When killing matters

02Nov11

I have killed a lot. I’ve rarely felt bad about it during or afterwards.

In videogames, success depends on the death of others, whether it’s an infinitely respawning slime in a cave or the fictional President of some South American country you have to snipe from a mile away. Generally, no matter how realistic the situation, the people you’re killing just don’t matter.

There are two occasions when I have felt genuine remorse, revulsion and regret upon dealing out death in games. I’m going to tell you about one of them:

In Grand Theft Auto IV, you kill a lot of people. There isn’t really any other way to interact with them other than through violence. You can shoot them, hit them with a car, engage in fist fighting or simply hurl a cup of coffee at them. Your choice is limited to VIOLENCE or NO VIOLENCE.

After engaging in violence with one gameworld character and chasing him round the block a couple of times, I ended up colliding heavily with an innocent lady. We both fell over. I was first to rise and in doing so I accidentally sent her tumbling to the floor a second time. Again she went to retrieve her coffee cup and get up. But this time, on purpose, I manoeuvred my character into her. She fell onto the steps to her own front door. She uttered something, an expletive perhaps. I was menacing this woman without actually hitting her.

I noticed that the game hadn’t treated my actions as a form of aggression. No one else in the game world was paying any attention to what I was doing.

I continued to push the woman over. Each time she tried to get up I would walk or run into her. I stepped on her back as she struggled on her hands and knees. I stood there humiliating her. She forgot about her coffee cup. She managed to stand, tried to run away, screaming. I chased her and knocked her over again. Police cars drove casually past, people on the street ignored her desperate pleas. Over and over again I sent her sprawling, over and over again she screamed.

Eventually, she stopped trying to get up. She was dead.

I felt terrible, sick. I felt nervous, that if someone had been watching me play, somehow, over my shoulder, through the curtain, they would know what a monster I was. That I’d cheated the system made it even worse. In a game world where life is cheap, her death hadn’t meant anything at all.

To the anonymous lady. I offer you my apologies and also my gratitude. Your life meant nothing in your world, but it resonated in mine.

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4 Responses to “When killing matters”

  1. Yay for randomly emergent play being more emotionally inspiring than the formal narrative.

    Similar thing happened to me in Fallout New Vegas. In the tutorial mission, the tutor NPC’s dog got in the way of a VATS shot on a mutant gecko. The bullet had left the gun before I noticed and BAM – the dog was dead. Total accident, but it was gut-wrenching stuff. Affected me more deeply than any narrative writing in any game I’ve played. I think because it was a genuine accident, so it was a genuine tragedy – and all the more affecting for it.

    A contrived one packaged with its own orchestral music and famous actor voicing or whatevs couldn’t even come close.

    • It’s definitely frustrating when game devs create a world with bags of potential and then tell you exactly how you should behave in it.

      I think contrived can be moving, but it’s extremely rare to find even one such moment in videogames which isn’t player generated. The mixture of feelings I experienced in the post above was one I wouldn’t feel again until years later when I read Crime and Punishment. One day as I stepped off the bus from work, a Police van drove past and I froze, heart pounding, bearing the full weight of Raskolnikov’s guilt.

      I’ve had similar feelings when half waking from a dream in which I’ve committed a terrible act which would have permanent repercussions in real life.

      That games elicit these emotions accidentally is the most frustrating thing, because they are so close and yet so far from realising much more of their potential.

  2. 3 --

    Had a similar experience playing Skyrim and even the Sims, where I am ashamed to say some friends of mine and I “tested” it by abandoning a hyperactive child Sim to death. Lack of consequences for unjustified violence and/or abuse can be more unsettling than in game consequences, perhaps because you feel like you should be punished but no one is doing it?

    • 4 stiff

      To paraphrase Dr Seuss, what a wonderful awful example. I totally agree that the lack of consequences in game affects the consequences to the player. No matter how loose the laws of the game are, by finding a loophole perhaps it forces you to consider them with your own moral compass instead.

      I find this subject quite fascinating. Thanks for the reply.


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