Too little, too late
Games are all about winning. Save the world, get the girl, score all the goals, become the champion. As players, were conditioned to expect success. And we get it most of the time. See, there are rare moments when defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory; when were denied the happily-ever-after. It can often be quite shocking because it flies in the face of expectations.
Ive already written a feature about what happens when the bad guys actually win (opens in new tab), but this is a different beast. These are the times that--no matter how hard you fight, no matter how quick or skilled you are--you simply cant save your friend. Or your lover. Or that guy / girl you dont really like that much, but theyre still integral to the plot anyway Ahem. Needless to say spoilers, lie ahead. Spoilers with massive, pointy teeth.
Games covered in this feature (in order)
Final Fantasy 7
The Walking Dead
Modern Warfare series
Mass Effect 3
Metal Gear Solid 3
Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag
Gears of War 3
Jenny (The Darkness)
Jackie Estacado, star of The Darkness, is having a shitty 21st birthday. Betrayed by his mobster friends, involved in a car wreck, and the brand-new recipient of a demonic parasite, Jackies ONLY silver-lining is his lovely girlfriend, Jenny. Theyve known each other since they were (orphaned, of course) children, and theyve been in love almost as long.
The start of the game even lets you cosy up on the sofa with Jenny, and the pair of you can watch a full, black-and-white movie together. Its an adorable contrast to the ultra-violence in the rest of the game. So, when Jenny is kidnapped and brutally executed right in front of your eyes about a third of the way through the story just wow. Its a horrific gut-punch. Not only are you powerless to stop it, you honestly dont think its actually going to happen. Until her brains hit the window youre watching through. Heart. Broken.
Aeris (Final Fantasy 7)
Ah, the classic I cant believe shes dead moment in games. Aeris is just a pretty flower girl, who takes a shine to Cloud Strife because she loves the cut of his jib and the length of his sword. Anyway, its all sunshine and puppies, until jealous male rival--and all-round asshole--Sephiroth shows up and perforates her with his (even larger) sword. Theres probably no subtext here at all. No sir. Nothing to read into this.
Anyway, Aeris sudden and brutal passing was a huge moment in gaming stories, and its one of the first examples of a high-profile title having the stones to kill off one of its main characters. It speaks volumes that most just accept this narrative kick in the teeth without bothering to point out that a quick application of Phoenix Down would render her healthy as a horse in a matter of seconds.
Carley (The Walking Dead: Season 1)
People who write about games like to use hyperbolic phrases like jaw-dropping and unbelievable to describe significant story-beats in whatever they just played. Im not one of them, and my jaw has never dropped, but I absolutely refused to accept that I couldnt save Carley in The Walking Dead Season 1. I would describe that scene, when she gets shot by Lilly, as unbelievable because its all so sudden and unexpected. Its the moment you realise exactly how emotionally tough The Walking Dead really is.
And theres nothing to be done about it. Go ahead, make different decisions at every other stage in the game. You cant stop that scene from happening (unless shes already dead). Perhaps thats why forums are still littered with people asking How can I save Carley?. You cant, no matter how many times you reload your save.
Ghost (Modern Warfare 2)
Plenty of main characters die in the Modern Warfare series, and theres nothing you can do to save them. Theres Sgt. Jackson, who fails to escape the nuke in Modern Warfare, and Gaz, who gets executed by Zakhaev at the end of the same game. However, its Ghost I pity the most. Or to give him his full name, Simon Ghost Riley.
In Modern Warfare 2, Ghost is betrayed and executed by Shepherd at the end of the Loose Ends mission. His body is covered in petrol and burned. Naturally, youre forced to watch. Grim. However, since then Ghost has become something of a series mainstay, his legend outlasting his relatively short life. Come on, you cant tell me the dog in COD: Ghosts was named Riley out of coincidence
All of Noble Squad (Halo: Reach)
Even if youre totally unfamiliar with Halos labyrinthine lore, it quickly becomes obvious that Noble Squad is doomed. A couple of hours of crushing defeats and tactical retreats, and you just know it wont end well for Six and his buddies. Still, every time a member of your squad carks it, you cant help but wonder if things could have been different. Could you save them? Maybe if you play on Legendary. Nope, still cant do it.
The final act of helpless heartbreak happens right at the end of the game. Seeing your last squad mate, Emile, killed by Elites, you volunteer to man the MAC cannon to help the Pillar of Autumn escape the planet safely. Eventually, youll be overwhelmed and killed--its just a matter of time. The fact that youre in control at the end, giving you a shred of hope that survival is possible, is both a beautiful and cruel conclusion to this rather downbeat chapter in the Halo story.
Thane (Mass Effect 3)
Its technically possible to save most characters in Mass Effect. Reload your save, and you can see what happens when you sacrifice Kaiden instead of Ashley, or Legion instead of Tali. Even Mordin can be kept alive if you talk him out of curing the Genophage. One character you just cant save is Thane, the philosophical assassin. Even if you become his BFF, hes going to snuff it.
Although hes not a major character, its still an emotional farewell when Thane finally passes on. Theres poetry--his son is by his side (if you complete Thanes loyalty mission)--and Shepards bottom lip even wobbles. A bit. Nothing to be done about it, Shep, but at least he goes peacefully.
Eli Vance (Half-Life 2)
Im going out on a limb and saying that you cant save Eli at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two. In the absence of Half-Life 3, and any time-travelling, miracle-healing tricks it may or may not bring, old-man Vance has gone for a Burton. Pretty galling, considering the scene before has you defending him and Alyx against a whole army of Striders as the episode reaches a thundering climax.
What makes me (and I assume Im representative of most HL2 players here) mildly furious is just how feeble and mundane Elis death is. Youve silently dragged him and his daughter through some of the most hazardous environments in video games. Youve massacred Antlions and butchered the Combine with a crowbar, and now hes just dead. Its so unfair.
The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
You have to kill The Boss. Its your mission, Snakey-boy, and you always follow orders. Doesnt matter that shes your mentor--once she hands you her firearm, theres nothing to do but put her down like that skanky fox you caught rummaging around in your bins. Its sad, but shes the enemy, right?
The actual shooting scene is an emotional farewell. When Snake pulls the trigger, red petals fill the screen, and The Boss horse actually weeps when it sees her corpse. Seriously. This is a tough one to accept, especially as you later learn that The Boss was on your side all along. In the eyes of America shes a traitor, and Russia holds her responsible for a nuclear catastrophe. You had to kill her because she could never go home, and she was unwilling to defect. No, theres nothing in my eye. Im just crying, OK?
Mary Read (Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag)
Most of the characters that die in Black Flag do so at the pointy end of Edward Kenways wrist-blades. As an assassin, actually saving people isnt high on Eds list. One of the few times youre actually called on to rescue a character is when youre busting Mary Read out of prison. Thing is, shes just delivered a baby, and is desperately short of blood.
You rush through the jail and snatch her from her cell, in the mistaken belief that you can actually save her life. The worst thing about this sequence, though, is how tantalisingly close you get to freedom before she dies. The prison exit is right there but no matter how hard you push forward on the thumbstick, she never makes it. When Edward then picks up her limp body and carries it back to the boat yeah, its emotional.
Dom (Gears of War 3)
Sure, you lose Carmine (or variations of him) during most Gears games, but Dom? Dom is Marcus best bud. Hes with you throughout the first three games, watching your back and generally providing that electric crackle of homoerotic tension. So when he sacrifices himself to save the squad in Gears of War 3 yeah, thats a big moment.
And no, theres nothing you can do to stop it. Doesnt matter how hard you fight. When youre besieged by Locusts and that fuel tank needs destroying, Dom always nips off to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Or maybe he just loves Marcus. In a manly, drinking-beer-together-and-talking-about-sports kind of way, that is. Who knows? Either way. Dead. Nothing you can do about it.
Live free, die hard
Well, after writing about all those characters I could never save, I feel kind of sad now. Heres the picture of a pair of kittens (opens in new tab) Im using to cheer myself up. Got any comments? Best leave them below, eh.
Want more features, worm? Not sure whether you deserve to read them, but heres one about 8 Games Made Better By Inappropriate Soundtracks (opens in new tab). Wait, are you even still paying attention? Heres another on the Top 7 Unrealistic Things Games Do (opens in new tab). Wow, you could at least pretend to read until the end.