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Fullbright Blog: Legitimizing Violence in Games

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Calvar The Blade's picture
Calvar The Blade
Joined: 11/21/2010

A game designer's musings on how to make violence meaningful in violent games. One observation:

Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death of Shakespeare's Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)

And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.

Somewhat of a counterpoint from the "notes and examples" section at the botton:

(...)embracing fodder in film generally relegates the work to genre status, but not always: think kung fu films. Masses of foes fall to the heroes, and the works are considered niche and lightweight. Then along comes a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that wraps a compelling human melodrama around kung fu fighting at the height of its grace and theatricality, and it moves us as any great piece of human expression might. But it is the exception, not the rule. Alternately there is a whole genre of film-- the slasher film, like Friday the 13th or Saw-- that is composed of nothing but individual, named characters being killed, and these films are almost always dismissed as trash. The problem of course being that these individuals are introduced for no other purpose than to be killed in spectacular ways (and maybe to get naked.) Point being, removing fodder is no magic bullet.

And some specificity about what "individualizing" a character might entail:

A character doesn't have to be lavished with tons of backstory, a fully-fleshed-out family tree, or even a name to be a unique and specific individual: we might not know the name of the cop who's tortured and killed in Resevoir Dogs, or the men killed by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver, or the female Viet Cong killed at the end of Full Metal Jacket, but they are nonetheless individualized, and their deaths are meaningful in context. The specifics known about individuals are scalable, whereas fodder is only fodder.

In my opinion, the most important things are:

- treating death with respect. Flashy or messy kills should come at moments where they coincide with and heighten the drama, not as a constant occurrence regardless of context. Similarly, the player should not be forced to linger on violence perpetrated by others unless it is thematically appropriate: a cutscene or scripted sequence where an important character is killed or discovered dead, for example.

- enemies should behave in ways that make contextual sense before they are engaged or while being snuck around, not appear as though they are waiting to be killed. Huddle around a fire, crack their knuckles, tell jokes, rest against a wall, ect. (Dishonored, Hitman Absolution, and Assassin's Creed often do a good job of providing NPCs with expressive actions and grounded dialogue) Characters that are more prone to behave somewhat mechanically, such as disciplined soldiers or guards, should be thus balanced to be especially difficult to defeat or evade. In this way they can build respect through their prowess rather than their relatability.

- The player should always have a clear idea of how their character is justifying the acts they are committing. If there isn't an apparent logical way the character can justify violence, yet violence is still an option available to the player, violence should have tangible and lasting consequences beyond the feelings of wrongness it elicits.

The full article is a really good read, Steve Gaynor is much more eloquent than me!

the posts a bit guy

Leo K's picture
Leo K
Toronto, Canada
Joined: 12/30/2009

Before I say or do anything else, this is an amazing video essay that explains why Violence in Games is so common.
- Computers are not very good at simulating empathy, emotion or creativity/storytelling
- Computers are very good at simulating space
- Shooting a gun, throwing a knife, stabbing with a knife, moving around are spatial simulations and that's why most of our games are more or less about movement through a Space. Enemies challenge our movement, and we disable them or bypass them. (Maybe that's why AC feels so satisfying to me. If videogames as we know them are about movement, then Assassin's Creed is practically the Mario of this generation. Assassin's Creed is essentially "Movement: The Videogame.")

There are more, it's really an awesome video, my recap doesn't do it justice, but that's the gist of it.

Now moving on. I really enjoyed that article. My instinct was to bring up both Dishonored and The Last of Us right away, but I realized you do harm quite a lot of people in The Last of Us unless you're playing on Grounded (in which case you want to avoid conflict as a matter of practicality as much as possible). However, that got me thinking about both games, Cutscene-Side and Player-Side.

The Last of Us
In The Last of Us, cutscenes in which someone's harmed feel much more "real" than similar cutscenes in Dishonored. When Tess and Joel kill Robert, I felt genuinely sorry for the guy, even though he betrayed them. Contrast that to later in The Last of Us when Joel stabs a knife just above a captured enemy's kneecap to interrogate him. The context is different, the violence is at the same level, but this time it seems more raw and personal. Cutscene-side or Character-side, The Last of Us makes violence seem meaningful, or at least necessary.

Player-side, I feel that happens less often but there are a rare few instances. A good example is the Infected Man with the broken mask at the very beginning of the game. This man is defenseless, entirely at the player's mercy, and still human. Spare a bullet to kill him, or ignore him - you don't know what the better choice is. Both of those could be considered quite violent. It's borderline sadistic to leave him to suffer, but it's also the first time you're given the choice to consciously pull the trigger on someone, and we all know killing is wrong. There was no binary moral choice there, the morality was all in my head. Nor was there actually a choice between whether to inflict violence or not - just what kind, and what kind you think is the lesser evil. Even with that, it works. (Note: A binary morality system here would have actually ruined all the tension and burden of that moment.) The character is individualized despite not having a name or backstory because he is a powerful representation of true failure in this world. It's not death that's the worst. It's turning into a Runner. Even actual Infected don't work as well to represent this.

The Player-side analogue to the [Robert Cutscene-Interrogation Cutscene] comparison is comparing the Infected Man to the Surgeons at the end of the game. The mere fact that I could have left them alone if only I hadn't gotten so angry at them was enough to make that choice feel meaningful. There's a realistic amount of people in the room that you can inflict violence on if you're either psychotic or enraged that they took away your surrogate daughter, and halfway through I felt so much remorse that I actually left one of them alive. It won't bring the other two back, but at least that one can still live.

The rest of the game in general does an okay-ish job of individualizing Hunters but not so much Fireflies, interestingly enough. Hunters speak lines to each other, and there is a level of empathy there. They're trying to survive, just like Joel/Ellie and the Player in this world. The lengths they would go to and their strategies at least make sense. Most of the Stealth Kills I made in that game involved two lines of thought running in my head parallel to each other;

1) "I've got this @#%@# now!"
2) "Damn it, why do I have to kill him...?"

I believe this dissonance (victory vs remorse) was a deliberate effort on Naughty Dog's part. The animations for these takedowns, the sounds, and the comparison to when Joel stands over a pleading Hunter with a wooden plank or pipe all fit together in a Player's mind. The difference between The Last of Us' enemies and those of other games, is that in The Last of Us, your enemies actually care about staying alive. They partially avoid mook factor by showing an element of desperation, of struggle in these enemies that other games don't really do a great job of. In other games, enemies are obstacles, they are game-objects in your path, and you may decide how to deal with them. They don't care about their lives, and they reveal this both through their dialogue and through their mechanics. Enemies rush you, they get mown down, they have disregard for their own safety. In The Last of Us, enemies feel human. That is, until you've seen the same animation and sound-bite play out a few times. Then you just mash the Hunter's face in without a second thought - but that's because by that point the illusion individualization that the enemies used to have is now gone.

In Dishonored, cutscenes never dwell on a character's death. Much of the reason for this is that Dishonored has very few cutscenes to begin with. It's a more player-directed experience. The longest violence or death in a cutscene is the first death in the game, and the one that sets off the story's events.

Player-side, Dishonored does some fantastic stuff in terms of making violence meaningful. The character models might be a bit stiff, and the way they talk to each other might not always engender empathy, but there is one way that Dishonored does empathy that other games don't. The Heart is an item that lets the player hear about a specific NPC's life, their struggles or what they aspire to be. It's a totally random, throw-away fact, but pointing the Heart at someone before deciding what to do with them can really trip a killer up. Pointing the Heart at someone after they've already been killed is even worse. It's guilt in a can.

Player-side, Dishonored actively uses the possibility of violence to tempt the player constantly. It does this in a few ways.

  • Mechanics: The violent approach is more instantly gratifying. The player has more tools available to them that are lethal versus non-lethal. More of the Outsider's powers are immediately murderous than they are for utility.
  • World: To inflict violence or not is a choice that is often triggered by the possibility of an NPC being hurt if you do not act. The victims of these types of scenarios are also usually women. Usually, you'll end up having to kill the harassing NPCs, or expend a sizable amount of already-rare Non-Lethal Resources. (Mana, Sleep Darts) SneakyBastards Magazine has a really great segment on how all of the most meaningful choices that Corvo will ever make in Dishonored have to do with him protecting women. It's a subtle and melancholy way to call back to his duties as Royal Protector.
  • The Lesser Evil: Every single Non-Lethal Elimination of a main Target involves a dishonorable Fate Worse than Death. This is either implied or directly communicated. It gets to the point where I'm not sure if Arkane Studios intended for me to kill Lady Boyle, but it felt a mercy to me, rather than hand her over to Lord Brisby. At least, that's how it felt in terms of the way it was presented. ("One day she'll learn to appreciate me. After all, she'll have her whole life...") Corvo's targets are damned one way or the other.

In general, Dishonored takes both the Dilemma of the Infected Man at the beginning of TLoU, as well as the Choice of Violence the player is given with the doctors at the end, and essentially expands those feelings into an entire game. I still feel like violence is slightly more meaningful in Dishonored because every single character in the entire game can be individualized by the Heart, and most of the time control is never wrested from the player. That the player has a choice to Kill or Knock-Out the standard enemies almost automatically* makes Killing them meaningful because it's something the player consciously decided to do rather than a singular standard method of Acting Upon them by killing. The Chaos system and changes in how Emily sees Corvo are the system-wide consequences. Chaos, the Heart, the Player being in control of the choice to do violence on a moment-to-moment basis, and violence being justified as necessary to protect other people are all what makes Dishonored's violent moments carry impact. Many games could benefit from giving the player the option to kill or not kill. While not enough, it's a decent first step.


*I say almost automatically, because you can choose to Kill or Knock-Out in AC Unity, as well as previous recent games like AC3, Black Flag and Rogue, but it doesn't have any consequences on either the game world or the story.

It would have been nice if, rather than Desynchronizing you immediately for killing innocents, you lost an overall Sync Grade (from S Rank to D Rank) at the end of the Memory and tallied up at the end of the game. Some guards could practically be innocent by themselves. We've had this discussion here at THB many times before; those guards are just doing their job. Most of them literally don't know any better. Eagle Vision could help detect guards who weren't wholly innocent, and you could decide whether to dispense justice or not.

"Some do ill out of ignorance or fear. These men can be saved. Others suffer from corrupted wills, their minds poisoned and twisted. These men must be destroyed."
- Al Mualim (Assassin's Creed)

But that would have to be worked into the overall context of AC and I'm not sure if anyone but one or two people would want it.