Character Death MC vs NPC - Which is more emotional?

Questions, skill improvement, and respectful critique involving game writing.
Post Reply
User avatar
Posts: 146
Joined: Thu Mar 24, 2016 9:18 pm
Completed: Shine (RPG Maker), Heroes (RPG Maker), Lantern Bearer (RPG Maker), Loop the Loop (Unity), Magic Potion (Unity), Other Stars (Unreal), Sky Eye (RPG Maker), WIN Delivery & Fateful (Ren'Py)
Projects: Weird Is Normal (Ren'Py), Gnowee (prob. Game Maker)
Tumblr: kaiopdebeeck
Location: Germany

Character Death MC vs NPC - Which is more emotional?

#1 Post by MoonByte » Sat Apr 16, 2016 3:16 pm

So I have been thinking...
What would you say hurts more: the player seeing the MC die or seeing someone else die from their POV?
Of course I am aware that there are multiple possibilities that can increase or decrease the chance to feel empathy to begin with.
A standard Game Over screen will probably only result in an emotional breakdown, if the player had tried to beat the enemy for two hours already, only for it to have been useless. Otherwise it's just a "Well, shit, gotta try again" reaction with a shrug. But if the MC dies in some heroic sacrifice at the end to save the world, everyone will get an tear of accomplishment in their eye.
Same with would think. But usually if they die, they are just a case of "Stuffed into the Fridge" aka "Introduced to be nice and important to the MC, then killed off so that MC can go on bloody revenge without looking sociopathic.
Of course, some Fridge-people still have impact. People love to mention Aerith from FF7, to the point where even people that never played the game know about the whole thing.

But I want to honestly ask:
What is more emotional for a player in your opinion?
To have the MC, their avatar who they may have identified with, die?
Or to have an NPC die? And if the latter, what circumstances do you see as necessary to give that impact?

I personally do REALLY think that the MC can NEVER have the impact that a good written NPC can create upon death. I have watched movies and played games where the hero dies, either tragic or with some beautiful "We'll never forget 'em *sniff*" feeling a la Matrix.
Sure, they were emotional, but those characters often make it a point about how the world revolves around them and how without them, the world would have been wasted anyway, so once it is save, they can die. It's fine, no reason to freak out about it.
A few exceptions exist, such as the protagonists in the
series for me, who all die a either horrific or very empathic death. Or the tragic ending of the game
The Walking Dead, Season 1

A well-written NPC death is something different. Since they are usually not the hero, their death has more tragedy in my eyes. Depending on the circumstances, it can feel just so much more painful, in both positive and negative death situations. Look at "To The Moon": you play as two scientists, but there are three NPCs dying (though you know in advance due to the premise of the story) and you feel TERRIBLE for each of them. There is the
in "Legend of Dragoon" who's death comes sudden, unexpected and will make you feel just so much sadness for their death and hatred for the killer. Suga in "Forest of the Drizzling Rain" can die based on bad decisions and the fact that he has been with you the entire game, protecting and sheltering you makes his death feel extremely painful.
Think of
the dog
from Fable 2, who helped you all the time, just to get cruelly stabbed.
It is difficult, but especially when the death is not something that the player expects hours ahead, it has so much more impact. You know the MC may die when their journey is almost over (unless you trick the player by starting with a false protagonist such as Fatal Frame 1), but the NPC can die anywhere from early on to the last two minutes of the credits. They can die unexpected, be it as a self-made sacifice, in an accident, from sickness, injury or whatever.
Heck, there are games that have no actual MC, where everyone is as much MC as NPC and all can die (Until Dawn) and where you may well end up throwing your controller in frustration of having allowed that character to die when it hadn't been necessary.

I believe, for as difficult it is to make a NPCs death actually matter in the story and not just as a "Well, Herc is a nice and funny guy, how to make him actually dangerous? Ah, let's throw a pillar on Meg, that shall do!". BUT if it is done, then I'd say it always outmatches the MC's death. In some cases, the MC AND the player suffer from that characters death even. Which is often even the premise of the entire Silent Hill series, all revolving around the player and MC trying to save someone (whether that person is already dead or not depends on the game, but yeah).

User avatar
Posts: 66
Joined: Thu Oct 15, 2009 9:35 pm
Organization: Kappa Creek
Tumblr: klawzie
Deviantart: klawzie
Location: SE USA

Re: Character Death MC vs NPC - Which is more emotional?

#2 Post by Klawzie » Sat Apr 16, 2016 9:03 pm

Prefacing this with, "I like happy endings." I'm not a fan of tragedy and generally avoid it. When people talk about a work and one of the first things they mention is, "It made me cry!" I want nothing to do with it. xD; (I still haven't seen Up, even though I'm pretty sure by now I already know what the sad bits are.) I don't really like "heroic deaths" because I always feel like the happiest ending doesn't involve a living sacrifice. (Noble, perhaps. Necessary, perhaps. But happy? No.)

There are certain heart strings of mine that are easily tugged. Even obvious/poorly done set-ups can "get" me. (Usually, this results in a sort of deep resentment. I hate crying and feeling manipulated by something done poorly or in something it feels inappropriate in just pisses me off.)

I think that ultimately, for an MC's death, feeling like "you could have saved them" has no real impact other than, "Let's try that again." (Or - at most affecting - "Let's let that never happen again.") For an NPC's death, the feeling that I could have saved them makes me feel guilty (especially if I liked them). When I play Fire Emblem, it's "no man left behind", even if I don't actually like the character. If I figure out that a character can't be saved and it felt like I could have or should have been able to, I get frustrated. (Aerith? Why did Phoenix Down not work? -- /noting I haven't played, but everyone always makes that joke, so why can't I? :P )

Until Dawn is a very good piece to study. I don't have the system, so I just watched Let's Plays (lots of them - the reactions were really interesting and not in the "haha, jumpscare!" way). If you can, I'd say it'd probably be better to play it yourself. Preferably with other people in the room with you since that seems to increase the experience (based on the LPs I've seen - solo players didn't get into it as much as those who were playing with others). I most recommend Scary Game Squad's LP, though I really enjoyed the one played by presshearttocontinue and her fiance thestrippin (full playthrough is on both of their channels, so it's just up to you which you watch it on.)

Knowing that any of the cast can die and not wanting to be powerless to stop it (again) makes the players paranoid of losing them - even when by and large every person I've seen or heard play the game thinks the entire cast is awful to one degree or another. Some characters end up growing on players, though - even some of the worst have their fans. When a player loses a character, there's always dismay. Some of that is clearly in the gamer mindset of, "I am not performing optimally - crap!" But those who are particularly drawn into the story are also upset on at least a human level of "a life lost". If they really liked the character, or a character they liked was close to the character, they feel it. You can hear it in a LPer's voice when they lose someone they had a connection for. And there were some who apologized to the characters who mourned the lost - and seemed to mean it beyond the playing to the viewing audience.

A great game to study for how to get that reaction out of people! Even if it has the complication of basically every character being both an "MC" and an "NPC" - the interesting part is how the deaths can affect people even if people by and large find them awful.

So... we'll say now that it's clear you can't save them.

For Fire Emblem: Awakening, that's taken care of with cut scenes. Trying not to spoiler it (though it does happen early in the game), but we'll just say that with the first NPC death (maybe the only one? I honestly haven't finished, so I don't know for sure there are any others, I just assume there are), I actually stopped playing the game to look up online which choice was "better" because it seemed pretty clear that there wasn't a way to save them and I at least wanted to pick the one that would have the least upsetting results. It moved me because I felt their actions were noble and, moreover, the depth of pain shown by those who cared for them moved me. I really wanted to go after the badguys. And I think part of it was I did have that choice. It in some way made me a part of what happened in a way a cut scene without any sort of interactivity wouldn't.

Mild spoilers for the very beginning of Until Dawn: There's nothing you can do for either of the sisters at the beginning of the game. You don't usually realize that the first time you play, though. (So I guess I'm cheating a little on my, "It's clear you can't save them" bit - but some people do catch on.) You're given choices - so gamers tend to assume that you can. That probably activates the "guilt", especially since everything you've seen up until that point makes you feel sympathy for them. When they die, it's "your" fault for not saving these girls who didn't deserve what happened to them, right? Oddly, finding out later that there's no way to save them doesn't make me feel frustration. (I'm guessing some of it has to do with me only watching LPs of it, so I didn't feel quite as complicit in their deaths. But I think most of it is just recognizing it was "the tutorial" and the horror movie trope of "first blood".) What the deaths do is make most gamers dead-set on "never again".

So - what has to be necessary to give that impact...

I think I've made pretty clear with the two examples that feeling "involved" or even "complicit" in an NPC's death is very affecting. I definitely prefer seeing that I can't actually do anything or it being made clear shortly after it happens that there was nothing I could have done, just because it saves me from going, "I'll restart from the previous save and try again. D:" or feeling frustrated the entire rest of the play-through, thinking that the reason it happened was because I did something wrong (and "whatever it was must have been before my last save").

Empathy/sympathy should be established. If not through the NPC itself, then the MC(s) it affects. I oddly feel uncomfortable with giving examples of what "gets" me, so I'll just leave it at that. I'm sure the next bit gives hints anyway.

You can look to how the opposite is achieved too. Why don't you usually feel sympathy for "some random" being murdered? For instance - the death of a security guard. If they're a bad guy: they're on the "wrong side", often being rendered faceless (mask/shadows/drawn that way in a game), sometimes explicitly given off-putting characterization like saying or doing something unpleasant, and often just the fact that they're wearing a uniform (and thus "one of many") - all of that can make it less impactful when they die. In fact - you see many of the same techniques used if they're not a "bad guy". You get a generic looking person and put them in a uniform and that alone is enough for most people to feel nothing when the monster crawls out from the ducts and eats them or the ruthless spy shoots them. Especially if they don't get a name or any indication of personality.

All I really warn about is foreshadowing too heavily. Some foreshadowing is probably good, but if you go too heavy on it, people generally have already gone, "Ah - expendable character trying to manipulate me into feeling something. Nah."

I feel like I have more to say, but I've already made a text wall most people probably won't read. xD So I'll stop.

User avatar
Lemma-Class Veteran
Posts: 2299
Joined: Mon Feb 06, 2012 9:50 pm
Completed: Icebound, Selenon Rising Ep. 1-2
Projects: Selenon Rising Ep. 3-4
Organization: Fastermind Games
Deviantart: sundownkid
Location: NYC

Re: Character Death MC vs NPC - Which is more emotional?

#3 Post by SundownKid » Tue Apr 19, 2016 12:13 am

Id have to go on the side of NPC dying any day.

Generally when the MC (actually, not a fake death) dies it's either A) feeling cheated... like "the author just trolled me!" or B) feeling like it's cliched, like a hero giving his life at the end of a story to save the day, which is quite common in both JRPGs and WRPGs.

When an NPC dies though, the very unexpectedness of it can make it impactful without the reader feeling like they're being taken advantage of for emotional response by having the MC kick the bucket. Because, see, the world can go on without that NPC, but there is still a tragedy there they have to deal with.

Of course MC dying can also be impactful if the story is written well. However, that is more rare. In general I have found NPC's dying to be more emotional.

User avatar
Posts: 10
Joined: Mon Feb 22, 2016 5:33 am
Deviantart: descats

Re: Character Death MC vs NPC - Which is more emotional?

#4 Post by descats » Mon Apr 25, 2016 4:59 pm

My deal is that whenever you play, you use the MC as your persona/avatar so whenever they die I find their death very unrelatable... mainly cause I have never died myself, haha.

Opposing to this concept, I think everyone has experienced loss in one way or another so NPC deaths are way more powerful imo.

Pd. The Legend of Dragoon is such an amazing underrated game.

Post Reply

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users