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I’m a little tired of being a murderer

As the medium of gaming grows, developers want to tell increasingly mature stories, the kind of narratives that could rival a great film or novel. Games like BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us created gorgeous worlds that immerse players in emotional journeys that put the protagonists through a series of dramatic revelations and personal transformations. Both those releases pushed the envelope on video game storytelling, taking the medium in the type of new directions I’m excited to play. But those particular games also task players with killing literally hundreds of people, and it’s really starting to wear me down.

Take BioShock Infinite. As I was contemplating the weighty topics of choice vs. predestination and the dark paths down which American exceptionalism can take society, I was killing small armies of people. I was shooting them, snapping their necks, and electrocuting them until their heads popped off their bodies. I know lead character Booker DeWitt is a mentally scarred former soldier that’s desperate to complete his goal, but there comes point where the sheer number of people he kills borders on genocide. Just how many people live in the exclusive, floating city of Columbia? A few thousand? If so, Booker kills about a quarter of them.

The Last of Us, another game that earned many accolades, actually made me feel more guilty for creating an unavoidably high death toll than Infinite. It’s true that the core principle of the main character, Joel, is survival at all costs, and he lives in a hopeless world. As I played the satisfying title, all the bloodshed felt necessary for saving people (or at least completing a stage), but at the end I saw my kill stats for the entire game and felt otherwise. Over 700 people had died at my hands.

In the world of The Last of Us, a viral apocalypse has wiped out society, save for small, militarized patches of humanity and gangs of survivors. Who knows how many people are left on Earth? A couple of million? And Joel killed 700 of them. The Last of Us has brutal violence that’s certainly justified in the moment; but the gameplay depends so heavily on those many moments that by the conclusion, one man and the young girl he’s protecting have massacred a small town’s worth of people. It really makes it hard to identify with characters like that.

And those two games are hardly alone. In 2013, Tomb RaiderMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Remember Me all attempt (with varying degrees of success) to tell deeper, mature stories, and they’re all held back by the sheer number of in-game corpses. Compare the statistics of those titles (or some high-ranking titles on our list of the best games ever) to recent, purposefully gory films like Django Unchained, an Oscar-winning movie that stars bounty hunters. According to Vanity Fair, 64 people die in that film, 50 of which you could probably attribute to Django himself. The heroes of Red Dead Redemption and Uncharted can top that in a single mission. How relatable can any of gaming’s stars be when they can nonchalantly outdo the death toll of some major disasters and war criminals?

And it’s not just the volume of the kills that’s wearying; it’s the hoops the writers jump through to make it all seem justified. Those soldiers were shooting at you with orders to kill, so it’s only logical to return fire in self-defense. That unwitting thug you stabbed in the neck would surely shoot you on sight, so you had to kill him to protect yourself. Those men chasing you are cannibalistic sociopaths that have tortured so many people that they must be stopped. Eventually it just feels like a pile of empty excuses to cover a protagonist's own murderous rage. Too many games work too hard to remove guilt from the player, and it ends up cheapening the choice to kill even more than the repetitive nature of the mass executions.

There have been great games that don’t cheapen death. Portal has a darkly comic tone, but try to recall the protagonist actually taking a life. The Arkham games make it very clear that Batman never kills anyone (even if he is sending them to the ICU in droves). Characters like those prove mature campaigns can exist without having to shoot 200 ninjas in the head.

Sure, it can be really fun to shoot 200 ninjas in the head, but it’s hard to write believable characters around that much bloodshed. Too often gamemakers settle for creating drama by backing players into a corner where murder is the only option. BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us are groundbreaking in so many wonderful ways, and that makes it more tragic that they continually choose to punctuate their drama by sending multiple waves of enemies at the player to kill as fast as they can. Eventually it destroys the fragile grip the game has on player immersion, and it’s near impossible to get that back once it’s gone.

You know that kid at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too enthusiastic, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that kid’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don’t know you need it.

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147 comments

  • MoonV - September 2, 2013 5:37 p.m.

    This is one of the reasons I loved Dishonored and Deus Ex. Sometimes I'd even accidentally kill a character and then revert to my last save so I could try again without killing them.
  • majamaki - July 1, 2013 12:49 p.m.

    To me The Last of Us didn't have that effect. They way I played was mostly stealthy avoiding combat, taking them out quietly as needed, and only going into combat as a last resort, usually due someone spotting me. Once your forced into combat, its either you or him, and you do what ever you can to survive. That's where I feel The Last of Us separates it self from other games with waves of enemies. Also enemies in TLOU have personalities and character making most feel unique which adds more weight when you've gotta take them out. You didn't get that feeling in Bioshock.
  • Jet - June 24, 2013 5:55 p.m.

    I don't think it broke the immersion in the last of us. As others have said violence is a major point in the series, and you could avoid most gunfights altogether. But there are games that aren't quite as skilled that do involve Killing hundreds and it is a problem. Though games like last of US doesn't suffer that as a negative. Uncharted? Sure
  • Sinsational - June 24, 2013 12:14 p.m.

    I can understand where you're coming from Henry and I agree mostly, but I disagree with you on one point: The Last of Us. I'm not disagreeing because "TENS EVERYWHERE!!", I'm disagreeing because of two reasons. 1. You don't have to kill. Most of the game can be played stealthily. The fact that you CHOSE to kill is exactly what the game wants you to realize. 2. Violence is a storytelling device in TLOU. Once Joel starts exposing Ellie to more and more violence, it starts to wear him down and he starts to get angry and fearful for how he might be warping his innocent companion.
  • RayPaw - June 24, 2013 10:32 a.m.

    The first game to make me feel bad about what I was doing was Metal Gear Solid 3 when you have the dream sequence where the reanimated corpses of all the enemies you've killed stumble toward you, mangled & broken. The body count isn't as high in Shadow of the Colossus but you feel pretty sleazy about what you're doing to those majestic creatures sometimes too. Guilt is a really interesting emotion for a video game to explore.
  • stargrave - June 24, 2013 8:36 a.m.

    Valid point. Interesting indeed. But I wouldn't put The Last of Us in this mix, because it's not a mindless, pointless shooter. Here is one of the best, if not THE best example of how interactive narrative can put you in a real post-apocalyptic world where anything goes. This is one game where I didn't enjoy killing, I've just got to do it in order to survive or to protect Ellie(and/or other characters), but it was a hard thing to do, when it came to survivors, no matter how cruel and vicious they are... And I killed the infected much more because of fear than of joy. I even run away from some encounters Granted they could add a little more options, other than killing, to make the story move forward, specially in set pieces where as interesting and well done as they are, the game forces you to kill either survivors or infected, no matter what. BUT, without justifying every murder in the game, The Last of Us really puts you in a Universe and setting, where even little kids would have to kill, in order to survive. It's not pretty, it's not funny, and in this game in particular, this is the whole point.
  • Danomeon - June 24, 2013 9:22 a.m.

    Killing in TLOU was definitely better, but the large issue was that by the end of the game you racked up such a massive death toll that the tension was lost. I curiously checked my stast in New Game plus yesterday and discovered that I've killed more than 500 enemies. There's not much tension in whether or not Joel will survive to the next encounter when one considers that he has literally killed a small army of people without dying. That level of killing skill is so blatntly unrealistic that the game's immersion starts to peel back for me and reveal that it is, in fact, a game. I'm not guiding a real human being and his companion to safety - I'm guiding a videeo game character who has killed hundreds and hundreds of zombies in a world where one zombie is supposed to be a big deal. I would be curious to see a game like TLOU make opponents feel like actual humans instead of inferior AI murder fodder. It's hard to feel like I'm going mano-y-mano when I confront other human enemies, considering I've killed hundreds of them. They stop becoming real people who are incredibly dangerous roadblocks that will do anything to survive and start becoming video game enemies when I start to realise that I've killed a small town population's worth of them. That was really immersion breaking. This is why I think action games should try to add more puzzles and slower paced moments. TLOU proved that slow-burning, long trek sequences inbetween the action made it feel more explosive, fresh, and desperate. Expanding upon this concept with more of a cushion between human-on-human fights could shrink the obscene death tolls of some of these games and make the adventure feel realistic.
  • stargrave - September 27, 2013 1:50 p.m.

    I grant you that, yes, in the end, there's an unreal amount of killing from Ellie and Joel. They've could balance that better. Yet I believe that naming this game as the top of the issue, where there are many other games where everything revolves around mindless killing, it's a little bit too much. Yeah I killed them all, and the speech the game gives you reminds you of that. Makes you feel in dobut, or at least it happened to me, if there was another way, to survive without killing the last remaining humans even as they're as dangerous, if not more, than the creatures, because in the end, They were The Last of Us. Granted again, the game didn't give you much choice other than killing, because if it did, maybe that boy count could be en a real, credible number, and the game would be even better, more so than the great game that it already is, at least for me, now.
  • Morethan3words - June 24, 2013 8:08 a.m.

    Love the article. One parallel point I would like to make: How many Star Wars games have you played in which you are Jedi, a character whose most central identifying philosophical tenet is to only use violence when necessary, and to kill even less often than that, and in which you then proceed to cause massive amounts of death? Sure, in many games you are given the choice to kill the boss at the end to decide whether you get light/dark side points, but to hell with those 300 troopers who were standing between you and that guy, they were clearly irredeemable.
  • psycros - June 24, 2013 12:59 a.m.

    I totally sympathize with the author. The volume of killing in some video games, particularly so-called "mature" games, is absurd. Unless its a zombie game, a battlefield FPS or Serious Sam (heh) a ridiculous number of personal kills really harms immersion. I much prefer a Rainbow Six type experience to the typical bloodbaths that pass for shooters these days. Its even more fun when you have stealth and non-lethal takedown options. Frankly I'm getting a bit disgusted with the industry and its race to the bottom. Every game is R-rated now - there's nothing you can let your kids loose on except a few Nintendo games.
  • Danomeon - June 24, 2013 9:15 a.m.

    There are TONS of nonviolent games in the industry today, particularly in the indie camp. Here's a list of non R-rated games. Antichamber, Audiosurf, Basion, Braid, Capsized, Cave Story, Closure, Dungeon Defenders, Edge, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet, Jamestown, Legend of Grimrock, Offspring Fling, Orcs Must Die 1 and 2, Portal 1 and 2, Superbrothers: Swords and Sorcery EP, Sonic Generations, VVVVVVV, Little Big Planet 1 and 2, Almost all of Nintendo's exclusives, The Tales series in its entirety (Tales of Xilia out in august on PS3), Knack, Splosion Man, Ms. Splosion man, Lococycle, Comic Jumper, Snapshot, Sanctum, the massive collection of indie games showcased at the playstation 4 E3 conference, Deep Down, Blue Dragon, Lost Oddyssey, Dear Esther, Super Meat Boy, Wildstar, Magicka, Hearts of Iron 1-3, Dungeon Land, Incredipede, A Game of Dwarves, EVE online, Joe Danger 1 and 2. There are tons more in the indie camps that I haven't even mentioned yet. There have never been more nonviolent and everyone playable games in the industry before - the indie games are picking up this duty in droves. If you are "disgusted" with the industry and its "race to the bottom", it's not because the industry is actually racing to the bottom, but that you are aiming your sight in the completely wrong direction. The games industry is certainly not deprived of nonviolent games: you're just not playing them.
  • cracker33 - June 23, 2013 6:18 p.m.

    For some reason, I didn't want to fight anyone during Spec Ops: The Line. I loved the story, but I kept growing tired of the multiple firefights. This was a weird feeling to have because I normally don't have anything against violence in games.
  • vent - June 23, 2013 2:05 p.m.

    Incapable of understanding the difference between killing and murder I suppose.
  • raphael-zens - June 24, 2013 5:10 a.m.

    Yes, playing Tomb Raider i kiled a great many people in self defence by shooting arrows in the back of their heads ;-). I think the point of the author is, that in many video games there isn't really that much difference between killing and murder. They all come up with all sorts execuses for the kills, but at the end, you get the feeling that every reasonable human being could have found a way to avoid THIS MUCH bloodshed.
  • vent - June 24, 2013 8:54 a.m.

    Using your example, in Tomb Raider you would have been murdered had you not killed in self defense. There's a definite moral distinction between the two that is somehow being lost.
  • raphael-zens - June 24, 2013 9:33 a.m.

    That's sort of up to discussion. Was there really no other way, but to kill everyone and everything? Sneak around, find a non-lethal way, just threaten your enemys with the many weapons you carried around? This game - like many others - says firmly "no". There is no other way to reach the end, but to kill merciless. And to make sure the gamer still feels decent about that, situations are created where you actually can shoot an unsuspecting victim in the back and still call it self defense. But as the author points out, it's often just a pretence. You get an achievement/throphy for killing a certain number of people, others for killing them in certain ways. When you have to decide whether to kill someone whith a bow or a machine gun, to get that "other achievement" you realize, it really doesn't matter anymore, why you're killing them in the first place.
  • vent - June 24, 2013 9:49 a.m.

    Of course if there's an option to sneak past the people, then you can't complain that you're being "forced to kill", can you? Just because you killed somebody from behind, doesn't change the fact that that person would try to kill you if given the chance.
  • julian-watkins - June 23, 2013 1:21 p.m.

    As I grow older, I am 32 now, I find that I lean more towards the direction of games like Dishonored, in which you can choose who lives and dies, and can even quite literally kill no one. The only people I killed in the most recent Deus Ex were the annoying bosses because there wasn't an option not to. And also because, well, c'mon those fuckers were assholes. My favorite part of Hitman was obtaining the Silent Assassin rank. I often take a few moments to weigh in on whether or not to kill a baddies when given the choice to actively pull the trigger or what away. More often than not, unless I feel 'justified' I walk away, it's more badass.
  • psycros - June 24, 2013 12:52 a.m.

    There's no way to complete Dishonored without killing numerous enemy AI. Try playing the game before you comment on it.
  • raphael-zens - June 24, 2013 5:16 a.m.

    All right, i did. Didn't kill a soul. There's even a throphy/achivement for that ("clean hands" i think). So maybe you should play it again, before you make comments like that.

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