I tend to play games starting as a pacifist. Violence does not make me squeamish, nor do I believe that violence and killing are strictly immoral. I have just become wary of how a lot of games handle killing.
I first became aware of this discomfort while I played Tomb Raider (2013). It started out fabulously; It was compelling to watch the tensions and character dynamics, and see how Lara interacted with people before she had ever picked up a gun. I fully empathized with her when she retched after being forced to shoot and kill someone for the first time in her life, a gut-wrenching feeling that many soldiers in the army have had to deal with in the real world. Whoever it was, maybe they were an asshole, maybe they were a psychopath or a deranged cultist, but regardless, that person had lived for at least 20 years, a literal lifetime’s worth of memories, feelings, and relationships, and Lara snuffed it all out with a single pull of a trigger. It was a very memorable scene and I looked forward to seeing how else they would elaborate on her character, expand on her guilt and developing morality. Unfortunately, 4 hours later, I realized that none of that scene mattered.
Every encounter, I tried to avoid as much conflict as possible, playing as stealthily as I could. After watching that extended cutscene, I knew how she felt about killing one person, and it would have been cruel to subject her to more. This was an unsustainable game plan, however. The level design and game mechanics wouldn’t let me sneak past certain enemies or stay hidden for long. Even if I got through a section unnoticed, there would be a scripted encounter where the cultists somehow magically knew exactly what I was doing and where I was going. After every encounter, I tallied up the dead bodies of the people I had to kill. By the end of the game, I was forced to kill over 500 men. Who were these people? Why and how were they on this godforsaken island? Why were ALL of them 5’ 10” males in their late 20s or mid-30s wearing jeans or sweatpants and hoodies (occasionally with their hood up)? Did they not have families, friends, hopes and aspirations? Why did it feel like every single one of them was a clone birthed from a tube, born with the sole purpose of finding Lara and screaming “there she is”?
10 hours in, Lara could kill easier than breathing, but in her cutscenes, she still pretended to be sore about killing, that she felt a twinge of guilt, a bit of hesitation every time she ended someone’s life. Lara Croft’s game designers forced her, and in consequence, me, to become a mass murderer. I was appalled. After I finished the game, I browsed through popular games in recent memory that I recalled did something similarly terrible: Bioshock: Infinite, Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, World of Warcraft, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Hatred…
The list is nearly endless, and it keeps growing. I wince every time a new game comes out that just makes the problem worse. Uncharted 4 has you kill hundreds of company bodyguards for the sake of cinematography and action, under the guise that it is actually a touching story about reconnecting with family. Far Cry 5 pits you against all of small-town America that respawns periodically, a town that is unfazed and infinitely able to supply you with more cultists to shoot (and also mind controlled zombies who are actually just regular people…). World of Warcraft makes you kill hundreds of kobolds, but for what? The Greater Good, or was it just because the innkeeper was going to offer you 10 silver and 100 exp? The poor ratfolk just didn’t want you to take their candles.
I love games that treat living beings with respect. As I said before, I am not afraid of violence. I gladly take up arms against worthy foes or established scum or complicated predicaments. I want to love, hate, fear, desire what I’m fighting against. I need them to have a face because otherwise, I would be a sociopath, killing people for just monetary reward, instead of perhaps because we couldn’t find common ground in a high stakes argument, or because I was protecting my kin from danger, or because they wouldn’t budge when I said I needed to pass through the gate. Death must be used as a plot device, as a means to advance character, as a way to garner empathy from the audience, as a way to increase stakes, as a way to bring change to a world, positive or negative. Death and the act of killing should not be the only purpose of your actions.
This practice in games is insidious. I loved games because I thought they expanded my range of empathy, allowing me to experience situations that I couldn’t in life, but instead, games were numbing me to the sensation of death.
I’d like to carefully examine the player fantasy of a few games to help prove my point, using Uncharted 4, Hitman, Borderlands, and Battlefield V as examples.
Uncharted 4: To play an interactive action-adventure blockbuster cinematic as an ex-treasure hunter, and see how Nathan Drake tries to deal with the dull lifestyle of marriage and going straight.
Hitman: To play as a hitman born and designed to kill by blending into a crowd and cleverly devising a plan to silently assassinate his targets.
Borderlands: To be a badass outlaw with radical abilities (and a bit of heroism) on a planet with no rules.
Battlefield V: Playing as a soldier in World War II, while also having high octane, action movie drama.
Uncharted 4 is a highly story-driven adventure, focused primarily on embodying a specific character, intended to have a critical role in the story, and expected to go through changes and facilitate the telling of an engaging story. Uncharted is also about treasure hunting and puzzle solving. To Nathan Drake, killing is necessary to accomplish his goals, as his adversaries have put him and his family in an unreasonable and dangerous situation. This, however, breaks apart the larger the pile of bodies is that Nathan leaves behind. He is supposed to be a man who has cut his ties with the criminal world and gone clean, and yet somehow I’m supposed to take satisfaction in his quiet summer beach house and loving family gathering knowing that I personally witnessed him kill almost the entirety of Shoreline Defense Corp?
This was a game that had a specific player fantasy, one which “entertaining gunplay” was not necessarily a core part of. One thing that many players enjoyed, however, was the stealth mechanics where Nathan worked with his brother to take down enemies, and the amazing grappling hook that allowed Nathan to pull off quick maneuvers to reposition or land on enemies. I set the game to Easy and played it the whole way through with only my fists, a grappling hook, and a single magazine in a handgun, and it was an amazing experience, allowing me to much more closely follow the original player fantasy that I had hoped the game was designed to emulate: Indiana Jones, the game.
Next, Hitman is actually a game with a player fantasy that involves killing, centered around a character who was born, taught, and designed to kill. Why then, in this game, do I kill great magnitudes fewer people than I do in Uncharted or Tomb Raider? Why do I believe that this game about a born and bred sociopath treats killing and death with more respect than these two games? The first, more clear answer to these questions is because the game rewards tactical and clean play. The fewer loose ends you have, the higher your score will be, which naturally reduces the number of unintentional deaths that occur. You’ll have to choke out unfortunate witnesses, but otherwise, the list of casualties is usually limited to the target of your contract. Interestingly, the game also plays with the character of the people that you’ve been tasked to kill. Sometimes it’s a pompous, rich asshole, or perhaps this time it’s your manager Diana, someone who tried to escape this life, someone who cares deeply for Agent 47, knowing that he can change, that under his cold, sociopathic veil lies a heart of gold.
Hitman could have been a game just about assassination, and I would have begrudgingly accepted it as a game that handles death adequately, basically being a single player version of a competitive shooter like Counter-Strike, where the focus of the game is on the gameplay, the act of shooting and the player fantasy of killing with style. However, Hitman takes it one step further and respects the marks that you hunt down, and excuses the deaths of the rare innocent here and there because that’s just the unfortunate nature of his occupation. Agent 47 is also shown to have a lot of internal struggle over his purpose, several times adopting animals, tending to gardens, and attempting to settle down in a church, only to ripped away from his wants; death, an unrelenting driving force in his story and character development.
Borderlands is a video game set in a world that has embraced nihilism. You’re stuck on a planet whose occupants have gone mad, and just living in that space is probably making you go mad as well. Psychopaths are pit against psychopaths; death is the culture on this planet.
I distinctly remember one of the quests in Borderlands 2, where you suddenly encounter a loud individual named Face McShooty. Immediately, you are given a new quest: Shoot Face McShooty in the face. He asks for this relatively politely over and over until you oblige, and when you do, he doesn’t forget to yell “THANK YOU”. I’ll never understand why he wanted this so badly, but I do remember this moment when I try to recount this gaming experience to others.
This game’s fantasy and premise is about violent absurdity, and so its treatment of death is not only more respectful than how it is treated in Tomb Raider, but also more appropriate, fitting and entertaining.
Battlefield V is an action-packed FPS game that thrives on its wild, player-driven gameplay. It’s very fun for its target audience. There is a large variety of powerful tools that players can utilize. The gunplay is exciting, and the ability to destroy environments leads to numerous entertaining youtube clips. I, however, believe that this game is insulting and disrespectful in regards to the way that it treats the lives of soldiers and of death, somehow being more immoral and detrimental than Borderlands, worse than the game about wonton genocide and fun exploding bodies (and I’ve already stated how I actually think Borderlands is respectful for how it treats death, thanks to its lighthearted nature and self-awareness). Why does Battlefield V try so hard to be thought-provoking and sensitive when its gameplay is so blatantly the opposite of the slow, quiet tone that they keep trying to set? How could they have thought it was okay to tell me “Until you’ve pulled the trigger on the enemy, you’re not ready for war, you’re only ready to die”, while literally marking blurry silhouettes of the “enemy” in the distance with red triangles above their heads, as if war was so simple? How could they think that their game was deep insightful just because of slow, black fades with quotes like “The war would thoroughly explore man’s potential. Finest Moments. Darkest Hours,” and then show off a release trailer like this? If the game wanted to be a serious take on World War II and the struggle of soldiers in one of the cruelest conflicts the world has ever seen, sure, by all means, do so. An earnest attempt to depict the loss of life and innocence of soldiers over the course of the war or the acts of cruelty that people are forced into under the pressure of death and destruction would have been impactful, and a meaningful contribution to the tradition of respecting the World Wars. Instead, however, Battlefield V is just a tone-deaf game that completely throws out a major aspect of its player fantasy (being a soldier in World War II) in favor of actiony gunplay and competitive shooting.
Games have as much a right as film and literature to feature violence and death. However, games, game developers, and gamers will have to mature collectively to catch up in depth and sincerity.
Here is a list of some games I respect along with brief descriptions of why I believe they handle the killing of other sentient beings well. Perhaps by presenting as many positive examples I can, we might reach a better understanding of the commonality between them.
Witcher 3: There is one side quest that fully, completely rewards you for playing mercifully towards peaceful monsters. It teaches a valuable lesson, that just because we label them as monsters, they’re no less worth preserving than humans, elves and dwarves. It’s a side quest that felts extremely validating to earn the approval of.
Prey: The game begins by asking you a few generic philosophical questions. They’re gentle and pretty easy, but the answer to each question gains new meaning as you unravel more of the plot. Do you push the fat man over the rails to stop the trolley from killing the people tied to the tracks? Y/N? Now that you’ve answered that, please put it to practice on that flesh and blood fat man over there, your brother and business partner, and lifelong friend.
Metal Gear Solid V: [Spoiler] There is one scene where you have to personally contain a quarantine for a parasite that is spreading in your crew, people that you handpicked from the battlefield. It drives people half mad for sunlight, a mechanism to lure its host towards others to infect. You have to examine the sick one by one and shoot to kill if they are infected. It is most heart-wrenching when they stand straight and salute you, knowing what has to be done, loyal to the end.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance: Jack has fundamental ideological differences with the main antagonists of the game. Neither party will budge, and so philosophical debates have to be won by force. Eventually, one of the bosses you fight (actually a character who you can play as in later levels to see his point of view) has very similar motivations to Jack. Both of them want to save the world, its just that they have a different but incompatible way of accomplishing it. “No more talk, draw your sword and let history decide who’s right.”
Fire Emblem Series:The enemies that you fight tend to be obvious forces of evil, but the reason why I include this series is because of how the games make you feel about the members of your party. A lot of the time, new, special members can be recruited from the battlefield, however, death is permanent for every character in this story. Players learn to take a lot of care when they place their soldiers, making sure not to expose them to excessive danger, adding a nurturing element to these war games.
Fallout Series: As you roam the atomic scarred land and scavenge for resources, sometimes you might stumble into an area thinking that it’s just occupied by barbaric raiders or something, but after you loot the place and their dead bodies, there might be notes or logs or audio logs that they made, and you might realize that you just wiped out people just trying to survive, people running legitimate businesses, or people just trying to protect their territory.
Hotline Miami: This game is practically a condensed version of this blog post. It’s a flashy action game where you’re gunning down people 90 miles per hour, running room to room to psychedelic lights and music. When you complete a level, however, the music is cut off and you have to walk slowly and silently back out of the building, giving you lots of time to look at the string of bodies you’ve left behind you. Not to mention the ending, but I’d rather not spoil it.
FTL: Faster Than Light: Before you finish off a ship, almost all of the time you can choose to spare them. The monetary rewards are almost the same, and sometimes the rewards change, like if you were attacking a slave trader. There are even special encounters that test what sort of ideals you have for a galaxy led by the Federation.
NieR: Automata: I can’t do this game’s philosophy adequate justice with less than a paragraph to work with. Just know that it is a 40-hour philosophy experiment dealing with existentialism and the nature of life and death.
Spec Ops: The Line: This game sets itself up as a B-rated clone of games like Call of Duty, but halfway through you start to realize how it’s subverting the genre, and how it’s critiquing not only FPS games but also you, the player, for playing these sorts of games. It’s absolutely worth your time to play or watch an analysis video on, and I think it’s a valuable and classic example of game-as-critique.
Undertale:Whether you choose to be pacifist, genocidal, or something in between, the game is keeping track. The environment and its characters respond to who and how often you kill.
Bayonetta Series: You’re usually fighting weird and perverted renditions of Angels, a twist to the usual assumption that Angels are a force of good. They’re sentient as well, and the reasons for fighting them are clear: there’s something sinister going on, and they’re a part of it, spreading their twisted influence to unassuming humans that still believe that Angels are worthwhile to worship. Also, there’s a lightheartedness that puts emphasis on Bayonetta’s humorous and sexy style more than anything else.
And many more! Fighting is one of the fundamental ways to resolve a conflict, and it’s a core component in accomplished works in all mediums of storytelling. I am not advocating for a reduction of violence in video games, I’m not here to report the evils of video games to your local politician. I merely ask for game developers and players to find deeper meaning in how violence can be used.