I’m well past tired of hearing faux-intellectuals pontificating on the ethical and moral implications of action sequences depicted in games. Most often this is presented as a question of how we are supposed to like Nathan Drake when over the course of a game he will kill hundreds of people. “Sure, they were pirates or mercenaries with violent intent, but they were still human! And the scale of death must have some psychological impact on the player character, must it not?” But this kind of navel gazing is simply more proof of how young the industry is, and how the critical apparatus around games remains in its infancy.
Whenever this “problem” is brought up, the response should be simple: why are you taking games so literally? Why do we have to react to what happens over the course of a game with a strict accounting instead of examining the experience we had and the emotions we felt? Other mediums are no longer subject to this level of literalism. There is an understood language of storytelling devices and metaphorical content. In a novel a narrator can be unreliable. Films use editing and slow motion to draw out scenes that would normally take seconds. What’s important is the emotion impact created by the techniques employed.
Games are no different. They have the unique burden of interactivity which is both an advantage and a limitation. In a book a shootout between our hero and two enemies can be drawn out across a number of pages. A skilled author will use thick description and clever twists to maintain tension for the reader. In a game a player can usually dispatch a pair of enemies in seconds. In order to impart the same kind of tension and eventually deliver a real feeling of triumph something more must be done. Game design has trended towards stacking the odds against the player with large numbers of enemies to create dynamic, exciting encounters.
Like so much in game design these hordes of bad guys to be killed should not necessarily be taken literally. They are simply one more abstraction made to accommodate and engaging gameplay experience. Depending on the game’s tone and intentions game designers have a broad spectrum of choices at their disposal to convey the desired response. If a game is supposed to be a light hearted action romp, like the Uncharted games, enemy encounters can be created to reflect that. If it’s more of a grizzly survival story, like the 2012 reboot of Tomb Raider, that to can be illustrated through the use of brutal finishers and the visible effort and distress of the player character.
If your takeaway from these games is to ask where the international criminal tribune is to bring Nathan Drake or Lara Croft to justice for the criminal acts then you have missed the point entirely. It doesn’t really matter how many enemies are defeated in each level. They were, after all, a metaphor for the adversity a character faced. Ask: “Was it daunting? Was is scary? Was it thrilling? Was it grueling? Was it rolicking?” These questions are far more interesting when examining a game’s content than focusing on “How many died?”
That kind of shallow thinking is tantamount to complaining that there are no toilets on the Starship Enterprise because bathrooms are never depicted, or wondering how Chow Yun Fat slows down time whenever he jumps through the air firing his gun in a John Woo movie. It’s an infantile nitpick that belies an arrogant disregard for video games as serious form of expression. Interactive storytelling has come a long way, and we should expect better from the audience, and critics alike.