A favorite character's death in a video game brings a sense of sadness, followed by feelings of anger and sometimes, even some grief semblance. Video games in 2021 have evolved way past the days where the end-goal of a game would be to beat a high-score or chase the ever-elusive princess.
Today, video game stories have evolved to the point where their writing, structure, and nuance can be equated to something more traditional like film or TV. Over the course of decades, video games have established themselves as a powerful medium for storytelling and engaging with the audience.
Any medium for storytelling, be it theater, film, or TV, always aims to develop a relationship with its audience. Through its writing, characters, art design, and craft, it seeks to let the audience into its world in the most visceral way possible.
In that respect, perhaps no other medium accomplishes just that more so than video games.
Note: Spoilers ahead for:
- Red Dead Redemption II
Why are video game character deaths usually more impactful than in film or TV?
The goal of a video game, quite honestly, is to blur the line between the character and the player. The controller then becomes the conduit through which the player immerses themselves in the game world and essentially becomes the very character they play.
As an interactive medium, video games remove the barrier between the player and the story that keeps them at bay as spectators. More than spectators, players then become an active participant in the video game and its story.
When it comes to impactful storytelling in video games, the name of the game, more so than in TV or Film, ultimately comes down to player agency. Whether that means the player controls the story's events through their choices as the character or viscerally experiences the story depends on the game.
The goal of any game to tell a story is to build empathy between the player and its characters. There are many ways, tricks, and gameplay devices that games use to develop it, but we will be looking at two of them from a broader perspective.
Case 1: The Last of Us Part II
In both The Last of Us and its 2020 sequel, the players are kept at bay as spectators for most of their time. Apart from combat sequences where the player has the agency to make different choices and approach each area in any way they please. The character remains the character, and the player has no say over their decisions.
It becomes abundantly clear that the player is only looking into the world of The Last of Us as Ellie or Joel, and they are not a proxy for the player. There is a fine line of distinction between the two, yet it uses other devices to develop empathy with the player.
Throughout the game's journey, players feel the toll that the game's events are taking on Ellie, and the player cannot help but empathize with her. Having seen her journey from the first game and quite literally helping her get through it, the player is way too invested in Ellie to not empathize with her.
Hence, each time her character is close to being killed or in danger, the player will nervously clutch their controller. Similarly, the players have been with Joel since the first game and have seen his journey.
The game develops empathy through its gameplay and writing of the characters, but the player has no agency over the course of events that will take place.
Case 2: Cyberpunk 2077
The Last of Us Part II, being a largely linear 3rd person action-game, differs significantly from the open-world RPG called Cyberpunk 2077. Just by name, an RPG implies Roleplaying, meaning the players are not only stepping into the shoes of another character but essentially becoming them in the process.
V and the player become the same, or so is the goal that Cyberpunk 2077 attempts to accomplish. The player dictates v's decisions, and the end-goal of the game's design is to let the player fully empathize with the character and want the best for them.
In many ways, V is a proxy for the player in Cyberpunk 2077, but, as players will discover, V has a personality of their own. While players can choose in certain situations what kind of nature their interpretation of V possesses, oftentimes, it is left up to the character themselves and their design.
However, the game's events are tailored by the choices the player makes, and therefore, the agency is the name of the game for RPGs. The characters' fates become of utmost importance to the player, which is not restricted to just the protagonist.
Balancing the two to deliver something compelling
While the protagonist is usually a far easier sell to the player as that is the character a player would spend the most time with. Whether the game can make the player empathize with other characters in the game is truly the sign of a video game succeeding in its design.
One of the best examples of powerful storytelling and showcasing just how visceral and impactful video games can be Red Dead Redemption II. The game puts players in the shoes of Arthur Morgan, but the line between Arthur and the player is practically destroyed at some point during the game.
Each gang member becomes important to the player as it is important they would be to Arthur should they pick the Honorable choices in the game. Therefore, each character's death is met with powerful reactions from the player.
Therefore, the kind of approach Rockstar Games takes with storytelling and empathy in video games is a blend of the two and is especially powerful. The time players spend with Arthur is virtually what players would think of a time spent with an old friend.
While Red Dead Redemption 2 is far from the only game that has been able to do it, it is one of the most popular ones around and makes for a great example.