Suicide in videogames

I just ran into an interesting article in WIRED about suicide bombing tactics in Halo 3. It seems the writer, Clive Thompson—who admittedly sucks at Halo—has found that his most promising strategy is to run headfirst into a hail of bullets and try to stick his attacker with a plasma grenade (which, for the less nerdy of you out there, is a little sticky bomb that you throw) before dying. Political ramifications aside, suicide bombing in a multiplayer videogame makes sense—if the object is to kill the other player and there are no real repercussions for death, why not go all out? Thompson addresses the socio-political link between Halo 3 suicide bombing and real-life suicide bombing:


But the fact remains that something quite interesting happened to me because of Halo. Even though I’ve read scores of articles, white papers and books on the psychology of terrorists in recent years, and even though I have (I think) a strong intellectual grasp of the roots of suicide terrorism, something about playing the game gave me an “aha” moment that I’d never had before: an ability to feel, in whatever tiny fashion, the strategic logic and emotional calculus behind the act.


This got me thinking about suicide in videogames. Videogames often focus on fun-loving explosions, gunfire, and politically or socially sanctified homicide. They typically leave out things like suicide, depression, or other dark areas of the human psyche. But as I thought about it more, I realized that suicide in single-player, narrative videogames is more common than I thought; it just goes by another name: self sacrifice. Videogames, especially cinematic action games like Halo, are full of melodramatic action, and the relationships between the characters often bear more similarities to action movie banter than real-life. How many times have you been told to “Go ahead without me, I’ll hold them back,” in a videogame? Lots. Most videogame universes seem to be full of brave, self-sacrificing individuals willing to lay their life on the line for the common good. I’m trying to think of a game that deals with suicide in a more intelligent manner, but it’s hard.


Go on without me, Master Chief. 


The one game that springs to mind is Final Fantasy VI, which contains both one instance of self-sacrifice and one of attempted suicide. I want to start with the self-sacrifice first, because it’s a bit different than similar scenes in other videogames. As the bad guy Kefka’s floating fortress (in typically hyperbolic Final Fantasy style, actually a continent ripped from the earth) crumbles, he attempts to move three statues, totems of immense magical power, out of whack to, in a nutshell, really mess some stuff up. Shadow, one of the party members, stays behind to wrestle with Kefka and the statues while the others go on ahead to escape. So far it sounds like a typical self-sacrificing scenario, but before escaping the player is offered a choice. He or she can wait for Shadow, or jump off the crumbling continent, leaving Shadow to die.


Why do I find this so fascinating? Because it offers the player a revealing moral choice with actual consequences: if Shadow dies, he, and the parts of the story that revolve around him, are absent from the second half of the game. Of course, how a player responds to the choice has to do with his attitude toward the character as well. When I played FF6 as a kid, I thought Shadow was a badass. I didn’t want him to die, so I stuck around to see if he showed up. I’ve talked to other players who didn’t care much for Shadow and let him die. A moment in a videogame that asks the player to respond on a moral and emotional level is rare—most choices have to do with amounts of ammo, and self-preservation.


The second event happens just after the first. Celes wakes up on an island with her father-figure Cid. She wrestles with her inability to stop the destruction of the world, the loss of her friends, and (depending on the player’s actions) the death of Cid. Eventually she flees to the sea cliffs and throws herself off them. Sure it’s melodramatic, but it’s a powerful scene that few videogames dare try. This is the one instance I can remember of a videogame addressing the actual possibility of “real” suicide. Celes doesn’t attempt to kill herself to help anybody, or to ensure success in battle; she kills herself because she’s depressed, she’s alone, and she feels like a failure.



Can anybody else think of another videogame that treats suicide as a result of psychological trauma or depression rather than a means to an end?


~ by Ian D. on April 23, 2008.

One Response to “Suicide in videogames”

  1. Your deep and thoughtful treatment of the most hallowed video game – and arguably, story – of all time has brought tears to my eyes. I thank you for this, Ian Denning, and I also would not let Shadow die.

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