Video games, you are killing me
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Now that E3 has passed and gone, here comes the time for me to review all the key games that have been announced. Time to find the best trailers, and to watch them all one after the other...
Once done, I start to wonder.
I wonder why we almost ALWAYS have to kill enemies in our games? Why is gore always so prevalent in the medium that we love? Why do we match so accurately with the caricature that non-gamers paint of our industry?
What is going on?
In these E3 videos, the eye-catching games that are prominently featured, that create the buzz, that are the most likely to achieve success, all rely on one basic, simplistic activity: kill the opponents. The rest of the gameplay usually revolves around that activity, ensuring that you can discover, unlock or acquire new, more inventive, more efficient, more “satisfying ways” to kill more opponents. These games differ from each other by the universe they portray, the tone they use, the intricacy of their story, their graphical style or any possible variation on the theme: “Here are some enemies, have fun killing them”.
Some games are explicitly fostering aggression, some are about defense or surviving, but it appears that the only way to solve a problem in these games is to destroy lives. The creativity aspect is how to kill the enemy, not how to get to your objective without killing anyone. That core concept is even more obvious with games whose title alone sets the tone (Assassin’s Creed, Hitman...)
There are exceptions, of course: Sable, Beyond Good and Evil 2, or Tetris Effect have also been announced during this E3, but they are the underdogs, the second-tier games that benefit from cricital acclaim, but covet only limited hope to become breakthrough hits. They only happen because their creators believe in their vision and will create games that feature alternate, non-violent ways to interact with an imaginary world. By trying this approach, they somehow go against the trend.
It may be a genre issue: we do have adventure, casual, simulation or sports games that all replicate non-directly violent human activities. Beautiful, thoughtful or abstract to some degree, non violent games exist, from the Room to Dear Esther, Firewatch to the Sims, Minecraft to Candy Crush. But these are not the kind of games that we see promoted in the E3 trailers. Accordingly, the lead genres within our industry (shooters, action, fighting, strategy, moba, role playing...), and therefore what “E3 best trailers” throw at us, all rely at a core, fundamental level, on your ability to remove life from other creatures.
Some games, like Fortnite, deliver such a slapstick and non-bloody approach to the gameplay of killing others that it feels rather innocuous, in the vein of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Games like Batman or Splinter Cell give you non lethal options to progress, but still within the accepted premise that you should deal with enemies. Many games (not all, by far) avoid ethical questioning by providing you with aliens, demons, robots or zombies to shoot at, instead of fellow humans; this doesn’t usually address the issue, as these games usually dial up the blood and gore cursor to the max (Doom, Gears of War, The Last of Us, Resident Evil, The Walking Dead...).
Even the narrative-driven, critically-lauded The Last of Us 2 doesn’t escape this core loop. One minute, you have this well-intended attempt at showing off a softer, more vulnerable side of your heroin being tenderly kissed by a woman, and the next, you see her stabbing a man in the throat in pure Al-Qaeda fashion, with squirting blood, gurgling noises and the circumstancial F word for good measure.
Hear me well, I am not complaining in any way that these games exist, I am the first one to play them. Grittiness and violence are all parts of the spectrum of emotions that any entertainment medium should provide to their audience. I love going on a rampage in GTA V, owning noobs like Tim in League of Legends, farm on wildlife and Alliance players in World of Warcraft, where murdering your “enemies” is your bread and butter. I am more than happy to play along this theme, and then, enjoy non-violent racing, simulation or casual game on the side. I am just wondering, as a video game professional, why the place given to violence against enemies is so prevalent in our medium.
Nuff is nuff
I remember vividly the day I stopped playing Half-Life 2, almost 15 years ago. I really enjoyed playing with the gravity gun, following the storyline, driving around in the hovercraft, testing the limits of the world by throwing things at NPCs... but after a while, I found myself bored with the harsh reality that the only way to progress through this game and its story was to kill more enemies. There was no way for me to understand what happened next if I didn’t spend the rest of the game killing stuff. So I gave up, and to this day, I haven’t finished Half-Life 2.
As many game designers would hopefully agree, games are essentially a collection of challenges, allowing players to figure out a solution to a problem. Why is it then that we are not more varied in our designs, that the default problem a player would have to solve is: “How to kill enemies?” Once more, there are games that don’t present us with this single challenge, but they are not, all combined, amounting for half of the games genres. Between 50% and 75% of all video games rely on the player being OK with killing enemies.
Why is it so?
What if most movies were made in the Michael Bay or Quentin Tarantino fashion, and there was not much room left for Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh, Wong Kar Wai, or Pixar animated movies? The video games industry library -based on this E3 compilation-, feels like it’s mostly featuring Stephen King and Lovecraft, while Shakespeare, Roald Dahl, JK Rowling or Charles Dickens are relegated to the room in the back. Horror and violent TV shows exist, and the television medium also has been chastised for using violence as a powerful lure, but you can still see many shows that are funny, romantic, instructive, scientific, dramatic, intriguing, that don’t rely on someone shooting someone else to provide valuable and profitable entertainment.
This balance doesn’t exist in video games, it seems.
I don’t believe one second that violent video games are the source of all evil, and that without violent video games, the world would see less school shootings. Violent video games are not more a problem today than Rock N Roll or TV in their time, and none of these could be used as scapegoats to explain the atrocities of world wars or genocides in history. There have been numerous studies to dispell the assumption that violent video games have a noticeable impact on becoming violent in real life. While I am not a fan of violence, I am happy to have it served in my video games, but I crave the variety we can find in other media
It is not a matter of “violent games shouldn’t exist”, more of “why are they overrepresented in video games compared to other media?”
There’s the temptation of the forbidden act, the fantasy of being able to do in digital form what you can’t do in real life. That is probably a driver initially, but it feels less believable when repetitive killing becomes the norm. The transgression factor certainly fades out over time.
There’s the thrill: When it’s a matter of life and death, there’s so much to risk that the tension is much bigger, the experience is more intense. Losing a life in a video game is typically an outcome to avoid as much as possible. Losing something other than “life” might seem unimpressive in comparison.
There’s the binary outcome: “Boom, you’re dead” is definite, clear and uncontestable. It certainly helps to mark progress towards an objective, compared to a less measurable outcome.
There’s the development complexity: linked with the above, it’s easier and much less costly to increment a kill counter rather than branch out variations of a complex storyline with subtleties along the line.
There’s also the feeling that somehow, through this killing-centric approach, we are still designing for a caricatural teenage boy target audience, and in the same breath, excluding female and adult audiences from our medium.
The syndrome of the teenage boy
Why is it that female players prefer playing Candy Crush, Episodes or the Sims, and tend to play WoW as healers instead of damage dealers, exploring the world and shops instead of raiding bosses? Maybe women don’t enjoy murdering stuff as much as men do. There are plenty of females playing games where killing is the main activity, and it’s all great and fine. But is placing a female lead in Battlefield V or The Last of Us a better move rather than crafting exciting games experiences that do not involve killing anything? Would that cater better to feminine aspirations? These games do exist, but they are not promoted as aggressively.
Why is it that video games still appear as childish, and that a full-grown adult should probably stop playing them? Other entertainment forms have gone through these phases, such as comic books, or rock music. Over the years, comic books have evolved into graphic novels (which is exactly the same thing, but renamed for adults). Through that process, they have shown that the medium was able to deliver more variety, subtelty and depth than was initially assumed. V for Vendetta, A distant neighborhood, Idees Noires, are all graphic novels that demonstrate the maturity of their medium. But while we have many games that are particularly mature and convincing, they are still considered as a form of entertainment that you have to outgrow.
Is it then a self-fulfilling prophecy that games made by male boys will only appeal to themselves? Or is there room for more variety in the games that the industry promotes?
I’ve always used the formula that working in the games industry today is like working in the movies industry in the 50s: some sort of golden age where so much has already been done, but the best remains to come.
But I don’t see us reach the best of what video games have to offer, until we are able to deliver many more entertainment experiences that are not mostly focused on killing. Maybe having more mature, and more female designers and developers might help.
I would love to experience games as compelling, exciting and gripping as the best AAAs, where I don’t have to kill anyone. Games where murder is just an option, not the main activity. Games that can be popular and successful without being considered an exception, such as the Sims are. Games where violence is not excluded, just one aspect among many others, instead of the main driver of the experience.
Even teenage boy friendly blockbusters as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings are not all about battles and killing each other. At least a good half of these action movies are about character development, storytelling, exposition, plots, exploration, etc. Why can’t we achieve a similar ratio with our most popular games?
I don’t know if AAA games that try hard not to make killing their main purpose such as Beyond Good and Evil 2 are going to take off and become a template for things to come, but I sure will watch from where I sit, hoping to see that the next E3 best of trailers features less than 1 kill per minute.
What do you think?
What is your take on this discussion? Do you see this as an issue at all? Should it even change? If it was to change, how would you see it happen?