What is an enemy
Playing through Borderlands I have no pity for anything I kill. Like most games, its human enemies are charicatures. I'm concerned only with maintaining a good average of headshots (which is admittedly quite satisfying, resulting in a gratutitous melon explosion and a blood fountain).
Like most games, these enemies are one dimensional. They are transparent hitboxes that gauge my skill at aiming. Behaviour-wise they will zig zag, asking the player to learn to lead targets or to save the killing blow for when they come to a stop. They serve the core gameplay requirements of the game, which is to challenge shooting ability and to fit into the crazy Mad Max style of tweaked-out road warriors.
Most enemies in games are very abstract, and as we enter into more "realistic" settings, this becomes strange. The modern analogue of the Mario Goomba is the animal enemy. The four-legged monsters, the overgrown maggots; the lower animals we crush because they are monstrous. This can be fun -- fighting giant rat monsters who circle you and exhibit cold pack intelligence in Metro 2033 was a blast. But the challenge is thinking about what it means to kill videogame humans.
Introducing suffering and empathy
I had a games criticism teacher in school who related to me two things: his cathartic dispatching of enemies in Unreal Tournament, and his stomach-churning experience executing downed enemies in Wolfenstein 3D.
Like the above Borderlands example, Wolfenstein enemies catered to the core gameplay requirements -- acting their part out as the receiving end of your shooting. But they had a different state as well -- deliver a gutshot and they would fall to the ground and enter a bleed-out state.
The teacher admitted that after some time he realized that it was more ammo efficient to simply go for the gutshot (an easy shot to make) and then use a second bullet to finish them off. Over and over, he would deliver a gut wound and stand over an enemy to deliver a second shot, the killing blow.
The man he was, this made him very uncomfortable. I think it has something to do with players investing themselves in their avatar -- this is them killing Nazis, not some G.I. It is out of character for most people to wound and execute people, yet the game in this case presents it as a dominant strategy. As players, the dominant strategy is hard to resist.
In multiplayer games this is different. Something a bit more primal comes into play when we execute human opponents. We empathise with helpless AI clones to some extent -- however a Gears of War player shows no mercy when curb-stomping a downed human enemy. In fact it feels very good, conquering that person. They had it coming, by being on the other team. They tried to kill you, and now they're beholden to your mercy. Of course you swiftly deliver boot-to-face-to-pavement.
This comes across as putting down the resilient when it appears in Modern Warfare. Players who use the Last Stand perk and enter bleed-out mode upon death are executed with panache. "And stay dead!"
Now, I know some developers who are reticent about suffering in videogames -- an effect that seems available only to AI enemies. The idea that a player would be off-put by a mechanic is "not fun, and we don't want to represent suffering."
But I think this is a great area to explore, and something that AAA games can do so much better than indie games, who don't usually have access to this sort of genre -- the large single-player epic filled with bad guys.
Playing as a jerk
God of War 3 is a really interesting example of making the player feel bad. More so than previous games, the character must play as and represent a total asshole in a videogame. The player does not agree with the brutal intentions of their avatar, but they are forced to carry out these acts anyways.
There is a scene reminiscent of a mission in one of the previous God of War games where the player must burn a man alive, for no good reason other than it is required to progress. In the older mission the player was required to drag a man in a cage, helpless, onto a switch to open a gate. After being pulled kicking and screaming for you to spare him, you place him on the switch and he is burned alive.
I think most player feel a bit disgusted -- strangely not at themselves, but at Kratos. "Why did I have to do that?" they might ask, rather than "Why did I just do that?"
In Adam Roberts' excellent science fiction novel Stone, the reader is invested in an unusual protagonist. In a universe of humans, stretched out into space and advanced technologically to a state of near-immortal hedonism thanks to nanotechnology integrated into everyone's bloodstream, the protagonist is the first murderer humanity has seen for centuries.
The reader ends up understanding why this asexual person, schizophrenic and lacking the capacity for empathy from birth, is the way they are. Even when the character is in the middle of murdering someone, or engaging in acts of cannibalism, the reader is rooting for this person.
I'm not trying to say that this novel was better at helping you understand character motives; what I'm trying to say is that God of War approaches the same space in making the player do things he doesn't want to do.
So often in school I was told to develop enemies that were not purely evil -- enemies that had a reason you could empathise with for doing their evil acts. But it seems like the same should start being applied to protagonists in order to create more emotional weight.
Players need to be forced into "evil". In games with moral choices (Bioware games), players do the good things -- because they are the right things. They might play as an evil character to unlock cool weaponry (KotoR, inFamous), or just to revel in being a dick. In Mass Effect I'm slanting my character towards Renegade for the sole purpose of having rough videogame sex with Jack. That's hardly a genuine choice -- we're not really being evil. We are being evil with a big smirk.
Forcing players to make themselves uncomfortable seems counter-intuitive to selling games, but the survival horror genre (if you can call it a genre) revels in this. They do it in a different way (RE5 and it's clunky controls, Silent Hill...and it's clunky controls and unnerving environment), but it's proof that some players are open to getting on that rollercoaster ride.
So I'll bring it back to what this has to do with something simple, like game enemies. Make them suffer. When a player shoots a virtual mujahadeen in the head and they crumple to the ground, so what. They just killed a terrorist and they went into ragdoll. Cool. However when they fall to the ground nursing a gut wound, and their compadres fight to evacuate him, you feel much different. It feels more like you have just injured a human being.
Perhaps it's as simple as evolving enemy behaviour; adding in more states between the usually binary alive and dead.
This also opens up the avenue of different sorts of protagonists in shooters -- the concept of suffereing allows for both cruelty and altruism to manifest.
In Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault the player could be saved by a corpsman medic. This AI character would kneel by the player, inject adrenaline and tell you everything's going to be fine.
Now imagine the roles that open up to a player character -- you could be that medic, rather than the super soldier. The whole battlefield becomes different.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2, like previous Battlefield games, allows players to act as medics in multiplayer. It's quite a different experience, but it's a bit detached because you're playing for points. However it does induce moments of nonviolent heroism. Often you will see medics running out from the frontline into no-mans land, under heavy gunfire, and help their teammates up. I would be overreacting to say this brings a single, dramatic tear to my eye, but it's not far off.
This sort of added investment into character states and player interaction with those states opens up a lot of doors in character development as well. It opens the door for moment-to-moment life and death situations that are contained within the "magic circle" of the game.
Game death always sucks. GAME OVER. TRY AGAIN. It's much better if you get shot in the leg and your sidekick drags you back behind cover and tries to help you up. Respawning is old news if there are ways to keep the player in the game upon "failure" which are actually more conducive to letting a wider skill-range of players experience shooters.
Tripwire's Red Orchestra, a game I used to play fanatically, did some interesting things here. Again it was a multiplayer game, but in being an "ultra-realistic" game players would enter different states depending on damage amounts to body parts.
I experienced some instances where a grenade detonated close to my feet, but I survived. However both my legs were in the red -- crippled -- and I was unable to move at more than a snail's pace. It put me in a different mode of thought, from scanning for targets and gunning to panic and survival.
If you need a way to add variation and avoid shooting fatigue, it's probably the easier thing to do to develop and focus on these sort of player state changes.
If you have the mechanic in place of bleed-out and revival, the player enters a different state of mind when they wade through gunfire to search for and save a downed character. There is more up-down intensity within individual encounters -- especially if you go further and add a timer-to-death on downed players, making the player sweat as they engage in an impromptu rescue mission.
There's a lot of creative freedom here that mission specific gimmicks can exploit. Assaulting a machinegun position resulting in lots of downed AI screaming, medics trying to survive while helping downed characters up. Rescuing a group of soldiers cut off in a downed helicopter, rushing to save them before all the characters run through all their states and finally die.
Maybe this is also a call for less individual scripted moments. A lot of special, impactful moments in AAA games are apart from core moment to moment gameplay, and so eliminate the chance for players to discover individual moments within encounters.
In Call of Duty you're limited to the experience of being surprised by enemies and killing them, almost dying and killing the enemies, or being a crack shot and killing the enemies. The dramatic moral moments, or the brutal moments, happen in cutscenes or specially scripted moments. Examples are the scene in (they blend together) what I think was Call of Duty 2 -- the player experiences shellshock moving up to a farmhouse, hit by a mortar, ears ringing, but still able to proceed in wobbly half-steps.
The advancement I'm advocating is developing these sort of moments into core gameplay mechanics that are repeatable anywhere. I've at many different times asked friends or readers to relate game stories to me, and it's always telling of what the particular game has to offer. The experiences players remember as their own are ones in which they interacted with core gameplay mechanics -- these experiences cannot be predicted, but you're giving players the tools to end up in their own sticky situations. That's nice for player ownership and for somewhat procedural moment creation that feel genuine.