Killing Player Characters

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Killing Player Characters

Post by I am nobody » Sun Jul 29, 2018 9:23 am

I love it when a game is brave enough to kill an important character instead of giving them nonsensical plot armor. Those deaths hit much harder than offing some random redshirt NPC, and knowing that they're on the table, especially in choice-driven stories, adds to the tension in a way that's almost impossible to achieve otherwise. If the Mass Effect series' most popular scenes are anything to go by, I'm not alone in this.

But I've noticed that, at least in my case, it's far harder to do this right with the player character. From my experience, it can be an effective device if it's done almost immediately after the start (the fakeout protagonist), if it's very clearly telegraphed so that the ensuing character swap feels like a choice, or if it's nearly or actually the final scene of the game. Anything else seems to take my investment in the story right with it and usually leads to either save scumming or quitting the game if there's no way around it.

(there's also the option of just making the protagonist either really unlikable or barely a character at all, but that feels like it doesn't count)

Anyone else have thoughts on it?

Some specific examples in nested spoilers since it's impossible to talk about any of this without them. I tried not to pick any examples where just seeing the title would be a particular spoiler, since you probably already know or could reasonably expect it to be a possibility.
Spoiler.
Done right:
The Banner Saga
Spoiler.
About 75% of the way through the game, you're presented with a choice about whether you or another character takes the kill shot against a demigod boss, and it's made clear that doing so is extraordinarily dangerous. It's definitely possible to not quite realize what you're getting into, but it feels fair, and either death is handled really well. It's also early enough in the overall story that you haven't become too invested in whatever character you lose, and the other has been developed to a similar extent. It's miserable, but effective.
Mass Effect 2/3
Spoiler.
It's basically impossible to see Shepard die in ME2 unless you're aiming for it - triggering that scene requires all or all but one of your allies to die in the suicide mission, which requires an level of unpreparedness and poor decision making that's almost impossible if you're not at least partially aiming for it. But we were told it could happen before the game released, and knowing that in combination with how easy it is for one or two allies to die makes that scene one of the most memorable ever. It's still exciting even after I've seen it three or four times and know how it works.

ME3 has a generally terrible ending, as everyone knows, but possibly killing Shepard was one of the less stupid parts. It's pretty clearly on the table well before it actually happens, and the story is over anyway. I don't necessarily like the scene, but it felt fair enough.
Doesn't count but everyone was thinking of it:
Chrono Trigger
Spoiler.
Chrono is more of a player sprite than a player character considering he doesn't talk or do anything to otherwise make the player invested in him specifically beyond having some funny reaction sprites. They could've replaced him with a mannequin and the story wouldn't have lost anything.

But it ends up being an effective scene regardless because it brings that level of shock that comes with a protagonist death without impacting the player's interest in the story at all, and because it uses it as a device for the other characters. Not sure if I'm a fan of being able to resurrect him, but it's a good scene regardless.
Done wrong:
Danganronpa game
Spoiler.
DGR1 was one of the most cowardly games ever in terms of killing notable characters - it goes to great lengths to ensure no one you might like even a little ever dies. DGR2 takes the opposite approach and kills off almost (but not quite) every character you might've liked even a little.

So DGR3 naturally feels like it has to up the stakes, and the obvious way to do that is to kill the protagonist. Which might've been really effective, except that they do it after the first chapter. You go from a character that's actually an interesting change for the series to one who is so uninteresting that they couldn't even think of a new ability for him, and you get there by having the game actively lie to you in order to set up the twist. I might've been able to live with the swap if it didn't have to cheat to make it a twist, but deduction games are a bit pointless if you can't trust what you're being told.
The Banner Saga again:
Spoiler.
The third game triggered this post by killing off your protagonist again. This time it happens out of absolutely nowhere based on a choice you made halfway through the first game, released the better part of a decade ago. Unlike the first game, there's no warning whatsoever, the whole thing is as unceremonious as you can get, and the character you swap to hasn't been built up as a potential lead at all. It's not out of place in a series that's known for abruptly killing characters, even less so considering another major character might have died even less ceremoniously at the end of the previous chapter, but this felt like a bit much. I don't think you can do that kind of a swap in the third game of a trilogy that's been running that long - people have spent too long being invested in their lead to change them halfway through the last game. I immediately loaded and old save to undo my choice at the expense of roleplaying, and the forums suggest I'm far from alone in that.
I didn't count games with multiple protagonists or where the death is more of a game over screen than an alternate ending or part of the critical path. Those feel like a separate thing to me.

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by steeze » Tue Jul 31, 2018 10:28 am

Crisis Core.
Spoiler.
I think if you played Final Fantasy VII you know the direction the game will take. You know that Zack isn't going to live from the beginning. When the army descends and you start to realize this isn't a battle that you can win is when it really sets in. It's one thing to learn the lore and understand who Cloud really is in Final Fantasy VII. It's entirely different to see it from Zacks perspective. Really hits you in the feels at the end. I know that this is one of those deaths that's part of the given path but I still think it was one of the best player character kills.


This just really made me hate how long I've been waiting for the FFVII remake.

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by X-3 » Tue Jul 31, 2018 12:42 pm

The Chrono Trigger example is pretty clever on the part of the developers.
Spoiler.
When it comes to RPGs, useful characters will be liked by the player and less useful characters will be disliked by the player. Crono has been a permanent party member, and thus the player has likely come to rely on him as the main pillar of the party. Thus, when Lavos suddenly blows him up, the player will come to care deeply about what has happened because that pillar has been kicked down. Resurrecting him is usually a priority so he doesn't fall behind in levels so that pillar can be restored.

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by Sim Kid » Sat Aug 11, 2018 12:59 pm

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.
Spoiler.
One of the player characters of the game, April Ryan, is killed right before the game's final act.

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by Apollo the Just » Sun Aug 12, 2018 9:43 pm

Tales of Symphonia
Spoiler.
Kratos's ending is the best one because it actually straight up has Zelos betray you and then you legit fight and murder him. Kratos's ending is also the best one for a variety of other reasons, but this is one of the biggies.

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by Random User » Tue Aug 14, 2018 11:10 am

Final Fantasy VII
Spoiler.
I know it doesn't kill Cloud, but I wanted to mention it because I think the game plays with that same emotion that drives you to quit the game after the protagonist dies, IAN. I mean that, the party members you play as afterwards feel like they're totally lost without Cloud, which coincides well with how the player will feel. Having Tifa or Cid at the front feels wrong somehow, but since the characters reflect that feeling, I think it drives the player to connect more with the other party members, if at least for a scant moment, after getting to know Cloud all game.

I was thinking that if it's done really well, a death could be used similarly, but I don't know how satisfying an ending could be in that case.

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by CaptHayfever » Tue Aug 14, 2018 3:40 pm

^Are we drawing a distinction between the player character & a player character? 'Cause, y'know. Aerith.

Eternal Darkness:
Spoiler.
It goes without saying, since the plot of the game spans 2 millennia & the PCs are all humans, that most of the player characters are dead at the end. But the thing is, they don't all go from old age. Ellia, Karim, Anthony, Luther, Roberto, & Edward* all get the everloving crap murdered out of them at the ends of their chapters. (Pious, of course, becomes the final boss & only dies when you defeat him as Alex at the end of the game.) The fact that it isn't a clean sweep, though--Max**, Edwin, Peter, Michael, & Alex all survive--still keeps you on your toes the whole way through.

*But you knew that already from the prologue.
**For a strictly biological definition of "survive."
And remember, "I'm-a Luigi, number one!"

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Re: Killing Player Characters

Post by Bomby » Wed Aug 15, 2018 9:37 am


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