Editorial: Death and Bereavement as a Plot-device

There are few plot tropes more prevalent in man’s narrative history than death, and the protagonist’s bereavement of those they hold dear, and as such it functions as a powerful plot device to drive and deliver narrative action to the vicarious throngs gathered to partake in the pathos of human transience. This is because the spectre of death is something we can relate to, every one of us, as we will all one day face its cold embrace as we lose those around us, and confront our own mortality. This is why we can identify with Antigone as she tries to reclaim the remains of a cherished brother at the city gates, why it strikes home with such force when twilight falls on Camelot, and why it resonates so naturally with us when Naked Snake chooses to honour the memory of the boss by building Outer Heaven, the place where soldiers will always have a home. Death, and thereby the sense of profound loss it instills, are powerful motivators in many of the better game narratives in circulation. Few are likely to ever forget the iconic loss of Aeris in FFVII (though this earnestly tender moment is now ripe for ridicule), and few could deny that Metal Gear Solid 3 has one of the most powerful endings ever committed to any narrative medium.

 

It can make for some rather illuminating character development, should the spectre of death lead to Eros ... ... ...

 

But my intention is not to discuss the nuances of bereavement in this general sense, but rather to draw your attention to two related games wherein it accounts for more than most, namely Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy X. These two iconic games make use of death and bereavement as a motivator, but more than that, their foundations are inextricably founded on the ramifications of loss and bereavement at every notable juncture of the scenario.

Take Final Fantasy VII for instance, the most influential characters in the game only arrive at the outset of their scenario because of their personal losses; Aeris is situated in Midgar because her Mum dies, Red XIII has been orphaned by his father’s valiant attempts to fend off the Gi Tribe, while Vincent is receptive to recruitment owing to his loss of Lucretia to the Sephiroth program. Of more central importance however, are the twin incidences of North Correl and Nibelheim, which can be seen as providing the motivation (directly or tangentially) for most of the important in game events and subsequent character motivations which transpire. Take for instance the razing of North Correl, not only does this set Barret on his vendetta against Shinra Electric Power Company, but it also sets up Dyne as his nemesis later in the game, while establishing Dyne’s daughter Marlene as the person that he is fighting for during FFVII’s endgame. Meanwhile, the dissolution of Nibelheim at the hands of Sephiroth acts as motivation of sorts for Cloud, Tifa and Aeris, as they all lose someone dear to them. Cloud’s mother and Tifa’s father died during the Niebelheim incident, establishing their relationship with the evil empire, meanwhile Zack dies and his identity is usurped my Cloud, both of which factor into Aeris’ investment in associating herself with Avalanche. Her iconic death then goes on to Motivate Cloud et al to confront and defeat Sephiroth during the endgame.

 

... ... ... Or Thanatos

 

In similar fashion, the piece of grit ’round which the pearl of Final Fantasy X’s scenario has coalesced is the cycle of death, so it is little surprise that strains of bereavement form the crux of this adventure. The very world in which the game initially takes place, Tidus’ Zanarkand that never sleeps, is the bittersweet reminiscence of a civilization on the brink of oblivion, the remaining members of which have sacrificed their lives and any possibility of repose in order to serve as an anchor to their imagining of of Zanarkand, keeping the dream alive in modern Spira. Yet one man dreamed harder than most, Yu Yevon the Leader of the Summoners Zanarkand, in the face of their decimation by Bevelle’s machina army he dreamed a dream of destruction, and lo was Sin born. This episode initiates the cycle of death, wherein Sin decimates human settlements, Summoners give their lives to defeat Sin only to have their final Aeon transformed into the new Sin, and thus after an incubation period the cycle begins anew.

 

Tidus is greedy when it comes to Greek literary themed psychological complexes

 

Taking a more specific view, familial death shapes narrative events at the most basic level; the loss of Braska, esteemed friend of the young monk Auron, and father/sole custodian of Yuna. The loss of her father at such a young age combined with his omnipresent celebrity, leads Yuna down the path of a Summoner to honor his memory. Moreover, this background largely mirrors that of Tidus, in that they are both orphaned young people following in the footsteps of their dead celebrity parents. Yes, that’s right, Tidus falls for a thematic reflection of himself, the boy has issues (though at least he hasn’t put out his eyes). Yuna is not the only Besaid denizen to have lost their nearest and dearest however, as both Wakka and Lulu have lost their parents to Sin at a young age, giving them more in common than they might care to realize. Moreover both share one very particular loss in common; Wakka’s brother Chappu, who proves himself an omnipresent force in the game’s narrative, haunting his brother’s every attempt at awkward dialogue with Lulu.

More importantly however are the dual losses of Tidus and Seymour, which ultimately drive the motivations of FFX’s narrative, and thereby its key events. Upon finding out that she would be the soul carer of the perpetually winging Tidus, Mrs Jecht simply lost the will to live, and subsequently topped herself, thus imbuing Tidus with a strong angst for the absentee father who he quite wrongly attributes her death to. Meanwhile, confronted with the difficulties of an interracial relationship, Seymour’s mother drives him to becoming a High Summoner at an early age, all while sacrificing herself as Seymour’s final Aeon, in a bid no protect him (something Seymour’s own absentee father appears to have been woefully ill-equipped to do). Needless to say, both young men are beset by Oedipal father issues, and both eventually commit Patricide in markedly differing circumstances.

 

Despite all that has befallen him, Cloud does not lose sight of the things worth fighting for

 

Death narrative is a common touchstone within all narrative traditions, and as a source of motivation, it is the one narrative element that will translate well in all cultures. While scant few of us likely grasped what was going on in Silent Hill 2 the first time we played it, this most human of subject matters nevertheless ensured that we were all able to identify with character motivations. Final Fantasy VII and X use this device more than most, as nearly every important narrative juncture in both games relies upon loss or the threat of loss to drive it. Loss also serves to highlight the substance of character, as for instance we are able to see the same traumatic event cause one friend to form a terrorist cell to strike back at the powers that be, even as the other gives up on life in the Golden Saucer prison. Even Red XIII’s coming of age seems to be marked by the death of Bugenhagen and his coming to terms with the circumstances of his father’s death. In FFX too, the looming presence of the ferryman is seen to promote life-affirming Eros in Tidus and Yuna during their springside tryst, even while it promotes the destructive instinct of Thanatos in Seymour, who views himself as uniquely qualified to end Spira’s suffering by becoming the next Sin and destroying everything. And this really is the most fundamental purpose of narrative death, it separates the weak characters who turn to despair, from the strong characters who can still find something worth fighting for in a life worth living. In an instance of life reflecting their art; this is why you see the bureaucratic mess of Enixsoft contently drifting toward oblivion (they have literally lost the will to live), even as Mistwalker fights for better games for JRPG fans.

But what of your gaming experiences Lusi-readers? Can you think of any other examples where death and bereavement play a similarly large role? Are there any common narrative tropes that you see as being of similar or greater importance?

4 Comments

  1. Lusipurr
    Posted 2010.10.12 at 19:22 | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say Squeenix is contentedly drifting towards oblivion. They are clearly very upset about their changing fortunes, but they lack any sort of capacity to do anything about it. They are so introverted and inward-focused that they simply cannot understand that the rest of the world has left their ageing mentality behind.

  2. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.10.12 at 21:50 | Permalink

    Ah, but SE have figured out that hulking barbarians = profit! Happy days are come again!!!

  3. DefChaos
    Posted 2010.10.13 at 15:49 | Permalink

    The Death of SquareEnix: The Game!

    The most common narrative I can think of is that of overcoming the evil empire, probably because it’s so easy to apply GOOD and EVIL in big, broad strokes to all of the characters on their respective sides. For a game to be considered “great” by me though, it needs to transcend such simple boundaries.

  4. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2010.10.13 at 16:28 | Permalink

    “I can think of is that of overcoming the evil empire, probably because it’s so easy to apply GOOD and EVIL in big, broad strokes to all of the characters on their respective sides.’

    Incidentally that is also the most common political narrative …