A Thousand Deaths Is A Statistic
During the RapeLay fiasco a while back, I read a forum post that got me thinking. On the subject of whether or not it’s acceptable to release a game about sexually abusing women, one person noted that we have no objection whatsoever to pouring bullets into a vast amount of digitised human beings. Are we saying rape is worse than taking someone’s life?
I sat down to type my instinctive response: that no, it’s not necessarily, but we’re at least given a context in which killing is acceptable based on the rules of videogame narrative. Action games are largely centred around the concept of self-defence – if you don’t shoot the enemies, they’ll still shoot you – and that’s not something you can apply to the sexual abuse of innocent bystanders.
But then, perhaps that’s only something I accept as obvious because I grew up playing Doom and Quake and Duke Nukem 3D. But as videogames strive ever more towards their twisted notion of realism, they seem to be leaving this important issue behind. We shoot to kill, and think nothing of it. We see comrades fall and say nothing more than “bugger, this next bit will be harder now.” We wilfully ignore the fact that you can’t quickload when you die in real life. The issue here isn’t really the age-old debate about whether videogames desensitise us towards violence, but that they perhaps fail to acknowledge the seriousness of their common subject matter. And if the medium is going to be considered mature, something it so desperately wants to be, is this not something that’s going to severely hinder its claim?
Michaël Samyn – one half of Tale of Tales, a developer whose two most significant releases have tackled the issue head-on – is worried. “Our society is so focused on eternal youth that that ageing and dying has become a taboo subject. The way in which videogames try to pretend that death is simply a meaningless game mechanic could be interpreted as a refusal of dealing with the issue.”
Of course, the counterpoint is that “it’s only a game,” something we play with, something to entertain us. But Samyn notes a flaw in the argument. “Play has always been an important tool for learning to cope with things you do not fully understand. As such, games should be dealing with death and ageing all the time, because it’s such a big issue in our contemporary society. So this rampant murdering of enemies is a serious problem. Ever gamer knows that, in essence, the first-person shooter is basically a game of ‘pop the bubbles’. But the fact that these bubbles are skinned as different life forms – often humans – is problematic. It’s not hard to imagine how such kind of play would desensitise players to the value of human life – or at least the life of everyone considered an enemy.”
This all comes down to whether we consider the term “game” a misnomer, particularly with new indie houses like Tale of Tales springing to the fore, producing games that eschew traditional gameplay mechanics in favour of something more artistic and expressionistic. It’s a term that, three decades years after the medium’s inception, has clearly stuck and is usually applicable, but perhaps our reading of it will change if more of these non-games that get people so worked up start to appear. It’s worth pointing to Tale of Tales’ own The Graveyard as an example of death being given real weight: when you die in that, you can’t even bring up the menu, and have to ctrl-alt-delete to the task manager to quit.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Kieron Gillen agrees that the treatment of death in games is often trivial, but is unsure whether it’s necessarily a bad thing. “Why not?” he asks. “It supposes an aesthetic purpose for the developer – that death should be treated like it is when your gran dies or whatever. A serious treatment of death can be powerful and moving, but it’s certainly not the only way to view it, and never has been throughout the history of human art and expression across all media. It’s like saying that being bankrupted in Monopoly trivialises the world’s financial downturn.”
“Pretend is safely pretend,” adds fellow Rock, Paper, Shotgun editor John Walker. “I’d want to see some convincing data before I believed anyone would react to the death of a loved one with less emotion because they’d watched Lara fall off 40,000 cliffs.” It rings true. And surely, if anything can be said towards the age-old violent games debate, it’s that this opportunity for artificial gunplay is in some sense beneficial. Surely the appeal of something like, say, Manhunt lies in its ability to tap into the masochistic side of our psyches, without us having to live out our disgusting fantasies? It certainly wasn’t adored because of its ingenious game design…
Of course, someone predisposed through psychological issues to brutally slaying another human being may be given ideas by a videogame. But equally, this person might get those ideas from the news – that’s arguably far more likely. For the overwhelming majority, there’s a barrier of fantasy, which allows us to experience another world where crazed destruction is fun, not tragic – and the barrier prevents any crossover, because we know what’s real, and what is not.
“Humans like fantasising about killing people,” says Gillen. “There are parts of us which are forever wanton boys, killing for our sport. Violent entertainment serves this purpose. I recall Warren Ellis’ lovely quote about videogame narrative and Soldier of Fortune: ‘No-one’s playing Soldier of Fortune for the plot. They’re playing it so they can stick knives in people’s dicks’.”
Is this ignoring a wider issue, though? Are there more subtle layers of this debate that tie videogame content in with the broader picture of society? Michaël Samyn has noticed what he considers to be a worrying trend. “Videogames basically subscribe to the ideology of the ruling classes of the world,” he muses. “The idea of a single monstrous enemy that needs to be utterly destroyed is an all too painfully familiar one with respect to the foreign policy of the previous regime in the United States. Of course, there’s a chicken or the egg question here: was Bush able to get away with his simplistic rhetoric because we were all comfortable with such ideas thanks to videogames, or are videogames imitating life and as such supporting such extreme policies?”
Tying these two threads together so closely does seem a little tenuous, particularly when the majority of the gaming community – and particularly the specialist press – appears vehemently left-wing. But this oversimplification of ‘the enemy’ is something that’s apparent over a wide range of entertainment media. You have the goodies, and you have the baddies, but this neglects to truly identify how humanity works. As the saying goes, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist.
But this doesn’t explain the clinical reaction to our own death in videogames. Joystiq’s Ludwig Keitzmann considers why this may be. “Modern games, which often aim to incorporate an involving narrative and cinematic gameplay, don’t really have a place for traditional death. With most stories presented in a linear manner, it simply doesn’t make sense for the main character to die and then suddenly reappear without any explanation. With the exception of games like Metal Gear Solid, games tend to treat death – and reloading of saves, for instance – as something that occurs outside the game’s world, which is why it doesn’t have much impact.”
It certainly seems, though, that regularly removing the player from the game world leads to a shocking disruption of the immersion that so many titles strive towards. Keitzmann points to Prince of Persia as a title that embraces the issue and works it into the game’s own universe, removing the necessity of fourth-wall breaking. I’ve long heralded the Grand Theft Auto series as a fine example of how to punish the player without resorting to a nonsensical portrayal of death: when your health runs out, you’re taken to hospital, and have to pay your medical fees – resulting in a harsher punishment than any quicksave / quickload combination could ever demand.
“If you assume immersion equals what life is,” says Kieron Gillen, “yeah, it’s totally immersion-breaking. But immersion can also be an accepting of a game’s – and its world’s – rules. If it’s a world which makes player death seem natural through various techniques, immersion can totally keep ticking over.”
“Coming back to life after death is jarring,” adds John Walker. “However, we save before death, and then restore that moment. It’s going back in time rather than coming back to life, and that makes more reasonable sense. I know where it does bother me: multiplayer gaming. I cannot rationalise respawning players on any level, and I think it might be an element of what puts me off such games.”
This is interesting, as it’s a case that doesn’t bother me. Playing a deathmatch game is so obviously submitting to another reality that respawning doesn’t seem to grate. Plus, if death were to be given any gravitas in this genre, it would be extremely troubling. After all, where’s the fun in inflicting actual death on an abundance of other characters? If these characters can pop back into existence after a few seconds, the notion of death becomes more akin a quick ‘time out’ session in sport. It’s not really “death” in the usual sense, so there’s no need for moral constraint.
So maybe it’s just the terminology that’s a little skewed. Not that I have a suggestion for the medium-wide renaming of an intrinsic gameplay feature, but still. Something doesn’t seem quite right.
Indeed, there’s a big gap between the emotional response to death in a multiplayer shooter – complete indifference, essentially – to that evoked by The Graveyard. Obviously, games like this and Jason Rohrer’s thought-provoking Passage take the idea and run with it, but this more serious treatment of death is seeping its way into more mainstream releases as well, which I can only see as a move forward for the industry. “Far Cry 2 had an interesting buddy system,” recalls Ludwig Keitzmann, “where NPCs would rush to your aid but run the risk of being killed – permanently. Their unique characterisations made them quite endearing, and the manner of their passing can be quite an affecting thing to watch.”
It’s an example I certainly identify with. For all Far Cry 2’s quirks, there was something eminently real about its characters, even shining through some questionable acting. But did we feel strongly about our buddies’ deaths because of our connection with them, or simply because it would make the rest of the game more difficult?
“Maybe it’s both,” suggests Keitzmann, “but either way, it’s clearly one of the rare cases where death actually has a real consequence for you.”