Why Can't Video Games Make You Remember The Dead?

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for Americans, where a nation pauses to solemnly remember its war dead. It's something video games could do a little more often.

Most games don't just feature violence, they feature killing. It's encouraged, often in a militaristic setting. And after decades of advances in design and technology, games are getting really, really good at it. Bullets can now be individually modelled, their impact on flesh and bone able to be accurately replicated.

What happens after the kill, though, they're not so good at.

Memorial Day - and countless other days like it across the world, from Remembrance Day to ANZAC Day - are about paying tribute to the fallen. Yes, they can be hijacked for other means, on both ends of the political spectrum, but at their cores, they're about remembering those who died in the line of duty, and acknowledging their sacrifice.

As such, they're also about remorse. Regret. A dull, aching feeling in the pit of your stomach. Those who have lived through a battle know what it's like to see someone killed in action. Those who have not can only try and imagine what it's like to give up everything - literally everything - in the line of duty.

It's as integral a part of war as the killing. Yet how many games have you ever played that treat death as anything more than a hindrance or a multiplier? Where loss is as important a part of the experience as pulling the trigger?

I don't mean in terms of storytelling. It's easy to kill someone in a script. No, I mean in terms of playing through a game and, through your actions, forming a bond, developed through dependency, with an in-game character. They help you out, you help them out, you grow in experience and ability together, and then suddenly, because of something that just happened, they're dead.

X-Com is one of the few titles to have done this, with the ability to name your squad mates and take them into battle with you. The Rainbow Six series is another, as is Wing Commander. These games allowed you to carry squadmates through from one battle to the next, and as they did, they'd get better. Work better with you. You'd get to know them better. Just like real comrades in a real war.

What made it real, though, was the fact they could die. One stray bullet, whether by accident or some careless command from you, the player, and they were dead. And not video game dead, where you could magically revive them, or they'd be "unconscious" and would return for the next mission. Actually dead. They'd be stricken from the game, their progress lost, and to replace them, you'd need to get a fresh young soldier and do it all again.

To lose a player like that is heart-breaking. And because of that, you remember it. You remember the characters you liked most, the ones who helped you out in the most important missions. And each time you enter a new battle, those old characters are still with you, their loss serving as an example, making you more aware, more cautious of what's around each corner.

It's trivial compared to actual loss, of course, and I want to make that doubly clear: the loss of a virtual squadmate is incomparable to the loss of a real squadmate in a real war. It would be insulting to insinuate otherwise.

As games seem so intent on conjuring all kinds of other emotions, from excitement to humour to fear, it'd be nice if they could look past the act of pulling a trigger and deal with some less pleasant, but no less important emotions as well. Like remorse. Regret. And remembrance.


Comments

    MGS, end of story.

    MGS3 to be specific. But death in any Bioware game also is pretty poignant. Especially in the original Mass Effect.

      Sorry, but I didn't find the story-driven Mass Effect death poignant at all. Stupid and pointless, yes. Poignant no. I never used either of those characters, and didn't care when the annoying whiner was gone.

        i never found the scripted choice between 2 squad-mates in ME1 a challenging choice at all, one of them had been preaching religion at me and disagreeing with me for the whole game... it was an easy choice to let the woman die. it was actually kind of a relief since i hate religious undertones ruining games

    Pretty sure story driven death isn't what Luke is going for here. What he's interested in is having a character die who you *could* have saved. Of course the more killable your companions are the more effort it takes to code all possible outcomes and eventually you lose characterization.

    To make a character someone you can connect with you have to either imbue them with character traits, which in turn means their death will be more story driven or provide a mostly blank template and hope the player invests in them of their own accord.

    *slight spoiler*
    Oh and I'll take FFVII for the story killing version. I spent hours trying to find an alternate ending that would save her and I knew others that spent *days*

    Because remembering the dead isn't fun? How about they make the characters go through fits of depression and sit in a room for hours rocking back and forth feeling terrible? Sounds like a party. Let me put down Mario Kart so I can get my hands on that.

    Yeah, Metal Gear Solid has, in my opinion, has to be one of the best games for this. Especially if you played all 4. The game really took character death seriously...Sniper Wolf, Emma Emmerich, Fortune, the several deaths in MGS4 and of course, the most memorable being at the end of MGS3

    Games nowadays don't last enough to develop a character to the point where you really feel it when a character dies. However CoD4 would get a honorable mention for the nuclear explosion bit, and to a lesser extent, the several repeats in CoD4.5 aka mw2...

      Did you just praise Metal Gear Solid then lamment that games now don't last long enough?

      Metal Gear Solid lasted like 4 hours if you took out all the cutscenes, and I'm not exaggerating to be facetious, there were literally like 3 or 4 hours of cut scenes or codec conversations in that game.

      Personaly I found MGS to be far too pretentious to care about the characters.

    Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3. I played the first level fighting the Valkria chick and two of my faviourte charecters died.

    I turned off the PS3 and haven't played the game since then.

    Dogmeat! Everytime I see a sentry bot I cry a little inside D'= and no amount of puppies can replace him

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