“You died,” Bloodborne screamed at me for the 500th time, as I was dealt murder instead of dealing it. I died because I failed to kill. I was denied continuation of a game because I did not successfully perform the game’s central progression act: killing.
I’ve been wondering: how often has that been the case, considering my graveyard of abandoned games—due to not killing fast enough or stylish enough.
Look at this screenshot for when I Googled “games of the year 2014.”
Those are well-known games. Almost all involve killing and harming another person or entity to continue.
Why? Why does this have to involve harm or killing? I’m not squeamish (I love horror and am halfway through Bloodborne); I’m conveying how bored I am of seeing killing as the only way to progress in games.
Let’s start with some popular games from 2014.
Watch Dogs is an excellent example of how killing as mechanic indicates banality and the focus on shooting and killing itself jeopardized the game.
While many of us were excited to experience an open-world, hack-em-up, we ended up with another, derivative third-person shooter. Your character, Aiden Pearce, could carry a laughable number of weapons and perform barely interesting hacks. Hacking was present, but we soon started seeing through the façade: One button pushes that magicked some technology to do your bidding. Little could actually be done with hacking; we were forced into numerous gunfights and, further, non-lethal takedowns were brutal and violent. This wasn’t a hacking game: it was a murder game where, sometimes, you pressed a button and digital magic happened. You acted because of a boring revenge power fantasy affecting your gravel-voiced, white male protagonist.
Consider if violence wasn’t the point of Watch Dogs from the beginning, but smart manipulation of technology was; imagine if Aiden was hacker before shooter, focusing his abilities on taking out enemies using his technology, in ways more interesting than one button pushes. It didn’t need to be murder, but there it was: Our hero, gunning down boring faceless goons, in the street.
Watch Dogs at least was almost universally panned for not meeting expectations and being another stale open-world shooter. But what about a consistent Game of the Year winner, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor?
Middle-earth has thousands of pages dedicated to its lore, its characters, its history. All of it stems from the womb of one mind, but has been elaborated upon for decades by many others—feeding into a rich cultural heritage that is as much a part of our world as any other culture (indeed, Ancient Roman culture might not exist, but we’re still making shows and writing books about it; one of my closest friend’s names is Beren).
And yet, what plot are we given to traverse Tolkien’s rich world, teeming with life and ideas, history and people? The same plot as Watch Dogs: a revenge power fantasy. But this one starring not just one, but two, white male protagonists who murder because of something, something revenge.
As if recognizing this wasn’t enough, Monolith created an incredible system where enemies were unique to your game and actions. You grew to know your nemeses in a detailed way, not really seen outside of hardcore role-playing games or very long fantasy franchises. But even the point of this “Nemesis System” was to direct the course of your sword: to these various enemies’ heads and hearts.
We just weren’t allowed to escape the bloodbath, even with an amazing, beautiful system. The final boss is a quick time event and everything that isn’t about “creating” your nemeses isn’t of that much interest. Notice: The creation of enemies was more interesting than their elimination.
Another rich world players recently entered was the city of Yharnam, in Bloodborne. Here is a beautifully created fictional world, based on Lovecraftian moods and the heavy fog of Victorian London; woods litter the country side like frozen hands and towers reach for a blood-colored sky, like the fossils of gods. Enigmatic notes detail an obscure, fascinating history; citizens mutter nonsensically and laugh in the shadows. And to find the next beautiful section of Bloodborne’s world you must—you guessed it—kill everything.
At least we’re no longer dealing with a boring revenge plot—but those provided some morsel of motivation. Here, nothing is provided (part of Bloodborne’s charm for some of us). But, the method remains: murder to move forward.
Games are so in love with violence they can’t even fake their way through it.
2015’s Battlefield: Hardline, the most tone-deaf game in recent history—as Paste’s Austin Walker argued—has a laughable attempt at trying to undo killing as progression.
In Hardline, you play a police officer, which gives you the magical ability to force goons to drop their weapons. You do this by flashing your badge, then, once their weapons are dropped, you can arrest them. So far, so good—until cutscenes appear responding to you as if you’ve murdered everyone; until NPCs recoil from you as a violent shooter. Thus, even the game’s official plot disregards attempts at non-lethal progression to embed it as part of the narrative.Further, the incentive to engage in non-lethal takedowns seems, initially, appropriate: you get more points for non-lethal. So far, so good—until you realize all those points go toward obtaining better murder weapons.
There’s no non-lethal equipment, move or technique you obtain for being an officer who doesn’t murder. As Austin put it: “Being ‘Good Police’ only offered me new ways to be the worst sort of police.” Even in a game that should promote actions of non-lethal responses, it refuses in a multitude of ways; and, indeed, responds, via cutscenes and rewards, against the very notions of the non-lethal nature you’re able to perform.
At least in Hardline —unlike the others—I could progress without murder in many parts (the game still forces lethal combat at various points, because of course, this is a Battlefield game). But, when the cutscenes reflect nothing to show I was being non-lethal, when rewards give me bigger guns—not efficient methods or tools—it felt horribly fake.
It’s strange to view games this diverse all relying on singular path covered with the bodies of enemies to progress. Consider the diversity of films or book genres: Games no more need to be about killing than graphic novels have to be about superheroes. Yet creators seem shackled to the idea that murder is motive, that gateways only unlock in their beautiful worlds once you’ve butchered and burnt and bullet-timed your way through.
Some revel in violence—for good and bad reasons—but all still rely on violence to progress. Bloodborne and Hardline don’t display gore, only blood, despite the amount of destruction you create; but both are tuned to a fine-point to focus on murdering the moving things on your screen.
No wonder that the game that most intrigued me for 2014 relied on surviving and overcoming violence. Alien: Isolation entirely focused on having your character—a trained, smart engineer—create tools and opportunities to escape the constant menace that stalked her. I didn’t fear death, I feared being spotted. Amanda Ripley’s goal wasn’t to kill the Alien but survive it.
Perhaps the most interesting example of using violence—not as central thrust—is Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. In both seasons, you make decisions surrounding violence; the contours of blood trace an outline around your choices and you must grab them with both hands. Violence wasn’t the mechanic to progress, it was a result of your actions and the reasons for your responses. In a world gone to violence, all you had were violent choices. It wasn’t about killing as many zombies as possible; it wasn’t about gunning people down; indeed, it wasn’t even about trying to stay alive. As Maggie says in the TV show, “that’s not living, that’s breathing.” The game is about trying to make some semblance of life amidst the corpse of civilization—in every sense of that word.
Decisions about hunger, starvation, leaving friends behind all carried a heavy weight—as characters I’d formed long-term relationships with betrayed me or I was forced to betray them. Every decision packed more punch than any bullet I vomited out at faceless goons or orcs or infected citizen in other games.
Notice: Violence is not discarded, and yet not relied upon—it’s bloody background noise to anchor decisions premised on situations most of us could find ourselves in. We’re not military police or Rangers of Gondor or Hunters in Yharnam. Perhaps this is why a Telltale decision meant more—but it does show that the reliance on violence as method —as opposed to “as reality”—hampers what could be better, more fulfilling, more meaningful experiences. Again: Imagine how much more interesting Watch Dogs could’ve been built from the ground up to not be about shooting faceless goons.
I don’t know what the solution is: first-person games don’t by definition require murder (Gone Home, Portal, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and many more tell us this); third-person games don’t require guns either, as we see from said Walking Dead series, Life is Strange, etc. Kinds of games don’t need to dictate the genre and vice versa.
We don’t need to be shackled to violence anymore. I’m tired of these beautiful worlds being used solely as background for violence, where gorgeous walls are there only to have blood splattered on them. We could be doing so much more, if only we cared to undo the noose of murder as method and embrace this medium as the creative avenue it could be and, for many of us, is.
Tauriq Moosa writes on ethics and digital culture for The Daily Beast, Guardian and elsewhere. His hatred for comment sections made it into the New York Times. He can be found yelling at men on his Twitter and links to his other work can be found here. He is excellent at writing in the third person.