Aerith looking at the camera with black feathers around her
Image via Square Enix

10 Most Unexpected Video Game Deaths That Left Us Reeling

Which character deaths came as the biggest surprises in gaming?

Not everyone makes it out alive. And it hurts even more when we lose characters we’ve grown to love, that we’ve watched grow, and that we’ve escaped the jaws of death with over and over again. These are the 10 most unexpected deaths in video games.

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What are the Most Surprising Video Game Character Deaths?

10. Cole Phelps — LA Noire

Cole phelps leaning forward in disbelief
Image via Rockstar Games

In gaming, the protagonist is usually safe from death. However, some games surprise us by going against that expectation and finding a way to kill the main character in the final levels. And LA Noire does this with Cole Phelps. The entire time, Cole tries to do his best while we learn about his past and see his flaws. There’s no lead-up or hint that Cole’s life is ever in danger. So when his death scene comes, it’s a complete surprise. And a bit devastating.

9. Roland — Borderlands 2

Handsome Jack makes a blood splattered appearance
Screenshot by GameSkinny

Death is always a risk when fighting a devilish corporation’s power-hungry CEO willing to kill for anything. But even then, Roland’s death comes as a shock. One minute he’s talking to you, and the next, there’s a bullet in his chest — and the dastardly Handsome Jack stands behind him. When I reached Roland’s death in Borderlands 2, I had to take a minute and figure out what just happened. I wasn’t prepared for it.

8. John Marston — Red Dead Redemption

Image via Rockstar Games

Despite the looks of things, John Marston was never going to get a peaceful ending. With his old gang dead, he returns to the ranch to live and work with his family. But tranquility doesn’t last long. Union soldiers attack the farm, and John’s shot and killed trying to defend his family. It’s one of gaming’s more shocking and heartbreaking moments.

7. Joker — Batman Arkham City

Joker in an Arkham Asylum Room
Image via WB Games

Batman’s moral code keeps him from killing, which means his rogues gallery has a decent survival rate. But that doesn’t save them from themselves. Joker injects himself with a version of Bane’s venom serum, all for the sake of power. And while Batman manages to turn Joker back to normal, he can’t reverse the damage done by the serum. The Clown Prince of Crime succumbs to the poison in his veins. Joker and Batman’s storied rivalry has gotten them out of deadly situations before, but Rocksteady pulled the rug out from under us.

6. Ethan Winters — Resident Evil 7

Ethan at a table with the Baker family
Image via Capcom

Ethan’s death is an interesting one because we don’t know he died until RE: Village. Of course, it’s strange how many gruesome injuries he can endure and still be among the living, but RE games defy logic anyway, so suspension of disbelief is just part of the package. It wasn’t entirely unbelievable, given what we’ve seen in other games. The set-up for this unexpected death was subtle and not that bizarre for a universe where a boulder can be broken by punches. That’s why the reveal that he actually died early in RE7 comes as such a shock.

5. Protagonist — Persona 3

Persona 3 Remake
Image via Atlus

Like with Cole Phelps in LA Noir, you play the entirety of Persona 3 as this character only to have them die at the very end. Their death is for the greater good, becoming a seal to keep Nyx at bay. But that’s ultimately of little solace as you’ve grown to care for and connect with this character over dozens of hours. It’s especially jarring because we think everything’s over, only for them to give up the ghost afterward. And to think, we can experience it all again with Persona 3 Reloaded.

4. Mordin Solus — Mass Effect 3

Image via Bioware

It had to be Mordin. Someone else might have gotten it wrong. Of all the characters to die, Mordin shouldn’t be at the top of the list. However, he tries to fix the mistakes of the past in ME3, forcing Shepard to leave him behind. He knows he won’t make it out in time to deal with the genophage.

Not only is his death unexpected, it’s heartbreaking, too. Watching him complete his final task alone, with the building crumbling around him while singing his Salarian song, sticks with me, and I’m sure it does with you, too. Ultimately, he made his decision, and he was content with it. But I don’t know if I can be.

3. Sarah — The Last of Us

Joel sad while talking to Ellie
Image via Naughty Dog

The opening sequence of TLoU is one of the most intense and heartwrenching in all of video games. That’s not hyperbole. Sarah already has the bad luck of breaking her leg when the car crashes, and we’re certain that Joel’s best efforts will keep her from the Infected. But right when they believe they’re safe, soldiers open fire. And it’s not until after we see that Sarah’s injuries are fatal. It’s a scene that still causes me to tear up, and one that many series fans still haven’t gotten over.

2. Joel — The Last of Us Part 2

Joel talking to Ellie inside a house
Image via Naughty Dog

Much like his daughter, Joel doesn’t last long in The Last of Us Part 2. He survives so much from the beginning of the outbreak to where we see him at the end of TLoU. He’s seen things, and though he probably should have died from any of the many events alluded to in Part 2, he somehow makes it out alive. But death comes for us all. Abby, consumed with avenging her father’s death at the hands of Joel, kills him. Brutally. It’s a scene that not only still shakes TLoU fans, but also the game’s writers and actors, as evidenced by the commentary accompanying the scene in TLoU 2 Remastered.

1. Aerith — Final Fantasy 7

The flowers growing in Aerith's Church
Image via Square Enix

Although this isn’t a surprise anymore, Aerith’s death came as a huge shock when FF7 was first released. Aerith is your healer, mending your wounds and reviving party members, so it stands to reason she’d be the last person to die. But on your way to reunite with her, she’s killed. Now, we have to sit and wonder if Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth will shock us again with a new path, or renew the heartbreak with an updated scene of Aerith’s death.

Those are what I consider the 10 most unexpected video game deaths. Even after decades, developers still find ways to surprise us by killing off beloved characters. But for subjects a little less depressing, check other lists such as the top 10 games like Elden Ring or the top 10 most anticipated indie games of 2024.

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Image of Melissa Sarnowski
Melissa Sarnowski
Melissa Sarnowski has been working as a gaming writer professionally for two years, having been at GameSkinny for over a year now as a horror beat writer. She has an English degree from University of Wisconsin - Madison. While she focuses on all things horror, she also enjoys cozy games, MMOs like FFXIV and WoW, and any and everything in between.