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Suicide, Sacrifice and Video Gaming’s Illusion of Choice

We've seen in-game colleague selflessly give themselves up to aid our progress – but what if the story ended when you do?

by Mike Diver
27 March 2015, 12:51pm

Screen shot from 'The Static Speaks My Name'

This article contains plot spoilers for the Mass Effect series, Life is Strange, Final Fantasy V, Gears of War 3, Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead, Beyond: Two Souls and The Static Speaks My Name.

Mordin Solus, I'll never forget you. I did everything I could to keep my crew, my friends, alive as Commander Shepard of the Normandy SR-2, and did, reaching the climax of Mass Effect 2 with a complete complement of space-faring colleagues. We defeated the threat of the Collectors, and bought humanity blessed time in the face of the Reaper menace. Time to reflect on our achievements, to develop deeper bonds. Bonds that would then be snapped come the final entry in BioWare's sci-fi action-RPG trilogy, no matter my efforts to keep things together.

I'd become endeared to Mordin during our time together. The Salarian scientist mightn't have seemed all that human beside the blue-skinned Asaris, his race serving as the ME franchise's own brand of "grey alien" – except they were sort of orangey brown, or sometimes a shade of greenish blue – but he loved Earth's culture. He loved to sing. He had a good heart. He was haunted by past experiments, particularly the genophage, a virus engineered to sterilise a then-hostile alien race, the frog-like Krogans, but frequently wore a smile. He and Shepard – he and I – had one of the closest relationships of any aboard the Cerberus-funded super-spec spaceship we called home.

And then, he went and died.

There was a way of keeping Mordin alive in Mass Effect 3, but I didn't get the relevant conversational option. Somewhere between starting ME3 and reaching the point on Tuchanka, the Krogan home world, where his ultimate fate would be decided, I'd not chosen wisely. I'd not ticked the invisible boxes necessary to talk him out of sacrificing himself to bring an end to the genophage, and while I could have shot him in the back to prevent him administering the cure, is that any way to treat a friend? It's how I've always played my video games – to use the Mass Effect morality scale, with a paragon attitude, rather than that of a renegade. I've followed the righteous path, every time – unless the game's forced me otherwise. But, clearly, I'd not been pure enough in this instance.

Many games have featured core characters giving up their lives to save those of several more. We've seen it in Final Fantasy V, where party member Galuf dies in the arms of his granddaughter Krile, who he saved from certain death just minutes earlier. In Gears of War 3, when series regular Dom takes a kamikaze drive into combustible clutter, wiping out the encroaching enemy forces in a final act of fiery selflessness. Then there are the countless feathery missiles that expire during an average game of Angry Birds. You don't think they're coming back, right?

The suicide of the main character under the player's control is something quite different, though. In the platformers of the 1980s and 90s, a quick restart could be achieved by intentionally running Sonic into some spikes, or walking Mario off a ledge and into a bottomless pit. You've got lives to spare, so it's no big deal. Lemmings allowed the player to "nuke" every critter in the level. Japanese RPG Persona 3 sees players summon supernatural powers by putting a gun to their head, and Killer7's character Kaede slashes her wrist to uncover in-game secrets, spraying blood to break barriers and reveal new pathways. These actions don't result in death, but they're supremely graphic nonetheless.

Kate from 'Life is Strange' (seated)

I'm just done playing the second episode of Life is Strange, the five-part series developed by Parisian studio Dontnod and set against the autumnal glow of the Pacific Northwest. Its predecessor, titled "Chrysalis", did a decent job of establishing the relationships between the game's central characters, both long-held and newly formed – this continuation, called "Out of Time" (limited-period time travel being the unique mechanic of this Telltale-like adventure), widens its scope to present intimate moments of what seemed like periphery cast members before. One of these people is Kate, a classmate of student protagonist Max but not as close to her as Chloe, the former best pal who we reconnected with during episode one.

Long story significantly shortened, the deeply religious Kate is being bullied at university. Max wants to help, and within minutes we get the chance to be that essential shoulder. The game doesn't make the player do much, though, after cursory engagement – it's up to you whether or not to be sensitive to her situation, or take a more distant stance; understanding, for sure, but ostensibly disconnected from the core of the problem. Don't want to lose face in front of the popular kids by siding with the Bible basher, after all. But whatever our initial exchanges with Kate, she'll always end up in the same place come the episode's final stages: on a university rooftop, ready to drop herself over the edge – into the tarmac below, and into darkness.

Kate's endgame isn't entirely telegraphed, not like other games which red-flag the slightest possibility of unrest; but being the kind of player I am I began "Out of Time" by doing all I could to ease her discomfort. I also poked around her dorm room, reading letters and postcards from family members ashamed of her caught-on-camera behaviour at a local nightspot. Only a note from her dad offers support, and I remember this. There are some other points of interest in her room, old photos and favourite Bible passages, but little that really screams: you'll need this, later.

Episode two of 'Life is Strange' is out now for PS4 and 3, Xbox One and 360, and PC

Turns out that the quote in question is hella useful (knowing wink to other players, there) for talking Kate down from her tipping point. I still had to Google the choices I was given – when was the last time a game required its audience to recall Bible verses? – but I selected correctly, and convinced Kate to live another day. Come the episode's closing stats, 56 percent of players had achieved the same, which leaves an awful lot of dead girls out there. The paragon in me wouldn't have forgiven itself if I'd failed to keep Kate alive.

Because, after all, what kind of monster wants to see their virtual companions killed off? Games that give us the choice to thin out our party members rarely do so with binary efficiency – even in the first Mass Effect, where Shepard has to leave either Ashley or Kaiden on Virmire, we're all thinking: sure, but I can come back for the other one, later. That's in our heads when we go for A over B. But the rescue never comes. The friend who's left behind stays behind, vaporised in a mushroom cloud. That cut me, surprisingly deeply, as I'd got to know each character over several missions. The same wasn't true of when Telltale's The Walking Dead had me choose between Doug and Carly at the end of its first episode – the player doesn't yet know them well enough to have an emotional connection.

Having "spoiled" proceedings for myself by reading too much about the game in advance, when I started Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain I already knew that there was a chance that all four of the player characters could meet grisly ends prior to its "proper" climax. So I was prepared, and even had a guide bookmarked on my phone to ensure that nobody bought it before I thought they should – which was never, with the exception of the one representing the game's killer twist, but I've previously talked about that here. I really struggle to let these people go, meaning that, to me, the position of the player's agency in decisions regarding such permanent fates is somewhat illusionary. Choice is only ever a decorative framing for a definitive press of whatever the affirmative, save-everyone button is.

Screen shot from 'Beyond: Two Souls'

Which is why I stalled in another Quantic Dream game, Beyond: Two Souls, when given the option to put a bullet into protagonist Jodie Holmes' brain. "Do you know what they're going to do if they catch me?" she screams at her ghostly twin Aiden, who intervenes if you opt for suicide. "Is that what you want?" Later in the same game, Jodie's given another exit door: the option of sending her tired, hungry, homeless body crashing down onto a busy freeway. Press X to jump, you're prompted. Do so, though, and again you'll be "saved" by your spirit companion. "My life is a fucking disaster," she sobs. "I'm tired of running. I give up." Except the game's designers don't actually allow that way out – you're locked into this narrative until it says it's done. Of course, I wanted her to live through the hardship, but how bold it would have been to let the game end there and then, with a broken Ellen Page spread out on the asphalt.

I was struggling to think of a game that actually let the player go through with suicide as a plot-dependant device until I stumbled across a recent article on Kotaku about a horror game called The Static Speaks My Name. You can get the "dark, sad, funny, weird" game for whatever you want to pay here. "Contains explicit handling of suicide," its maker warns, with good reason. This is a short game that ends with a noose around your neck. It's become a Let's Play "favourite" over the past few weeks. On Kotaku, Patrick Klepek writes: "[It] was a total gut punch. I didn't have any words when the experience was over." I don't think I can bring myself to actually play it, but I appreciate its uniqueness in a medium preoccupied with happy endings.

Suicide rates are on the rise in the UK. Right now, it's the most common cause of death for males aged between 20 and 49 in England and Wales. As video games continue to grow up and their audience attains a higher average age – it was 35 years old in the UK in 2013 – you've got to reason that we'll see more respectfully handled depictions of suicide in our interactive experiences. Games can and should reflect society's glory and grit, so there's no way this can be ignored. The Static That Speaks My Name is low budget and over in less than 15 minutes, but its power comes from doing something so few games have: it finds closure in the most shocking manner. It's a game that has got people talking, and that can only be a good thing if we're to better understand what makes a person want to take their own life.

Note: If you are feeling suicidal, you can call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.

@MikeDiver

Previously:

This Is What It Takes to Earn Thousands For Playing 'Call of Duty'

The Greatest Moments of 'Final Fantasy', Part 2

A Short History of Video Gaming's Most Gratifying Destruction

Tagged:
Gaming
suicide
sacrifice
Final Fantasy
Life Is Strange
Gears of War
Mike Diver
Dontnod
Heavy Rain
Mass Effect
Beyond: Two Souls
Quantic Dream
The Static Speaks My Name