I saw Captain America: The First Avenger this weekend and I liked it. It had the comforting familiarity of a well-known uncomplicated pop song that you love to sing along to in the shower. Like most action films, the central relationship is between the hero and the villain; everyone else is in there as set decoration.
Coming out of the film, I thought about why the romance and the emotions associated with the (very thin) love story faded into the background, and I realized that you can’t really care about a character who has no material impact on the dramatic events of the film.
It’s the filmic version of what happens so often in games: the opening scenes Heavy Rain are so saturated with sunlight that you know something awful is about to happen; the play session with the boys is transformed into not a bonding session, but an exercise in emotional distancing as you wonder what horrible thing is going to happen to this over-happy family. When the boy is kidnapped, you don’t feel dread but relief that the anticipated disruption has finally happened.
In order to really make a true and meaningful emotional impact by disrupting the viewer’s (or player’s) bond with a character, the author or designer or scriptwriter has to take the brave step of eliminating a character who really matters. And by that I mean, one who materially contributes to either the dramatic events of the film or the gameplay mechanic.
Very mild spoilers follow for: Mass Effect, Final Fantasy 7, Game of Thrones.
Reactions to a character death in Final Fantasy 7 varied among players but it was notable for taking away a character who was actually in play. While the mechanics of the death are quite frustrating — it happens in a cutscene and even though by that point in the game your character is a total badass, he can’t seem to do anything to stop it — the emotional impact was real: you had a character in play taken away; you had players who had invested some time and energy in leveling up that character; and, in my case at least, that character was a core part of my A-Team and I had developed tactics around the character’s abilities. Death meant a real impact in how the game progressed from then on, and there had an emotional impact as well.
The death in Mass Effect also happens fairly late in the game and feels less contrived: you’re a commander, and you have to choose which of your soldiers you send to their death. It’s clear you can only save one, and that feels like a real choice. In my case, since I had spent time with both of the characters, it was as difficult a choice fraught with angst as I believe the designers intended; but for many other people who had eschewed those characters the choice had very little meaning. Wouldn’t it be interesting if instead you had to choose from the two characters who were in your party most often?
I don’t have much to say about George R.R. Martin’s fantastic novel Game of Thrones except: mad respect, George. Near the end of the novel a character who has been so central and such a heroic figure dies quite suddenly; it’s a shocking moment because it’s so rare that a creator has the guts to skill off a favorite character that both he and the reader have really invested in. But it totally worked: the death came as a lightening strike and highlighted the brutality and unpredictability that are hallmarks in that series. The only other time I remember feeling like that was after I finished Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about World War I.
So, coming back to Captain America for a moment: of course the idiom of the action film (especially one based on comic books) accepts that there is virtually no room for romance — you have to fit those explosions and chase scenes in somehow! But then I wonder why even bother with a romance? There’s a little scene in which we see that the hero is carrying around his sweetheart’s photo but it seems like it serves only to remind us of a cliché; it almost has no impact other than a formal nod to romantic conventions. While the character of Agent Carter is quite interesting — a woman in a male-dominated field, apparently a crack shot, tough and smart — she is given nothing to do but admire the hero’s various attributes (not the least of which are his sleek abs). How much more interesting it could have been if she were given a couple of chances to turn the tide of the plot: save his life, perhaps, or discover some secret that led to the villain’s lair.
Designers have to be brave to risk upsetting a game-playing public that is not accustomed to having their favorite characters taken away from them; but if it’s done elegantly and meaningfully, the emotional rewards are well worth the pain.