Playing Character Death

Over the New Year holiday weekend, I played a lot of video games, finishing two of them. Coincidentally, both of those games contained scenes where you play as a character in an unbeatable scenario, where the character is eventually killed (permanently). They were similar in a lot of ways, so I’d like to examine and compare them.

The games I’m talking about are Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, and obviously this post will contain huge spoilers for those games (and the Naruto Shippuuden anime, obviously).

Let’s start with Naruto. Naruto Shippuuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (hereafter “Storm 2″) is a fighting game that includes a single-player adventure campaign that covers the first eight seasons (just under 200 episodes) of the Naruto Shippuuden anime. Storm 2 is the sequel to 2008′s Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (“Storm 1″), which covered the entire original Naruto anime (aside from the last “filler” arc). The show has an enormous cast of ninjas that all have unique fighting styles and abilities, which makes it perfect source material for a fighting game, and a great many have been made. What makes the Storm games unique is that they attempt to most closely recreate not only the story of the anime, but the over-the-top battles that are the main draw of the series. In normal battles, each character has their own “Ultimate Jutsu,” and at the end of each story chapter is a multi-phase boss battle split up by quicktime events (here’s an example from early on in Storm 2).

Late in the game–here’s your second spoiler warning–Naruto’s mentor, Jiraiya, faces a former student who now goes by the name Pain. It’s a normal boss battle (here’s the video if you want to watch it), but there is an additional segment at the end:

A description of what happens: it turns out Jiraiya didn’t defeat Pain; somehow, there are actually six copies of Pain. Jiraiya was weakened fighting just one of them, and now all six are beating on him. There’s nothing he can do. He’s weakened and can’t fend them off. On the brink of death, he launches a final attack, temporarily defeating Pain, and dies.

The scene from the end of Crisis Core is similar, but much longer. The Shinra army finally catches up with Zack, and he fights to the end to defend the semi-conscious Cloud. In two unwinnable battles, Zack becomes slower and weaker as Shinra troopers shoot him repeatedly. After finally losing the memories of all of his friends (more on this in a bit), he succumbs to his wounds.

One thing that is the same about both scenes is, by slowing down the player characters and bombarding them with enemies, the player can feel the character losing strength. It becomes frustrating and, frankly, upsetting–during Jiraiya’s fight I wanted to hand off the controller to a friend and cover my eyes. In the second part of the Crisis Core scene, the Shinra soldiers are constantly firing their machine guns so the sluggish Zack can’t even swing his sword; no matter what you do he’s just getting pelted with bullets. Jiraiya at least gets to deal a final blow, knocking out Pain and delaying his destruction of Konoha (aka the Hidden Leaf Village, Naruto’s home) long enough for the frogs to get a warning to Tsunade. The Crisis Core scene adds an extra layer of sadness by using a mechanic that has been present for the entire duration of the game and changing it.

The Digital Mind Wave (DMW) is a slot machine with two categories: numbers and characters. During battle, the DMW stops on three characters and three numbers every few seconds or so. Certain number combinations give random beneficial statuses, such as magic costing no MP or physical damage nullified. When the same character stops on the left and right slots, the battle is interrupted and the screen zooms in to the DMW. At this point, the DMW can occasionally change to summons instead, but generally the center slot will stop. If it’s the same character as the side slots, Zack performs a special attack associated with that character. Sometimes a short video of one of Zack’s memories of that character will also play. (Here’s a more detailed description of the DMW, if you’re interested.)

A screenshot from Crisis Core from when the game has zoomed in to the DMW. Slots are outlined in neon blue lines and all three contain a portrait of Aerith each. Power Surge !! is written at the center of the screen.

A screenshot from Crisis Core from when the game has zoomed in to the DMW. Slots are outlined in neon blue lines and all three contain a portrait of Aerith each. Power Surge !! is written at the center of the screen.

As Zack meets characters in the game, they are added to the DMW. His mentor, Angeal; his idols in SOLDIER, Genesis and Sephiroth; the Turks Tseng and Cissnei; some new recruit at Shinra named Cloud; and his girlfriend, Aerith. Through the DMW, it’s Zack’s relationships with these people and his memories of them that make him strong. Throughout the game, I got used to seeing the faces of these characters pop up; sometimes Aerith would make Zack invincible at just the right moment, sometimes Angeal’s explosive attack would finish off a boss. Over the course of the game, I often came to rely on Zack’s friends to get him out of trouble.

But in Zack’s final battle, the DMW starts to malfunction. The screen zooms to the DMW in the normal fashion, but when it stops, characters disappear, their slots becoming blank. This happens twice more, Zack forgetting his friends and companions until only Aerith is left. In the final battle, the DMW is completely glitching out, its slots stuck or jerking up and down, until finally Aerith disappears as well. It’s pretty heartbreaking.

Are there similar character death scenes in other games? Do others follow the same template as these two games, and are there any that do a more unique take, like with the DMW in Crisis Core? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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29 Responses to Playing Character Death

  1. DSimon says:

    What well-implemented scenes. Kind of makes me wish I had a PSP so I could play Crisis Core (and also Patapon 3…).

    I always like to see games do storytelling with their gameplay elements. It can strike deeper at the player when something they’ve grown very used to throughout the course of the moment-to-moment gameplay is used for emotional purposes; cutscenes are hardly ever as effective, since they’re so detached from the rest of the game.

    MGS is one of my favorite series because of its tendency to do a lot of this sort of thing: 2′s odd “Fission Mailed” scenes when the AI starts breaking down in Raiden’s mind, 3′s journey down The Sorrow’s river against a current of all the soldiers Snake had killed, and 4′s use of the anti-nano serum in various critical plot moments of the final chapter.

    Then again, MGS is also the king of the overly time-consuming cutscene… go figure.

    • KA101 says:

      Perhaps. That sort of thing [gameplay mechanics betraying the characters, and by extension players who care about said characters, to The Plot] taught me not to care about JRPG characters, since they can/will be removed or killed at the programmers’ whim.

      Bonus for having the characters decide that they’re losing and must withdraw, despite having won the actual battle with spells/items in good shape for at least five or six more such fights. FF2US, I’m looking at you.

      So I disagree: I loathe games undermining reliable gameplay mechanics in order to advance or illustrate the plot. Nothing like being shown that my decisions didn’t matter to turn me off a game.

      • Alex says:

        But using gameplay to tell story doesn’t have to undermine the gameplay. The examples DSimon uses don’t, and the two games I’m talking about in my post don’t. The gameplay actually works together with the story to better convey what the character is experiencing.

        (ETA: Whereas, yeah, what you describe sounds like it’s frustrating and ineffective. But that doesn’t mean that this sort of thing should be ruled out completely, just that it should be done better.)

        • KA101 says:

          I’ve played the PC port of MGS2. Wasn’t sure how to work it into the original answer; there, the Fission Mailed et al was mildly fun since I knew it was coming. Rather a pain since suddenly having to play as well on 25% of the screen isn’t easy, and I’m wondering about accessibility. The RAY fight seems a perfect example of what I find annoying: one need not defeat all of them, but is not permitted to defeat all of them. Fighting to an arbitrary standard isn’t fun

          As to the two scenarios discussed in the OP: I’d be rather irritated at both as described. Crisis Core’s slot mechanic sounds like it’s more effective than the FF6 slots, and as such I’d expect it to work. You mentioned that you “often came to rely on Zack’s friends to get him out of trouble”, so I think my expectation’s sound. This computer doesn’t go to gamefaqs, however, so I’m not clear on how the DMW works in-game.

          And that makes it difficult for me to fully understand what the major malfunction is in the last fight. Either something damages the DMW and Zack can’t connect to his friends, or Zack, for some reason, decides to abandon what appears to be the most useful power in his arsenal. I suppose the programmers could just disable the mechanic w/o story justification, but that falls under the same non-logic that forces Cecil to retreat a perfectly healthy squad and prevents Cloud from using a Phoenix Down when one’s clearly necessary. I’ll speak to the first two in turn.

          As to being deprived of your backup due to enemy action, I saw something similar in Republic Commando. Spoiler warning therefor.

          There, the final attack requires you to drop off your squadmates to crew AA turrets. You coordinate all four turrets to destroy the opposition ship but are so spread out that one person gets captured, without ingame rescue. That was irritating but, since the game actually lets you disobey the radioed orders* to abandon him and start running back for the rescue, is somewhat open to interpretation. Crisis Core’s model seems more like it would have each of the turrets overrun individually and whilst the ship is still intact, depriving the player of xyr friends for no gain. That’s not fun, IMO.
          *Once the ship would have grabbed the rest of you, the game kicks out to the generic ending with the squad morose over abandoning their brother, though.

          On the other hand, having the character decide that he’s too demoralized or otherwise out/sorts to remember his best line of defense, in a situation where it might be my best shot at getting him out alive*, would not go over well. Learning mid-fight that I’m not permitted to win would cause me to forget the DMW: standing in line at the DMV** would probably be less stressful.

          *Have I mentioned that I care about my characters?
          **USian pun: I’d stand around waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles, an utterly mundane bureaucracy for car/truck/motorcycle registration, driver testing, etc.

          As for Naruto: one would competently pull out a win against a difficult boss, and suddenly have to fight not only the boss one just killed but five clones thereof, all at the same time. Getting six-stomped at the beginning would be JRPG-standard character deprivation: put the controller down and congratulate yourself on all that leveling down the drain. Having the stomping come after you’ve already fairly won a difficult boss fight adds insult to injury, IMO.

          Not my idea of fun. Thanks for your consideration; apologies for the disagreeing diatribe.

          • Alex says:

            Don’t apologize for disagreeing! It’s a discussion, after all.

            As for the DMW, it’s breaking because Zack is dying. It’s made pretty clear there is an entire army of Shinra soldiers attacking him, which is not something he’s ever faced in the game itself, so it doesn’t feel like “wait, I’ve been mowing down soldiers this whole game and NOW he can’t take it?” It’s a huge army + helicopters and crap. But, the scene really worked for me, it might not work for you, and that’s ok =P

            • KA101 says:

              Thanks, that helps clear it up–DMW lost as result of enemy action, which comes courtesy of The Plot. Still not my preferred scene but somehow I think we’ve already established that fact.

              :PE> back!

            • Alex says:

              which comes courtesy of The Plot

              I guess my question is, couldn’t that be said of basically everything that happens in a game?

          • DSimon says:

            That’s true, the Fission Mailed scene had serious accessibility issues; I mean, the point of it is that it’s making it deliberately hard to see what’s going on, but if you’re starting out with a situation where visibility is troublesome, it could just end up obscuring things entirely!

            I liked that whole end sequence for the many many weird things it did, the fake Game Over screen being only one of them. The very strange, creepy images that appear if you try to bring up the map, Raiden’s ludicrious nakedness, the ninja-like enemies who can no longer be incapacitated the usual ways (i.e. if you try to hold them up, they’ll just smack you), the buggy “Colonel”‘s increasingly nonsensical messages, and so on.

            It felt weird for me as a player to have so much odd gameplay stuff going on, and so in that way it helped to express how strange Raiden must’ve been feeling, far more effectively than a cutscene where he just explains it or acts it out.

            Also: strongly agreed that RPGs can be a really irritating place for character death, since those games often encourage you to invest lots time into the character’s stats, and it feels like having somebody cut out a part of your save file with a pair of scissors when a character goes down the drain and pulls all those hours along with them. IMO, though, the problem there isn’t the death part but the grinding part…

    • Alex says:

      I love the MGS series for doing weird stuff like that. After posting this I actually thought of the end of MGS3, where at the end you have to actually pull the trigger… it is sort of the opposite of the death scenes I talk about in the post, but just as heartbreaking!

      • DSimon says:

        Oh yeah, absolutely! The Boss was one of the best-conceived and most tragic characters in that series, and a lot of who she was and what she cared about was established and brought to a peak in that final, silent battle against her in the field of flowers, and her last order to Snake at the end of it.

        The Unknown Soldier who Saved The World… *sniffle*.

  2. Laurentius says:

    Personally I am very fond of that kind of experiments of narrative and gameplay experience, but imo so far only Japanese plot driven games do it in satisfying way. Here are though 3 recent tackles of this subject form western games:

    Mega Spoiler:

    1. Mass Effect 2 – actual intro game play stage ends with Normandy destruction and Shepherd’s death. Since it was announced all over internet and player know that Shepherd will be “resurrected” to continuo her/his adventure it doesn’t bear any actual emotional weight and falls flat.
    2. Dragon Age: Origins – this time death encounters player at the end of the Bioware game, my warden decided to sacrifice his life in order to defeat evil Archdeamon, and again instead of memorable sequence I received pretty boring and emotionless ending, devs clearly failed to deliver what they actually planned, task proved to be too hard for them to tackle just yet imo.
    3. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare – another bold try to put some emotional scene in rather mindless FPS and again big fail imo. Our soldier gets caught with nuclear explosion, survives the helicopter crush and then we then we witness his last moments through his eyes when he/we crawl form the wreckage and dies. I guess this was suppose to be “big deal” scene and probably it was for some player at least so Internet says for me it falls completely flat again: first we don’t really feel anyway attached to that kind of FPS character (he doesn’t speak a word through whole game), second, it feels totally staged.
    3.a Modern Warfare2 – seems after “success” of their first “death” scene devs decided to do this again in sequel, but this time it’s even worse, almost bearing the sign “ Ha , you didn’t expected that we are going to kill you …just NOW !, Ha ! “ , right….

    It seems that it’s still long road for western developers to deliver experience similar to what you’ve described.

    • Korva says:

      I found the “Ultimate Sacrifice” ending of Dragon Age: Origins to be very satisfying, personally. It was perfect for my character and I’m glad that choice was there instead of having a mandatory “happily ever after”. In fact, I can’t imagine ending the game any other way … but then, I’m a complete sucker for heroic characters and for consequences that actually have an impact.

      I don’t play JRPGs as they hold sub-zero appeal for me so I have no basis for comparison, though.

      Another (Bioware) game that features character death is Jade Empire, but in that game it is neither permanent nor avoidable. I loved the way it was done because I loved the entire story, and in the context of that story it made perfect sense.

      If character death is in a game, I think handling it like in Jade Empire, meaning in a brief cutscene, is the best approach. Having an actual unwinnable battle would probably frustrate me more than anything because the gamer’s ego says “There HAS to be a way to win this!” which would only pull me out of the story instead of deeper in. And once I’d realize that the battle is unwinnable, I wouldn’t even bother fighting but just leave my character standing there and go AFK until it’s over. Bad roleplaying? Yes, I admit that. *shrug* As one can see from my love for the protagonist deaths in JE and DA:O, I don’t mind dying at all if it’s handled well — and for me a rush of endless enemies does not qualify as “handled well” or “fun”.

      A perfect example of how NOT to do a supposedly unwinnable battle is from Dragon Age as well: the encounter with Ser Cauthrien in Arl Howe’s estate. It actually isn’t unwinnable — or even all that hard. If you win, you get to skip the (rather enjoyable) Fort Drakon escape chapter, but then you have to fight Cauthrien AGAIN before the Landsmeet just as you would if your character lost the first battle or let herself be arrested without a fight. Can you say “lazy-arse writing of the highest order”? If we’re not supposed to be able to avoid capture, just have a cutscene of the party getting ganked, like at Ostagar. If we ARE supposed to be able to win, don’t let the NPC show up five minutes later for another fight with no acknowledgment from anyone that she should be dead as a doornail.

      • EmmyG says:

        I’m fairly sure that when I played it, if you defeated Cauthrien in that battle, she stayed dead and you didn’t encounter her again later at the Landsmeet. Maybe you hit a bug?

        • Alex says:

          During my playthrough, I defeated Cauthrien (which was difficult for me, even on Easy, and when I was obviously losing the first time I loaded my save file, not realizing an awesome and hilarious segment awaited me if I did lose) and she showed up before the landsmeet, but I was able to convince her I was doing the right thing, so I didn’t need to fight her again. I thought it was one of those “you defeated her but she didn’t actually die” things (which is something that is annoying in general because it is so inconsistent).

  3. Hirvox says:

    Guilty Gear XX had a similar mechanic with Eddie’s story mode. Eddie is an amorphous, demonic symbiont (think Venom from Marvel comics). His host, Zato-1, died during the previous game and Eddie is desperately trying to find a new host before it’s too late.He starts each match with an increasingly severe handicap while the enemies stay at the same strength.

    Shadow of the Colossus has a strong narrative that Wander’s quest is misguided and self-destructive at best. With each Colossus slain, Wander gets more and more corrupted. But aside from not being able to use Agro in the final battle, there’s no gameplay changes.

    Metroid Prime 3 features Samus struggling with the ever-worsening Phazon corruption. While Samus does keep getting stronger, the power is more and more volatile; Using the Hyper Mode drains Samus’ life, and it’s becomes much easier to overdose by staying too long in Hyper Mode. Near the end the Hyper Mode becomes permanent; making the struggle against the corruption a powerful incentive to finish the game as quickly as possible.

  4. Caddy C says:

    This may sound callous, but I’m actually glad that you felt upset over Jiraiya’s death in the Naruto Shippuden game – that means that his death was climactic and had impact. I haven’t played this Naruto game, but in the original manga that the game is based on, Jiraiya’s death was very, very disappointing to many fans. His death felt rushed and didn’t have any impact on other characters until much later on in the story. It felt like an insult to kill off a beloved character this way.

    • Alex says:

      No, I know what you mean–I’m glad, too. I’m sad to hear they mangled his death in the manga, he is such a great character, and obviously very important to Naruto, at the very least. =(

      (BTW thanks for commenting, I am so going to check out your blog–a feminist look at anime and manga is just what I need in my life! :D )

      • Caddy C says:

        Yeah, Jiraiya’s death was sad and disappointing to me. Honestly, the whole Pein arc was where I stopped reading Naruto, because it just lacked the charm of the rest of the series and a lot of characters were either rendered unimportant or changed significantly in a way that I didn’t find appealing.

        I’m a bit ashamed that this is my first comment, actually :P I’ve been reading Border House for a long time, but haven’t commented – fail! I’m a very casual gamer, so I rarely have anything to contribute to the discussion, but always enjoy reading!! (My posts at my own blog have decreased lately too, so I’m sorry if you’re disappointed if you check it out!!)

  5. Alethea says:

    Fallout 3: In the end, you can sacrifice yourself to bring clean water to the Capitol Wasteland. The device is in the Jefferson Memorial, and as you’re dying from radiation poisoning, the last thing you see is the statue of Thomas Jefferson. It’s stunning (to me, at least…I’m a history geek).

    Broken Steel changes this so you can come back and keep exploring, which is great because there’s a ton of stuff to do.

    • I found that one really contrived, actually, because amongst other things it was very easy to have a follower who’s healed by radiation at that point who refuses to do this because, well, you must heroically sacrifice yourself, it’s the end of the game! (Like that’s almost literally their excuse if you ask them to do it for you)

      Plus it’s also easily possible to be so stocked up on antiradiation gear and meds that nothing should reasonably hurt you.

      Again, the problem here is not that the character dies, per se, but that the system ends up being poorly contrived to do so, and the gameplay doesn’t actually support the scenario. (This isn’t the only place where Bethesda has had problems like this, either)

      • Aaron says:

        Yeah, that whole ending just bugged the living snot out of me, precisely because it felt incredibly contrived and that just destroyed any possible emotional effect it could’ve had on me. I mean, heroic sacrifice done *right* is incredibly moving; heroic sacrifice done *that* badly wrong is frankly just an insult both to my intelligence and to the incredible respect and enjoyment I’d gotten out of the game — by the point I finally got around to finishing the main quest, I had three hundred and twenty hours on my save file. I haven’t loved a game that much since I was a kid, so an ending that weak just came off as a complete slap in the face; I’ve barely played the game since.

  6. Doug S. says:

    Anyone here ever play Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter? It too has something very interesting happen during the final battle.

    (Spoilers ahead.)

    Near the beginning of the game, your character encounters what appears to be a dying dragon, and it merges with him. This lets your character transform into a dragon in battle, but at a steep price. The “D-Meter” in the upper-right corner of the screen starts at 0% and, as you progress throughout the game, it slowly increases. Even walking around will cause it to rise, but using your dragon powers in battle will make it go up really, really quickly. When it hits 100%, you’re completely consumed by the dragon inside you, resulting in a Game Over. And there is nothing you can ever do to lower it. (Well, you can use the game’s elaborate New Game + feature to restart the game from the beginning or from an old save, but the point stands.)

    The game’s final enemy is a living, healthy dragon – and the only way to defeat it and see the ending is to transform into a dragon yourself and blast away at it with your dragon power until your D-Meter reaches 100%, which, in all other circumstances, would trigger an immediate Game Over. In order to save your companions and let humanity escape the polluted underground tunnels it’s been trapped in for generations, you have to sacrifice yourself – and you have to do it through gameplay, not by watching a cutscene. (You do end up surviving, though, because your dragon, its purpose fulfilled, uses the last of its power to save you.)

    • Joejoestar says:

      Yeah that game was simply marvelous. Although it sucked if you got like 98.1% of D Meter on the first final boss and you died because you can really only max out on the second boss fight.

  7. Alethea says:

    Oh, I thought of another one, though it’s a very negative example. I haven’t personally played it, but Drakengard had a unique but totally awful ending. A friend told me about it so I looked it up on YouTube. I’m really glad I avoided that game.

    [spoilers, depressing stuff]

    The hero and his dragon are transported to a modern-day city where they fight a giant naked woman. The fight is extremely difficult and requires very precise timing. After the battle ends, the hero and the dragon are talking about their victory when military jets show up and shoot them down. The credits roll and it shows the dragon’s corpse impaled on a skyscraper. I wasn’t even attached to the characters and it left me shocked and a bit depressed. It’s the worst game ending I’ve ever seen.

    • Hirvox says:

      And let’s just say that the events right before the modern-day section are only slightly less depressing. It’s like the game punishes you for wanting to see all of the endings.

      Final Fantasy IX contains an inversion of a character death scene using game mechanics. After a traumatic revelation, Zidane wanders off alone in despair. Until now, the game has always had multiple characters in your party, but now you have to try to defeat enemies on your own. The hopelessness of the situation in gameplay terms mirrors Zidane’s mental state. Then the great “You’re not alone!” musical theme starts. One by one, the rest of the party catches up to Zidane and try to cheer him up. Eventually the whole party is back together, the enemy is defeated and Zidane has regained his self-confidence.

  8. Mantheos says:

    The best example of this I can think of is: SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER

    Red Dead Redemption. The player (as Jack Marston) has just spent the entire game hunting down his former gang members so he could be reunited with his family. After reuniting with his family on his ranch, the FBI agent Edgar Ross (who arrested Marston’s family and forced him to hunt down his former gang members) attacks Marston’s ranch with a very large posse. Marston then sacrifices himself to ensure that his family escapes.

    This scene was very powerful for me because you fight your way through a lot of soldiers to get your family to safety. Then you walk outside of the barn and you are surrounded. The game even lets you shoot back at the soldiers, but there are too many and you are gunned down. There’s nothing you can do to change the outcome, but you have control of John before you die (in slow motion, no less) and can go down fighting.

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