“The following is a guest post by The Sincere Scholar Mage.”
There are few moments in gaming that defined a generation of gamers in such a strong way as Aerith of FF7. A widely beloved character in one of the series’ most famous entries, her death at the hands of a villain affected some people so much that they went out of their way to hack her back into the game and parties. That a fake character could affect people so much is testament to the work of the developers, and since then other devs have gone above and beyond to try and get us to define our gaming experience by the emotional attachments we make to characters.
But while getting attached to a digital creation may seem weird at first, it’s something that happens to all of us. Everybody has that one character that made them choke up a little bit, but a question I’d like to explore is: why? How do game developers manage to get us to care about these fake people, and how do we form connections to these characters? What pulls at our heart strings the best? Below I do my best to try and explore some of the best ways that they get us to feel, whether we want to or not.
Taking Control away from the Player
Perhaps the easiest way is the simplest. People don’t like it when you take control away from them, and doing so in order to get people to experience something you want them to can backfire on you if not done well. But when it’s done well, it’s a powerful tool.
Aerith/Aeris – Final Fantasy 7
When thinking of shocking emotional moments, the best place to start is probably at the beginning. Think back to Aerith and FF7, if you were old enough to have played it. Throughout the game she is treated as a central character, to the plot and your party. While her death is unexpected, perhaps the worst part of it all is that there was really no way to see it coming. You’d spend hours with the character, leveling her up and using her in your party and then, poof, she was gone, and there was nothing you could do about it. Is it any surprise people went so far to bring her back?
9S – Nier: Automata
A newer entry compared to some of the others, but emotional just the same. If you have not played the game and plan to, skip below to the next part as heavy spoilers are incoming. Highlight if you don’t mind them.
Players are given the character 2B, a female Android sent to earth with a partner named 9S in order to fight off the robot invasion and save humanity. As the plot unfolds, 9S begins to learn more about the post-apocalyptic world and about the fate of humanity, who are conspicuously absent. When 9S begins to learn too much though, orders are sent to 2B to keep him from discovering what happened to humanity, the only way being to… well, kill him. Since in this game Androids are considered software and not hardware, the easiest way to achieve this is to erase all of his memories and continue on with the mission at hand. Players are given a partner to travel with, fight with and get to know very well over the course of the game, only to then be ordered to kill him. Over, and over, and over again.
No Russian – Modern Warfare 2
Perhaps the most controversial moment in gaming history, No Russian is a mission in Modern Warfare 2 where you are tasked, as an undercover agent, to follow a homicidal terrorist into an airport and “follow his lead”. While you can skip this mission in several places (the start of the game, before the mission starts, during the mission at any time), players who chose to go through it all were treated to some of the most gratuitous violence on offer. Makarov and his men walk into the terminal, and begin to open fire on every citizen they see. The players movement is restricted to a casual walk and even though you can complete the mission without shooting any civilians yourself you are still treated to the sight of innocent (although digital) civilians being shot and killed. Despite what you do in this game, you’ll watch those people die.
Killing the Main Character
When a developer doesn’t feel like taking control away from the player, they have to look elsewhere in order to make us feel. One of the best ways is getting rid of a character we are comfortable with, and to invade that sense we all get that the character we are playing is invincible. Strip a man of his armor and he suddenly feels very vulnerable.
Lee Everett – The Walking Dead (Season 1)
Video contains SPOILERS.
As the main protagonist of a choice-heavy, narrative driven game, Lee Everett earns our connections almost effortlessly. He is us, we are him. What we want him to do he does, and the world reacts around him. Early on in the game we meet a young girl named Clementine and, along with another group of survivors, we do our best to lead them to safety in a Zombie Apocalypse world. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) We watch members of the group die, make decisions on who should stay and go, build trust and tear down relationships. As we grow and learn with the character about the world, it becomes clear that Lee is very protective of the people around him, especially the young girl Clementine. In search of her family, the girl is taken advantage of and kidnapped and while on a search for her, Lee is bitten by a zombie, infecting him and ensuring his death.
While we do eventually find Clementine and bring her to safety, the meeting is not a happy one. Sheltered by Lee and taught about how to survive the world around her, Clementine is faced with the realization that Lee is going to die. His death and how it happens is mostly up to you, but should the player take the option of having her shoot them to avoid coming back as a zombie, you are forced to watch the character you played be killed by a character you spent hours protecting and shielding from the world.
John Marston – Red Dead Redemption
Video contains SPOILERS.
Anti-heroes are a tricky bunch. Arrogant, selfish and with murky backgrounds to boot, they are pretty much nothing you’d expect from a character you get emotionally invested in. John Marston bucks the trend though, giving us a gritty and troubled character we can still learn to love and care about. An ex–bandit in the wild west, he has plenty to make us not care about him or his story. But along the course of the game we are treated to watching him as he tries to regain his pride and honor, seeking redemption for his past failures. The plot is simple: John’s family is taken, and he has to try and get them back.
His fate though is quite the surprise. (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Redemption stories usually end happily, with players learning that everyone deserves a second chance. But after getting his family back and hoping for a brighter future, John goes outside to see American soldiers assaulting his home; they’ve come to arrest him for the things he’s done. Locking his wife and son inside, John goes outside with a trusted friend to fight off several waves of people intent on killing him, but it quickly becomes apparent that John is not going to be able to escape his past. Putting his wife and son on a horse, he orders them to ride away and escape, then turns to face his fate.
More than twenty soldiers greet him in the final fight, and players witness and participate in John Marston’s last stand. As he takes out as many gunmen as he can, John is eventually overwhelmed and shot down. Falling to his back, he coughs up blood and takes his last breath before dying. With his family safe and with the government having no reason to go after them, John finally finds the Redemption he sought.
Soap – Modern Warfare 2
Modern Warfare 2 is generally viewed as one of the best in the franchise, if not one of the best shooters ever made. So to get attached to Soap, a recurring character that players control throughout the series is not uncommon. A gritty veteran, Soap is a character it is easy to latch onto because, well, as others fade away he is still there at the end. But not for long.
During a mission to track down and kill the terrorist Makarov (of No Russian fame), Soap, Price and Yuri (who is the player character during the mission) infiltrate a hotel near where Makarov is currently residing. But Makarov catches wind of the assassination and, just as they are about to kill him, sets off bombs that are planted in the nearby buildings. Soap pushes Yuri out of the window as the bomb goes off, catching the explosion himself before falling dozens of feet through scaffolding to the ground below. Still alive after the fall, Price drags him free of rubble.
The player is then treated to an escort mission where they are under constant fire as they try to carry the severely injured Soap somewhere safe. Surviving the firefight and finding temporary refuge in a nearby building, (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Soap is laid onto a table where he slowly bleeds out. Price attempts to stop the bleeding and save his friend, and the player is encourage to do the same as button prompts appear to try and staunch the bleeding. It’s all for naught though and, slowly, Soap dies.
Take away a character we love, and it makes us feel. But often times, forcing us to feel one way is not even needed. In a lot of cases, we find the connection on our own, forging a relationship to the character that was either underestimated or unintended to begin with. Organic connection.
Home Grown Feelings
Lydia – Skyrim
When players first enter the world of Skyrim they do it naked and alone. A prisoner caught on the border, they are brought to a judge and sentenced to execution. Things happen and you escape, eventually making your way through quests and dungeons (again, alone) and becoming a Thane of Whiterun, a small village in the center of the map. To reward you for your deeds, you are given… well, kind of a slave. Lydia, a plain-faced, hard woman of the Nordic tribes, becomes your Housecarl. “Sworn to carry your burdens”. She is a servant who is both your sword and your shield. Finally, the player is not alone in this giant world. As a partner in battle, Lydia holds her own well enough, giving you help in your darkest hour and companionship in the quieter ones. Until… she steps off a ledge, takes an unlucky hit from an enemy (or you) and dies.
It’s hard to describe the attachment you feel towards Lydia. As all companions in Skyrim, she is mortal. Whatever can kill you can kill her. But she’s also the first person you meet in the game who doesn’t want anything from you. Simply there to ease your burden and help you along in your adventure, she is the first friend you are likely to meet that doesn’t ask you to fetch them something or kill something. Search the internet and you’ll find stories of people mourning Lydia’s untimely (and often unexpected) death. Some hold funerals for her while others give up literal hours of game play progress to bring he back to life. Later games by the same company went so far as to make companions invincible, such was the effect of Lydia and companions like her on their player-base.
Cortana – Halo
Those invested in video games know who this is, but for those of you who don’t: In Halo you play Master Chief, a genetically modified super soldier who can fight entire armies on his own. When something important needs to be done, they send you. You’re the first and last line of defense. You’re invincible, untouchable, and that’s what the world needs you to be. But that small blue woman in your head? She’s vulnerable, and it seems everyone in the universe is out to get her.
An A.I. designed to aid humanity and fight the alien invasion, Cortana is quickly designated to be your partner in the fights to come. Time and again she is kidnapped, and time and again you wade through hell to save her. She is your guide, your partner, and your only friend. When players manage to defeat the invaders and save humanity, Master Chief becomes trapped in a spaceship in between space and time, left with his only friend and companion. As you go into cryogenic sleep in order to survive, she is the last voice you hear, whispering a quick “’I’ll miss you” as the door closes.
But the fight is not over and upon awakening the two of you again go into battle together. A new Big Bad has appeared, and with Cortana you finally chase him down and confront him. On a large ship threatening Earth, Master Chief finds him covered by an impenetrable shield. The only way through is (spoiler: highlight to reveal) for Cortana to upload herself into nearby computers, overloading them to lower the shield but fragmenting her personality and destroying the data chip she was on. It works. Master Chief is allowed to meet the Big Bad in battle and defeats him. With the war all but over, Master Chief sets off a nuke that destroys the warship, ending the threat and saving Earth. As the explosion goes off Cortana creates a shield out of herself, sheltering him from the explosion and saving his life.
As the game ends a cut scene plays with Cortana appearing to players one last time to say goodbye to Master Chief. With a short “Welcome Home” she disappears, leaving Master Chief, the invincible soldier, a lonely and broken man.
Aggro – Shadow of the Colossus
The first and only animal in this list, Aggro is your horse in a game where you hunt down giant creatures in order to save a girl from death. The world is large and, save for the quarry you hunt, largely empty. As the only living thing you encounter that you don’t try to kill, it’s easy to say that the devs are cheating here. But little is done in this game to make you actually care about your horse. He carries you around, helps you out a little bit in battle, but you don’t feed him, don’t take care of him. In fact if you really wanted to you could ignore him for most of the game. Then he does something noble, and you suddenly realize how much he mattered.
Crossing a crumbling stone bridge, (spoiler: highlight to reveal) the path below you begins to crack. Aggro, sensing the danger and knowing what is coming, flings the player clear from the falling bridge before tumbling into the abyss below, crashing into the water and disappearing from view. You dumb, beautiful animal.
Everyone – Undertale
Undertale is a game with basic graphics, spartan gameplay and a main character whose personality is entirely up to you. While that seems to be a recipe for disaster, it turns out that the world is full of charming creatures, vibrant personalities and different endings depending on how you play. But that’s the catch. What makes Undertale stand out is that you don’t have to kill anything in order to win the game. But you can.
Monsters appear out of thin air as you traverse the map, attacking you with moves that cause little mini-games to play where you can avoid taking any damage whatsoever. Likewise, you are given options during battle where you can avoid having to attack them, instead winning them over with friendship. Beating the game without causing any death (spoiler: highlight to reveal) treats you to a happy ending where you and all of your new friends escape the underground world you are trapped in and emerge out into the open world above. In the back of your mind though, you remember that Attack button that is present in every fight you faced. Meet the Genocide run.
While Pacifist is a charming romp through a world with equally charming characters, Genocide seeks to undo all of that. To get this ending, you are forced to kill those creatures and NPC’s you grew so fond of until, when you enter an area, it tells you that nobody is left. (spoiler: highlight to reveal) Main characters in the plot are not spared this fate and, for those of you curious about what affect it has on the player but do not have the fortitude to do it yourself, simply find a playthrough of it online. Watch as they struggle through the suddenly very difficult fights, as they break down near the end as the last of their dear friends falls by their hand. Pacifist may be emotionally charged, but Genocide takes it to an entirely different level for those who are invested in the world.
Which brings us to the last two games on the list. People familiar with games will likely have heard of them already, but they are probably two of the more emotionally gripping games that have been created. I did my best to keep spoilers out of it so you can experience them for yourself.
Life is Strange
Set in a small rural town, Life is Strange is a story about Max Caulfield, an 18-year-old girl who is returning to her childhood hometown after a long absence away. After saving her childhood friend Chloe from a boy trying to kill her in the bathroom, Max discovers she has the ability to rewind time, sometimes even stopping it completely. The plot unfolds and revolves around this mechanic, giving Max the ability to change events and influence them to fit her desires. Lives can be saved or lost, a mystery can unfold in different ways and, in the end, Max can make a decision that affects everybody in town.
Rocky, a gamer and streamer going by the name SumWun online, described his experience and relationship with the characters in Life is Strange as being “Completely emotionally attached to the characters,” noting that the game “…has you make decisions on things that are very minor. An example is the choice of having bacon & eggs or waffles for breakfast.” Going this far to give the player a choice of how the character lives, even with things so simple as eating breakfast does a lot to endear somebody to a character. Personality is expressed in the little things we do every day as well.
The relationships you forge with the people around you, with the game encouraging you to make those connections and learn about their lives is expressed later down the road. Every decision has consequences, be it good or bad. Be kind to a character in the past? They may reward you with the same in the future. Ignore or belittle a character? Like Telltale Games, they will remember that. Max’s life is in your hands, and in the end, every decision is yours to make.
“Of course for most decisions you can use the game’s rewind mechanic to see how the characters will react short term,” Rocky says of the game‘s main mechanic. “But ultimately you will need to make a decision. Because of that the decision is yours. Many of them will affect the characters and game world in the later episodes. Sometimes unexpectedly.”
Even up to the very end, Max’s fate, and the fate of many other characters you get to know and love, is completely in your hands.
A short indie game by thatgamecompany, Journey is a story about a robed figure and his… journey across the world. Players first meet their character on a sand dune in a vast desert. Far in the distance, a mountain bears down on the surroundings with something glowing up near its peak. The only destination and direction you are given is that mountain, and as you travel through the world you experience the ruins of a grand, lost civilization. Found in these ruins are stones where the player can rest, granting them visions in their sleep of a great, white robed figure in a room. Painted on the walls are pictures depicting the rise and fall of the civilization around you as you move from place to place. It’s hard to describe any more without spoiling the journey for yourself, and this is one you want to experience for yourself. As players reach the mountain and the end of their journey, they are granted one final vision as the credits roll.
Different from other games in this article, Journey is a solitary yet not solitary voyage. Every once in a while, you’ll encounter another player at random, and be able to help each other along this path you both trek. With singing as the only form of communication, you are given a chance to feel you are not alone in your travels, while the game tries to make sure that you understand this is still your voyage..
Sanatana Mishra, an indie developer himself from Australia, talked a little bit about his experience with games and emotional connections. “We tend to invest in characters when the game does a good job of aligning our own emotional state with that of the character we are seeing,” noting that “In Journey they do a great job of aligning you from the very start as your character is essentially a newborn, which means you know what they know, your actions are limited, and as you progress and explore you learn about the world with them. When they struggle emotionally and physically towards the end you also struggle through that shared connection and mechanical changes in the controls.”
Speaking about the ending, he went on to describe that he had “seen at least three people cry in that moment just from the sense of release.” This type of emotional connection, one of discovery and tension, of release and relief at the end of a journey, is one that very few games can pull off. The ending is not inherently sad, no dialogue is read or given during the game. But the pure act of playing it, of being in this game and this world… that it can make you feel so strongly with the smallest amount of tug on your heartstrings is proof that, in some cases, we want to connect to these characters. Even if the developers themselves aren’t pushing those connections onto us.
But what do you think about the topic? Have I missed any games that deserve mention? What games have made you feel strongly about something? Leave a comment below, and thanks for reading!
The Sincere Scholar Mage is an aspiring writer that is Majoring in Professional writing at Michigan State University. When he is not on Twitter, he spends his time playing and writing about video games at Support Role and getting emotionally attached to little digital people.
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