During the development of the seminal 1997 first person shooter, Goldeneye 007, Shigeru Miyamoto faxed Rare, the game’s developers, an extraordinary suggestion. The game, which is based on the James Bond film of the same title, was, he wrote, too “tragic” and “horrible”. Miyamoto found the game’s stratospheric kill count objectionable.
As a way to inspire the player to think upon the havoc they’d caused during the preceding nine missions, Miyamoto proposed that, at the end of the game, each player be forced to shake hands with their victims, who lay recovering in hospital beds. “The sequence would tell people that this was not real killing,” the game’s designer, Martin Hollis, recalled last month in a talk he delivered at Nottingham’s Game City Festival. In the end, the design team neglected to implement Miyamoto’s amiable scheme.
Miyamoto’s reaction seems naive, especially when one considers the British secret agent’s reputation as both terrorist- and lady-killer. On average, Bond has deployed his license to kill around 16 times per film since 1962’s Dr. No (in which he kills just four). That figure pales by comparison to the video game incarnations of James Bond, who each dispatch enemies with laissez-faire abandon. In the realm of video games, at least, Bond’s usually killed 16 times long before he’s finished his post-coital breakfast.
"Violence is, in most cases, a simple function of the designer’s need to generate peril and obstacles. But is this a sufficient defense in 2015?"
The sheer murderousness of video game protagonists has become increasingly evident with time, as virtual scenes and characters have become ever more vividly rendered.
Where once players had to imagine that the abstract icons and symbols flickering on the screen represented monsters and soldiers, now every target in a video game has an accent, a personality and a race.
The obstacles that provided the necessary conflict and peril in the most formative arcade games may not have evolved in terms of their basic purpose: to hinder the player’s progress and present challenges that must be overcome with skill or ingenuity. But in terms of their representation, they are unrecognizable. The Goombas and Space Invaders have mostly morphed into terrorists and police officers.
In blockbusters, those video games which most closely follow cinema’s example, the violence of our on-screen action has been accompanied by an evolution in theatrical storytelling. Games now have teams of writers, often imported from Hollywood or fiction writing, who furnish their protagonists with wit, style and psychological wounds that explain their desires and actions. It’s led to a terrible juxtaposition between the cheery hero, who quips to camera and gets the girl, and the abhorrent trail of genocide left in his wake.
The contrast pricks both the formal and ambient cohesion of such games’ stories. In this way, for example, Nathan Drake becomes an unsettling blend of chirpy wise-cracker and insatiable murderer. This kind of observation has become so prevalent with regard to blockbuster games that even its mention in critical writing is now considered cliché.
Game writers and designers are only too aware of the issue. Early into Tomb Raider: Legend – Crystal Dynamic's first stab at the series, released in 2006 – the beloved archeologist Lara Croft meets an armed guard standing with his back to her at the mouth of a Bolivian tomb. You shoot the man and he slumps noiselessly to the ground.
A voice in Lara's earpiece asks: “Any idea who he was?”
Lara replies: “I haven't the foggiest.”
This is the behavior of a psychopathic mass murderer. It’s made all the worse by the fact that Croft’s line is delivered with the nonchalance of a person who has just taken a phone-call from somebody who dialed the wrong number.
In 2013, Crystal Dynamic’s team took a vastly more considered approach in the series’ reboot, Tomb Raider. Her first kill is in self-defense. The gun goes off in the middle of a hand-to-hand struggle. It takes her aggressor’s life. The death weighs heavily on the 21-year-old, who recoils, shudderingly, from the mess.
The writing team, however, is unable to reconcile their character’s fragility with the pressing requirements of the design team, who clearly need a parade of bullet-sponge enemy soldiers to stand in the archeologist’s path as obstacles. Five minutes after her first kill, Croft is firing off rounds, seemingly without a moment’s thought. Kids, it turns out, grow up quickly these days.
Arguably, both Uncharted and Tomb Raider are genre games crafted in the style of Saturday matinee action blockbusters, the kind of which routinely pair consequence-less deaths of nameless foes with likeable heroes. But in comparison to these video game bloodbaths, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’s body count of fifty, for example, seems nobly reserved.
Critics on both the right and left extremities of the political spectrum refer to video games as ‘murder simulators,’ a dig at the medium’s apparent bloodthirstiness. Anyone who knows video games knows that the violence is, in most cases, a simple function of the designer’s need to generate peril and obstacles. It does not derive from any desire to titillate with the pornography of violence. Is this a sufficient defense in 2015?
All but the most psychologically troubled players are able to distinguish play violence from earnest violence. If this were not the case, there would be an outpouring of grief following every chess tournament, in memory of the black and white pieces strewn so senselessly across the checkered battlefield. The idea that video game violence should be toned down in order to prevent copycat violence is meritless. This is not the only argument, however, for a more thoughtful or deliberate approach to game violence.
When narrative meaning is married so tightly to play violence, games cannot help but promote a philosophy. In 1934, Dorothea Brande published her classic text for budding authors, Becoming A Writer. Rather than examine the mere techniques of sentence and paragraph structure, Brande instead focuses her attention on the psychological barriers that hamper writers in their work.
First, however, she writes a snappy defense of the importance of fiction’s role in human life, whether in literature, cinema or, had they been around at the time, no doubt video games. Fiction, she wrote, establishes for readers “ethical, social and material standards.” It has the capacity to “confirm them in their prejudices” or to “open their mind to a wider world.”
The influence, Brande argues, of any widely read book cannot be overstated. “If it is sensational, shoddy or vulgar our lives are the poorer for the cheap ideals which it sets in circulation.” By contrast, we are all indebted to a “thoroughly good book, honestly conceived and honestly executed.”
Video games have risen to become one of the core pillars in contemporary fiction. They now wield, as per Brande’s definition, tremendous influence. The ethical, social and material standards they promote are, if anything, more tangible than those found in literature, film and television; in a video game, these are the hard parameters which establish how (and if) we may choose to act.
In many blockbuster games, however, the work of philosophy is seemingly hoisted onto the writing team, who are free to meditate in the snippets of dialogue. The heavy-lifting work of game making is left to the programmers and designers. As Rhianna Pratchett, one of contemporary Tomb Raider’s writers put it to me last year, “What's good for the gameplay might not benefit the story or the characters – and some of the folks you end up working alongside don't give a damn about story.”
This is a tragic and outmoded way of viewing the process. Just look at the tonal chasm that now exists between the noble video game character we meet in the cutscenes, and their often indefensible actions, surely a direct result of the siloing of thought.
It’s a flaw that critics have an obligation to continue to point out, no matter how over-familiar the complaint becomes. And it’s a flaw that game writers and designers have an obligation to wrestle with. Currently everybody and nobody is to blame for our murderous video game heroes. They are a result of tradition, or of iteration or of the sheer difficulty that apparently exists in making expensive games that are not built around the barrel of a gun, which works so well as a blunt but meaningful interactive tool.
Miyamoto’s suggestion that we face up to the virtual consequences of our virtual actions at the bedside of our victims is perhaps neither a workable nor elegant answer. He is one of the few to propose a solution.
Writer and journalist Simon Parkin (@SimonParkin) is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The Guardian and many others. His latest book, Death By Video Game: Tales of Obsession from the Virtual Frontline, is out now in the UK, and the U.S. in 2016.