Heroes Of The Afterlife: Why Do Video Games Kill Their Good Guys?

Saturday 21 July 2018

While not exactly rare, the general tendency of modern video game developers to kill their heroes is still very interesting from many aspects. As video games became more and more elaborate in both their gameplay construction and - most importantly - their stories, the lead characters subsequently became more complex and realistic; and if we take into consideration the inclusion of cutscenes which add a high cinematic value to the projects, a notable number of the contemporary video games are almost like movies which, most of the times, are of the dramatic kind.

Although several times there are secondary characters which play a key role in the plots and are extremely important in general, the lead characters are the ones which carry the stories on their shoulders. Juli Kidman's role may be essential in The Evil Within 2, but it is Sebastian Castellanos who goes through all the trials and pushes the storyline forward with his decisions. Chloe Price is surely a character of critical importance in Life Is Strange, but it is Max Caulfield's actions that have consequences on everyone around her. Steve Burnside may affect certain developments with what he does in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, but it is Claire Redfield who will be forced to take the final decisions.

In that sense, the lead characters are the ones who, somehow, form the story as it goes, shining a light on all the potential possibilities and routes. Their personality defines the outcome of each event and everything is viewed through their eyes - which also happens to be literal as the player's experience of the game is through them. That said, when you play as a specific character, it is as if you are called to get inside his/her mind. As a player, you make your heroes interact with people and objects, you lead them to directions that may prove either good or bad decisions, and although you can't always empathize with them, you end up seeing them as some sort of companions.

Although you can always replay a game and thus 'revive' your hero/heroine as many times as you want, seeing them die at the end of the road is like having to part forever with a dear friend. Going through an epic adventure with a hero whose fate is bleak, is very different from playing with one who triumphs and enjoys his/her happy ending. Equally different may be the reasons why a hero's fate grants him with an unfortunate end. To make this analysis more specific, I will use the examples of Miasmata, Bioshock Infinite, Murdered: Soul Suspect, Resident Evil 6 and Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea 2.

In Miasmata, a wonderful independant adventure game by IonFX, you play as Robert Hughes, a guy who wakes up on the shore of a mysterious island overwhelmed with beautiful plants and flowers. His boat is broken so he cannot leave, he seems to have lost part of his memory and his health is in a really bad state. As he starts exploring the place, he discovers several labs where obviously a research was taking place. However all the scientists involved are dead - he finds the corpses as he goes - and all that is left is their notes which reveal many interesting details about the research and all the dark background behind it. As it turns out, said scientists were gifted people working on finding a cure for a lethal plague, and were sent on that island as all its vegetation obviously was hiding vital medical secrets. However, each one of them who was reaching the conclusion of the research, therefore discovering the cure, was eventually killed without being able to transport the medicine to the rest of the world. Robert starts wandering around the island, discovering peculiar plants some of which are particularly useful for boosting up his health, while his main quest is, following the notes left by the scientists, to locate a series of rare flowers which will form the cure for the plague.

Soon he finds out that he is not completely alone on the seemingly abandoned island. There is a strange creature wandering about - something like hybrid between a bull and a cat - which is generally identified as 'the creature' and which will relentlessly chase him in case that it spots him. The creature, although it can be outsmarted, is extremely vicious in its attacks, and moreover it cannot be fought. Robert's alternatives are to run like mad away from it, or carefully hide so as to disappear from it's vision's range. As soon as he forms the cure and drinks it however, the creature magically disappears. Finally cured, Robert has all the strength that he needs to swim to the boat landing that awaits out in the open on a smaller island and leave with an injection containing the cure. But this is when the twist happens. When Robert gets in the boat, he sees a bottle of whiskey and a dagger waiting for him. On the floor of the boat, several other injections containing the cure are lying about. The game ends as Robert drinks the whiskey and we can assume that he used the dagger to commit suicide while watching the beautiful island in the distance.

The boat will probably never leave the island

It is largely hinted - if not clearly pointed out - that the lethal creature is either a figment of Robert's imagination (which is why it disappears when he is cured) or it represents his own dark side. Some of the scientists obviously managed to get to the boat but they never left; others were killed on the island by the creature. So was it Robert who actually killed them? Was the creature a hallucination caused by the illness from which all those people - including Robert - were, apparently, suffering?

The notion of utopia is very prominent in this game, and also the general idea that people are trapped in a vicious circle that prevents them from moving forward. Next to the boat landing, there is a table with a copy of Milton's "Paradise Lost" on it, which serves as some sort of reminder that people are always looking for something more, for their own Paradise, but then all is vain and mundane and there really is no cure - in this sense, metaphorical - for the fate of humanity. All that remains is the beauty of nature, as it is depicted on the island.

If Robert was to depart happily on his boat with the injection, carrying his positive message to the world, the game would have its happy ending but then the whole atmosphere that was being created up to then would have been completely ruined. Moreover, the deep philosophical side of the story would have been extremely limited and superficial. By giving its hero a tragic ending, the game gave boost to its philosophical side, remained faithful to its overall feel and offered several issues for discussion and thought.

The creature's appearance has various interpretations

On a completely different pace, Resident Evil 6 by Capcom is a pure action / adventure game, comprised of four interwined stories, with several interesting heroes in its cast. Its main plot is centered around an evil man, Derek Simmons, an even more evil woman, Carla Radames, and a young mercenary, Jake Muller, who happens to be the host of a rare antibody that could cure or boost the destructive C-virus, depending on the use. Jake Muller, who is the son of the notorious Albert Wesker, teams up with Sherry Birkin, the daughter of the equally infamous scientist, when Sherry, ignorant about her boss's nasty plans, sets on her mission to bring Jake to Simmons. Meanwhile, Leon Kennedy is on a race against time to stop Simmons, aided by agent Helena Harper, whose sister was one of the evil guy's victims. Ada Wong, whose image, name and personality was used by Carla Radames due to a scientific trap set by Simmons, begins her own personal war to finish him. At the same time, Chris Redfield with his second-in-command, Piers Nivans, is determined to stop Carla Radames, who was responsible for the cruel killing of several members of his team some months ago.

All the stories in the game receive a well-deserved happy ending - except for Chris Redfield' story. His desperate mission ends in an incredibly tragical scene where Piers, after being severely injured by Carla's most vicious monster, injects himself with a dose of the C-virus and half his body gets mutated. This is most heart-breaking when you realise that he does this so as to save his captain's life: the monster, having thrown Piers onto a metallic construction, impaling him, grabs Chris and is about to kill him. Just then Piers, knowing that in his current condition he will be unable to help Chris, decides to sacrifice himself for the sake of his captain. In the end, he manages to stay behind, sending Chris off to the escape route alone, obviously dying soon after the story concludes.

Piers's decision to sacrifice his life signifies his devotion to Chris and their cause

The death of Piers in Resident Evil 6 is very much different from Robert's in Miasmata. Here we have the sacrifice of a hero, of a soldier whose priority is his duty and the devotion to his captain. If you play Chris's story as Piers, you have the chance to go through this first-hand, and control Piers as he drags himself towards the injection and subsequently takes the dose. You get to see how he struggles with the mutation rapidly taking control over him, and how his stellar personality gets shattered within minutes. He is unable to talk or even walk properly, while his mutated arm becomes even more powerful and dangerous as the minutes pass.The fact that Piers is so young (27 years of age) makes his demise even more dramatic. Ironically enough, for all these reasons Chris's story - and, in consequence, the whole game - gains its extra touch of realism mixed with cinematic melodrama.

The last glimpse of Piers that we get is as heartbreaking as his tragic end

When it comes to Bioshock Infinite, things become more complex. This amazing steampunk adventure by Irrational Games is set in a world where there are cities floating in the air and others sitting at the bottom of the sea. There is a mix of eras and multiple realites where people exist in various versions of themselves. You play as Booker DeWitt, a war veteran who participated in a series of historical battles in which he committed several atrocities. Later on, overwhelmed by guilt, he sought peace of mind by approaching a man who promised salvation through baptism. In one version of reality, he changed his mind and was never baptised, and lived on with his guilt as Booker DeWitt. In another version, he accepted the baptism and was reborn as a new man, the ruthless Zachary Comstock. As Comstock, he collaborated with an ingenious scientist, Rosalind Lutece, who had invented a technology that could create a floating city. With her help, he founded Columbia, a colourful Paradise in the sky, where he, taking advantage of Rosalind's discovery of the Tears - floating slots that allowed time travel - posed to his people as some sort of prophet. In an attempt to keep this "fairy tale" going, and knowing that he was sterile, Comstock bought a baby girl from a man who owed a huge debt. That man was Booker DeWitt - his original self from another reality.

Rosalind, with the help of Robert, a man who looked like her twin brother but was, in fact, her male version from another reality, having helped Comstock kidnap Booker's baby, wanted to make up for it and ordered Booker to "bring back the girl" in exchange for his debt. The truth was that Rosalind actually brought Booker in Comstock's reality so as to help him get his baby back from his other self. The baby was now the 20-year-old Elizabeth. Initially unaware of their blood connection, Booker and Elizabeth passed through thick and thin until the truth was finally revealed to both of them (although it is hinted at some point that Elizabeth might have understood much earlier that Booker was in fact her father). When Booker came to the realization that he was actually Zachary Comstock, several versions of Elizabeth, including the ones he already met, drowned him in a symbolic act of baptism.

As cruel as Booker's murder may seem, it is the only way to save his daughter's life

Booker's death is not a simple one. Additionally, it is not a definitive death. After the credits roll, we get a bonus scene where Booker comes to his senses in his office and opens the door of the nearby bedroom where the baby's crib is. The scene closes before we are able to see if there is a baby in there or not, but what matters is that, in our version of Bioschock Infinite's reality, as far as its standard story was concerned, our hero died in the end.

People are multi-dimensional, and this is something that the game depicts literally. However Booker, in any of his versions, had strong remorses torturing him from which he was unable to escape. Even when he became a different man he could not find peace, only this time he was in control of the world around him - something that, naturally, led to his destruction. It is characteristic that when Booker confronts Zachary - that is when the two versions of the same man face each other - the former kills the latter and, not randomly, by first smashing his head on the baptism bowl and then drowning him in it. Later, the several versions of his daughter again drown him in the bowl of baptism. This means that no matter how much "cleansing" he goes through, no matter how many times he is reborn, he will always be the same person in the essence and whatever bad things he had done will never be forgiven. In that sense, Booker's dramatic end is a catharsis, and much less a punishment.

In an alternate reality, Booker died as a hero of the revolution

Although Elizabeth seemingly thriumphs at the end of the game by killing Booker, thus making sure that he will not cause her harm, everything changes for her in the extra episode Burial at Sea 2. In this story, you play as a more grown version of Elizabeth who begins her adventure in an idyllic Paris with children playing, young men flirting her, everyone greeting her joyfully and "La vie on rose" playing in the background. Elizabeth's dream has always been to go to Paris, and by the looks of it she managed it in this version of reality. Soon it turns out though that this was just an illusion. In reality, she is found half-dead near Booker's dead body, after both of them had been brutally hit by a Big Daddy in Rapture, the underwater city known from the previous Bioshock games, at the end of Burial at Sea 1. The Big Daddy killed them both, but Elizabeth managed to revive an alternate version of herself, again with the help of the Luteces, so as to end the cycle of violence in Rapture.

Subsequently, she gets captured by Atlas, a cruel man who is planning an attack in Rapture and who forces her to carry out specific quests in exchange for her liberation. During said quests, she is accompanied by an imaginary version of Booker who talks to her and advices her over the radio. Her main concern is to save Sally, a little girl who had been used by Dr Suchong, a dangerous man in charge of brutal experiments in which little girls are genetically altered so as to be able to collect a special substance from corpses and store it in their own body. Although she is quite efficient in giving Atlas what he wants, he ends up killing her after he has all that he needs in his hands.

Elizabeth's end is one of the saddest scenes in video game history

Elizabeth's death in Burial at Sea 2 has a far more symbolic character than Booker's. Being a victim right from the beginning of her life, she always lived in a fake world. When Booker first located her in the main game, she was locked inside the Monument Tower, a huge golden construction shaped like an angel, where she was reading books all day, dreaming about going to Paris and having the Songbird, a huge mechanical bird, as her sole companion. Then at the beginning of Burial at Sea 2, again she is seen living in an imaginary world, in an idealized version of Paris which soon becomes a nightmare.

Elizabeth is, in fact, living in the margins of reality in all of its versions. Even in the reality where she is a vital part, in Columbia, she is far too smart, far too gifted, far too complex for the world around her. People want to take advantage of her powers, but they essentially view her as some kind of freak. In her more mature and femme-fatale version of the extra episodes, she initially seems to be in control but as it turns out, she is much more a victim now, especially in her part of the story, where she is, moreover, derpived of her special powers and she cannot open Tears anymore. In Burial at Sea 2, she is as lost as Booker was in the original game. She is brave but helpless, exactly like him. Close to the end of her story, Booker himself appears and takes her by the hand, leading her to an important revelation, in a scene that is like a reversed version of one of the last scenes of the main game, where Elizabeth took Booker by the hand and guided him towards the truth about his identity. Elizabeth's alternate self in Burial at Sea 2 somehow identifies with Booker's in the main game. We could even go as far as to think that maybe it is not really Elizabeth in Burial at Sea 2, but it is actually Booker who was brought back to life in the form of Elizabeth. Just like Rosalind Lutece was reborn in another reality as Robert. There is a dominant metaphysical element in Elizabeth's death, which also makes her character even more legendary.

Booker is taking Elizabeth by the hand - or is she just one more version of himself?

There is nothing more distinctly metaphysical, however, than a ghost who is wandering among the living. In Murdered: Soul Suspect by Airtight Games and Square Enix, you play as Ronan O'Connor, a young man who gets killed right at the beginning of the story while chasing a serial killer. The story of the game takes place in Salem, a town connected with the Witch Trials centuries ago. This alone is an element that puts you in the right chilling mood from the start. Ronan was a rogue as a young boy, but things changed when he got married and was aided by his brother-in-law, who was the police chief, to become a detective. After his wife's death, Ronan devoted all his time to his work and started investigating the case of a serial killer who was murdering teenage girls. Although Ronan managed to track the killer in the apartment of a potentional victim, the guy attacked him and subsequently killed him.

On his way to the Afterlife, Ronan is greeted by his wife who informs him that he has to go back to the world of the living as he has issues to solve. Back at his murder scene, Ronan is able to watch his body lying in the street and the police team, including his brother-in-law, examining the elements. He begins his own investigation, which leads him to several unexpected revelations. The mastermind behind the murders is proved to be the evil spirit of Abigail Williams, a real-life puritan who was responsible for the executions of several women in Salem, having accused them as witches. After the dramatic period of the Witch Trials was over, Abigail was imprisoned and executed for her actions. Now her spirit floats around Salem, thirsty for blood. She possesses unaware people, preferably men, and makes them track down and brutally murder young girls who happen to be mediums - therefore, in her eyes, witches. What is most riveting however is that, as the story concludes, Abigail reveals to Ronan that she also used him to kill one of those girls.

Ronan watches his own dead body lying in the street

Ronan's death itself is on a clearly realistic basis, but everything connected to it is largely metaphysical. Ronan became a murderer without realizing it and he obviously had no memory of this action even before his death. When he first encounters the ghost of Sophia, his own victim, the girl runs away screaming in pain. There is absolutely no clue about their true connection however, and when Ronan finally manages to approach her and asks her who killed her and Sophia points at him, we are tricked to think - because her finger points to his police badge - that she means her killer was a cop like Ronan, which makes both the player and Ronan suspect a sly colleague of his. I have to say that the revelation about Ronan being the killer of Sophia was one of the most shocking gaming moments I ever had.

Every time Ronan meets Sophia, the scene is extremely tense and compelling

However we cannot view Ronan's death as a punishment for the murder that he committed, as it was something that he did without being really him. Furthermore, it turns out that Abigail had possessed Ronan's brother-in-law as well. It was him who killed Ronan while being possessed, and, just like Ronan, neither he had any memory of this action. All these powerful elements and interconnections intensify Ronan's tragic fate and although we can play as him from start to finish in his faded ghostly form and in the end watch the happy reunion with his deceased wife in the Afterlife, the fact that he is yet one more dead hero remains and it is something that, combined with the general dramatic and spooky tune of the game, adds an extra undertone of melancholy that inevitably follows the protagonist through the whole course of his adventure.

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