Sometimes for the party to go on one of the characters in it has to die. It’s a well-worn trope of the genre that players have seen used to outstanding and emotional effect, as well as taken to near-comical levels of extreme. Stories in all forms of media employ this trick to up the stakes, giving scenes a sense of weight that would otherwise be missing and clearing the way for characters to take stock of their goals before a finale. Usually this comes when it looks like a final, decisive victory is at hand before events spiral out of the control and in the case of video games this is much more of a loss than when it happens in conventional media because you’ve spent time playing as and building up the proficiency of these characters. Players cried when Aerith (Aeris) died in Final Fantasy VII because of the mixture of narrative expectation (she was the games key love interest for Cloud) and her position as the best healer in the game, meaning that many had chosen to use her from the point of her recruitment. Similarly the character of Alys in Phantasy Star IV acts as a powerhouse and mentor figure, rendering her loss more acute when it finally happens.
This article looks at some of the more memorable moments when characters have made epic sacrifices in order for the game to continue, not always at the ultimate cost of their lives, but always in extreme circumstances. Because of its subject matter, this article contains spoilers for the narratives of several titles.
1. PALOM AND POROM (Final Fantasy IV)
Coming at a moment when it looks like the former Dark Knight, Cecil is at his strongest, twin mages Palom and Porom turn themselves to stone in order to prevent the walls of a room from crushing them all. To better set the scene, Cecil has finally returned to the castle at Baron for the first time since his adventure began in order to face off with the king responsible for invading foreign nations and stealing their crystals. He’s gone from being a disgraced Dark Knight full of doubt and self-loathing to a Paladin, led on this journey of self-transformation by the two young siblings. As a part of this process his level dropped from around 40-50 to 1, and the player had to rely on the combined spell casting power that they possessed to keep Cecil safe while he caught back up again. Their sacrifice isn’t discussed prior to its occurrence; rather the pair knows what needs to be done and agree to do so without letting Cecil know their intentions, turning their bodies to stone voluntarily in such a way that prevents the player using a regular ‘Soft’ item to remove the effect. Worse, their bodies remain there throughout the games latter half and can be visited. A later revelation sees them revived for the game’s final act, but in a title that makes a mockery of heroic sacrifices (it feels like party members are lining up to throw themselves at the enemy, with one character literally leaping from an airship with dynamite strapped to his chest!) it’s refreshing to see a noble act that puts the player on the back-foot.
2. NANAMI (Suikoden II)
Sister to the game’s leading character, Nanami is a kung-fu fighting role model for women everywhere who is equal parts awkward teenaged girl, loving sister and kick-arse combatant. Not introduced until the close Suikoden II’s first act, she’s used primarily for comic relief before settling comfortably into a role as the ‘voice’ of your silent protagonist’s conscience. Suikoden II even features an alternative ending where she convinces you to run away with her when it looks like things are turning to the dark, and although it gives plenty of chances for the pair of your to turn back and be heroes, it’s awfully compelling to stick with her first idea and run away to start new lives without the endless bloodshed. Nanami is placed by your side throughout key sequences and at one point takes an arrow to the chest in the defence of you, deflecting multiple shots intended to take out the protagonist before finally falling. The following story sequences see a week fly-by as you struggle to deal with her loss, time stopping having a meaning to the games cast. When you finally do venture back out into the world it’s in the knowledge that a major part of your personal story has gone. If the player has recruited all 108 stars of destiny before this point (no easy task) she’ll reveal herself to you at the games climax, having hidden away to prevent your sparing her feelings from stopping you doing what needed to be done to win the war, otherwise this death is permanent. Nanami’s strength as a character and believable sibling relationship to the player marks her as a very important part of Suikoden II’s success and I’ve known players who have restarted the whole game to ensure that they collected all 108 stars before returning to that point.
3. TIDUS (Final Fantasy X)
Tidus is an example of a games protagonist making a choice to save the world over his own survival. Close to the end of the game it is revealed that he’s not a man out of time as was previously suspected, but rather a spirit plucked from the dreams of the monster Sin, which the games party has been questing to destroy. When given the option to drop out, or to flee and live happily ever after with the games love interest he instead gains a new-found focus that his otherwise smart-mouthed and light-hearted demeanour had been lacking until that moment. When the final boss is defeated it’s a moment of ultimate victory for the player, but the following story sequences see that adrenaline rush turn to a sensation of regret as Tidus begins to fade away. The game’s final coda, his lover whistling out into the ocean in reference to an early promise that he’d come if she needed him, is heart breaking, but a post-credits shot of a sleeping Tidus hearing this call lends a sense of bitter-sweet hope. The events of sequel ‘Final Fantasy X-2’ may have spoiled this sacrifice for some, with a ‘get out of jail free’ card installed in that title’s DNA, but taken as it is the closing moments of Final Fantasy X are among the series’ most powerful.
4. MAXIM AND SELAN (Lufia 2)
That Lufia 2 retells the story that we saw end dramatically in the opening prelude to the original Lufia means that many players went into this prequel/sequel with a knowledge of how things were going to play out. The party storms the floating Doom Island and take on the Sinistrals. Selan dies pitting her strength of her soul against that of a malevolent god in order to prevent the destruction of the world, and her lover Maxim drives himself to fatal exhaustion doing the same, bringing the island crashing down and destroying it whilst allowing their fellow party members to escape. That the game is played start to finish with the player having already seen this tragic end occur once already makes it a particularly painful experience when history plays out in exactly the same manner, and no alternate ending is present to make events play out differently. It’s hard to recommend the best starting point for players entering the Lufia series, with the story starting chronologically with part 2, but playing the games in their order of their release allows for the full impact of this storytelling device to be felt.
5. LUC (Suikoden III)
Playing Suikoden III allows the player to see the conflict in the Grasslands from multiple perspectives, but the one thing that is apparent from all of them is that Luc is the games villain. A masked bishop of great power and a man intent on stripping the True Runes of Water, Lightning and Fire from the games characters and destroying them, releasing massive magical chaos onto the world. At the games conclusion the player takes him and his allies out in a series of battles that feel challenging and bring the tale to a satisfying conclusion. However should the player have collected all 108 Stars of Destiny then an epilogue chapter opens up that shows the whole game from Luc’s perspective. Here we see a man who has had his life preserved by the True Earth Rune and seen the impact of the previous games in the series and their struggles over the power contained in True Runes. We share in his conclusion that mankind must break free of them if it is to forge a destiny free of war and ultimately we see him fail to make this dream a reality. Suikoden III manages to tell a story from all perspectives in its conflict and as such (with the possible exception of Yuber, who is a recurring series antagonist and represents Chaos) has no true villains. Though many believe that Suikoden II is the series high-point, this intelligent and well written narrative makes a solid case for Suikoden III as a masterpiece in storytelling.