How Joss Whedon and Steve Meretzky Killed my Best Friends

 

If you are wondering why Joss Whedon is the only one not smiling, let's just say he knows when these characters are going to die...and it's not very far away.

 

I am a member of a very aptly named Facebook group called “Part of me is worried that someday Joss Whedon will kill everyone I love”. The name refers to writer, director, and all around nerd hero Joss Whedon who is perhaps best known for three things: creating one of the most influential shows of the 1990s, extremely sharp dialogue, and killing characters that literally everyone loves. *MASSIVE SPOILERS* whether it’s Tara, Wash, Book, Mrs. Summer, Penny, Spike (sort of), or Anya *END OF SPOILERS* Whedon has always professed that killing characters is an important aspect to his writing. He claims that when the hero faces an adversary, you have to feel that there is no such thing as safety and there is no better way to show that than to show someone actually dying from a seemingly “harmless” scenario.

I bring this up because I decided that if I was going to know Floyd, I was really going to know him by playing through the entire game. But to my surprise I didn’t have to, because, as some of you may know, Floyd dies. Yup, about 2/3rds of the way through this cute, innocent robot sacrifices his life to save you and the preserved citizens of the planet he inhabits. What struck me most about this was the very Whedonesque style this death scene played out, even though Whedon himself wouldn’t kill his first major character until 15 years later. While Floyd followed the typical pattern of the self-sacrificing hero, I found myself strangely moved by this inanimate, fictional character’s death. It wasn’t until later that I really understood why.

While certainly Whedon’s characters weren’t the first in television to die, but they were the first to die so definably.* Often character death’s were prefaced with massive spectacle (such as Bobby’s death in Dallas) or with overt sentimentality (like Lawrence Kutner’s suicide in House). Usually the death was prefaced by an actor leaving a show or a ratings grab. Instead, Whedon chose to show the death straight on, brutal as it may be. He did this by setting up a two part structure. First introduce a character with incredibly likeable attributes. Then kill them in a simple and unpredicted way (such as a stray bullet or a piece of exploding shrapnel). This is the old pull the rug out trick most writers have always know, but Whedon mastered.

In a similar way, Steve Meretzky created an incredibly effective character. Love or hate Floyd, it’s hard to deny that Floyd makes some kind of impression on you. Many of my classmates have likened Floyd to Donkey from the Shrek series, a very apt comparison I believe. Both are annoying, follow the protagonist like a lost dog, and have intrinsically witty things to say. Even more important, both have their detractors and their benefactors but it is almost undeniable that they are incredibly memorable. Now imagine if Donkey was stabbed by Lord Farquaad and was killed immediately. Now you understand the sort of soul-crushing depth Floyd’s death had on me. In one moment Floyd is chatting up everything around him and the next you’re singing the “Ballad of the Starcrossed Miner” to the poor dying creature. It’s the brilliant dichotomy of a seemingly harmless character utterly harmed.

 

Alyx Vance

Seriously, I'm madly in love with this girl.

 

When thinking about this, I see one of the ways to write truly unique interactive fiction is to create characters that jump out of the world they inhabit. Players don’t normally care about the protagonist in video games. Why should they? Most of the time the main character is created almost intentionally bland in order for the player to fulfill the role of personal savior. The real art comes in the minor characters who pepper the story with unique and beautiful ways. Alyx Vance, HK-47, Andrew Ryan, GLADoS, and Floyd all had the impact on me of characters I truly cared for, loved, feared, respected, or admired. If I were to make a game of interactive fiction, I would make the characters more alive and vivid than the world that I can never show them. I would try to interject a sense of humor into the characters as well as make them receptive to the protagonist’s objective in a way that makes them feel truly interested in helping the cause. Ultimately a good character must balance out the strange worlds they inhabit and must act as a guide for the player to feel the presence of comforting hand in the dark. Some characters exist to be guide, others to be tragic warnings of the dangers of a cruel world. Floyd was such a character, and though I mourned his death I was glad to have known him.

For this blog I chose a video from one of my all-time favorite web series Hey Ash Watcha’ Playing. The story tells the bizarre goings on of the Burch household, particularly between nerdy brother Anthony and psychotic sister Ashley. Each episode is based around a particular video game or video game genre. The end is a bit vulgar but still it’s a great parody of text-based adventure games.

*I remembered after writing this of the death of Henry Blake from M.A.S.H. It’s one of the most powerful deaths in TV history and should be remembered as such, so I felt it was worth mentioning.

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