The Power of the Doomed Protagonist

COG Considers: It’s an Odd Feeling to Play as a Dead Man Walking

Today on COG Considers, let’s talk about doomed protagonists and how they can help create some of the most powerful moments gaming has to offer. While video games are often dismissed as self-insert power fantasies, they are also a medium that can make the player feel truly vulnerable. Many, many horror games have taken advantage of this, but other genres have also dabbled with this sense of controllable helplessness. One of the surest ways a video game can shake your sense of safety is to leave you helpless to save the character you’ve been playing as for the whole game. Just o be clear, I’m not talking about games where the protagonist’s goal is to die–I’m talking about games where both the player and the protagonist try very hard to avoid dying, only to run into a wall at the end of the tunnel. Of course, not every game with a doomed protagonist has a depressing ending, but whatever the case, they to be thematically powerful and incredibly memorable. Caution: here be spoilers.

Metal gear solid key art

Solid Snake is one of the most famous doomed protagonists in video game history. From the first Metal Gear Solid game, it was clear that he was living on limited time. Those limits finally caught up to him in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, wherein Snake’s cloned body begins failing him. As the stakes get higher and his health gets worse, the player is left desperately trying to accomplish Snake’s last mission before his inevitable death. The game concludes with the world saved, but Snake has at most a year left to live, which gives the denouement quite the somber tone.

Another example would be Raziel of the Legacy of Kain games. Although Raziel is only the protagonist of 2.5 games in the series, he is one of the franchise’s most memorable and beloved characters thanks to his delightfully creepy character design, excellent writing, and being one of the only semi-heroic people left in the dying world of Nosgoth. This makes the revelation that Raziel is trapped in a time loop that will see him devoured by the soul-drinking blade Soul Reaver and driven mad by an eternity within the blade kind of a downer. Both Raziel and the series’ other protagonist Kain spend a long time trying to break the loop without losing the power of the Soul Reaver. When Raziel finally decides to embrace his fate in order to give Kain the only weapon that can destroy Nosgoth’s grim destiny, it’s as painful for the player as it is for the two of them.

Final Fantasy X provides another example in Tidus, the cheerful athlete stranded in the far future, post-apocalyptic world of Spira. For most of the game, Tidus serves as the audience surrogate, which makes the twist in the last third hit much harder. As it turns out, Tidus actually died with the rest of his city one thousand years ago–his current existence is a dream supported by the Fayth, countless slumbering souls. In order to save Spira from being continuously ravaged by the monstrous Sin, Tidus must free the Fayth, knowing that he will disappear when they finally wake from their dream. The result is one of the most bittersweet endings in the whole Final Fantasy franchise, and one that affected people so deeply Square Enix made a sequel that gives players a chance to explore the recovering Spira and potentially resurrect Tidus.

Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster

There are many other great examples of doomed protagonists in gaming–Persona 3, the first two Dark Souls games, arguably Bloodborne, and the original Diablo, to name a few–but these are some of the ones that affected me personally. Something about playing as a dead man walking never fails to leave me shaken. Games like this serve as a potent reminder of both the inevitability of death and that there are things worth dying for.

Which doomed protagonists and their struggles have stuck with you?