Oh, serial killers – you rascally scamps with your elaborate murders and deep-rooted control issues. How we love you in our movies and books and TV shows. But we don’t seem to love you so much in our games, do we? In the world of videogames, serial murderers are outnumbered by aliens, monsters, even Italian plumbers and velocitous hedgehogs. Why so coy in the gaming space, serial killers? There’s one in Heavy Rain. A few lurking in RPG side-quests. A cannibal in Red Dead Redemption. And though plenty of games taunt the player with a serialist villain, it always turns out to be something more contrived: A vampire. A demon. Some sort of long-expected plumber/hedgehog team-up.
So what’s your problem, crazy multi-murderer? Is there something about you and your colleagues that makes you a poor fit for videogames? The guy-who-kills-lots-of-folks genre is well established in other media. It broods within a tectonic crust of cliché so dense it’s developed its own gravity. Is that the problem? Are your peculiar habits just not welcome on the far side of the controller? Let’s take a look at some adjustment difficulties. Don’t be scared. There is only love in this room.
Serial Killers Are Repetitive
We shouldn’t hold that against them. Repetition is, after all, what makes a killer serial. But videogames need change like Hannibal Lecter needs fava beans. It’s how they keep us from getting bored – they start simple and drip-feed new challenges and capabilities. But serial killers are static. Change is their enemy. A change in a killer’s pattern is a big deal. It ups the stakes. It makes them unpredictable again. But it’s so often their downfall – the clue the investigators need to catch them. It’s a trick that can only be pulled once.
What’s fundamentally frightening about the serial killer is the fear that the lottery of crazy in their head might spit out our name. Through no fault of our own, they might pull our brains through our noses and hang us dressed as a sheep from a local landmark. They’re as indiscriminate as an earthquake – a natural disaster with a face. That’s scary.
On the other hand, the lack of genuine motive is a problem in narrative terms. There’s no real relationship with the victims. All those juicy reasons people kill for – jealousy, greed, fear, love – go unused. Motive is the interesting part of crime. That’s why old school whodunits give the murderer a chance to monologue about why they dunit, and give it pride of place in the climax of the story.
Too often there’s just one serial killer story to be told: Stop them, before they kill again. Since videogames are finding a wider audience and engaging people that a few years ago wouldn’t have been seen dead thumbing a D-pad, they need to be branching out. They need more human emotion, not less.
The closest a serial killer story gets is to delve into a distorted worldview. That brings us to the next problem.
Serial Killers Hog the Spotlight
The greatest trick the serial killer ever pulled was convincing the world he was interesting.
The moment you enter a story, dear serial killer, its center shifts. Everything becomes about you. The detectives? We spend time in their company, but it’s time spent talking about you. Maybe they’ll get a derisory B-plot about getting obsessed with the case. And on those rare occasions when their relationship with a loved one gets some screen time, it’s because you’re going to kidnap said loved one in the third act and we’re going to be expected to give a crap.
Your victims? Just bit parts. Sometimes both bits and parts. They get a couple of broad strokes to trigger maximum sympathy in minimum time, a death scene, then they’re wheeled off screen before the blood cools. They’ve got one job: Make sure the audience knows how dangerous you are.
You’re the only one who gets real exploration. The trouble is, when we splash into the gaming pond there’s already a big fish to contend with. Serial killer, meet the player. The player is who the game is about.
Giving killer and player a fair share of attention is a balancing act. Unless the player and killer turn out to be one and the same, but we’ve all had enough of that twist, thanks.
The player is a real person; their time is valuable. Bore them with endless infodump cut-scenes and they’ll just go and play Left 4 Dead. You must find more engaging ways to describe your twisted little world to them. There are ways. The alumni of Looking Glass Studios, responsible for System Shock 1 and 2 and BioShock, are masters at describing the minds of maniacs. They make the game’s setting a product of the mania: the Randian wreckage of Rapture, the devastated corridors of Citadel Station. Simply moving through the game’s space is an exploration of the philosophies and phobias by which these worlds were created. But there’s a difference between masterminds and murderers: Masterminds create worlds, killers destroy them. That doesn’t leave the player anything to explore.
There’s one more crime to consider. One of the greatest crimes in gaming.
Serial Killers Cheat
They have to. There’s just one of them, opposed by all the powers of the law. If they’re going to be there at the final showdown, they need some insurance. It’s just that they are not subtle cheats.
Real-life serial killers are broadly average in appearance, intelligence, and ability. That averageness protects them, blending them into the great crowd of humanity. But you, fictional serial killer, are transformed by the magic of screen and page. You are deified.
Let’s see your resume. Hand it over.
It says here that you are a genius, always three steps ahead of the best detectives of whatever poor P.D. whose lawn you’ve chosen to crap on. That’s fine, but it also says you know your pursuers better than they know themselves, and that you’re as fast as a ninja, as deadly as a SWAT team, and as tough as a rhino. What’s that? We missed your mesmeric force of personality? How careless.
‘Fess up. You didn’t roll all those 18s straight, did you? Maybe a couple of the dice fell on threes and you gave them a little nudge.
But it doesn’t stop there, does it? You have to be there at the climax, but you also need to encounter the protagonist beforehand. Just for a glimpse. Perhaps a small chase. So there’s a connection, a reason for the hero to hate you. That means you need an escape hatch. Your ability to disappear into thin air by going around a corner will be invaluable, just as your ability to be in two places at once is so handy when you’re chasing down your victims.
In the movies, the killer’s tricks can be covered up with a clever cut or a careful camera angle; but in a game we don’t have that level of control over the player’s perspective. Players expect that the creatures inhabiting their virtual world adhere to the same rules that bind them as a protagonist. If we don’t play fair they’re free to take their ball and go home. Games cheat all the time, but they have to do it invisibly.
So here’s the deal, Mr. (or Ms.) Serial Killer: If you’re going to make it in the world of videogames, you may have to leave some bad habits behind. Maybe you won’t be the center of attention anymore. Maybe you’ll have to play by the rules once in a while. You know what might help? Try not to take yourself quite so seriously.
There’s a serial killer in Echo Bazaar. When you set a game in a displaced Victorian London you create certain expectations, like cockney urchins and sputtering gas lamps and a dedicated murderer called Jack.
Jack-of-Smiles is a gloomy, if committed, killer. Life isn’t easy for Jack, because in Fallen London people don’t die. Not for long, anyway. You can kill them, but after a short, strange trip they’re back and getting on with their lives. This frustrates Jack. Mild inconvenience is not why he went into the serial killing business. Down there he’s less an earthquake and more a traffic jam.
From the perspective of the game he’s great to have around: a recurring, but not final, threat. His little sprees are annoying – even in a deathless world, no-one says “You know what I need more of? Getting stabbed in the face.” But a few face-stabbings don’t justify a major investigation. Jack is a clown. Creepy, but preposterous.
It might not win him any Oscars, but it’s a paying gig. Think about it.
Chris Gardiner writes content for the casual browser RPG Echo Bazaar. He hopes serial killers don’t read The Escapist.
Special thanks to Paul Arendt for providing custom Jack of Smiles art for this article!