Goodbyes. They’re inevitable. Whether as simple as saying goodbye to a loved one before heading off to work, as difficult as leaving behind a group of friends for a new chapter in your life, or as heart wrenching as saying goodbye to a loved one who has passed away, our lives are filled with exits. While video games are often thought of as an escape from the very harsh nature of real life, games are not without their own goodbyes. Rather, games feature goodbyes from the mundane to the earth shattering, both in and out of the game itself. Rather than allowing us to avoid the sadness that comes with a goodbye, games can make us stronger and more apt to handle a parting of ways. So how are different goodbyes handled in games and how can we learn from them? Allow me to explain.
The most obvious, and easiest form of goodbye to talk about, is the one with the most finality — the dreaded “D” word. Death. I’m not talking about the five seconds between your health bar going all crimson and your inevitable respawn. I’m talking the death of a character. The Aeriths of the gaming world. It’s funny that what, in real life, is the hardest goodbye to handle, seems to be the opposite in the world of game. Perhaps this is because in games death is like a slap on the wrist, the actual removal a character. Let’s avoid the Final Fantasy example and instead talk about a game like Metal Gear Solid, where death is followed up by ponderous musings that can stretch on for 20 minutes at a time. The villains themselves have death scenes that feel more like you’re losing a friend, or a potential friend, rather than someone you actually loathe.
Take, for example, the death of Psycho Mantis. After the boss battle it is revealed that the scars that cover his body are nothing compared to those that he holds inside. A character who provided a mind-bending fight in life gave gamers a look into a broken mind in death. Through this parting, we began to understand more about what drove Mantis, and what drives everyone, to do the things they do. Each character that Snake watches die, imprints upon him an idea, a moment, that can never be undone. Apply that to real life, where even the deaths of complete strangers can impact us. Tragic shootings spur us to action or make us a little more wary of those around us, celebrity deaths makes us reflect on the impact their lives had. When we say goodbye to anyone in death, we’re still left with a piece of them. Death gives our characters a way to move toward their ultimate goal, and makes accomplishing that goal all the more fulfilling. Just as death gives us the drive to push forward.
Now, not all goodbyes in games are about death, or even about the game world itself. There is a sense, when you finish a game, that you’re saying goodbye to characters and a world you spent countless hours invested in. The story has been told, and it is over. Unlike a movie or a book where you are passively watching a story unfold, games allow us to actually participate in these people’s lives. Even if a story is linear, we still had our role to play whether it be through nail-biting combat or time spent distracting the characters with mini-games and side quests. Where do you go from there? I’m reminded of when I finished Uncharted 2. Over the course of two games, I became invested in Nate and Elena, their relationship, and their adventures. The other characters were incidental to me, no matter their role in the story. It was all about these two people, who were so fully realized that I couldn’t help but feel a bit of sadness at the end of the game. Sure, I know I’d see them again in Uncharted 3, but at that moment our story had reached an end, however temporary it might be.
Whenever I finish a game where I had invested so much time, I get a sense of melancholy. Especially in games where a sequel is not likely. You experienced only one story, one chapter in these characters’ lives, and then it’s over. This type of goodbye is one I’m most familiar with in my own life, especially now as I leave one job for another. Finding a group a friends, sharing experiences with them, and then moving on. Life doesn’t let us stay in one place, and unlike games, life keeps giving us different stories to experience. The characters in one story may not always be around in the next, but that doesn’t make them any less important, or saying goodbye to them any easier. Just as I said goodbye to Nate and Elena, I have to say goodbye to real friends, and although I know I will see them again, I still know that I’m closing out one story. Even if we gather for a “sequel” and it’s better than the original, I will always be nostalgic for the past. It’s just the way life works out. Resident Evil 6 might rock, but I’ll always remember Resident Evil 1. Saying goodbye doesn’t mean forgetting the past.
Enough with the depressing, let’s talk about my favorite goodbye in gaming, the goodbye that kickstarts your journey. My favorite example? The Pokemon series. If there is one thing you can rely on in the core games of the franchise, it’s that you will set off on your journey from your home town (of three to five residents). Each journey will also begin with you saying goodbye to your mom, who cheerfully reminds you of the adventure you’re about to participate in. That’s the best kind of goodbye. The one that tells us that everything is going to be great, and, while we will face hardships, we’re going to land on our feet. In the Pokemon series, this goodbye grants us the confidence to take our first steps toward becoming a Pokemon master. Ok, let’s be real, sometimes the goodbye at the start of the game is from the dying citizens of your doomed hometown, but the impact is the same. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning. Oh, now I get what that song is about! Just like in games, a goodbye in real life can mean the start of a new adventure. Saying goodbye to your parents before moving to a new city, saying goodbye to an ex-boyfriend knowing that you’re going to find someone else, maybe someone even better. It’s in saying goodbye that we give ourselves permission to experience something brand new in our lives.
Whether you’re saying goodbye to your favorite game character or to your best friend, know that there is no true finality, because you keep moving forward. In game and out of game, we’re constantly moving toward a new adventure. Sometimes we may get distracted along the way, or need a strategy guide to make it a bit easier, and yes, often times it will mean leaving those we love behind us. Just as characters in games never forget their digital past, we don’t forget our real past. We say goodbye, and then we push on. Until the end of our own story, where we get to say one final goodbye to the world. That’s a whole different topic, though.