The Way We Game: Death and Its Influence on Strategy – PART I

Throughout video game history, more than one character has met their maker. You’ve got your main characters, your support characters, your grunts, pets, villains, NPCs – the list keeps going. Some character deaths stick with us for a long time, and others? Well… Not so much. Like it or not, not matter how much of a humanitarian you are, you’re gonna value the lives of some of your characters more than others. Even so, just because you value the life of a character more than another, it doesn’t mean that it is as memorable as another character’s death.

This post will be split up into three sections, describing how once the concept of death is applied to gameplay, a player changes the way he or she plays based on attachment to the character (customability plays a factor) and how death itself is implemented. Let’s begin, shall we?

Type 1

Let’s talk linear RPGs, as they have some of the most memorable game deaths.  In a classic linear RPG, you cannot move backwards – always moving forward to perpetuate the story. Moving backwards generally is not possible or yields little merit to actual game play.

Some of the most beloved titles in gaming history are linear! Final Fantasy, Legend of the Dragoon, The Last of Us … Some good titles, no? Who could forget some of those moments in gaming history? The death of Aerith? The sacrifice of Lavitz? Sarah? Those deaths brought actual real life tears.

And yet I am here to tell you that no matter how much they affected you in real life, they did not have any affect on the way you played the game what-so-ever.

How is that possible? Well, no matter how many tears you cried, Lavitz was never coming back, for starters. There are several factors, but only two will truly be used for this analysis: customization and “ownage” of the character and how death is actually cast, as per above.

In games where stories are linear, often with a pre-made hero or heroes who are already pre-destined to play a particular role in a story, there is little to no attachment to these characters. Even if you like one character more than another or feel a degree of empathy towards one, you have no stake in the success of that character’s goals and missions, as they are already predetermined. At this point, it is more like playing an interactive movie with puzzles and grinding.  There’s no real bonding with the character, fighting to make your goals his goals.

But what happens when you add death into this type of game? Death is used more like a plot device – a narrative tool to further a story. There is no avoiding it, no escaping it. There is no control over who lives and who dies. In fact, you can even attempt to seek out death through idiotic, suicidal actions, and it has no affect on the story whatsoever.

How do these two things affect how you play? Essentially, death is seen as nonchalant. If it happens, it happens, so don’t try to avoid it. You get bolder. You make rash decisions. You don’t care about dying. The characters are subject to the story itself – not your decisions. You might like one character more than another, but they never truly are YOUR characters – there is no sense of ownership or need to preserve them. They were always their own bodies with their own tasks and goals, unaffected by your wants and decisions.

This is why this use of death and game play is known as the “Detached Bystander.” You are simply playing an interactive narrative and have nothing at risk for their life or death, as it is predetermined.

Next… The Tactical Martyr

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