Maybe this is another of those signs of aging that have been standing out all the more to me since I turned 30, but I’ve been feeling more and more uneasy about all the killing people we have to do in triple-A games. I don’t remember this ever being as stark an issue in the past as it seems to be now, I mean, you kill human beings in Contra on the NES without worrying about justification. Maybe it’s an issue that realistic graphics brings with it.
Killing people is really getting out of hand and I don’t think it’s healthy to be so laissez-faire about it anymore. Even in stealth gameplay, which I usually really like, the tendency is not to squeeze the unsuspecting guard into sleepytime but to grab them and fucking brutally twist their heads around until their necks snap. How am I supposed to relish having skillfully outwitted the amassed enemy when they’re all lying around twitching because of their suffocating brains?
A couple of qualifications are perhaps necessary here: Killing monsters? Great. I’m all over it. Pile them in with a fucking snow plow and I’ll make with the rockets. Killing cartoon villain humans in a silly game, like Deadpool? Rock on, laugh it up. We’re not really supposed to identify with Deadpool, anyway, just point and laugh. Killing humans in a game to establish that our character has completely lost it, as in God of War and Spec Ops? Like it. Player-protagonist disconnect, very effective storytelling tool. Go nuts. Killing in self-defense because the guys are trying to kill you? Well, yeah, alright, as long as you never consider it something to be done casually. And that starts getting iffy when you start pre-emptively snapping necks before they’ve even had a chance to bring their individual intentions across.
I’m not turning into some kind of moral guardian here who worries that the kiddies are getting desensitized to violence and wants everything from Animal Crossing on up to be banned. For me, this is a storytelling issue. I don’t see how a game can expect us to sympathize with the personal motivations of a character who kills boatloads of people in positions that, under slightly different circumstances, they themselves could have been in.
I know I like to make the case that Nathan Drake is a psychopath, but even those games lean towards the silly, pulpy, Indiana Jones style where the baddies are just the baddies and there to be chewed up like popcorn. Maybe it didn’t always bring that across in ways that allowed the lead characters to remain identifiable, but never mind. It’s all this killing in serious, ‘realistic’ games like Modern Warfare derivatives, and indeed, adventures into oh-so-bloody-‘worthy’ character drama like The Last Of Us that puts a bad taste in my mouth. Games where protagonists and support characters are presented as everydudes just doing what any of us would do under the same circumstances.
Example. At the start of The Last Of Us, the event that snowballs into the larger plot is our man on the ground Joel and his smuggling partner Tess going off to confront a rival businessman who has wronged them, and hired thugs to kill them before they come seeking satisfaction. And when they find the dude, they torture him and cap him in the head while he’s unarmed, prone, and begging for mercy. You know what this says to me? It says that this guy was entirely justified in trying to have our heroes killed. We know, and he knows, that they have a reputation for killing the people who wrong them. Because of that, he cannot be expected to try to get them around a table and talk about compensation like civilized adults. His only option for staying alive is to try to keep them the fuck away by any means necessary. His guard even tries to warn them off, verbally, when they arrive. He doesn’t have a gun out, he’s just mouthing off. He gets shot in the face.
I get that we are establishing this to be a brutal world where no weakness can be shown. Fine. But you’re still trying to create drama that appeals to an audience that does not live in that world. When a character kills like it’s goin’ out of style, do not ask me to sympathize when they themselves – or someone close to them – is being threatened with death. ‘Cos that just makes them hypocrites. They’re saying “This is the only death anyone should care about because this one adversely affects me.” And again, that’s fine if we’re supposed to laugh at this character or consider them a selfish bellend, but not in a protagonist in a serious work. In that case one would expect this behavior to eventually bite them in the arse and be a flaw they need to overcome.
So yes, I think my problem with The Last Of Us and Uncharted is that they’re too easy-going with death. And not just in cases of murder; characters are a little too eager to put themselves in mortal danger, and on a couple of occasions, off themselves directly. You must realize, death is something that carries a lot of weight and in a dramatic work, you have to let that weight show. You’re not just removing an inconvenience, here, you’re destroying a consciousness, everything that he or she ever was, is or will be, and destroying the lives of their dependents. Forgive me for being so condescending as to feel I have to explain what death is to an adult audience, but from some attitudes I’ve seen in grown adults, I really do wonder.
I mean, I’m against the death penalty not necessarily out of sympathy for murderers. I’m against it because (1) I believe in a justice system that puts victim compensation first, rehabilitation second, and punitive revenge as distant a third as it could possibly get. And (2) because death is a line that cannot be uncrossed, and is something we are hardwired to desperately avoid. If you establish to someone that they will be killed if they are caught, they will do anything to avoid that, because things cannot possibly get worse. To a man who has committed a murder, it makes more sense to try to kill everyone who could possibly get him convicted rather than turn himself in; at least that presents a slim chance of survival.
A saying I’m fond of is “Blame the audience, not the author”. Rather than consider games full of killing to be in the wrong, here, I might invite you to consider what is wrong with our society that such games find a large audience. Why are we all so keen on death? Could it be that everyone, deep down, shares my belief that the only quick solution for humanity’s problems is to kill a random sampling of about one half to two thirds of the world’s population, grind up their meat and feed it to the remainder?
And before you say anything, of course it’d be a humane slaughter, and of course I’d include myself in the lottery, I’m not a monster. Knowing I’m going to be fed to starving children? I’d relish that. ‘Cos for whatever remained of my life, you would not be able to guilt me into shit. “Do you care about the environment, sir?” “Sorry, can’t donate, I’m off to gorge myself at the pancake house. It’s for the kids.”