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Sometime shortly after my previous blog about “Fire Emblem: Awakening” and perspectives in games, I stumbled across another blog buried somewhere in the annals of the internet about the lack of impact “Fire Emblem” lends the deaths of beloved characters. I wish I had bookmarked the blog or favorited the tweet that lead me to it, because I’d love to share it.
The piece argued “Fire Emblem’s” lack of reflection on death creates a contradiction between the player’s feelings for the characters and the world’s actual response - a breathlessly-delivered final line and nothing more. This got me about how video games handle death, and more specifically the compulsion to restart when an important character dies. Is the rationale behind reloading a save really a result of caring about the characters?
Addressing the topic requires stepping back a bit. Video games are full of death, but not terribly full of characters dying. Enemies, bosses and antagonists die in droves, but in most cases the people around the players are safe from harm. From a narrative perspective, when they do kick the bucket their fate is most often out of the player’s control. In some cases characters live and die based on a player’s manipulation of systems, but repercussions of developing those situations make them an exception.
In the grand scale of gaming, death is most often indicative of the fulfillment of an objective. Players must kill a boss, or a group of enemies. Players have died, and must restart. The core representation of death in gaming is as feedback, making it’s use as such the most commonly experienced interaction with the concept. Any type of narrative implications of death are almost exclusively secondary to it role in gameply.
Even in games where players have control over the fate of their characters, death is still more prominently experienced as a feedback mechanic. In “Mass Effect” or “Dragon Age,” the majority of gameplay scenarios focus on the player eliminating all enemies and forces them to restart at a checkpoint as punishment for dying(failing). A game like “Fire Emblem” might present more instances where death does not represent failure, but still heavily relies on objectives involving killing one or more enemies on any particular battlefield, making the death of enemies still the primary condition through which the narrative is advanced.
I can’t speak for everyone, but keeping in mind how games use death and judging my own reactions, I’ve concluded I don't always restart because I’m sad a character died. Breaking my habits down, I'm convinced I more often restart or reload because I both know I can fix what I think went wrong and I feel I’ve lost.
So how exactly did I come to this conclusion? A few simple choices I made came to mind. I restarted “Fire Emblem” to save Kellam, and I don’t care about him at all. I replayed “Dragon Age II” to make sure Fenris ended up on my side, even though I actively hated him, and the only reason I killed Anders was because I’d rather have Sebastian around than a mopey mage terrorist. The goal in all of those cases was to obtain the optimum outcome, the most right based on the game's available systems. Outside of these specific instances, I’ve restarted checkpoints and reloaded countless saves in service of attempting to save characters when I felt like I could.
The more important question is whether or not I’m alone. Despite the arguments some people may make saying they only restart because they like a character, after searching around and discussing “Fire Emblem” I’m leaning towards the opposite being true - with those who only restart if a character they like dies being the exception.
Anecdotally, I’ve come across more people who say they restart/reset games in which characters' fates are in the players’ hands when confronted by a less than perfect outcome. This suggests the compulsion to restart is, for most people, based on the perception of death as failure. When even “Fire Emblem’s” creators reset the games when someone dies, it’s likely most people - myself included - restart or reload because death is a conditioned state of failure.
With all of this in mind, games have an uphill fight to make death in games meaningful to players. Like telling the same joke over and over again, the constant presentation of death in many games makes its handling problematic in more ways than Fire Emblem’s nonchalant dismissal of dead characters. Which is probably why, in a lot of games, characters don’t die. It’s a hard sell, and sometimes doing something unspeakably heinous but non-lethal is more impactful.