While reading this interview with Warren Spector, two images came to mind: “Ezio did not kill civilians,” and a scene I read last night from Wizard and Glass in which a main character is forced to kill a childhood playmate.
Here’s the context from Spector:
I mean, there are spreading blood pools under innocent dogs when you kill them in Deus Ex, and I wanted you to feel disturbed if you actually pulled the trigger.
Games are pretty violent, not that there’s anything wrong with a little imaginary violence. As Spector says in the interview, “I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all … .” So I’m not writing to say that somehow, by playing video games, we’re all going to become violent in real life. It’s just that games, high-profile AAA games like those at this year’s E3, are overwhelmingly violent. Player characters kill with merciless frequency sometimes hundreds of various enemies. And as I’ve said before, those kills simply don’t matter. They have no more emotional impact than flies under the swatter.
In Wizard and Glass, characters die, sometimes with as little effect on the protagonists as random soldier #258 in the latest Modern Warfare. But when one of the main characters has no other choice but to shoot another person who—though not a close friend at the time of the shooting—was a playmate when the two were small children, it deeply affects the character pulling the trigger as well as the reader who sees (at that particular moment) from her perspective.
So how does author Stephen King do it? How does he make the reader feel something toward a character who, honestly, is insignificant to the story up to the point when he dies? Like the oft-repeated advice to kidnapping victims popularized by Silence of the Lambs, King humanizes the victim. Over the course of only a few paragraphs, he reveals the childhood relationship between shooter and target, the quality and goodness with which the victim lived both his young and adult lives, and other details which help the reader and the shooter see the victim as a person.
Right. So how do we make this translate to video games? Spector references the innocent dogs in Deus Ex, but the moment that came immediately to mind were those when innocent bystanders become unintended victims in Assassin’s Creed. When this occurs, the player is brought extremely close to a fail state and presented with a message: “Ezio did not kill civilians.” Thus, the game punishes the player for killing an innocent digital person. The game reinforces the punishment by sending other innocent NPCs running wild, screaming about the murderer on the loose.
Causing so much chaos is likely to have the opposite effect of the penalty message. It’s easy for players to see the NPC reactions as funny or insincere, serving only to bolster the notoriety game mechanic, because though they run screaming, none of it seems permanent or emotionally resonant for the bystanders. How can designers change that? One solution might be to have mourners or funeral processions that occur in the event an innocent NPC is killed. By seeing mother, father, family members affected long after the incident, accompanied by dialogue which calls back the moment to the player (“He was murdered while the guards tried to capture a criminal.”) would be an excellent way to reinforce the gameplay penalty.
Also, if the protagonist is meant to be a “no collateral damage” type hero, that should be made clear by the narrative. When the player accidentally kills a civilian, an event might be triggered in which Ezio is forced to contemplate the innocent life he ended (not over and over in a meaningless skip-able cutscene, but one time, forced, with dialogue and meaningful contribution to Ezio’s character).
If games are ever going to be accepted as an art form, their content has to progress beyond the juvenile ultra-violence that defined E3 2012. The other art forms that gamers hold their medium up to, novels in this case, know how to treat violence with the gravity it deserves. Games should be able to do so as well on a more frequent basis than they do now.
There are plenty of examples of main characters who die as part of the narrative structure. This is not the same. In such cases developers are playing on the long standing relationship of player and main character as well as the connection between characters. Main character deaths illicit an emotional response because they are important (though I’d argue most of these deaths are tools to drive revenge-fueled final game segments). What is not emphasized by main character death is the nature of the violence itself and the impact that committing such violence can have on the human psyche.
By adjusting the way games deal with constant violence, designers can create deeper, more meaningful experiences that touch on the entire range of human emotions. Maybe, at some future-world gaming conference, we’ll see titles with broader themes and more serious treatment of violence deserving of the label mature. For now, the mainstream [Ad-driven] AAA environment of E3 has a long way to go.