Death is often a controversial subject in creative works. How an author or writer uses it can make or break the story… when it is mishandled it can leave characters lives meaningless and make the entire story completely lack attachment. But when it is done well, it can result in some of the moments that will stick with you for a lifetime.
Be Warned – This Article Contains Spoilers
Final Fantasy 7 (Game)
Probably the most memorable death in gaming history, Aerith’s death is often known as the ‘Moment that taught gamers how to cry’. It was sudden, unexpected, and senseless… and it just hit like a freight train. I distinctly remember myself being kind of numb as I coasted through the boss afterwards… and the final moments of that scene just left their mark on my memory forever. Watching Aerith drift into the water… it is just a powerful image. And the sense of finality it creates… I just knew, deep in my heart, that this wasn’t going to change – that she wasn’t coming back.
Which just helps to illustrate how effective a scene it was… even knowing that at my core that this was immutable, that it couldn’t be changed… I still scoured the game desperately for some way to fix it. For some way to save her, or bring her back… or something.
Sword Art Online (Anime)
For an anime about people living in a game where you can only die once, you don’t see a lot of characters actually die. There are two in particular whose deaths really affected me. In an early segment of the show, Kirito befriends a depressed young girl named Sacchi and joins her much lower level guild – hiding his strength from them. You don’t get to know the other characters in the guild very well, but you get the impression they’re a very tight-knit group of friends. The first death in this episode is Sacchi herself. They get overconfident and overestimate their strength thanks to Kirito’s contributions, attempting to farm in a dungeon that is too high for them. They trigger a trap and everyone but Kirito dies rather quickly, and Kirito watches as Sacchi tries to mouth something to him as she dies. This moment affects Kirito deeply and shapes his future interactions for a long time to come…
The other death is somewhat more sudden. You see, after this happens, Kirito goes and tells their guild leader – who was absent at the time – what had happened. One might expect him to be furious and ream Kirito out… but he doesn’t. He speaks one line, denouncing the fact that Kirito was there at all and then suddenly, without warning, turns and walks off a bridge, killing himself. The fact that you don’t even know the character’s name doesn’t alter the impact of the scene.
The Shadow Sorceress (Book)
The Spellsong Saga is a series I keep coming back to and it never disappoints… it’s got a fascinating premise and amazing characters, but that isn’t what we’re here to discuss. The book’s main character passes away in the fourth book. Anna had been an incredibly strong woman, and even in old age she retains that grace. Unlike most of these deaths, she dies peacefully – of old age – lying in her bed at home surrounded by her adopted daughter and those she cares for. She is prepared for this moment, and the book gives plenty of foreshadowing. But this powerful woman dying in peace as even the world itself mourns her passing… it just makes you feel so vulnerable. Brutal, senseless deaths can affect you strongly – tragedy hurts, but there’s nothing quite like the feeling of mortality a peaceful death gives. In preparation for this piece I went back and read just that part again… and I cried all over again.
Mass Effect 3 (Game)
While Aerith’s death might have been the most memorable, Mass Effect 3 featured one of the most well handled deaths I’ve ever seen. Much like Anna’s death… Thane’s death is peaceful. After a final scene where you get to see him in action, his illness finally claims his life. His death has been foreshadowed since his introduction earlier in the series, and the scene is powerful and moving. While Shepard and his long-estranged son watch, he passes on – not saddened to be dying, but for those left behind. As his life fades away, his son recites a traditional prayer.