“There’s no way we can escape. There’s too many, and if we try to run, they’ll simply catch us. So, I’ll hold them off here. You get everyone else to safety.”
And so the valiant hero stood firm… only to be swallowed by the horde and eviscerated in a blink, not even slowing down the approaching army for even a second.
His companion watched with enraptured horror, and said moments before she herself was torn asunder by the frenzied foe, “Well, that was pointless.”
Of course, that’s how such a scene would really play out, but that’s of course not how its done in our entertainment.
The heroic sacrifice is a staple for stories… it’s the go to card when a creator wants to tug the heartstrings of his or her audience. It’s like a “hit ’em right in the feels free” card. What better way to keep people talking than something poignant as a loss of a beloved character, giving everything they have for someone else? It resonates somewhere very deep and personal with nearly everyone, even when it is done badly.
And, by God, is it usually done badly.
Now, I’m not one to criticize the writers at Arena.net all that much. They’re among the best in the field when it comes to video game writing, and could even probably teach me a thing or to about how to keep a fanbase happy. But this time, they pretty glaringly drop the ball, so I’m gonna have to take ’em to task for it.
*** SPOILERS INCOMING ***
In the Order of Whispers path, we’re introduced to Tybalt Leftpaw, a self-depreciating, devoted, dedicated Charr who was finally getting his first chance as a field agent for the Order after years of being a glorified file clerk. For two or three missions with the order, your character is Tybalt’s partner, and you’d have to be a pretty cold person to not be a little charmed by the fella. Even with all he went through in his life, he’s a genuinely light-hearted Charr, who believes in what he does, and feels like he is serving a greater purpose.
His story comes to a culmination at the fortress on Claw Island, as Zhaitan’s forces muster a large invasion of Lion’s Arch. As the island is steadily overrun, ol’ Tybalt comes to a conclusion… that someone needs to lead the evacuation of the island, and someone needs to stay to keep them busy. It’s pretty obvious what he decides. With a cheerful smile, and a life free of regrets, dear Tybalt Leftpaw turns around, walks through the gates with his rifle on his shoulder, and the doors slam shut behind him as he issues a war cry.
Queue the tears.
Unless you’re like me and go a little cross-eyed… because that, my friends, is a heroic sacrifice done badly.
In case you can’t figure out why… what sense does it make for one single defender to be outside the gates, where he is exposed to the entire advancing horde? Wouldn’t it make more sense to be on the inside of the gates, and picking them off as they break through? One method actually does what the sacrificial soldier set out to do… delay the enemy advance. The other just turns into a smear within seconds and might as well have not been there at all.
The problem here is that when a writer goes for the heroic sacrifice, it tends to be solely for the emotional impact, and logic is either secondary or is abandoned entirely. It’s become so cliche and so expected that the audience often doesn’t even care anymore. I, however, prefer a heroic sacrifice that makes sense, and has a distinct and obvious change of the outcome. That’s where a writer can really show his or her chops; with a heroic sacrifice that people can look back on with more than raw emotion, but with respect for the execution as well.
I’ll give you a couple examples of heroic sacrifices that not only tugged the heartstrings but also fulfilled the logical expectations of the sacrifice as well.
The first comes from the game Assassin’s Creed, and the character of Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad.
But wait… you might say… Altaïr died of old age. How is that a heroic sacrifice?
Well, first of all, a sacrifice does not necessarily have to mean the character dies. In fact, death following sacrifice is more often a mercy than anything else. In Altaïr’s example, he gave up pretty much everything in his life, gave up nearly every happiness, any sense of peace throughout his years, dying alone in a forgotten vault deep within what could become an abandoned keep for centuries, too keep the Apple of Eden out of Templar hands. He watched two lovers die, one in his arms. One of his sons was executed in an attempt to get at him. That is a very cynical, yet very well executed, form of heroic sacrifice… to give up everything for a greater cause, and forcing yourself to live through it all.
Secondly… I invoke one of my favorite books; The Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir’s suicidal charge in an attempt to give Pippin and Merry a chance to escape actually makes strategic sense. The Uruk-Hai are scouring the area largely at random on a search for hobbits. One lunatic running a diversion actually would potentially work. But what really sells the scene is that, in the end, it actually doesn’t. And yet, despite the effort being all for naught, even though there is no immediate triumph, the sacrifice itself does not lose any emotional weight.
That honestly is actually a pretty good gauge as to whether or not a sacrifice actually truly delivers the power the creator hopes it will. The next time you see such a scene, ask yourself, “would I feel the same way about this if the attempt failed?” If not… if it would feel like a character throwing his or her life away senselessly… then what you have is a badly executed scene.