Less Than Human: Why More Games Should Humanize the “Bad Guys”

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Less Than Human: Why More Games Should Humanize the “Bad Guys”

“I have killed Gérard Duval, the printer.” When I heard the German solder Paul Bäumer speak these words during a classroom screening of the 1979 film adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front, they lodged in my moral compass, where they’ve lingered ever since. Trapped on a World War I battlefield, Paul stabs a French infantryman in a ditch, watches him bleed out for hours as gunfire flies overhead, and finally goes to comfort him just as he gasps his last breath. Papers discovered in the dead man’s coat give Paul a name for his fallen foe. An identity. A shared humanity.

As much as I want, I can’t think of a comparable moment from a videogame that so perfectly captures the senselessness of killing another person. It might not even be possible that such a scene could play out comfortably in a game. No art form should shy away from challenging people with moral ambiguity. And yet, compared to films and books, genuinely sympathetic antagonists are harder to come by in games. Understandably, this is by design. For gamers to enjoy killing baddies, developers must reduce them to faceless fodder.

But that doesn’t mean their fictional deaths can’t tell us something meaningful about our darker impulses. Games convince us to dispatch their hostile NPCs with the same cold logic of dehumanizing the enemy that has long made it easier for soldiers to justify taking lives on the battlefield. History is full of examples. Allied propaganda from World War I caricatured Germans as rampaging Huns and bloodthirsty apes. Not to be outdone, Nazi Germany went on to perfect the art of demonizing victims during World War II. Though it would be inconceivably wrong to equate these tragic historic wrongs with games, they do use the same basic tactics. Show enemies as unambiguously evil, prone to petty acts of cruelty. Invite our hatred. Make them less than human.

When we’re talking about demons, zombies, mutants or other monsters, this is fairly straightforward. Unless the enemies are Nazis (hardly anyone minds putting those creeps down) aiming headshots at virtual humans takes a little more persuasion.

With a roller coaster of bodily trauma and desperation, the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider turned Lara Croft into a killer. As an origin story, it had no choice but to remake the young archaeologist into a survivalist who could hold her own in a firefight against the scruffy castaways she’s marooned with on an uncharted island. That meant numbing her to death. Mostly, the game succeeded, but not without overusing morality shortcuts.

When Lara kills a person for the first time, her “victim” is the psychotic mercenary and scavenger Vladimir. The guy is completely despicable. He shoots escaping prisoners and reaches to grope Lara when he catches her. Driving a bullet into his brains raises no ethical questions. Sure, it leaves Lara a traumatized mess, but her reaction feels hollow—especially when she goes on to rack up a ludicrous body count soon afterwards, piercing skulls with arrows and breaking necks. The castaways’ excessive brutality completely validates Lara’s warpath. They plunder and torture without reservations. They’re monsters, not men.

In a smarter narrative, killing can be justified with a healthy dose of grey morality, but oftentimes games only skim the surface when showing dual points of view. Protagonists in the Max Payne and Far Cry games are portrayed as broken men who trade their humanity for a higher kill count. But the mafia goons and drug-crazed pirates they face off against? Scum, all of them. Nothing but comical criminal caricatures.

Now I’m not saying videogames completely lack sympathetic antagonists. It’s just that more often than not they ask us to empathize with major villains—like the Templar targets in Assassin’s Creed, who each receive a humanizing death speech—even while we slaughter dozens of their hapless minions. In these cases, the tone comes across as more than a little inconsistent. You’re still forced to kill with ruthless efficiency, even when asked to question whether it’s right or wrong.

Going back as far as ancient Greece, writers have tried to present a more even-handed account of two sides locked in senseless combat. The Iliad dedicates entire passages to chronicling the shared causalities of a grinding war between the Greeks and Trojans. At the story’s climax, the hero Achilles takes revenge for the death of his best friend by killing Hector, the Trojan hero, and drags his corpse by chariot around the walls of Troy. Though nominally an antagonist, the poem ends with Hector’s funeral, where his people mourn the last hope for their doomed city.

At times, Fire Emblem Awakening taps into the same universal suffering war brings. “Henry, it’s my job to kill Plegian soldiers,” the mage Ricken admits in a support conversation. “So I have to believe they deserve to die. But now you’ve reminded me that they aren’t faceless blobs with axes. They have friends, and families, and… H-how am I going to fight them if I know that?” Thoughtful sentiments like this give the game a degree of depth, but are brought up too infrequently to truly impact the narrative. Players spend more time strategizing tactical mayhem than taking in heartfelt messages about war and peace.

Half Life takes a more subtle approach at toning down its antagonistic marines. Sent to contain an alien invasion at the Black Mesa Research Facility, the combat troops blindly follow orders to mow down all the crumbling institute’s surviving scientists. What they didn’t count on was a badass physicist named Gordon Freeman fighting back.

“All I know for sure is he’s been killing my buddies,” players overhear from an idle guard. For a moment, this and other brief snippets of dialogue unmask the grunts’ vulnerabilities. But ultimately, their trigger-happy tendencies prevent them from rising above a ludicrous parody of gung-ho military units. Many of their quotes are also more humorous than tragic: “I killed twelve dumbass scientists and not one of ‘em fought back. This sucks.”

Nowadays, more games are pushing us to see NPCs as real, breathing characters, as Austin Walker mused in his Paste essay about virtual individual systems in Watch Dogs and Shadow of Mordor. But as he testified, most interactions with NPCs still involve hurting them. No-kill playthrough options, celebrated by stealth games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, allow us rare opportunities to exercise restraint in interacting with enemies.

It would be wrong of me to pretend books, TV shows, and movies aren’t capable of treating people like disposable fodder too. Blockbusters lean on the same formulaic bad guys, time and again. New York cop John McClane takes on a new crew of terrorist weirdos in each Die Hard installment. Indiana Jones never bats an eye when pulling his revolver on an artifact looter. Platoons of Stormtroopers die unmourned throughout the Star Wars trilogy. But at the very least, because these other media forms aren’t married to a constant need for action like many gameplay genres, they have more room to present a variety of amiable antagonists.

Filmmakers and novelists do not shy away from arguing against war and general human savagery in their works. Most games, on the other hand, are still about killing evildoers to some extent. Shooters zealously train players to line up headshots. Action titles push them to thrash opponents with brutal combos. Nothing’s wrong with enjoying these escapist pastimes. But that enjoyment should be paired with self-awareness. No matter how harmless and fun, videogames can manipulate us. It takes maturity to understand how.

I recognize I might come across as yet another self-appointed moral guardian trying to “take the fun” out of games. All I’d like to see is a few more divergent moments in games when enemies aren’t treated only as drones. Humans have a bad habit of doing a lot of terrible things to each other and defending these acts by refusing to grant their victims personhood. Every now and then, we need reminders from the art and entertainment we consume that we must resist this urge to blindly demonize.

Games need more “bad guys” like Gérard Duval.

Parker Lemke is a writer from Minnesotan who has spent far too much time modding The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. He served in the journalistic trenches of his college newspaper and is a former Game Informer intern. You can follow him on Twitter.