I was watching Partner play a video game this afternoon. I usually find this pretty entertaining; the games he tends to play are pretty story-heavy, so I sit there reading or writing or whatever and tune in during the cut scenes. It’s like watching a vaguely interactive movie in two-minute segments. Which actually sounds like it would be really annoying now I write it out, but I digress.
The story writing in video games varies enormously, from fantastic to basically non-existent, and on the whole I’m happy to let the less-than-great writing examples slide, particularly given these are games I’m not even playing myself. Sometimes though, sometimes there’s something so phenomenally irritating that I can’t just sit there and watch it.
You may have heard the term ‘fridging’ before. In case you haven’t: there’s a nice summary on the TV Tropes site, but essentially a character who is ‘fridged’ is killed off or otherwise terribly damaged, purely as a way of motivating the protagonist of a story. Fridged characters are almost always female and, while I’m sure there must be examples of this done in a not-awful way, I’ve never found it anything other than boring at best and offensive at worst. I’m not setting out here to complain about this trope’s general use though. I have a much more specific bone to pick.
So I’ve been watching this particular game since Partner started it, and our main character (male) has this love interest (female) who he’s been looking for/trying to rescue for basically the whole game thus far. We’ve had some contact with her, though nothing face-to-face, we’ve seen her in some flashbacks and we’ve had some cut scenes showing what she’s up to in the game’s present day. While I wasn’t finding her super interesting, I thought the relationship between her and the protagonist was cute enough and I was looking forward to seeing her take a more active role in the story when she was finally rescued.
(I think you’ve probably worked out where this is going.)
Finally, after many hours of gameplay, the main character arrived in the same place as his kidnapped girlfriend. He watched her make a speech, he was moved, she went off to do some important magic thing for his sake (still without having seen or spoken to him). I put my phone down at this point, because this was the first time I’d seen our gal do anything to affect the story and I was so ready for it.
Giant monster appears! Love interest makes an impassioned plea to giant monster to help our noble protagonist! Giant monster appears unimpressed, proceeds to fight the protagonist. In fairness, the fight was pretty cool, the protagonist got some great action. Love interest got some close-up shots showing her continued faith in the protagonist. The monster was vanquished, although only just, and then… the game’s main antagonist showed up and stabbed love interest. So I slumped back into the sofa cushions at this point, rapidly losing interest in the story. Main dude was already trying to take down the enemy, was it really necessary to kill off one of the very few female characters to give him a bit more angst around the whole thing? This wasn’t the part that really wound me up though.
In her dying moments, we got a cut scene that I’m sure was meant to be incredibly moving. She used the last of her energy to drag herself over to her beloved and pass on an important artefact, and told him (and I’m paraphrasing here) how she knew this was going to happen, and she’s cool with it, her only sadness is that she won’t get to be with him now.
Maybe this doesn’t bother you. Maybe you think I’m petty. Maybe I am petty, but this is where I threw my hands up and started yelling at the screen. Because if there’s one thing that I find more frustrating than a female character designed to be killed off tragically, it’s a female character who knows she’s designed to be killed of tragically, and is totally up for it. Because she lives only for her guy, the hero of the story, and if her death can serve him then let’s go! Bring it on! Sacrifice is not just her defining characteristic, it is her one and only characteristic. Any line of dialogue, any moment of screen time she gets is only there to demonstrate this single character trait. It’s lazy, it pisses me off, and I would argue that it makes that ultimate sacrifice less emotionally meaningful rather than more.
Here’s a version, keeping the fundamental plot elements, that I’d rather see:
Our female character loves the protagonist, we see in flashbacks that they were always incredibly close and in present-day scenes she expresses concern for how he’s getting on. We also see her working towards some goal of her own, complementary to the protagonist’s goal but not intrinsically linked to it. She’s kind of frantic about it in a couple of scenes, and when her aide/advisor reminds her that these things take time she loses her temper and seems uncharacteristically angry. Or, if you want to keep her sweet and mild, maybe we just see her turn away and shed a single photogenic tear.
When she hears that our main character has arrived in the area she isn’t as happy as we’d expect, given she’s been waiting for this for a while now. She’s agitated, she checks up on the status of her own plans, she says she isn’t ready to see the protagonist again. Her supporting cast are concerned for her. They reassure her that Main Character will be careful, or tell her soothingly that she’s going to be safe soon.
She makes her speech, she magics her magic, the monster is slain and the girl is stabbed.
Now, in her dying moments, she passes on the important artefact. She grabs Main Character’s arm and tells him, through ragged breaths, that she has set plans in motion. She asks him to remind her support characters that they have their roles to play. Then, because ultimately I recognise that this is his story and not hers, she can have some comment about how she wishes they had longer together but this is the way it had to be and she knows he has the strength in him to Do the Thing. Then she dies in his arms.
I haven’t seen the end of this game yet, so I don’t know how well it would fit in, but there are so many plot threads going on that I find it hard to believe there couldn’t be something that happens purely as a result of the actions she took before her death – some group of people made safe who otherwise would have been in harm’s way, some corrupt official arrested on evidence she gathered so they can’t cause problems later, something so that we get a sense of her as a real, vital character. Someone whose death we can actually mourn, because she had potential to do so much more had she been allowed to live. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it hard to be that sad about the death of a character who seems to have spent her whole life meekly waiting for it to happen.
I’d love to know if anyone has seen an example of this trope done more effectively, or heck, if you think I’m wrong and that these deaths are in fact incredibly sad I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on that. There’s always a reason these things get repeated, they must be working for somebody!