death is self sacrifice. In Jade Empire one of the main characters (Can't remember the name) sacrifices themselves so that you will not have to face Death's Hand before you are ready. For me at least this didn't lead to anger against Death's Hand so much as determination to complete the true mission which might not actually include killing Death's Hand.

Death of a main character is no different from any other story telling element. Anything that is part of the story must be there for a purpose and carefully thought out.

If Aeris' death had not been so carefully woven into the story it would have been meaningless. Aeris was the truly innocent seeming character in the whole story, enough time was taken to build a bond with her, it was very carefully pointed out that the death was witnessed by Cloud and it was conveyed that for all his strength Cloud was helpless to prevent the death and at the last moment a last connection was made between Cloud and Aeris before her death.

Because of the connection built up and because it was shown how important the mission was to Aeris, revenge became important but so did making her death meaningful.

Pardon the somewhat ramble, in writing this my ideas expanded somewhat so this is not very well organized.

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Original post by Drethon
Death of a main character is no different from any other story telling element.

It can be, if you've just spent the last 20 hours trying to level that character up. Hence the reality that we are playing a game, not telling a story.

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Original post by Kest
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Original post by Drethon
Death of a main character is no different from any other story telling element.

It can be, if you've just spent the last 20 hours trying to level that character up. Hence the reality that we are playing a game, not telling a story.


I say it is not different from any other story telling element because part of the story telling or part of the game play can be that you just spent 20 hours leveling up a weapon skill, only to find that the next "boss" you need to attack is only vulnerable to a weapon skill you have not trained.

I have a hard time seeing death of a main character used well in any place but a story telling element so can only be used if the game is telling a story and only if done in a proper manner.

Edit: Just to clarify, I'm not trying to argue your perspective, I'm just trying to clarify mine as a game player who will usually only play building or racing sims if the game doesn't have a story.

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Original post by Drethon
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Original post by Kest
Quote:
Original post by Drethon
Death of a main character is no different from any other story telling element.

It can be, if you've just spent the last 20 hours trying to level that character up. Hence the reality that we are playing a game, not telling a story.


I say it is not different from any other story telling element because part of the story telling or part of the game play can be that you just spent 20 hours leveling up a weapon skill, only to find that the next "boss" you need to attack is only vulnerable to a weapon skill you have not trained.

Huh? How does that even relate to my statement?

To clarify my statement: You're taking things away from the player that the player has invested time in. In your own weapon skills example, that hasn't happened. In addition, your example would not make any decent story impact. Also add that it's a totally bad game design to employ bosses that are only vulnerable to a specific weapon (in a game where weapon skills are improved over time), unless you've given the player a very early warning about it.

Quote:
I have a hard time seeing death of a main character used well in any place but a story telling element so can only be used if the game is telling a story and only if done in a proper manner.

One problem is that when the player has been given the capacity to change events, it's difficult for them to accept that this one event, regardless of its negative impact, is unchangeable because the designer says so.

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Original post by Kest
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Original post by Drethon
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Original post by Kest
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Original post by Drethon
Death of a main character is no different from any other story telling element.

It can be, if you've just spent the last 20 hours trying to level that character up. Hence the reality that we are playing a game, not telling a story.


I say it is not different from any other story telling element because part of the story telling or part of the game play can be that you just spent 20 hours leveling up a weapon skill, only to find that the next "boss" you need to attack is only vulnerable to a weapon skill you have not trained.

Huh? How does that even relate to my statement?

To clarify my statement: You're taking things away from the player that the player has invested time in. In your own weapon skills example, that hasn't happened. In addition, your example would not make any decent story impact. Also add that it's a totally bad game design to employ bosses that are only vulnerable to a specific weapon (in a game where weapon skills are improved over time), unless you've given the player a very early warning about it.

Quote:
I have a hard time seeing death of a main character used well in any place but a story telling element so can only be used if the game is telling a story and only if done in a proper manner.

One problem is that when the player has been given the capacity to change events, it's difficult for them to accept that this one event, regardless of its negative impact, is unchangeable because the designer says so.



Rereading my statement, I wasn't very clear myself. What I was providing is an example of other bad approaches to storytelling or game design that I've run across. Yes the player looses when a main character dies but I've seen other paths where improper design/storytelling leads to bad losses.

When I state that I feel the death of the main character should be used properly when storytelling I left unstated that such a loss needs to be a benefit in some other manner. Such benefit can simply be a powerful addition to the story in a game with a well written story. Another benefit can be that the death of one character leads to the discovery of a new, equally powerful character.

I'm of the type who is more than willing to see my work sacrificed if it leads to a good turn in the storyline. A designer does have to understand that not all gamers will feel this way and carefully balance the design. I could see a main character's death leading down a different path in the storyline that may be avoided should the player choose to avoid this, an approach you seem to be alluding to.

Edit: Ultimately I do have to question the feasibility of designing a game that pleases all types of gamers. It would be nice to find a way to implement a game that would please everyone but at the very least I don't think most game companies want to spend the money on the research that would be necessary. Because of this we end up with some games for people who the designer to tell the story for them and other games for people who want to write the story themselves (speaking only within storyline/rpg games of course). There are usually markets for all types.

[Edited by - Drethon on September 18, 2007 3:42:15 PM]

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Original post by Kest
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Original post by Drethon
Death of a main character is no different from any other story telling element.

It can be, if you've just spent the last 20 hours trying to level that character up. Hence the reality that we are playing a game, not telling a story.


I say it is not different from any other story telling element because part of the story telling or part of the game play can be that you just spent 20 hours leveling up a weapon skill, only to find that the next "boss" you need to attack is only vulnerable to a weapon skill you have not trained.

Huh? How does that even relate to my statement?

To clarify my statement: You're taking things away from the player that the player has invested time in. In your own weapon skills example, that hasn't happened. In addition, your example would not make any decent story impact. Also add that it's a totally bad game design to employ bosses that are only vulnerable to a specific weapon (in a game where weapon skills are improved over time), unless you've given the player a very early warning about it.


Rereading my statement, I wasn't very clear myself. What I was providing is an example of other bad approaches to storytelling or game design that I've run across. Yes the player looses when a main character dies but I've seen other paths where improper design/storytelling leads to bad losses.

There are a few. But your original statement was that main character death was just like any other story telling element. Nearly all story telling elements push the player forward without making previous time spent completely irrelevant.

The OP used Aeris as an example. I assume everyone that played Final Fantasy VII suffered in this way, in addition to any possible emotional distress. The emotion is great for a story, but slapping around the player's previous efforts is very bad for a game. So in this case, main character death is different from most story telling elements, because it is a game.

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I'd like to go back the the example of Mad Max's family, and the idea of a hero's world being shattered, leaving him to pick up the pieces and soldier on.

If I got to the last level of a Zelda game and all my gear got taken away, so I had to start over with a wooden sword and no boomerang, I'd be awfully disheartened by the loss. However, I would trust the game to present me with challenges that I could overcome with that gear, and I would trust it to still be fun.

Depending on the game, taking away what the player has worked hard for can be either ruinous or inconsequential. For example, for those of us who never used Aeris and her crappy stick, it was almost a relief to get rid of her. The loss, in most cases, was the extra-curricular level grinding that people so often invest in. If you're speed-gaming to that point, you don't give two shits about the loss of the character, because your rewards for gameplay have been story, not stats. If you sat around killing weak mobs for ages, then all you have to show for your efforts is the little set of numbers next to the character's name, and having a whole put in your spreadsheet ends your day on a sour note.

So you can tell a good story with people dying in it, or you can punish the player for playing your game. They both use the same cutscene, but the gameplay on either side of it will decide the effect.

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Well, the only real problem is dependant on the played character's character, if your hero really isn't much of one then likely the story would fall apart at that point, and the hero would probably stop his quest. Now if it was a true 'hero' in the sense of the word, hell yes, he would be driven to avenge their deaths, to bring justice to those that wronged his loved ones.

Psychologically it is difficult for this hero to overcome, however, his loss would channel this inner energy to do what needs to be done, to grieve and to continue the path he is destined to in order to ensure their deaths were not in vain. A lot of games are based upon that but could easily be implemented even further.

As almost everyone said, FF7 follows your idea to the T. Although it could probably be driven even further if you were to say, kill off cloud instead and play the part of Barret, Tifa, or Aeris, in a way it was done for a short portion of the game. Did it make you want to take out Sephiroth even more? I know it did for me.

Once again the concept of a great story is really hard to pass up, people will be driven even more as long as there is a great story to go with it.

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I think this is pretty essential:
Quote:
Original post by Kest
One problem is that when the player has been given the capacity to change events, it's difficult for them to accept that this one event, regardless of its negative impact, is unchangeable because the designer says so.


Once it's an unchangeable event, the player shouldn't feel he's being punished. If you've invested a lot of time building and equipping a character, it doesn't feel fair if that character is taken away from you for "no apparent reason" (that is, you're not being punished for anything you did in the game, you've just reached the point in the game where that character dies).

If it's a linear path of rewards and punishments, I think it might be easier to pull off. If in some Zelda game, progressing through the story, the player has to get a wooden sword, then a proper sword and then some fancy hat, then you might be able to get away with removing the sword and hat at some later point in the story. The player is "just" progressing through the story, which causes those four things to happen in that order. If you additionally set his health back to 3 hearts, while he's been collecting a lot of secret heart-pieces and such, and also removes that golden sword he got from that optional cave, you're suddenly rendering a lot of previous effort useless.

The same would apply to character deaths. If at this point in the game, you have this character with just those stats, it might work out taking it away (for now ignoring the chance of the player having built his own character in a certain way because that goes really well with the soon-to-be-dead one and such). If it's one you can invest a lot of "additional" time in, building and hunting down equipment for, I don't think it will work out that good.

Edit: And on that note, character deaths that can be avoided, but takes the story in some other direction, sounds rather interesting.

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Original post by KestThe OP used Aeris as an example. I assume everyone that played Final Fantasy VII suffered in this way, in addition to any possible emotional distress. The emotion is great for a story, but slapping around the player's previous efforts is very bad for a game. So in this case, main character death is different from most story telling elements, because it is a game.


To an extent Final Fantasy VII's gameplay elements mitigated this problem.

I think its worth noting two in particular that stood out to me.

First, most of your character advancement isn't character specific. Most of your character's power is tied to Weapons and Materia, which can be bought and the latter advances on its own.

Second, the game establishes very early on that characters will leave and join your party to help push the story along. Aeris actually leaves your party about an hour of gameplay before she dies. So for when you lose her for good, you've already been training up a replacement for an hour.


The trick is to design the gameplay so that the player can't become entirely dependent on the character. I suspect that the main problem with discussions such as these is that people always focus in on RPGs, when this kind of plot point actually works best in games without character stats.

As to the original post, I think it could work as long as people don't just die off one by one. For example, if you had ten people, killing one person, then another, then six at once, then waiting a while to kill the last person would work better than just killing one person off ten times in a row. Killing people off regularly would definitely numb the player to it. Better to shock him with the sudden loss of almost everyone, give him a little bit of hope that one character will survive (perhaps even giving him a choice of who that last person is), then dashing that hope will result in the greatest reaction.

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Original post by Gnarf
I think this is pretty essential:
Quote:
Original post by Kest
One problem is that when the player has been given the capacity to change events, it's difficult for them to accept that this one event, regardless of its negative impact, is unchangeable because the designer says so.


Once it's an unchangeable event, the player shouldn't feel he's being punished.

That's not the point. The point was about forcing story elements onto the player by removing control. It's a video game, so control is extremely important. If it were just a book or movie, then there would be no control to speak of. Some developers don't seem to acknowledge this difference.

Final Fantasy VII gave the player absolute authority over Aeris' development and well-being. Right up until they zapped her with the story.

Quote:
Original post by Galliard
Aeris actually leaves your party about an hour of gameplay before she dies. So for when you lose her for good, you've already been training up a replacement for an hour.

Whether she leaves or dies, the gameplay effect is the same. Leaving then dying isn't applying some type of transition effect. She's either totally lost, or she isn't.

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Original post by KestFinal Fantasy VII gave the player absolute authority over Aeris' development and well-being. Right up until they zapped her with the story.


My entire point was that this isn't the case.

The game establishes very early that Cloud is the only character that you have absolute control over (though a plot twist shows this to not necessarily be the case). Characters come and go depending on their decisions, not the player's.


Now, you might not like this kind of gameplay, and that's a fair point. But the game is structured such that losing Aeris is, gameplay wise, no different than anything else that's been happening for the last 20 hours. It's more akin to not being able to use Luigi in the last level of Super Mario Bros. 2 than having your Hardcore character die in Diablo 2.

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Original post by Galliard
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Original post by Kest
Final Fantasy VII gave the player absolute authority over Aeris' development and well-being. Right up until they zapped her with the story.


My entire point was that this isn't the case.

Okay. Then you're wrong.

Quote:
The game establishes very early that Cloud is the only character that you have absolute control over (though a plot twist shows this to not necessarily be the case).

The player controls every character in the party during a battle. When one dies, it's often because of mistakes the player made. Upon death, the player can use an item to revive them. They have absolute control over life and death for every character in the party. Right up until the story decides to take one death out of their hands.

Quote:
Characters come and go depending on their decisions, not the player's.

I can't remember exact details about each character. But if any did this, then none of them are any better or worse than the Aeris situation. It all adds up to overriding gameplay elements with story elements, which is just not cool in my book. The story should take you for a ride, but it should never autopilot.

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