A translated version of this post in German can be found here.
If there is one shared aspect featured in almost all of video games, then it would be death. How many people where familiarized with the endless number of Marios we send down fiery pits of lava and how many virtual soldiers have been tee bagged after they had been shot? As players we are too familiar with good old friend death.
But what were some of the best uses of death in video games? This is not just about a simple „Game Over“ screen or the hunt for archaic nostalgia. The effect and sentiment created by Aerith in Final Fantasy VII has been universally adored for so many years, that while it still is meaningful in it’s own right, it would be nothing but disingenuous to just slap it on this list and be done with it. Familiar faces from HD remakes aren’t on this list either, Angela Orosco and Agro from Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus are deaths that deeply stuck with people, but the methods and structures at hand in those cases make a return with the games of this console generation.
What are some of the recent deaths that stand out because of their mechanics, themes utilized to create the effects and what makes them important to the medium?
Number 5 – “Someone else might have gotten it wrong.” – Mordin Solus (Mass Effect 3)
Technically this death can be avoided depending on the choices in Mordin’s own quest from Mass Effect 2, but even then the results leave him and Shepard as war criminals on the run. What makes this death so amazing is context. Shepard would profit by preventing Mordin from curing the virus, that left the Krogan society on the brink of extinction. Mordin feels responsible for creating the virus in the first place and the argument between him and Shepard results in the only instance where the calm and largely pragmatic doctor snaps and yells the now famous “I made a mistake” line.
One of the hardest choices in the game has players shoot Mordin cold-bloodedly in the back and even the Commander responds by angrily tossing his or her gun away after killing one of the most entertaining characters Bioware ever included in a game.
But the real reason this death must be featured has to deal with Mordin’s sacrifice when players allow him to cure the Genophage virus and thus sacrifice himself in the process. Mordin isn’t even concerned with his own life, he happily walks across the terminal to spread the cure. He knows that this is what needs to be done and whistles the Gilbert and Sullivan song while doing so. Ultimately, he wasn’t just the very model of a scientist Salarian, he was the only person from the entire Mass Effect universe who died with a smile of victory on their face.
Number 4 – “Into The Heart Of Darkness.” – The Buddies (Far Cry 2)
Even though Far Cry 3 is the superior game in many ways, Far Cry 2 showed us years ago what a real moral choice is all about. The buddies in that game are all very easy to adore or dislike, but what makes them important from a game design perspective is the fact that they have the ability to revive you when you are down. Likewise you are given the option of reviving them with your last health syringe, or end their misery with your handgun. What’s even worse is when your attempts to resuscitate them fail and you are forced to end their lives. But the reason they are here has to deal with the final mission of the game.
Ultimately your friends will betray you and give you no other choice than to shoot them over who gets to walk away with the suitcase full of blood diamonds. On higher difficulties and playthroughs with only one save file and permadeath this creates the following dilemma: “Do I betray them early on, shoot them in the back and save me a lot of trouble in the end, or do I go so far as to only shot them in the legs at the end, but risk my save file in the process?” I still have memories of being resuscitated only to have used that opportunity to shot my savior in the back afterwards. The death of the buddies in Far Cry 2 doesn’t rely on the story itself, but on the involvement of the player and that is why this is such an important theme in games.
Number 3 – “For that I will give no quarter.” – Sergeant Lugo (Spec Ops: The Line)
“I tried saving you.” “You’re no savior! You can’t save anyone! The only villain here, is you, Walker.” These were some of the few lines from the brilliantly written Spec Ops: The Line with Lugo as an atypical NPC, who frequently questions your actions as a leader. Not only does his personality change during the game from a wise cracking and insecure rookie to a stern and coldhearted killer, but he also induces the character progression and shift in fellow squad mate Lieutenant Adams.
From the beginning Adam’s goal was all about saving and protecting civilians, but when an angry lynch mob captures and kills Lugo, the first thing he asks for is your permission to open fire on the crowd with his machine gun.
Many games that give us a choice also confront us with a binary system of good and evil and even Mass Effect occasionally indulged in such simple viewpoints, while inFamous outright said “This is evil, you will get this many evil points for being evil and so many good points for being good!”. Spec Ops never told me what I was supposed to do, I knew my choice was between killing the civilians I was tasked to save or sparing them, but it was also between avenging Lugo or letting his death go unpunished.
There is even a moment of silence after the civilians get killed to help let the entire scene sink in. Whether you like the game or not has nothing to do with the fact that it can’t be denied how hard it really tries to get that emotional and intellectual response. In the end, I always gunned the crowd down, but it always left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, which is not the feeling I get from running over crowds of people in GTA or Saints Row and that is why Lugo’s death is so important.
Number 2 – “A man choses, a slave obeys.” – Andrew Ryan (Bioshock)
You knew sooner or later this had to be on the list. Everybody loves Bioshock and everybody who had to kill the leader of the dystopian city Rapture remembers it. Bioshock, like all the other games on this list, is not just about how cool it is to throw bees at people and light them on fire, but also uses its mechanics to actually say something that is relevant about the game itself, in this instance linear game design and empowerment, or rather disempowerment.
After spending hours by leveling up your powers and harvesting little girls to become stronger and stronger Ryan reveals the shocking truth to you. You are not hero, who came to stop him, you are just a hired killer, not even a hired killer, you don’t get any payment or reward, you a barely something more than a machine or a slave, mentally programmed to follow every command.
“Would you kindly?” has become the iconic question asked in Bioshock that initiated almost every single move we as players took. But it is also the catalyst that challenges the design of video games in general by bringing up the notions of choice and various degrees of linearity in the first place. In how many games were we asked to follow the commands without ever being given any real choice? Even recent games like Far Cry 3 state that our choice basically starts and ends at deciding to play the game and then designers takes over to give us the illusion of choice. Without becoming too pretentious Bioshock aggressively toys with the player as if we were its puppet and then removes any agency we thought we might have had by gruesomely bashing Ryan’s face in. It’s not the answer to whether there really ever was a choice, but the fact that Bioshock actually asks it that makes this such an important death and without any doubt the influence of this game was felt in this generation of consoles.
Number 1 – “The cake is a lie.” – Companion Cube (Portal)
Just kidding, all these deaths reflect something about either the game design or the gameplay in regards to narrative consequences, scripted or player driven. By that logic the Companion Cube serves as a useful tool in solving puzzles and having Glados take it away from you is probably the most basic rendition of creating a reason to antagonize the villain. But Portal 2 brings the cube back at the end, which is why the real best death of this generation is…
Number 1 – “I’ll miss you.” Lee Everett (The Walking Dead)
I had to think for a long time why this should be considered the best death of this entire generation. After all, a game that is barely a year old hasn’t even sunk into memory and praising such a new game in such a high regard isn’t really that different from nostalgia. Not even the now infamous and done to death sequence from Mordern Warfare 1 and the nuclear aftermath made it on this list. But then again, some of the best games from the last generation were released very early on like Silent Hill 2 and some were released very late like Shadow Of The Colossus. This list features relatively new and old titles with deaths, that are fundamentally very different from each other, so let me explain why Lee Everett’s death is so important, as if The Walking Dead hasn’t been praised enough already.
As I said before, each death has to reflect either something about the design, the themes of the game, or the way it is played and presented in regards to the context. A scene like Lugo’s death in Spec Ops isn’t that much different from the airport level in Modern Warfare 2 with the exception that Lugo’s death is disturbing and shocking, whereas No Russian is cartoonish and laughable when you realize the schemes behind it. Personally I think there are two reasons why we care when fictional characters die. One would be the fact that they are simply taken away from us as an audience, we can no longer enjoy them in future sequels and in order to justify that, their death should better be justified and earned, but that’s not really the point of death, right? Even the best death feels like a kick to the face and dignity and death are rarely holding hands in all the examples here.
The other reason would be that – as banal as it may be – the characters in the game will miss them. When Solid Snake dies and I get angry at Otacon and his stupid shouting I get angry at the voice of a man that just lost his best friend. When Kate (or Roman) dies in GTA IV it is not really I who will miss them, it’s Niko and I feel sorry for those characters, because they are the ones that really are hit by loss and in cases like Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeros we are now faced with the third game that will feature a protagonist who still feels responsible for The Boss and her death. Clementine will (hopefully) have to live with that pain and sorrow for the entire next season, whereas I get to console myself with the fact that this just fiction. The Walking Dead also emphasized dialog options way more than any other game on this list to the point where choosing Lee’s dying words actually made me even more attached to the character. I wouldn’t be surprised if Naughty Dogs’s upcoming The Last Of Us portrays a very similar end scenario, that will no doubt then be seen on another Top 5 deaths of this console generation.