Spoilers follow for Final Fantasy 7, Mass Effect, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, The Walking Dead.
A good death can really move a plot along. It can set up some revenge motivation, give a villain some menace, or divide an RPG party. A good death can often be the most memorable moment in a story too, which makes it strange that don’t get more in videogames. NPCs tend to plod on like Martin in Oblivion, immune to all forms of damage. Why live like Martin in Oblivion when you can die like Sean Bean in everything Sean Bean is in?
A few games get this very right. They get you invested in a character, and then tear them away in cruel and inventive ways that make you do a Darth Vader noooo in the middle of the night when all your housemates are trying to sleep. Here are some of the most affecting. There are more of course, but we've gone for some older games with well-known character deaths.
Final Fantasy 7
Though this is a template example of a plot killing off a woman to give moody guys some motivation, it was shocking at the time because it breaks the game logic in a way that seems so unfair. At that point you’ve used phoenix downs repeatedly to bring your party members back, but this time there’s no magic item that can fix things. Instead Cloud gives up and drops Aeris in a nearby pond. I still don’t quite know why he does this.
It’s difficult to kill a character who is also a member of your RPG squad, but that only makes the loss sting more. Aeris has her own weapon sets and limit breaks designed to give you the impression she’ll be in your party to the final credits. It’s still unusual to see party members die because it can ruin your party setup and punish you for putting time into developing a doomed character. FF7 sacrifices its sense of fairness for a plot moment, which is brave, and one of the reason’s it’s still being discussed all these years later.
Mass Effect 3
I’m not crying about the alien newt man, you’re crying about the alien newt man. Let’s use Mordin as a catch-all for all the good deaths in Bioware RPGs. The Mass Effect games especially love to really build up a character before tearing them away in memorable cutscenes. Mass Effect 2’s suicide mission was a 50-hour exercise in doing exactly that.
Mordin has been safely moved out of your active party by the time he makes his sacrifice in game three, so you’re not losing anything in RPG numberwang terms. Instead the moment is sold with great writing, performance, and animation. The Mass Effect games do such a good job of establishing meaningful history with NPCs, who often go away and succeed on their own terms elsewhere in the galaxy once they have left Shepard’s party. When they meet Shepard again you feel that lasting friendship, which means it’s only more painful when that friendship is brought to a dramatic end by explosions.
Call of Duty
Not much seems to matter in Modern Warfare’s tough, militaristic universe, but amid the rockets and gunfire there was a man who served as a rock. His name, implausibly, was John “Soap” MacTavish and he dies on a table in a nondescript bar in Modern Warfare 3.
You “press F to help Soap” and apply pressure to his crotch for some reason, but Soap is beyond help. Dutiful to the end, he uses his last breath to deliver some helpful plot information to Captain Price and then carks it right there.
It’s an emotional moment. Price seems genuinely distraught and there’s a touching respect to the way Price puts his service pistol on Soap’s chest, because all emotions in Call of Duty must be expressed using guns. It shows that you can do a very quick, shocking scene that leaves you thinking ‘I can’t believe he’s dead, is he actually dead!?’. Poor Soap, he was only trying his best.
Grand Theft Auto 4
There are two endings to the overwrought but actually creatively successful story of Niko Bellic in GTA 4. One ending sees Niko's enemies murdering his girlfriend of sorts, Kate McReary, while the other features the death of his cousin, Roman. Roman lands a lot harder—mostly because he's part of the story for the entire game, and Kate is something of an optional romance. Either way, you're going to hear some Philip Glass at the game's climax, and be a bit sad that Niko wasn't able to get away from his torrid and violent past life. Still, once you're over it, you can just go get drunk with whichever characters from the story remain alive and refuse to stop calling you, such is the experience of playing GTA 4.—Samuel Roberts
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
In a game about entire communities getting 360 noscope raptured, the community centre is the most tragic scene. Before you learn that everyone has seemingly gone to a better place, you're left with the reality that the town was gassed by an aerial strike.
In this context a gathering of children moments before disaster is a lot to deal with. Games, reasonably, stay well away from the idea of children dying and the game uses its spectral ghosts sparsely to put a lot of distancing between you and the events described. The scene captures residents get the kids to put on a performance of Peter Pan as a distraction as the planes close in. Given the subject matter, the game manages not to feel crass or exploitative. It’s just very sad.
The Walking Dead
You control Lee in The Walking Dead, so you could say his death is an exercise in feeling sorry for yourself. Really it's about Clem. Have you taught her enough to survive? Is there anything you can do to lessen the trauma Lee's passing will inevitably inflict? Will you ask Clem to shoot Lee in the head to stop him from becoming a walker?
It's a common zombie fiction dilemma: what do you do with the bitten who haven't turned yet? But Lee and Clementine's relationship, developed across five episodes, brings huge weight to this typical zombie story scene. It's brutal to ask Clem to shoot, but it's a necessary lesson in the universe of The Walking Dead. It's touching, and horrible, that Lee's end serve as one last teaching moment with Clementine.
I'm sad now, so I'm going to watch the unofficial Telltale-animated ending (opens in new tab) where Lee beats up a street of zombies and flips a car.