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Death in Games: Part 1

PolyBlog & Videos

Death in Games: Part 1


Death occurs in almost every video game that isn't a sports or puzzle game. Pac-man is unmade by the touch of a ghost. Mario is eaten by an angry plant. These aren't gruesome deaths, but they are death nonetheless. Death in video games is rarely the heart-crushing affair it is in real life.  It's usually just a game mechanic for indicating success or failure. You successfully put enough bullets into this enemy; he is now dead. You failed to make that long jump; you are now dead.  We waste a thousand terrorists in Call of Duty, and we don't - nor are we expected to - give a second thought to the widows and orphans we leave in our wake. And that's okay. These games aren't meant to make us ponder death and its consequences. But some games do venture into this territory, and I think it's a very worthwhile endeavor.

There are a few ways death is encountered in video games. These might not be the only ways, but common ones are:

  • Death caused by the player (a.k.a. killing something)
  • Death of a friendly or neutral NPC
  • Death of the player him/herself

Because it seems I have a lot to say on this topic, I've decided to make this a three-part series. The first topic:  

Death caused by the player

Author's note:  Due to the nature of this discussion, I could not avoid talking about spoilers. This post contains spoilers for Modern Warfare 2, and Spec Ops: The Line.

Normally, killing things is what's expected of the player. In Doom, you kill demons. In CoD, you kill terrorists. It's like a Geico commercial. "If you play video games, you kill stuff. It's what you do". It's literally what you are meant to do in most cases. In this part of the discussion, though, we'll be looking at games that make you think twice about pulling the trigger, or otherwise ending lives.

A couple of games that have tried to explore a more thoughtful look at death caused by the player include Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (the "No Russian" mission in particular), and Spec Ops: The Line. In MW2's "No Russian" mission, the player - who is under cover in a terrorist organization - is ordered to fire on civilians in an airport.  I believe the developer's intentions were to explore the question "how far are we willing to go to fight terrorism?"  How many innocent lives are an acceptable cost to prevent a potentially worse disaster? Specifically, as it's presented in the game, "should I kill these dozens of civilians in order to keep my cover, and potentially save thousands of lives?"

Of course, you don't really have a choice, but for the first time in a Call of Duty game, you actually hesitate to pull the trigger. I thought it was an interesting addition to the game.  It presented a situation that begs questions that are worth exploring. For example, in the real world, are drone strikes on high-ranking terrorists acceptable if there is potential for killing civilians as well? Unfortunately, the mass media only focused on the shock-value of asking the gamer to shoot civilians, and completely ignored the questions the act was meant to invoke.

A second example of making you question whether you should pull the trigger or not is found in Spec Ops: The Line.  While the theme of the whole game could be used as an example, there was one moment in particular that stood out. At one point, you are surrounded by locals who are yelling and cursing you. They are blocking your way forward, and if you try walking past them, they shove you back. Your squad mate is asking for permission to open fire. For me, personally, I was looking for some peaceful way out of this quickly deteriorating situation. These were unarmed civilians, after all. But the crowd  was growing more aggressive and more threatening. They started pelting me with rocks. My health was dropping. So, seeing no way out, I pulled the trigger. One guy dropped dead and the crowd instantly changed from aggressive shouting, to panicked screaming. It was quite a powerful moment. I couldn't help but feel a little dirty after that.

Most of the time, taking a life in a video game is something that's done without question and without hesitation, which is fine. But games are also in a unique position to make us think a little deeper by putting the gun in our own virtual hands, and tasking us with pulling the trigger. I appreciate that at least some games explore that area, and make us stop and think.

What about you? What games have made the person on the other end of your weapon feel like more than just another target? How did it make you feel? Hit the comments below, or find me on twitter @HokieBriz