I found myself in the middle of a dilemma last night. I wanted to shake up my story a bit, and make it more interesting. I wasn’t quite satisfied with the premise, and questioned the characters. I then turned my attention to the main character.
Can you really kill off the main character and keep the story intact? I wondered if maybe another one stepped in, but then that would make them the main character. I decided to do a little research. Perhaps there have been games that did this in the past.
It turns out that there have been games that touched on this topic, either completely, or partially. Chrono Trigger, Ghost Trick, Final Fantasy 2/4/7, and some others touch on this topic to their own extent. In some games, you’re left with an immortal main character. In others, a new one steps in to take their place.
I had turned to twitter, and my fellow tweeps. The question was simple: Can the main character die early in the story, and the story still progress without one? Various different responses came, and some questions expanding on the very thought of killing the main character. Let’s walk through them.
1. What if the main character died, but remained a memory, showing clips of him as you rotated through the story in control of various party members.
I the consensus was that this could work. The memories would have to fuel the character, but it would be a little weak. Perhaps showing flash backs to the past where the character was still alive would work a little better. Its hit or miss if it would really fly.
2. The main character dies, and someone else steps in.
The main issue with this is you’re not ditching the concept of a main character. You’re just replacing them. Still, it warranted some thought. What if the loss of the main character was simply a shift in power to someone you’d not think would step up and lead? What if it was the coward, or someone who ended up caught in the middle of the quest? This could make for some interesting transition to a new lead.
3. What if you just rotated leaders from that point on?
This could work. At first the discussion suggested that there would be no order to the party. I thought it could be like a four man military team with no purpose, and constantly scatter brained. But then I thought, what if the story is segmented in ways that would set focus from one party member to another? Perhaps if Joe died, Jack could take over. Then after a while, Jack goes down in some cave to check something out, and disappears. At this point, Barb would take over for a while, until Jack was found, but Bob scolds him, and takes the lead. It could work if the story was written properly. You’d just have to be careful not to jump leads so much you make the player dizzy.
4. What if the main character died, but was a ghost-like character?
There are two approaches to this. Either the party would be aware of him, or not. It seemed like the discussion morphed into leaning towards the ghost secretly leading the party in some way, but without their knowledge. Perhaps he could set a chain of events in motion that would help the success of their party. What if he turned in evil and tried to get in the way of the quest?
This came about the idea of what if the main character didn’t die, but went evil at the very end. I proposed the question “Would he be the end boss?” The answer back was “How about in the sequel.” I liked that a lot. So many times do we read about a game story being built to support three games. Little do we see a huge twist at the end of game one like that. Connect the two games in story, but severely alter their plots, making them unique.
In the end we didn’t solidify an answer to the original question. We didn’t say Yes or No. With a lot of deep thoughts and talking, we found scenarios where it could be a good story. Some things we agreed were weird. Other things we all applauded. The stage is now set for a main character to die early. The only question remaining, who will be first?
I’ve since then decided to leave mine alive. Since I wrote the entire plot around Johnny and his existence, I can’t see how it could work without him. I’m simply too far into the story to make that kind of change. I’ll have to find another mind-blowing element to shock the player instead.
Dan Joseph is the CEO and head of Software Engineering of Familiaris Games. Aside from my personal flash game projects, I am collaborating with Ben Davis on multiple future projects, and writing the story and script for an upcoming AAA level RPG, modelled after the same type of game play you see in Lost Odyssey, Final Fantasy, and other Japanese-based RPGs. When I'm not developing games, I'm working as a Web Developer on various major brand web sites. You can follow me on twitter @iamdanjoseph. If you wish to contact me, please click the contact page, and fill out the form. I will get back to you as soon as I can.