Inspired by a really interesting conversation with Jackie (@baeddel) the other day…
Action games - broadly construed, from like FPSes to character action games to even like, RPGs I guess - are almost always about killing. Over the course of a game you will typically kill a few hundred enemies. For most games, they don’t want you to think about that too hard - especially for games where the point is before anything else, a power fantasy. And that means the ‘people’ you’re fighting are stripped almost entirely of humanity.
Part of the reason this happens is that, if you kill, say, 240 enemies over the course of an eight hour game, each enemy would have on average about two minutes to establish itself as a unique person. (This calculation is more complicated since often you will have multiple enemies on screen at a time, but conversely there will be periods where there are no enemies on screen, and it gives a rough idea in any case). Each enemy gets maybe a few lines; their existence is confined to the room you fight them in, maybe an overheard conversation.
If you’re trying to tell a story through a game, you really can’t treat killing each of those characters with moral weight - and in general, you’re not really expected to. A typical game story has a sharp divide between named characters whose deaths are considered tragic, and nameless mooks both allied and on the enemy team who you are not to care about.
For people who aren’t used to games, hearing about this idea - you pretend to kill hundreds of people? for fun? - sounds kind of grotesque.
There are a few responses to this.
One approach is to just be like, it doesn’t matter, it’s a fantasy. And certainly players can very well divide the fantasy of slicing up a hundred cyborgs from real life people.
This starts to feel uncomfortable when videogames very often try to create a compelling story that says something, usually about war, and draw from real world conflicts to provide their narrative.
[This is especially true when, in order to dehumanise their enemies and make them OK to kill, they draw on narratives of racism and imperialism. For example, there are a lot of games where you fight North Korean soldiers (e.g. Crysis, CoD: Advanced whatever, that ridiculous game where they invade the US, Rogue Warrior), usually presented as aggressors and dangers to good, innocent American people, stock interchangeable villains with funny foreign accents - standins for the Nazis from WWII games. Nevermind that North Korea was flattened by American bombing and 1.5mil civilians died in the Korean War, and much of their present paranoia and aggression can be associated with American military exercises and sanctions.]
But I’m not really just thinking of American imperialism simulators here. Jackie said it well: making the enemies into cops, or some other enemy leftists feel comfortable with fighting does not feel like enough, it would be desirable to have games where the enemies are not dehumanised. Perhaps you disagree, but to me it feels dishonest: if we’re going to try to talk about war, I would want to reflect that it’s a miserable thing that involves actual people dying.
Another approach is to make robots or the like stand in for human enemies. But it’s pretty clear that the robots or whatever are symbolic of humans; in any case, if we do want videogames to say something, address honestly the topics raised by actual war as something other than a playground, that’s not enough.
You could also just like, denounce the entire action game genre as reactionary or something (kind of a tedious move). But to quote Jackie again, there are some really compelling forms of play in action games that aren’t really replicated in, say, visual novels:
action games have their own unique systems which cant just be replaced by dialogue systems
the reason for making an action game is ostensibly the kind of play action games can facilitate: a certain kind of movement in space, management of areas of control, timing execution, etc. etc. Nothing else has that stuff!
It’s sort of like bullfighting, to a much much lesser extent lol, in that you have a very highly developed and excellent sport/game which is by its nature necessarily unethical
I agree: action games are fun. And while you could potentially get a similar experience with very abstract games, such as Super Hexagon, which similarly require moving through space and precise timing, there’s something about connecting it to a story and characters that makes it more emotionally compelling. I would like to do action games “better”, not discard them.
Part of the reason for this situation is that computers are much, much better at doing the kinds of things required for simulating a fight than simulating other kinds of interactions with people. It’s kind of the opposite of what humans are good at: although it’s taken decades to get there, a computer can very quickly calculate the consequences of moves in a fight and work out how a description of a scene translates into an almost photorealistic image 60 times per second, but working out what a person might say in a believable, emotionally compelling way, even in an extremely limited situation, is extraordinarily difficult.
So most games totally seperate out these systems: you have ‘gameplay’ and ‘story’ sections, running in totally different ways. The ‘story’ is not much different from a choose your own adventure game, albeit maybe with some limited variation from string substitution: you write out all the possible things the game can say in advance, and set them up as nodes in a graph, with the player choosing what node they’re going to see next.
You can use all the tools of non-interactive storytelling here, particularly film, but the cost is that the more resources you spend on animating and voice acting a node, the fewer nodes you can afford to make. So in a lavishly animated game like a Bioware RPG, the decisions you can make must necessarily have a limited effect on the narrative, to avoid the branches multiplying exponentially. Even in a mostly text-based game like a Twine game or visual novel, you cannot possibly prewrite every single possibility a player could imagine.
Conversely, to make fights, developers generally build a system with a set of components that interact in a complex way, and allow this to produce an enormous variety of possible situations and interactions. People make this into an outright art form: look at quake rocket jumping videos, or DMC combo competitions, or speedruns. But even outside of that, no two boss fights will play exactly the same way in a game like Dark Souls (until you’re a speedrunner who’s identified the perfect strat and practiced until it’s muscle memory, I guess).
There are some baked-in advantages that help games produce more emotional experiences. Simply by giving you control of a character outside the cutscenes, you’re driven to care about them; an NPC who spends a lot of time with you, such as Alyx Vance, almost automatically becomes someone you care about as long as the devs don’t fuck it up by making their artificiality too obvious or annoying by e.g. having too many repeated voice lines, or too few possible interactions. I don’t want to underestimate the effectiveness of this. Would 2B and 9S be nearly so compelling characters if we didn’t guide them through the story? Perhaps they would if we had a TV show the length of the game, but that would be vastly more expensive to produce.
Returning to action games, what would an action game that treats its opponents as people look like? There are various stabs in that direction to consider…
First, there’s games that work like a standard action game, but try to use the story to challenge the player on what they are doing. This can be handled well, or extremely clumsily.
Spec Ops: The Line is probably the most (in)famous example of this, a game that initially presents itself as a third person shooter but makes it clear over the course of the game that you are pretty much the bad guy. In some ways, it takes troubling narrative ideas from Heart of Darkness, the apocalyptic ruins of Dubai driving the protagonist mad; but there are also scenes that attempt to directly challenge contemporary war games and provide some sort of commentary on war in a very heavy-handed way.
The most-discussed scene is the white phosphorus scene: the player is trapped on a roof surrounded by enemies, but is presented with a white phosphorus rocket launcher that they can use to defeat the otherwise endlessly respawning enemy snipers. Making an intertextual reference to the helicopter scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, you’re presented with a greyscale infrared camera, and told to target tiny scurrying enemies on the ground. Then, you walk through the area you bombed, and discover that the ‘enemies’ you bombed were actually a group of civilians; you walk through horrific imagery of their incinerated corpses. Look at you, you’ve done a war crime!
There are some very unsatisfying aspects of this approach, and I certainly wouldn’t want it to be generalised to other games. The most obvious is that there is no choice but to bomb the civilians; sure, if you blithely went ahead and bombed the tiny figures on the ground, you might feel some guilt about like, oh no, I didn’t think… but if you were like, hold on a minute, or if you’ve had some warning about the white phosphorus scene, you’ve got no choice but to go ahead anyway if you want to complete the game. It’s also, in general, outside of these plot scenes, a generic military shooter - supposedly to lure in players who need to be challenged or whatever, not that that was all that effective I think.
There’s also something about the fact that the white phosphorus scene depends on you accidentally hitting civilians - apparently it would not be effective enough if you committed a war crime on enemy soldiers, because you’ve already learned their lives and deaths are meaningless. And it has, depressingly, become established that war games make you commit a few war crimes for edginess cred, without really challenging anything - the Treyarch Call of Duty games apparently being among the worst offenders, revelling in showing the effects of napalm and inviting the player to torture people and kill prisoners of war. And there’s something weird about like, Spec Ops has gained a reputation as an Interesting Game based on scenes like this, so you get this weird situation where people are buying the game specifically to pretend to bomb civilians with white phosphorus and then feel sad about it.
Undertale is another often-cited example, which does give you the option to find peaceful solutions to every fight. It does a kind of interesting thing where killing is easy, but leads to a dark storyline where you become a monstrous figure; finding peaceful solutions requires you to solve a puzzle, while avoiding the enemy’s attacks in a very abstract bullet hell game.
The problem here is that it turns the characters into a different sort of dehumanised figure - puzzles to be solved, even if the outcome is that they survive. Undertale makes it work anyway through humour and really strong character writing, music etc. It also depends very much on the game’s fantasy elements: the bullet hell segments are your soul avoiding symbolic bones or spiders or whatever. It’s not really an idea you could generalise to other games easily.
Yoko Taro is probably one of the people trying hardest to address the ‘it’s kind of fucked up that you kill several hundred people’ problem. His games generally do not change the fundamental mechanics of an action game, but instead wrap it in a tragic, emotional story where most sides are sympathetic.
It took him a while to get there. In his first game, Drakengard, he responded to his discomfort to the mass killing of the action game genre by making his characters various flavours of ‘insane’, in about the edgiest way possible. Drakengard is relentlessly unpleasant; the main characters are very difficult to sympathise with, and the endings are various flavours of apocalyptic. In a GDC speech, he commented that he finds games where characters kill hundreds and then go back to a normal life much darker, and I see his point. Yet piling on the grimdark is not really much of an answer to the problem.
In NieR, however, he really nailed it; the characters are deeply sympathetic, and yet it’s apparent that what you are doing has tragic consequences, that in many ways your actions are misguided. In fact, by the end, it becomes apparent that you’re literally fighting a different form of yourself; your main character’s motivations, and the villains, are literally the same. It also deals more effectively with the results of trauma than a lot of games. It is the kind of story that I really like: the characters’ motivations are, broadly, understandable, but things go wrong and they end up at odds anyway.
To some extent, the game is then less about presenting a power fantasy as giving you a situation to explore; it’s a sort of Princess Mononoke ‘see with eyes unclouded’, on the part of the player rather than the characters. That said, it still could be argued to be another case of ‘you monster, you did that thing we forced you to do’: in the first playthrough, you fight what seem to be dangerous enemies, in the second it’s revealed that they are often decent people driven to fight by hostility on the part of your own allies, but because you can’t talk to them, you end up fighting; it’s very apparent how they see you as a monster.
I will try not to spoil NieR: Automata, but it does something very similar. The more you learn about YoRHa and the machines, the more tragically absurd the situation becomes; it is a story not of heroically defeating terrible enemies, but people driven by trauma to reenact violence on each other endlessly.
But, as much as that’s true, the generic enemies in Yoko Taro games - cute though they may be - do not tend to have a lot of individual characterisation. As 2B and 9S, or Nier, Kainé and Emil, you will kill many, many machine lifeforms or shades (gestalts)… and as much as it becomes apparent that you’ve done something pretty terrible, only a select few get moments of more developed characterisation (the bucket machine, the Shade in the military base…)
I think Yoko Taro wants to do more - when he speaks, he talks about his wish to go beyond what is considered appropriate for games to do, and explore the grey area between convention and what’s physically impossible to do. So, as much as I love them, the Nier series is still a series of action games with cutscenes. I would like to answer his call to new and younger developers to change what games are willing to do. (I’ve yet to play Drakengard 3, the game Taro made between Nier and Nier: Automata, beyond the intro so I won’t say much about that.)
Many games attempt to flesh out at least some of their enemy characters by making battles very long affairs, and these games often evoke a lot more sympathy for the enemies - sometimes this is the point, as in Shadow of the Colossus (which I would want to say more on, but I still haven’t played it!). Jackie described Monster Hunter this way:
and like, the diegetic fiction is obviously that you’re killing them, but honestly like… the way you really experience the game, you’re fighting the same monster over n over. you dont actually internalize it as fighting 20 different rathalos or whateveryou’re fighting Rathalos, who you’ve come to know well. its very humanizing
and yeah about the guilt, they start limping and shit!! its awful!!! every fight is the Sif fight
So it is possible to flesh out most or all of the enemies, usually at least in part by cutting down on how many you fight. This can still go to very unpleasant places: the recent Middle Earth game touted its ‘nemesis’ system where certain enemies come back with their injuries repaired in procedurally generated ways until eventually you defeat and… enslave them. It’s literally a game about slavery.
Another example that makes the ‘repeated fights with the same figure’ literal is Pyre, which tells the story not of a war, but a highly ritualised magic sport which allows its winners to escape from exile. It’s a game about prisons, in a way, and revolution, but since losing a sports game does not imply death, the enemy characters (rival teams) recur, their stories developing as you fight them. Depending on how well you play, some of them may escape exile in place of your characters, and this will shape the final outcome of the game. At one point in the story, a member of your team begs you to throw a game in order to allow someone they care about to go up in their place - there are a lot of great moments like this.
Pyre is an incredible game, and a good demonstration that games can in fact say something worthwhile while still being fun, though that is in part due to the impressive amount of writing - outside the sports games, it’s basically a visual novel, with the same sort of branching/nodes system. But its ‘solution’ is as hard to generalise as Undertale, because we can’t really expect a lot of games about ritualised fantasy sports tied into a broader social system.
To a lesser extent, the Dark Souls series does something similar, and offers an impressive case of mechanics helping to tell a story. The major theme of Dark Souls, particularly the first game, is decay and despair; you are in a world where people return from the dead over and over, and are trapped cyclically doing the same thing until they give up in despair. The bosses you fight are suggested to have had rich lives before, but have now become shadows of their former selves. It certainly still dehumanises its enemies, but that dehumanisation serves a narrative purpose, and as you yourself die over and over, you are invited to compare your character to the ‘hollows’ you fight. I don’t know, I may be giving it too much credit. It still is a power fantasy; you are the one undead that could, stomping your way through the world and killing the gods and deciding the fate of the world. And the story is very slight, presented through snippets of text and cryptic hints, which has now become a bit of a cliche.
None of this has really addressed multiplayer games, where of course your enemies are literally humans, even if your encounter with them is only a few seconds of aiming down a gun. Perhaps, the same process that leads you to dehumanise fictional soldiers facilitates the amount of abuse in online games - but then again, there’s if anything more abuse in e.g. MOBAs where you play the same person for a long time.
In most multiplayer games, your interaction with other players is quite limited; they are your ally, or your enemy to defeat, and you have a chat room bolted on top to talk to them. The exception, of course, is roleplaying, which people manage to do in all sorts of ways even in games that do nothing to facilitate it. Usually, this is barely different from roleplaying in a chat room, with the addition of a handful of canned animations and the ability to position yourself physically in a 3D world.
In an MMO, roleplaying is usually quite disconnected from the game’s ‘story’ elements, even if it draws on the setting and characters; it is very rare for roleplayers to do a quest or raid or whatever and have that be part of their story. This is because the action mechanics are here inflexible and repetitive; you can’t really fit killing the same boss over and over into a roleplaying game.
People can, of course, represent vastly more complicated and flexible characters than a computer is able to. I wonder about the potential for trying to create a more expressive computer roleplaying system; a way to very quickly block out animations and in essence generate cutscenes on the fly.
The idea of a totally immersive, purely player-driven persistent world is pretty common in fiction, but realised in pretty limited ways so far. The major examples I can think of are Neverwinter Nights custom roleplaying servers, which use the game’s ‘DM’ features to allow custom stories to be created on the fly using a combat/skill system based on DnD 3.0; Minecraft and similar building games, which incorporate the construction of houses and so on into any roleplaying that takes place; and Eve Online, where the focus on the game is on the players acting as space capitalists and competing with each other rather than enemies. There’s also more limited scope for roleplaying/storytelling in matches of a multiplayer FPS or similar; the story is always ‘some people came together and had a fight’, but powerful stories can form within that, even without roleplaying.
One really interesting historical example is Star Wars: Jedi Knight II; the game mechanics all revolve around lightsaber duelling, but players created an elaborate system of social actions such as ‘bowing’ before a fight to roleplay the story they were Jedi Knights purely as a community thing. This led to some very powerful emotional experiences - there’s a famous piece of writing about an encounter with a racist player that kicked off the so-called ‘New Games Journalism’ school of writing that captures that brilliantly, which is available online (cw: antiblackness, slurs) here.
This is long and rambling and in some ways just a list of games I like, but I do feel like this is a problem we are very far from satisfactorily solving. I don’t expect that like, a politically good game will come along and kill bad FPSes, but I’d like to try to imagine what this medium could be used for, and how we could achieve powerful narrative games better with all the mechanical complexity we enjoy in action games working to produce the story, not as a separate thing.