Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

You are not the good guy

So here’s a commonplace videogame concept: You play as X, an inherently “good” protagonist going up against various Y, which can be summed up as baddies. In some games, this means you have the license to kill, murder, maim. It’s ok, because your enemies are them evil terrorists/nazis/russians/aliens/guards. Hey – scratch that. It’s NOT okay. But that’s not the point. See, there are some games that offer you the chance to express your goodness, your humanity. There are some games where you can go through the entire thing without actually “killing” a single sentient entity (side-note here: if you are uncomfortable with the idea that videogame “killing” is completely NOT anything related to the real-life thing, then stop reading this right now). There are some games where, heck, you are the hero. And going through them, reaching that end-stage without leaving a trail of murdered, mangled corpses behind you, really proves how noble and good your character is.

Yeah, no.

This is largely a problem with the entire concept of “non-lethal” takedowns in gaming. For some reason, just because it is not “lethal”, it’s somehow perfectly fine and dandy. Even if said method of incapacitation is extremely brutal and inflicts serious, lasting damage. Yeah, these non-lethal takedowns are often less visceral than their more permanent alternatives, but is that really the final merit of evaluation? The pure amount of blood spilled? Because “artistic effects” aside, in terms of gameplay mechanics, the end result is often pretty identical: the enemy is suddenly transformed from an ai-controlled agent with self-initiated decisions and animations into a non-responsive ragdoll that does not exhibit any activity beyond physical reaction to impact & motion. Doesn’t matter how the enemy was “taken out”, as far as the game goes, unconscious == dead.

The poster child of modern AAA games exhibiting just this sort of behaviour is, of course, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Thematically, it really acknowledges your character’s decisions in enemy elimination; a Jensen (main character’s name) who has not killed a single enemy will be reflected in the ending movies as having shown compassion and retained his humanity despite the lure of the less complicated lethal methods. The game even grants you an extra pat-on-the-back for each non-lethal takedown. It’s called “Merciful Soul”. Merciful Soul. Keep that in mind and watch this short (2 minutes of your time) video showing off a few of these merciful methods of elimination:

Done? Great. What did we see there?

First, we see a human being shot with an electrical impulse of some kind. This impulse is strong enough, it seems, to immediately lock down all muscle and voice control, show up as literally massive white electricity arcs, and make the person pass out (I assume it’s just passing out – who knows, maybe it’s actually a coma?) within 2 seconds. I’m not a doctor – I don’t know just how harmful that is to a human being. Somehow I don’t believe anyone could just get up and shrug it off after an hour. Next, we have a massive ball of plasma/electricity knocking a whole group down. The people are physically thrown backwards. I’m sure there’s no after-effects from such a thing… On to physical contact! We see an enemy’s hand being twisted out, along a sound of bones crunching. Then a full-smash right in the face with an artificial carbo-titanium robot fist, that immediately renders the attacked person unconscious. Next enemy? Cracked ribs, smashed jaw. Next? An electrical grenade of some sort, followed by another dislocated (at best) hand and a full-force smash to the trachea. Remember – this is called being a Merciful Soul. Yeah. I somehow fail to understand the mercy of imparting permanent neural and physical damage. Especially when the game, as you saw, features an invisibility cloak that could allow avoiding enemies altogether.

But that’s just one game. Could be an outlier, y’know. Let’s look at something else, at something where you are playing…. a superhero! A defender of the just, someone known for not killing anybody. Let’s take a look at Batman: Arkham Asylum. Take a look at this handy 4-minute video:

What did we see there? We see the player character – the goddamn Batman – choking a person into unconsciousness. If anyone’s got a medical degree and could comment on just how much damage that inflicts on a human, I’d be grateful. I can only say that, once again, it’s not something one can just shrug off. We see the Batman beating people so hard they pass out instantly, often using the equivalents of wrestling moves (except not faked). We see him dropping people off of two, three-story heights. Creating an explosion, on the other side of a wall someone’s standing at – an explosion that literally shatters that wall. More electrocutions via sonic batarangs. Think about what all that could do to human beings. Does that really fit the actions a “good” character would take?

Let’s move on to another game. A game where you are admittedly a somewhat ambiguous character – an assassin. Heck, the game is called “Assassin’s Creed”. But wait! Actually you are together with the good guys, you are a noble assassin – you only take out targets that are known to be evil. You even have a noble code of conduct, that states an assassin should not murder innocent people. So you are still kind of good, yes? Nope. For one, there is a weird method in how these “innocents” are counted. Usually the assasination targets – let’s allow that they truly are evil and thus don’t compromise the character being ‘good’ – are accompanied, or just generally hang out, near groups of roaming guards. You know the type – the police, essentially. Perhaps bodyguards. Understandably, they will turn hostile when seeing you murder a person in plain sight. Somehow now it is perfectly okay to kill all the guards. Yeah. Are they no longer innocents? How noble can your character be, if it is okay for him to kill off an entire police force because they saw a public assassination and tried to apprehend the perpetrator?

It’s not that such games are bad – they really aren’t. They are fun, they are atmospheric, they are immersive. They don’t breed a generation of psychopaths. They just try to cast their characters as “good” protagonists, so the player could identify with them better. And that’s the part that is quite the nonsense. Because looking at the actions – really looking and thinking about them – makes it pretty clear that they are not something a truly “good” person would do. So don’t be fooled. You can be the protagonist. You can even be not as bad as those opposing you, if you so choose. But that doesn’t make you the good guy. And when (if) the game is trying to push that high white horse between your legs, notice it. Acknowledge it. Realize that it’s manipulating you. Otherwise, who knows, you might try to argue that choking a guy to unconsciousness is a humane action. I can’t emphasize enough how ridiculous that really is.

~X2-Eliah likes to take the non-lethal side when given the choice. His characters are still far from being saints.

One response

  1. I like going for the non-lethal options as well, but usually because I like being a stealthy bugger and enjoy the challenge. And yeah, none of these games have made me feel like a ‘good guy’. It’s a weird artifact of current games, I suppose.

    I am trying to figure out which game last made me feel like an actual good guy (or girl). Possibly Botanicula, but for this exercise it doesn’t really count, as it’s more a cartoony thing than a human thing.

    There are plenty of games that make me feel like The Hero, but I rarely automatically equate ‘Hero’ with ‘good guy’. They’re usually more the people who do the things that have to be done so that good people won’t have to. Sure they might be helping, sure they might have good intentions, or even a good heart, but more often than not they’re inflicting horrible violence on people/creatures that may or may not be deserving of it (for our viewing pleasure, which might say more about us, or at least what the producers think of us, than it does about the Heroes).

    I also draw the distinction between a good-guy and a good guy. This might be overly semantic for some people. A good-guy is just the one you’re supposed to root for, and he/she might or might not be a Hero as well.

    This is getting long for a comment. Maybe I should do my own article, but then I’d just be copying you and I’d lose all my internet-cred.

    14/08/2012 at 04:14

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