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.

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4 thoughts on “Playing Character Death

  1. I don’t like these mechanics at all because they violate the implied deal between the game makers and the game players. The deal is that I can play and survive. Also, if I die, I can replay until I get it right. That’s my incentive to master the mechanics.

    I’m not arguing that characters can’t die at all because I think that is a very dramatic moment in many stories. But I am arguing that forcing your player to end up dead isn’t right.

    The only time I’ve made an exception for dying (reluctantly) was in Red Dead Redemption. I don’t agree with the Red Dead Redemption element that didn’t let you run away into the sandbox western world because I actually could have.

    *RED DEAD SPOILER*
    But once you step through the front door of the barn, you see the long line of opposition lined up on you with weapons drawn. You get a dead eye meter and after you pick a target, control is taken from the player and the cut scene continues. In that one game, you got to go out fighting.
    *SPOILER END*

    But even then it’s really hard to explain to a player that they were able to navigate out of all sorts of ridiculous situations before but not anymore. Obviously, the game makers can make unbeatable levels. Is that a gaming experience I want to sign up for? No, thank you.

    • I think it really depends on how it’s done. The Red Dead example sounds like the implementation was not that great. Like you say, it breaks a lot of rules that have been set up throughout the game. What I liked about the Crisis Core example was that the change in the already-established rules (the DMW and how Zack does a powerful attack when he gets three-in-a-row) to convey something new (that he’s losing/forgetting his friends because he’s dying).

      In both of my examples, it didn’t feel cheap or shoehorned in; you could feel the characters weakening and/or being overwhelmed. I can see how a scene like this, crappily-implemented, would be really frustrating and nonsensical. (This is slightly different, but it reminds me of one part in Phoenix Wright where you are supposed to get “Game Over”, but someone else comes in at the last minute; I didn’t know this, and it gave no indication that this time was different, so I kept resetting the game!)

      ETA: And, like, I guess it also depends on how you look at games… I play most games for the stories, so if a character death fits the story, it doesn’t bother me. So to me the character dying at the end of the game doesn’t mean I didn’t “beat” the game.

      Thanks for commenting =)

    • “But I am arguing that forcing your player to end up dead isn’t right.”

      It’s a bit different with Crisis Core, though, because it’s a follow-up (ok, technically prequel, but you’re “supposed” to play FFVII first) to Final Fantasy VII. And in FFVII, Zack is already dead.

      So, basically, the player knows, going into the game, that Zack is doomed. And the game is written with that in mind – everything is leading up to the death of the player. The same way that the audience knows, going into the theatre, that Hamlet is doomed – it’s a tragedy. Crisis Core is a consciously tragic game.

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