Dealing with the Fourth Horseman: Death and Game Mechanics

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castlevania-symphony-of-the-night-alucard-death[SPOILER WARNING: This article will be talking about the game mechanics of permanent plot-related character death in video games. As such, you should assume that any game that I mention will be a game in which people die or vanish from the party for long periods of time. I’ll try not to use games any more recent than a year or two old, but still, read this article at your own risk.]

Death. Final, absolute, cold hard death. It’s sort of an oddball thing to handle in video games. Why? Because video games have a very unique point of view when it comes to death. In video games, death is rarely ever final. Death, in regards to the main character, represents the loss condition. It is the point where you say, “I did not complete the level, so I’m going to start over and try again.” Usually, this is sufficient, because the player character is the one who you generally have to worry about dying. Obviously, this is because the entire game is constructed around more and more difficult-to-avoid ways of making the main character die.

However, ever since video games began including narrative, this hasn’t always been the case. See, the death of a side character is quite often the driving force behind a character’s narrative arc. It is a way to build tension, or to add surprise to a scene, or to be a catalyst for inner change in the characters who did not die. This becomes fairly problematic when the side character who this happens to is someone who you, as the player, have spent time and energy developing from a game mechanics standpoint. When a character who, to you, has become an integral part of the party to the point where you have spent your time, money, experience points, or what have you on them, having them forcibly and permanently removed from the party isn’t just a kick in the feels, it’s a major goddamn annoyance.

I know I'm using Castlevania a lot here, but Death is kind of a dick in that series.
I know I’m using Castlevania a lot here, but Death is kind of a dick in that series.

Therefore, I have decided to take a look at games which handle character death (or, perhaps on a lesser note, long-term removal from the party) and see which games, if any, handle this well. It’s not an easy thing to handle, because if you make it clear early on that a character’s place in your party is not going to be permanent, the player does not grow attached to them and it lessens the narrative impact when something happens to them. Despite the title of the article, it doesn’t even have to be a terminal case of dead that afflicts a party member; there is no shortage of people who join a party for awhile and then just leave. Here are a list of ways that games have, in the past, handled the removal of important (or maybe not-so-important) side characters for plot-related reasons.

1) Just kill them or just let them leave.

The most basic way of dealing with the situation is not really dealing with it at all. In this situation, the character is just gone, along with any equipment, skill points, or anything else that was on them at the time. This is also the absolute worst way of dealing with it, and is representative of an extreme lack of effort from the creators in this day and age.

Granted, there was a time where this was okay, because having a character actually permanently die through unavoidable plot-related happenings was so rare that nobody had really put all that much thought into what to do about it, in terms of the game code. This was the time when it was also fairly shocking for it to happen in general. But I would argue that any game that came along after Final Fantasy IV, which had a decent body count even by modern standards, or Lufia II which had characters just up and leave for good, should have a mechanic in place to deal with this sort of thing.

1a) At least let you keep their stuff.

This is sort of a corollary, because it is about the same as just killing them, except their equipment is dumped back into your inventory. This is usually the go-to solution nowadays, and as far as solutions go, it’s actually not bad. You’re not spoiled in advance that a character is going to be expended for the sake of plot, and you’re not extremely put out if you put some kind of unique equipment on them, because you just get it back anyway.

2) Do something that makes it pretty obvious they’re a temporary character.

Some characters are put there just to die or leave, and it’s sometimes pretty obvious who they are. There are a couple of ways this is usually pointed out: either they are extremely overpowered or extremely underpowered. Either way, you usually don’t get to change their equipment at all, making that point moot, and you usually can’t improve their skillset either.

Wow, that's a really awesome attack! You must be leaving soon, I bet.
Wow, that’s a really awesome attack! You must be leaving soon, I bet.

However, in the case of an overpowered character, it’s usually obvious they aren’t supposed to stick around anyway because they either don’t have a reason to, or they have a definite reason to not. In Final Fantasy 7, for instance, there are a couple of sequences in which Sephiroth is in your party. He absolutely dominates anything you run up against at that point, and he has a unique sword and several mastered materia, none of which you can remove from him. However, seeing as how all this takes place in a flashback and he has already been established as a Really Bad Guy, it’s no real spoiler that he doesn’t stick around.

3) Give some sort of bonus to compensate for their level.

This one is something I’ve only seen a couple of times, and is based on the idea that if you put effort into developing a character that ultimately kicks the bucket, you should get at least some return for that effort, in the form of equipment or bonus abilities or something. In fact, the only really well-done implementation of this that comes to mind is in Final Fantasy IV DS. In this version of the game, whenever a character leaves your party permanently, you get an item that lets you transfer one of their abilities to another party member. If you use these items on other party members who leave, you get more of that member’s abilities to pass on. This also has the advantage of encouraging a little bit of replayability, as the only way to get all the abilities from the first party member who leaves is to have skill items left over from a previous playthrough.

4) Immediately replace them with an equivalent character.

This is another pretty good solution to the problem of characters leaving, and one that I’ve seen more than a couple times. For this method, the character who leaves is quickly, if not immediately, replaced by another character who inherits their gear, experience, and skills. The first instance of this that I ever ran into was in Final Fantasy V, when one character came along who was basically a direct replacement for a character who had died in the exact same scene, thus seamlessly inherited everything about the previous character. This was also done later on in Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2, more than once.

Though in the case of FF5, she's his granddaughter. So it really is an inheritance.
Though in the case of FF5, she’s his granddaughter. So it really is an inheritance.

This method only really works if the second character replaces the first character immediately or if experience points are still accumulated in the background. If done any other way, the risk exists of the replacing character being seriously underleveled when they arrive. I’ll call out Digital Devil Saga on this, because of the fact that a great deal of leveling and a few very hard optional bosses must be fought at a time when two members of the party are absent and not accumulating experience points. This makes it very awkward when they (or the ones replacing them) come back with a horribly underdeveloped skillset.

5) Return them to the party later at the level they were at when they died or left.

This is the answer I refer to as the ‘comic book solution’, because as we all know, death in comic books is never a permanent condition. It’s often the same way in video games. If someone dies, there’s at least a 50% chance they will be brought back to life later. Additionally, if a character just leaves without anything otherwise bad happening to them, they probably will come back later. The standard way of returning a character to the group is by returning them exactly the way they were before, with the same equipment, skills, and levels. This, of course, has the same pitfalls as the previous method of doing things: if too much time has passed between when the character leaves and when they come back, they will probably need to grind quite a bit in order to be brought up to speed.

5a) Bring them back later, at an adjusted level or with an altered skillset.

Ahh, now we come to what is, in my opinion, the best solution to the issue. If someone leaves the party, let the party keep their things, and when the person comes back, they do so with new equipment, an adjusted level, new skills, or any combination of the above. In effect, treat the character like an entirely new addition to the party, and give them a new baseline accordingly. This solution is seen in quite a few games, but I first saw it, once again, in Final Fantasy IV. In this game, the party is split up quite catastrophically, and some of those characters end up rejoining later on. One of them gets a level adjustment and new equipment, and another gets new abilities on top of that as well. In Chrono Trigger, everyone gains experience when they aren’t in the active party anyway, so this makes the level adjustment issue work itself out using mechanics that are already present in the game anyway. And, more recently, in Xenoblade Chronicles, a character who returns later in the game was gone for so long and has such an altered skillset that they may as well be a new character entirely.

Hey Golbez! Remember when I COULDN'T summon bosses?
Hey Golbez! Remember when I COULDN’T summon bosses?

Now, this method also has its drawback. If a character’s level when they leave has no bearing on their level when they return, this may seem like a whole lot of wasted time if one ground out some levels on that character. However, if a character is gone from the party for awhile, doing this eliminates the need to go through another level grind when they return. In my mind, it’s the solution that’s always worked best over the years, and the one that I think developers should stick with.

Better Solutions?

Now that I’ve discussed the ways that these sorts of things are typically handled, the question remains: have I covered everything here? I’m pretty sure I have, but games do continue to innovate, and as games continue to do unique things with narrative, so do they continue to create mechanics to adapt to those things. Certainly there have been a great many innovations in handling player-related death and loss conditions. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls use death as a learning mechanism, and Fire Emblem, by making every character death permanent, creates a narrative that changes based on how well the player does in the game itself. Diablo introduced the infamous ‘corpse walk’ in which you had to retrieve your own dead body in order to get your equipment back (and Demon’s/Dark Souls does this as well, in regards to the souls you collect).

So I guess what I’m saying is, as games evolve as a medium for narrative, the mechanics for dealing with that narrative will, naturally, continue to evolve as they always have, and I am confident that new and exciting things will result from it.

[This review originally appeared on the gaming website Attack Initiative.]

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