“Jeez. She fell funny”
(Laughs at dead bodies)
-Frank Costello, The Departed
In many modern video games, someone on the development team spent a good amount of time being paid to ensure that recently killed people collapse to the ground realistically, adjusting the joints of digital models so they bend convincingly when the character goes limp and flops over. This has now become more or less a standard feature and is among the creepiest uses of technology since whoever it was decided that female game characters’ breasts needed to bounce realistically as they moved. Sure, ragdoll physics look a lot better than seeing the same pre-animated death every time you kill someone, but let’s stop and consider what we’re saying here. Ragdoll physics exist because most video game protagonists kill enough people that the developers worry there won’t be enough variety in the ways their victims die. Murder gets as boring as folding laundry with enough repetition.
Ragdoll physics work just fine in games that sell themselves as silly, balls-out action. The Saints Row games, especially from 3 on, benefit from having exaggerated ragdolls flailing about everywhere whenever there’s an explosion, or being able to punch people so hard they go tumbling down the sidewalk. It looks ridiculous, and adds to the chaotic, Loony Tunes violence. In a more serious game, adding in ragdoll physics is just begging for them to go horribly wrong just when the most dramatic thing is happening. There are endless youtube clips or screenshots of characters ending up in silly positions, and it doesn’t matter if they were a major character or some random enemy, it will always be hilarious. At the end of the mediocre shooter Rainbow Six Vegas 2, when you draw your sidearm while the villain threatens you and explains his motives, I happened to have the Raging Bull magnum equipped, and the big final shot that ends the story hit the villain so hard it left his legs curled up over his shoulders and his face stuck in his own ass. So that wasn’t very dramatic. Not that that game had an especially involving storyline, but still.
Video games may be earning more artistic merit, but they will always be video games. To be a good game, a game still has to have some form of gameplay and the expectation is that even a straightforward point A to point B game should take a lot longer than a movie’s runtime to finish. Five hours of gameplay is considered a disappointment and a waste of money, while taking forty hours or more to complete a more involved game isn’t considered excessive. So, whatever the game happens to be about is going to be stretched over a whole lot more time than a movie ever would be. If your game is designed around shooting bad guys, you’re going to be doing that for hours, and you can’t just have one intro action sequence followed by two hours of buildup towards another final shootout. If there’s combat in a game, be it shooting, stabbing, punching, or otherwise, as a general rule you’ll be doing a lot of it, and the game needs to keep throwing enemies at you to defeat.
What usually results is that even in games that try to sell themselves as realistic, with protagonists you can identify with, you inevitably end up playing as a mass murderer. Even if they’re noble and trying to do the right thing, how much would you admire a real person who had personally killed hundreds of people? You have to imagine someone like that would be a little fucked up by the whole thing. Some games try to touch on this, giving mention to the guilt the protagonist feels over having killed so many people, but it’s often so minimal it’s comical. They fuss about it or have a look in the mirror with those “what have I donnnnne” eyes, but give it a few minutes and they’ll have killed ten more people in slow-motion kill sequences and forgotten about the whole thing. Really, the only kind of convincing game protagonist is one who is unashamedly completely psychotic, and so many games try to justify their starring psycho by giving him some kind of sympathetic motivation that really drives him – Kratos of God of War has his dead family, Alex Mercer of Prototype his girlfriend, and so on. This is supposed to humanize them even when they’re utterly brutal to people who don’t even threaten them.
One of the main reasons for all this killing is the assumption that whenever you are faced with an enemy, the conflict should end in death for you or them. I’m not talking about lighter, softer leaning games with more ambiguous fates for villains, calling them “defeated” or “KO’ed”, but rather the obvious, instant death of enemies who dared get in your way and threaten you. Whether your enemies are monsters, aliens, evil soldiers, or just security guards doing their job, you usually have no choice but to be ruthless, because they will be just as ruthless and won’t stop trying to kill you no matter how minor your offense was, be it killing another enemy or just trespassing.
Sometimes enemies at low health will try to run away, but if you want the experience points or loot they’ll give you, you actually have to chase after them and kill them before they escape. Some games will have enemies surrender, but for the most part there isn’t really much benefit to not killing them. I remember in Skyrim when a bandit fell to his knees, wounded, and said he’d had enough only to get up a few seconds later and come charging after me again, get smacked and surrender again… and repeat until I hit him just a little too hard and he died. Skyrim’s bandits apparently have very short memories and minimal self-preservation instinct, and I was disappointed I couldn’t actually show mercy.
One way some games avert the mass murder quotient is by adding stealth as a central or side mechanic. Stay out of sight, and you’ll avoid setting off an alarm, and won’t have to kill an entire military base worth of bad guys. I’m very fond of stealth games, though they too have an odd relationship with murder at times. Most of the time, you’ll be loaded down with various weapons or tools or whatnot which will make silently eliminating the enemy and clearing the way ahead much easier, and not given any particular reason why you ought to murder every guard who just happens to be protecting the area – whether it’s an evil government soldier or just a paid guard working the night shift. Some games reward you for finding non-lethal solutions and dock points or cash every time you kill someone, but this just strikes as taunting the player with a bunch of shiny kill tools and then scolding them for using them.
Dishonored, while an excellent game, was one of the worst for this, with most of the awesome powers being lethal to enemies, and the story darkening for every enemy you killed. There were creative ways of punishing your targets of vengeance that didn’t involve killing them, though they were so cruel you might as well have just killed them. Characters in the game reacted positively to you if you were merciful, which was nothing new, but as well the city of Dunwall itself started looking up if you went the good route, while it went more and more to shit if you killed a lot of guards, explaining it as causing more chaos thanks to panic and spreading the deadly plague with more corpses. Ultimately, you progress through the same plot and levels until the very end, but a few things in the levels change and the tone of things shifts quite a bit, heading towards a hopeful ending or a dark, cynical one. A cool idea, and I actually preferred the dark ending, but it forces those going for the good route to miss out on a lot of the fun.
In a very specific case, the assumption you’ll kill at least few guards just ends up being hilarious. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has an available upgrade for robotic-armed super-spy Adam that allow him to punch through weak sections of wall to find new paths. If an enemy is standing on the other side, potentially one you the player wasn’t even aware of, he just instantly grabs them and snaps their neck without pause, as if that’s the obvious thing to do. This happens whether they’re a evil mercenary, a street gangster, or just some random cop. It’s not like Adam is prone to murder in the rest of the story – it fully acknowledges you for playing peacefully and even has an achievement at the end if you didn’t kill a single person. An achievement which can be ruined by punching through the wrong wall and letting Adam’s murder-tourette’s take over.
It’s cropping up more often now that games will sometimes present you with a peaceful solution to certain conflicts. Usually, these involve talking your way out of it, in games that incorporate RPG influences and allow your character to have skill in persuasion or intimidation tactics. The problem is, these moments only happen periodically, and the rest of the game you’re just confronted by enemies who attack on sight and can’t be reasoned with in any way, which makes negotiating for peace seem kind of silly when you’ve already killed fifty of them. Social skills in RPGs end up usually being a side skill to compliment your combat prowess, and creating a weak character intended to be purely diplomatic is just going to get you killed. Some older, more complicated RPGs almost let you do this – Fallout 1 and 2 or Planescape: Torment come to mind – but that kind of depth usually doesn’t exist in more modern equivalents.
Most games throw so much conflict at you, and have you kill so many people or other enemies simply because you are a lot stronger than each individual enemy and therefore need a lot of opposition before you’re actually threatened. Where enemies go down in a hit or two, you can stand there like a tank, maybe duck down and regenerate some health or soak up some health packs or healing potions, allowing infinite wounding and recovery that doesn’t affect you over the long term in any way. A man with a gun or a sword isn’t very scary, because those weapons probably don’t do very much damage to the number that is your health, and you can probably easily recover that number without even flinching. Even the more realistic protagonists end up basically becoming The Terminator when shit goes down.
No game has ever actually presented a realistic damage system, involving injuries and long-lasting wounds, well enough to avoid being annoying or seeming tacked on. It would be a lot of work, but probably feasible at least to some extent. A few games have touched upon it. Metal Gear Solid 3 had the recovery system for patching up injuries like bullet wounds and broken bones, though it basically just meant you needed four items to heal yourself rather than one, and was a gimmicky way of attempting to seem realistic. The original Deus Ex had individual health meters for each body part, and damage to them would do things like throw off your aim or force you to limp or crawl, and a similar system shows up in the Fallout series. This adds a layer of risk to combat, but also to some players just ends up an annoyance that punishes them for playing the game their way, which may be why this kind of thing isn’t implemented often.
Horror and survival games usually have you kill few or no enemies, in order to reinforce the feeling of helplessness and vulnerability the protagonist is suppose to be experiencing. Many horror games lean to one side or the other in terms of too much or too little conflict, and end up dividing audiences depending on what they prefer. A game like Amnesia or Outlast has no combat whatsoever and forces the player to run and hide from every threat, a design choice both scary and a bit lazy. Something like Dead Space never stops throwing enemies at you, ensuring you’re always threatened but also making you numb to the horror after a while. There needs to be enough time between threats that the player is able to build up a sense of dread and anticipate the next encounter. Too short a time, and there’s no chance to immerse the player in the world and really make them afraid to go through that door. Too long, and there’s the risk of the player no longer caring, and just rushing from place to place until something finally tries to kill them.
One of the prime examples for this is Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. It was not nearly as well-received as its predecessor, The Dark Descent, and some criticism leveled at it mentioned that it hardly even counted as a game. Enemy encounters are rare, there is no inventory to speak of, no health meter, simply you and a creepy environment to navigate where occasionally you will be chased around by squealing pig-man monstrosities. It was definitely an attempt at a different kind of horror, one where the anticipation is dragged out for as long as possible before finally paying off. It’s easy to dismiss as empty and boring, but I felt the atmosphere and writing kept me entertained and full of dread just long enough to bring me to the next encounter. The best moment came when I stood staring at a monster on the other side of a fence that I was confident was just there to make me think I was in danger – at which point it walked right around that fence and came after me, having been a real threat the whole time. The game had toyed with me for so long that I was growing smug, and then threw that back in my face just when I thought I was safe.
Making enemy encounters rare and very dangerous can almost make other games feel like horror games. Take older tactical shooters like Rainbow Six 3 or SWAT 4, where room-clearing and careful corner checking is mandatory, and an enemy who sneaks up behind you can kill you in a second. Careful movement and quick reaction times are required, as you’re just as fragile as the enemy, and one slip-up can mean the whole mission fails. These games were especially tense when the level had been mostly cleared of enemies, but there was still one roaming around, somewhere. Suddenly, every open door, every corner could be a deathtrap, and whatever direction you went could let him get the drop on you when you turned your back. This sense of danger, and the empowering feeling of overcoming that danger through careful planning and caution, goes a long way to make these games feel memorable and immersive, and I’d love to see that general philosophy implemented in other kinds of games as well.
Killing a lot of stuff in a video game isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I’m not trying to be a moral guardian here. It’s become a joke to bring up the fact that game protagonists kill a lot of people, as hilariously demonstrated in the epilogue of the brilliant indie game Gunpoint: “I, er, may have killed more people than I actually avenged here.” (Achievement popup: ‘Acknowledged Ludonarrative Dissonance’.) If the game’s going to be about shooting guys, make it about shooting guys. But if you’re trying to sell your game as a free and open adventure where you can be anyone you want, then let us really play as a diplomat, as a merciful warrior, as a sneaky expert who leaves no traces without making us feel like we’re missing out on a major chunk of the gameplay. We’re off to a good start for certain, but a lot of games still fall back on the old way, and it cheapens what would otherwise be great protagonists. Everything being a threat was the infancy, and now we’re in the somewhat awkward adolescence of video game conflicts, where some things work and some things don’t. Here’s hoping some great games take some big risks that really pay off, and we can explore some new ideas and have new experiences before we stagnate in mass murder.