It is the same old dilemma with a new twist: Playing video games often requires us to commit the most basic, horrific crime, moral offense and one of religions oldest sin: killing. Virtually we pull the trigger or swing the sword, but justice will only take place on the screen if it happens at all. But why start at all with the killing?
The earlier kills in video game history were simple and barely filled with the need for moral choices or consequences. Eating up those ghosts in Pacman never felt like an offense or a crime, let alone that they always regenerated and came back. Stomping Goombas in Mario Bros. was always quite satisfying, although a pacifist’s playthrough was possible. In Contra, we battled against an evil corporation and a mysterious alien force, in order to save the planet. Knocking out criminal gang members was our job in Double Dragon, punching shifty henchmen left and right. So nobody really ever felt the need to take a more critical stance to our motivation for killing all those on-screen foes.
Decades later, taking out enemies is still one of the core concepts of every video game. But there is still a thin line between ‘killing’ and ‘killing’ – but where is it drawn?
The notorious “Manhunt” (Rockstar, 2003) caused an uproar with its violent gameplay and setting: we play a convicted murderer within a compound filled with other criminals. We get out, we walk free. The whole game was centered around the many ways of disposing of your enemies, meaning killing them with various tools at your disposal (although there was a ‘subplot’ that hardly anyone ever remembers). Therefore, it seemed the aim was not to escape or solve some ludicrous plot but to simply perform the killings. Only 4 years later, Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft 2007) debuts on our screens and we are, again, motivated to perform sometimes ludicrous kills. But that’s where the plot comes into play. Once again, the setting, the story, the characters are clearly crafted to distinguish between good and evil. Once we start killing the ‘good people’, the game quickly comes to an early ending, the fail screen.
Whenever we are confronted with the task to kill, it needs to be perfectly set up and explained, often utilizing apologetic and rationalizing narratives. Manhunt failed to do so sufficiently. Assassin’s Creed did and still does a better job, games like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption walk a thin line in the middle. Recently this could be observed with politically motivated acts of aggression by players within Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar 2018) when players started torturing and killing their subject/object of antagonism, a lone suffragette.
The Art of Killing
But it’s not always just the plot that takes the edge of the killing to make it easier acceptable or provide ways to rationalize it. Still, the graphical solution can be a decisive factor between artsy adventure and brutal killing simulator. Tokyo42 (SMAC Games 2017) seems to be one such case. The colorful style that finds itself in an intriguing harmony with the dystopian setting could easily deceive the player. Because the plot and the narrative are dark and grim. Framed for a murder we (of course) did not commit, we escape and venture forth to set the record straight. To do so, we enter the assassination business, because our enemy is just that, a cold-blooded assassin. Before we can get to the culprit, we need to ascend the ladder of successful assassins by taking out targets. Still sounds reasonable, right? Or does it?
Without having finished the game at this point, it needs to be said, that this plot could be quite ludicrous. While it would be a sound decision to go after the framer and seek retribution, getting into the business of assassination, therefore killing people on the base of a contract, seems like the end of the plot itself. We start as an innocent citizen, but this essential part is taken away within minutes of us taking over control. A couple of minutes into the game, we are just what we were framed to be: a murderer. Hardly a vigilante. Although our targets seem to be rather shifty businessmen or corrupt parts of this futuristic society, we receive our contracts from even shiftier personas (or automated machines), shady criminals deep within the world of the underworld. As the story continues a massive conspiracy begins to unfold – a necessary development to redeem our character. Because one or two hours into the story, we are a nothing but a hitman on the rise. The narrative that we are ridding society of criminal scum is merely a pretense. In fact, we are just supporting the reality of our clients and adopting their specific perspectives. There is no element of justice in this, not even a vigilante version of it. It all seems like a trap: Framed for murder just to become a murderer.
So are you in it to kill it? Shouldn’t it be alarming if we decide to take to one of our favorite leisure time activities to murder without at least an apologetic narrative in place? Shouldn’t we take the story more into our view and, once again, ask about the lesson of it? Sometimes the story sets us up for a brilliant twist, which is especially great if we never saw it coming. But more often now, the story becomes almost a background noise and therefore the game is nothing more than a moral wasteland. A vigilante’s killings are always a tough topic because who is good and who is bad lies within the eyes of the person with the gun in hands. But it must never be about the kill itself. Redemption, vengeance, liberation, defense … every act of killing in fiction is accompanied by such a motive, which influences the outcome of the whole story immensely. The absence of those signifies something much darker and even more destructive, a ‘senseless killing’, usually found with the antagonist, the villain, the bad guy. Video games have the power to influence the way we and more importantly our children think. Establishing spaces for such ‘senseless killing’ with the protagonist, the hero, the good guy, is the final step towards a dark age, where empathy and mercy are merely shadows of a less sinister past.