Decoding: open world games and killing by default

Decoding is a regular column about the games we love, and the tricks and traditions that make them tick.

“Oh shit, I pressed the wrong button and killed that guy.”

It happens to the best of us. You could play Watch Dogs 2 [official site] for days without firing a gun, or causing a fatal traffic accident, or beating someone to death with a billiard ball. Lead character Marcus Holloway doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d leave bodies in his wake, and the ease with which he can become a killer is jarring. Like so many of our protagonists, he walks through life with the safety off and his finger on the trigger.

Open world games, particularly those of the urban variety, have a violence problem, and it’s mechanical rather than philosophical.

Killing a person isn’t a decision to be taken lightly, but it is often one of a character’s default actions. If not outright murder, you might accidentally punch someone in the face rather than emoting in their general direction if you press the wrong key at the wrong time. Drive through almost any open world city, or even sprint through one in Assassin’s Creed, and you might be kind to the crowds at first. I spent my first few hours in Watch Dogs 2 following the rules of the road, enjoying the way that the game generates little incidents of road rage and accident through its simulation, but eventually I resorted to using packed sidewalks as shortcuts. The people who were scattered like ragdolls weren’t real. They’d respawn with a new face, with a few basic threads of identity, and become part of the mass again.

Death doesn’t matter, until a cutscene tells us that it matters. Ubisoft’s hack ‘n’ smash game isn’t alone in struggling to fit its characters and story into a free-wheeling chaotic sandbox, but by placing its focus on a different kind of criminal in a different kind of setting, the ease with which it can switch between calm and killing spree is even more tonally damaging than in a GTA or Red Dead Redemption. Even GTAs rogues gallery of antiheroes don’t glide through the carnage unblemished; I never bought early-game Nico Bellic as a casual killer of bystanders, and what character arc he has is torn to shreds if the player doesn’t care about the bodycount of innocents.

I often spend more time deliberating over my clothes and haircuts in these games than I do about mounting the pavement and obliterating a jogger. A haircut costs money and I have to live with it, at least for a while, but that jogger is barely a blip on the commute between one mission and the next. A speedbump at best.

There are ways to incorporate the absurdity of the easy kill into a game. The Saints Row series, at its best, recognises how ludicrous their genre can be. In the fourth game you’re sometimes killing evil aliens or simulated memories rather than actual people, and even when your actions result in civilian losses, hey, you’re a gangster president. It’s fine. You live in a very silly world.

Life and limb are cheaper in a silly world. It’s why the violence of Looney Tunes isn’t as upsetting as a single frame of Watership Down, and why we laugh at Laurel and Hardy, and Ash vs the Evil Dead, even when violence is the inevitable end of every situation. Most games have more in common with action films than with slapstick though, and no matter how many crime shows cast their influence into GTA, beyond its script, the actual moment-by-moment experience of the game fits with other genres and scenarios.

The much-maligned destruction of central Metropolis in Man of Steel is a game-like sequence. The disregard for the assumed inhabitants of the toppling buildings identifies them as NPC types, like so many of the doomed crowds in disaster films. Jurassic World has a sequence in which park visitors are being massacred while the lead couple take time out to have a romantic moment in their midst. The camera shows us horror but seems to hope we’ll forget about it as soon as the shot switches to the heroes, safe in the centre of the carnage. Those visitors at the park and the people working in Metropolis aren’t real – they’re background noise. Nobody will mourn them and they’ll respawn if they’re needed for another setpiece down the line.

The ease with which the population of open world cities can be culled perhaps has more to do with the way the simulation of the city works than any higher level decision about character or setting. What easier way is there to trigger a police response than by firing a gun on a busy street, and what else is there to do on those busy streets other than car chases and shoot-outs? For all of their detail, these worlds are still places for pursuit and combat, giant, elaborate mazes and arenas. If you want to cause ripples, you have to throw a stone, and the life of the city can be a little lifeless until someone starts dealing death. If you want to see the wonderfully intricate emergent scenarios that can play out, you often have to nudge the pieces in play rather aggressively. You’re the kid, tapping on the glass and then shaking the antfarm to get a reaction.

RPGs have been exploring ways to make non-violent options interesting since the early days of the Ultima series, and the dialogue options of Pillars of Eternity and the like try to ensure that swordplay isn’t the default option. Credit should be given to Fallout 4 as well. I didn’t enjoy the implementation of the settlement building and management, but it is at least an attempt to allow for the creation of community rather than conflict, a way to imprint your own meaning on a world without a nuke or a gun.

It’s not just that I’d like alternatives to guns and fists though, it’s that I’d like the decision to take a life to have a little more weight. As long as the shoot button is next to the talk and jump buttons – and it often sits on the left mouse button which is as front and centre as a button can get – it’ll seem like second nature to pull that trigger. That makes sense if you’re running around a hostile post-war wasteland but if you’re an activist hacker it seems strange to be so eager for the kill, and even a hardened (or hardening) criminal would be daft to attract attention by leaving a trail of bodies on the way to the next heist.

What is a default button for if not to rattle the antfarm though? I remember being amused by Red Dead Redemption including a button for greeting people with a tip of the hat and Watch Dogs 2 lets you pet the dogs that you encounter in parks. Those are lovely little flourishes, character-building and pleasant, but they’re not a replacement for a more direct engagement with the world.

In gunless games, particularly walking simulators like Gone Home and the like, the default action taken by the player character sometimes picks up items in the world, or functions like the ‘look’ command in an old point and click, providing extra detail. There’s rarely a method to change the world directly and these worlds often lack NPCs. From Dear Esther onward, walking simulators often involve isolation. Even where NPCs are present, as in Firewatch, interactions with them take place at a distance.

Last year, two excellent free games, North [official site] and Off-Peak [official site], filled their weird environments with NPCs, and interactions led to snippets of dialogue. In both cases, you could use parts of the world and the people in it, but only to peel back layers of mystery or to find the punchlines buried beneath the collectibles in the case of Off-Peak. Playing through that – and you really should if you haven’t – I was reminded of Jazzpunk [official site]. There, the default action was always a gag. A whoopee cushion or a pratfall or something totally unexpected. Everywhere you travelled, you could be sure that clicking the left mouse button would make something happen, and unlike many comedy games, it would be a scripted joke rather than some exaggerated clumsy physics.

The central focus on the kill button increasingly feels like a throwback to a time when games were almost entirely based around violent conflict. As we move into genres beyond action and war, I find the ease with which a character kills stranger and stranger. Sometimes it feels like a crutch, a way to provide a sense of freedom and escapism without reinventing the wheel, and in a way that is so traditional it’s rarely questioned. Other times, it feels like a way to hold on to the attention of an audience – taking away their guns is a way of limiting their engagement with the world.

Give me cameras, gestures, handshakes and conversation. Give me Whoopee cushions and pratfalls. I don’t want to purge violence from games, but I want a new default, where appropriate, or alternatives at the very least. Not every open world has to become Zack Snyder’s Metropolis. I want to play in a world where the lives of NPCs matter, even when they’re not starring in a cutscene.

74 Comments

  1. Generico says:

    It’s because if you make an openworld game that involves combat, but you can’t just kill everyone in sight; the first thing your play testers say is “why can’t I kill this guy? Is he important?”

    People made mods so you could kill ALL the NPCs in fallout. They devoted hours of their time and energy to the pursuit of murder. Because what’s really jarring is riding a wave of corpses through the wasteland and then having that corpsewave dashed upon the unbreakable avatar of the plot. Totally ruins my malevolent demigod vibe.

    Also, the whole point of fantasy is to explore spaces that can’t or shouldn’t be explored in reality. Extreme violence fits in that category as well as anything.

    • Bleiz says:

      How about a rape button next? Or maybe a torture button would be good as well? Where do you draw the line?
      I’m happy we finally have alternatives to the kill kill kill mindset games had the previous decade, and that people actually enjoy them.

      • BobbyDylan says:

        Ah, the slippery slope fallacy.

        • ButteringSundays says:

          They’re not saying that one thing will lead to the other; they’re hypothesising where the line is in exploring depraved fantasies. Subtle but important difference.

          Thanks for playing logical fallacies!

          • SanguineAngel says:

            I feel like I was playing along at home and I did really well! Maybe I should apply!?

      • CartonofMilk says:

        the line HAS been drawn and everyone understands that killing someone is in no way as bad as raping them.

        Or something?

        But seriously we’ve had killing in game since their beginning and i have yet to see a game offer rape as an option so you know… I was gonna say torture too but that has actually happened.

        edit: not including japanese porn games

        • SanguineAngel says:

          I’m pretty sure that the point was that as far as gameplay options go – players demanding the option to kill whoever they like is really arbitrary, you might as well demand the ability to rape who ever you want (for a shocking comparison) or the ability to give everyone a free U2 album (for a silly comparison).

          If combat is a core form of interaction with the game world, then players might reasonably expect to kill whomever they please in a sandbox game. If there are different mechanics at play and combat is not one of them, then player demands would probably be more in line with those.

        • DEspresso says:

          You might not want to check this: link to en.wikipedia.org

          Thank goodness that didn’t catch on.

      • syndrome says:

        That’s an awful parallel.

        The purpose of that kill button is almost accidental, not as deliberate as you seem to suggest. It’s about the pacing, you kill instantly because you’re powerful, and because everything revolves around being efficient with your time, even when there aren’t apparent time limits.

        In other words, you can’t say “How about a rape button next? […] a torture button would be good as well?” without at least trying to imagine what that would look like. When you “accidentally” press the kill button while pointing at someone’s face, you don’t get a frightening simulation of chasing a screaming living soul, brutally slaughtering it with a rusty knife — now, that would be incredibly tedious as well as deeply disturbing. No, instead it’s just BANG and it’s done, the ragdoll physics is instantly enabled, any former spark of “life” is extinguished immediately, as if you ticked a magic checkbox beside that NPC, that says “OFF”. You understand deeply that there aren’t any true repercussions, as nothing was ALIVE in the first place. It’s just a funny animation, and based of this, the underlying meaning is that you were well aware of the artificiality of the world.

        First and foremost, try to think of the gun as if it was a remote force projector, and that when you click you effectively exert “spooky action at a distance”. It’s a traditional piece of interaction, that is so easy to implement, it has become standard expectation in a first-person game. People expect this behavior in games (and I’m certainly not the only one to point this out in this thread).

        I’d say this is more of a case of merging simple and elegant controls in an increasingly ‘believable’ universe, which lets us experience the uncanny valley when it comes to interacting with such a world. 1) Having guns, 2) combined with the instant gratification psychology we seem to shove in our kids’ faces as if the already abysmal lack of attention should be somehow encouraged, and 3) the typical NPC approach (which took a wrong turn during the 90’s) that is simply a solipsistic dream for the mediocrity, as well as 4) the possibility that we have reached the point of “code amount barrier”, which is quite similar to the light speed barrier in physics (i.e. after a certain point has been reached, having more code, more artists, and more interactive complexity doesn’t correlate to proportionally better and richer experiences), led us to the traces of absurd in what we deem as simulacra, which is like having a fly in an otherwise perfect soup. And now we all feel we should only get rid of this fly and everything would be magically interesting. Nope, the reality is more complex than that. Similar to how Graham wanted the better tutorials the other day, this is not a case of “if we’d only remove this…” it’s a rabbit’s hole, completely unexplored, and we (as a human race) aren’t ready for this step in evolution yet. Though we will be, as soon as we understand what games truly ARE (hint: they’re not games, which sounds like a paradox, until you realize it’s a misnomer; a legacy of being unconsciously numb to understanding the true purpose of games; for more understanding on how this gross disregard of reality might happen to such a brilliant creature, simply refer to how people thought that Earth was the center of the Universe only a couple of hundred years ago).

        Just my 2 cents.

        • pho3nixf1re says:

          This comment is so good it’s going into my notes. Also, you win today’s award for most substantial anonymous comment on the internet.

          • syndrome says:

            Thank you. I’m glad someone reads my comments, and finds my arguments easy to follow. I’d normally offer even more insights if people would ask for them, but noone needs philosophy it seems.

            I have to say something from time to time, just to stay sane for a day or two, but usually what I say on this forum is just a tip of an iceberg.

            Here’s a pretty neat “comparison” between Dwarf Fortress and Mass Effect 3 if you’re interested:
            link to rockpapershotgun.com

    • Philotic Symmetrist says:

      There is a difference between something being possible and something being easy to do, and a further difference between something being easy and something being likely to happen accidentally because you pushed the wrong button. The latter is just as jarring and immersion-breaking as making something arbitrarily impossible.

      Regarding artificial distinctions between whom you can and cannot kill I feel that the article agrees with you that this is a bit silly: “Death doesn’t matter, until a cutscene tells us that it matters.” Rather than arguing for preventing you from killing the ‘important’ characters, the article was more suggesting that killing ‘minor’ characters should be a more significant act.

    • Shuck says:

      Leaving aside that “people expect it” is a circular argument (people expect it because so many games have been made this way), it’s far too easy to do (not just the issue with single button presses – there’s an outright supernatural ease in handling and aiming weapons in games), and there aren’t any real consequences. You might get the police after you, but then there are ways of de-escalating that situation, too. That works well for a ridiculous, cartoon gangster fantasies, but not so much for anything else. A game with more realistic consequences such as, hours after you’ve committed a crime, potentially having the police show up to arrest you creates interesting dynamics (a long-lasting dread of being caught) while also allowing you to do it, for example.
      But as far as interactions in contemporary urban-set sandbox games go, asking “Why can’t I kill him?” makes less sense than asking, “Why can’t I vomit in the streets?” That’s a far, far, far more common (and pleasant) urban behavior, after all, and how many games have decent regurgitation simulation?

      • GepardenK says:

        “People expect it” is not a circular argument because the reason they expect it is not because games always did it that way. They expect it because it is a natural cause & effect outcome of mechanics in the game. If a game mechanic (like a gun) has a certain logical rule then any special exception to this rule feels like a imitation of the product.

        You can tell this is why people “expect it” by looking at how they respond to different types of games. Only in games that rely on sandbox “lego” mechanics do people ask for every npc to be killable. Nobody asks for being able to kill npc’s in Half Life 2 or Borderlands even though those games also feature guns – the reason for this is that those games do not have cause & effect gameplay as a core feature. A open-world sandbox rpg like Fallout on the other hand does.

        Your argument reads like trying to impose real life logic to videogames. But games (and people when playing them) are about mechanical logic. The only overlap is when the game is designed to simulate a overlap, but even that can only go so far

        • Shuck says:

          “They expect it because it is a natural cause & effect outcome of mechanics in the game”
          Take a step back – the problem is that the mechanics in the game are based to a large degree on the mechanics of previous games. There’s nothing logical or inherent about the mechanics themselves. The mere presence of a gun (which have particular sets of non-realistic mechanics governing their behavior and use, also derived from previous games) should not be a given (especially when it doesn’t make sense, e.g. the Watchdog games). That it can be easier within the game to mow down large numbers of pedestrians while driving than follow the rules of the road is because the mechanics of the game have been created to fulfill a particular set of player expectations based on precedent (because this is certainly not something that comes from the laws of physics or society or some hypothetical law of “good gameplay”). So yeah, it’s very much a circular argument.

    • Yglorba says:

      I don’t think he’s saying “we shouldn’t have extreme violence simulators”; his point is that even the games that ostensibly aren’t extreme violence simulators are still often structured to have a “murder everyone” button. That’s jarring when you stop to think about it.

      • ButteringSundays says:

        Yup, it’s the same argument that crops up whenever anyone dares to discuss gender representation in video games. It’s a very black-and-white mindset.

        Just because something shouldn’t be the default doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. You even often see the word ‘ban’ get thrown around, even though nobody suggests it.

        I guess it’s mostly a protectionist response, “don’t take away my thing!”; but it’s unnecessary.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Dorga says:

    Nice piece! I totally agree! And even if you are there for the thrill of violence, making things more consequential would just amplify the sensation. Take something as small as Receiver, where there is litteraly no other option but to shoot stuff; the way you do it is portayed in such a complicated manner that it gives it a whole new meaning.

  3. A.- says:

    Perhaps due to the initially solitary nature of digital games, they have evolved mainly in the direction of power fantasy. And what could be more attractive to oh so many if not the power that grants one the use of violence without reprisal ?
    The odder and more (for now, mostly) tiring is the interaction patterns between players in mmo-like games, where for a decade now those on the receiving end of virtual violence (a little like the npcs ran over on the boulevards of city sandboxes) experience what this power fantasy feels like when applied.

    • GepardenK says:

      You seem to describe power fantasy as a domination fetish here. As if people enjoy the fantasy of killing harmless people and get a rush of powerlust out of it.

      This is ignoring the fact that ultimately harmless violence is one of the core pillars of playfulness. We see it both in humans and other mammals too. The success of everything from GTA to Looney Toons, Goat Simulator, Doom and Jim Carrey is because of this

    • Zetetic says:

      In particular, linking to the tag ‘North’ instead of the game’s actual page is a little bit unpleasant and disrespectful, I think.

      (Thought the article was interesting, and the counterexample of Jazzpunk a particularly good one.)

      • golochuk says:

        RPS routinely links to its own tags rather than external sites. It is very annoying, particularly since the tags tend to include articles that barely touch the topic.

        • Person of Interest says:

          RPS official style is to link to the game’s tag, then follow it with a link to the [official site], as was done for Watch Dogs 2 in the first paragraph.

          Adam was just being forgetful or lazy with the North tag, I think.

          • Philotic Symmetrist says:

            The problem with this style guide is that if someone wanted to browse the tags, the most obvious method would be to scroll to the bottom of the article where all the tags used in the article are listed; the second most obvious option would be use the search feature. If the title of a game is turned into a hyperlink, it would be presumed that this link is actually useful and is related more to the game than to the article’s website. If RPS really wants people to click on the tags, a more intuitive format would be “Game Title [related articles]”; the current format feels like technical clickbait, even if it’s not employing the conventional method.

          • Premium User Badge

            Adam Smith says:

            Six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’ll add the site links now though – was silly not to.

  4. Premium User Badge

    alison says:

    God, this article is so much me. It drives me nuts in the new Deus Exes that the button to knock a guy out is the same as the button to stab him in the skull with an armknife. Like, why would I ever!?

    I have been able to make it through a handful of games in the past few years where you just kill everything that moves, but they are primarily the games that are designed to make you feel incredibly shitty about the fact that you’re killing everything that moves (Far Cry 2, Spec Ops: The Line). I can also kind of distance myself in strategy games where you control military units going up against other military units, but playing an individual who nonchalantly goes around killing tens or hundreds of guys just feels like some kind of creepy serial killer shit to me these days.

    I know all the gore fiends will say “it’s just a game, don’t take it so serious”, but to me a huge part of gaming is the world-building and characterization, so playing a serial killer in a game that isn’t about serial killers kinda ruins the whole thing.

    Btw, I’ve said it in half a dozen comments over the past month, but I gotta reiterate… If it wasn’t for Firewatch, NORTH would have been my GOTY. It is so freaking good. Everyone should play it.

    • TheSkiGeek says:

      “God, this article is so much me. It drives me nuts in the new Deus Exes that the button to knock a guy out is the same as the button to stab him in the skull with an armknife. Like, why would I ever!?”

      That’s more to give mechanical consistency – the action you’re doing is “silently take down the target from stealth”, and you can choose whether to KO (tap the button) or kill (hold the button) on a case by case basis without having to dedicate two different controls to that.

      Might have been nice if there was a “never/always do a lethal takedown” option, for people who want to play a certain way all the time.

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        Agreed. I mean, ergonomically it makes sense that there is only one button for “close range takedown”. It’s just, if you decide up-front you want to play a pacifist or a psychopath, it seems unlikely you’re going to change your mind on every second takedown. Have an options toggle to switch your favored takedown between Q and M (or something you will never hit by accident), and everyone is happy.

        • theblazeuk says:

          Well, I knocked everyone out – apart from the mercs who assaulted Sarif and killed lots of my friends, maimed me and kidnapped my lass. Also the few NPCs who had murdered augs etc and told me so in their dialogue. So I would play as a mix of lethal and non-lethal in any game, depending on the situation. I’m an angry man with knives for hands, facing troupes of heavily armed killers, racing to save lives and uncover secrets. Punching someone into a coma is more an act of restraint than pacificism.

          • Premium User Badge

            alison says:

            I played a similar way. Well, not in Mankind Divided where I couldn’t get invested in the story, but in Human Revolution. After the scene where Malik was threatened, I walked into Hengsha seriously pissed, and weren’t no Belltower rentacop escaping that bad mood. But let’s be real. There are some fairly awkward keypresses you need to do for incredibly simple stuff like calling up a map or activating an augmentation. It wouldn’t affect the gameplay one bit to have the “I am pissed at these guys” toggle located a finger-stretch away from WASD.

  5. Arglebargle says:

    I remember playing the original Deus Ex, where I ran out of knockout rounds, then ran out of gun ammo, and was reduced to taking out folks with a machete.

    Would’ve been happy to try other methods, if they existed. All those rebels insisted on shooting at me, so I carved them up. They were shooting at me! It was ironically amusing as my brother and the good guy crew got worried about my behavior, and my crazed, violent cohorts started complimenting me.

  6. aliksy says:

    As I usually say in threads on this topic, I played an old indie roguelike that had a fairly robust system for diplomacy. You could talk to any sapient creature, and if you had Diplomacy or Bluff or Intimidate trained up (and/or a sufficient quantity of surly looking buddies at your back) you could end conflicts non-violently. It wasn’t all pre-scripted like Bioware games, either. Any random orc could be talked down, and then bartered with. It was amazing.

    You could also end fights before they were fatal- you could give them a chance to surrender, or surrender yourself it was going badly for you. The results depended on who they were- an elf was more likely to take your weapon and let you go, but a demon might just laugh. Heck, if you were a paladin you were required to give people a chance to surrender because murder is a sometimes necessary evil.

    • golochuk says:

      You’re probably talking about Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King.

      • aliksy says:

        Yep, that’s the one. A real gem of a game, and I was pretty bummed when the developer abandoned it.

    • Bronxsta says:

      What was the game? That sounds amazing

  7. piddy565 says:

    To this day, my favorite rendition of this kind of mechanic was in TES III: Morrowind. It was of course a combat-centric game, and you could kill anyone and anything. HOWEVER, if you killed someone vital to the story, a popup would inform you that your action has endangered the world and in all likelihood your grand quest will now end in failure and the world in ruin.

    And it let you continue playing in the “broken world” you had made afterwards, forever if you felt like it. Modern games could learn a lot from that, and strike a far better balance in their openness and scriptedness, rather than “main story characters are immortal.”

    • golochuk says:

      The real problem with open world RPGs is that they give you all this rope, but are reluctant to kill you when you hang yourself. If you try to kill someone important, you should be killed by a greater force than yourself. Same with indiscriminate mass murder. The Elder Scrolls’ biggest issue is player impunity.

  8. E_FD says:

    Even though Nico from GTA4 frequently gets called out as a poster child for gameplay/plot dissonance, I actually thought the typical GTA presentation added to his arc. He starts the game desperately trying to put his old life behind him and stop being a brutal, amoral mass-killer… and fails spectacularly at it. Is it any wonder the game mechanics that define him make it incredibly easy (and FUN) to go on wild murder sprees, whereas trying to act like a well-adjusted human being is boring and unfulfilling?

    • drinniol says:

      In the world of GTA IV (haven’t spent much time with V) there was very little death – an ambulance came, and people you gunned down or ran over get up and walk away. So it could be argued that killing is not the default option.

    • Yglorba says:

      I thought GTA: SA was the most hilarious in this respect. You spend the entire game trying to shake the rap of a false accusation that you killed a cop… and, of course, during that playthrough you actually kill countless cops.

  9. GenialityOfEvil says:

    Hitman is bad at this. The button for smacking someone in the face with a brick is the same button you use to turn radios on. And before anyone says it, no the game is not about killing people, it’s about killing the right people without being seen.

    • ephesus64 says:

      I’m sorry it feels necessary to preemptively rebut internet contrarians whenever a thought is shared, I do agree with the article and with your comment. It’s a little absurd how easy it is to turn your player character from an ideal self to a random psychopath by pressing the right button at the wrong time.

      On a coincidentally related note, what does GenialityOfEvil mean to you?

    • jezcentral says:

      Is it? I thought the radio was the G button. (Mind you, I just tend to chuck suff at people’s heads.)

      Not that Hitman isn’t guilty of what the article talks about. The Q subdue key is perilously close to the W key. You walk through crowds with the Q prompt flickering to whoever is nearest. I’ve put some lowest-AI, just-standing-there NPC into a sleeper hold, and triggering the higher-AI NPCs to alarm the guards by complete accident, and had to shoot my way out of trouble, by complete accident.

  10. Premium User Badge

    AceJohnny says:

    I’m playing Saints Row IV. The premise is that you’re now playing in a simulation.

    I tend to play these open-world games with a bit of restraint and mild background guilt at causing accidents. I like to give myself that extra constraint, hanging on to the fantasy that these games represent a living world independent of my own (too much Tron/Matrix/ReBoot/…)

    In SR4, I’ve definitely noticed that my restraint is mostly gone, thanks to that simulation premise. It’s interesting (and a bit worrying?) to know I’m so easily mollified.

    Maybe it’s also because pedestrians in this game have a freakish tendency to run across the street right as you’re roaring past, or at intersection other cars turn into your lane suspiciously often. And so I go “fuck it.”

    • Yglorba says:

      IIRC, the game’s developers said they specifically noticed that the simulation framing made the game appealing to a wider audience and led playtesters to engage in much more random mayhem than usual.

      • Napalm Sushi says:

        I think it helps that the simulation itself is framed as your enemy. Virtual Steelport isn’t a city of innocents; it’s a construct that was literally built for the sole purpose of oppressing you.

      • Premium User Badge

        alison says:

        This is really interesting. I think Saints Row 4 is the only game I have ever played where I gleefully treated civilians like rain puddles. Any time I hurt a civilian in “normal” games it’s by accident, and I feel terrible after. SR4 was a true sandbox in the non-gaming sense – a safe little corner to allow your inner child to build sandcastles and stomp on them without ever having to worry about hurting anyone or getting hurt.

        But, reading the comments on this article, it seems like a lot of gamers treat ALL games like they are sandboxes. Like the NPCs in ALL games are just meaningless pixels. I find that weird, because to me playing games is about getting into the mind of the character you are playing, suspending your disbelief so that you can live for a while in their world. I see computer games as an opportunity to tell stories in a more impactful way than non-interactive media. If it’s just a collection of pixels and mechanics, then it doesn’t feel much different to a board game or a card game to me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  11. and its man says:

    Someone at RPS must have been playing Undertale recently. :)
    Cross-checking.

  12. Stargazer86 says:

    Ah, the life of the nameless NPC and redshirt. I think it’d be rather interesting for a title to explore the casual death prevalent in games. Not some PSA that hammers in the idea that it’s awful and you’re a horrible person for deleting pixel people, but one that delves more into the consequences of what you’re doing. Run through the tutorial mission, shooting all the faceless, nameless bad guys the game tells you to shoot, make it seems like an average shooter, then have it suddenly yank you back at the end and delve more into the lives of each of the people you killed and turn things on their head. Something akin to Spec Ops: The Line, perhaps.

    • lglethal says:

      I still remember the scene in the first Austin Powers film where he mows down a guard with the steam roller, it then switches to a cutscene of the widow getting notified of the death and the child crying at the News.

      Yes it was done in a funny way (it was Austin Powers after all) but it certainly made me think about all of the hundreds of security guards that are killed in various Action films and games. It’s not exactly a nice thing when you think of it like that!

  13. nitric22 says:

    Ya know after reading this I considered LA Noire as a great step in the right direction. I actually never even tried to kill any NPC’s in that game(aside from the baddies in the shoot out sections), because I enjoyed fully being a police officer and all that it embodied. I think if games provided players a role and gave it the right context then we could easily go the more peaceful route of dialogue, etc.

  14. RichUncleSkeleton says:

    I think the problem comes down to the simple pragmatic matter of being limited to around 10 inputs (the buttons on a modern controller) for any possible interaction with a game world. Even very clever developers like Rockstar and Ubisoft who have lots of experience creating realistic game spaces have more or less reached the limits of what you can do with a standard input device. Committing violence is indisputably the most direct and immediate way of influencing your surroundings and video games are fundamentally power fantasies.

    • Ghostwise says:

      video games are fundamentally power fantasies.

      I’m pretty sure that it ain’t true. Unless one feels filled with great power upon running around in a maze whilst gobbling up little dots and escaping ghosts.

      And “power fantasy” isn’t a synonym of violence, barring serious health issues.

      • drinniol says:

        Because Pac-Man represents the vast majority of games?

        • SanguineAngel says:

          To say that video games are fundamentally power fantasies is to say that it is an emphatic truth for video games that they are power fantasies; that being a power fantasy is essential to being a video game.

          I suspect that probably is not really what the Rich Skelington Uncle meant to say

          However, for the pedants, a single exception is sufficient to dispute the statement. There’s certainly more than 1 game that runs counter to that anyway and I don’t think that [power fantasy] and [practically indiscriminate violence without meaningful consequence] are the same thing anyway.

      • RichUncleSkeleton says:

        I’m pretty sure that it ain’t true. Unless one feels filled with great power upon running around in a maze whilst gobbling up little dots and escaping ghosts.

        Sure, Pac-Man is a sort of power fantasy, at a very basic level. Video games are distinguished from passively-enjoyed forms of media by directly enabling the player to exert their will on the game environment. Why shouldn’t Pac-Man’s dot- and ghost-eating mechanics count for this? Besides which, I think you could make an academic argument that Pac-Man is directly violent. It just hides its violence under a mask of cartoonishness and levity. Obviously that’s not to equate ghost-eating (or goomba-stomping) with people-shooting, but they’re both on the spectrum of violence.

        And “power fantasy” isn’t a synonym of violence, barring serious health issues.

        Of course I agree, which is why I said that violence is the most direct and immediate way of influencing the player’s surroundings, not the only way. But isn’t a ‘walking simulator’ with nothing resembling violent combat such as Gone Home or Firewatch, to use an example, still a sort of power fantasy? They’re not designed to be watched. They’re filled with little trinkets you can physically pick up, manipulate, and throw, and basic puzzles to overcome. A ‘game’ that made no effort to empower the player to exert their will over it would be a very dull game. Maybe this all sounds like formalistic, pedantic nonsense, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that video games have evolved into such an overtly violent entertainment medium, given their origins.

  15. nomilarac says:

    Huh, unsuspected string of articles. Could a removal of Revcontent/Taboola sponsored links be expected?

    Ah, the thrill.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Masked Dave says:

    Even weirder in games is that we expect that if you go up to a random character and press [E] (or other interact button) then they should immediately talk to us – even if it’s just to tell us not to bother them. (Or even odder, just to shout out their current opinions about something.)

    But… why doesn’t the player character ever say “Hi” or “Excuse me?” when we press [E]? Give the person something to respond to? I’m not saying everything needs to be a fully scripted conversation, but just make it so that pressing [E] isn’t us wandering up to strangers and then poking them until they talk to us.

    • Von Uber says:

      In fallout 4 your character does actually say ‘excuse me, hello?’ when you do.

    • GepardenK says:

      The problem this would pose for most games is that it would essentially be filler content. After 10h of play hearing the same few soundbites over and over again just to get to the point of the interaction would get tedious. Not to mention how it could break your customized character in an rpg by imposing personality to the character that the player has no control over.

      Not saying this couldn’t work, or hasn’t worked, for various games. But there’s a reason why most games do not do it.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Masked Dave says:

    I’ve not played Watch Dogs 2 yet, the closest I have is various Assassin’s Creed games.

    Thinking about those the “default” interaction with the world feels like it’s the ‘parkour’ button, but then I realised I’ve only ever played those with a controller – which don’t really have an equivalent to the Left Mouse Button as the primary, default, input option. (Well, maybe movement via the joystick?)

  18. Relenzo says:

    Excellent work

  19. CartonofMilk says:

    I propose this solution:

    All games now require you to perform an elaborate keys/buttons sequence to kill anyone.

  20. Gothnak says:

    Fable had a ‘safety’ mode which you had to actively turn off to kill innocents. Also any games with children in invariably have safe zones where killing is impossible or where they are invulnerable.

  21. jezcentral says:

    In sandbox games, you know the NPCs are going to be consigned to oblivion anyway as soon as you turn the corner of the next block. What difference does it make to make their lives a few seconds shorter?

  22. DocMo says:

    IMO, it’s the choice to use the power to kill that’s interesting in a game. In sandbox games, Like FO4, you can choose to kill indiscriminately, selectively, or not at all. The choice is up to the player.

    I role-played* a character in FO4 that was purposely low IQ, mute, and prone to depravity. He only used rudimentary weapons and armor, couldn’t use a map or fast travel, never spoke to anyone, and kept the corpses of victims in one of his bases. Occasionally, he would visit these trophies in interesting ways. One time, he got lost and couldn’t find his base for days, desperately wandering around looking for landmarks, anxiety increasing as time went by. When he finally found familiar territory, he rushed back to his base, finding relief in his waiting tableau, flies buzzing. It was horrifying, and deeply interesting that the game allowed me to role play this in such a manner.

    *In these role-plays, I don’t follow the main story, but rather create my own, following the character up to level 15 before leaving his/her story and creating a new character to do the same. To me, this is the power of the sandbox.

  23. Wintermuter says:

    I’d like to mention GoldVision’s excellent YouTube series “Grand Theft Auto Pacifist” in which he struggles to live life as a pacifist in GTA V multiplayer and shows the many absurd limitations he encounters like being unable to drop the pistol from inventory.

  24. HawkeyeDan says:

    Every game makes a decision how they approach the metaphor of “meaningful virtual NPC” based on what they want the experience to feel like.
    If you remove player impunity from an open world game, it needs to reward the player with a great experience for “good” behavior. It will become, at least in part, a game about social correctness.

  25. CartonofMilk says:

    I’m glad i knew about the issue watch dogs 2 has regarding tone vs what the game actually allows or even encourages you to do because now that i got my hands on it, i decided for increased fun purposes to ignore the game’s portrayal of my character and play the game as more or less the first one had you play, that is a vigilante. I kill indiscriminately (well more or less) and idgaf what my dedsec brethren think about it (nothing of course, as we know).

    While i will definitely agree that the people behind the game should have done something about this discrepancy, it also illustrates why to me story is the least important part of any game (well except i guess if the game was an almost entirely story driven one, like interactive fiction, but i don’t play those). Because if i don’t like the story i’m being told, or character i’m being forced to play, i can just….make things up. Because its what the story writers did and i have that power too because i also have a brain and imagination. “ok wait, that story is bullshit, i’m gonna RP this that this is actually what’s happening and that’s actually who my character is” It MAY sound weird or unbelievably nerdy to some people but it’s worked well for me throughout the years (only way i made it through Far cry 3 for example).

    Allowing me to ignore problematic stories/dialogues/portrayals and just focus on what in the end is the only thing that matters, gameplay. I enhance my own experience that way. Missions/objectives are just a series of set pieces and the story in between them, or the reason why i’m even being tasked to doing something can all be changed or at least tweaked with the power of my mind. In my narrative dedsec are hardcore revolutionaries/anarchists that are willing to go to ANY length to take the system down and care little about how many bodies, even collateral damage ones, they have to leave in their wake to attain that goal. It frees me from having to burden my mind with such things as tonal discrepancies.

    But of course in the end, it shouldn’t leave the writers of the game off the hook. And it’s good that this flaw in logic is being talked about. I just have very little faith in the people who write games so until they become perfect i’m gonna keep on, when it suits me anyway and helps my enjoyment of the game, ignoring what stories they present me and write my own (or doctor their script anyway, that’s what i see it as, script doctoring)

    PS: I want to say my main issue in WD 2 right now is the fact that have introduced dogs as guards. Or should i call them..watch dogs? WTH is wrong with the people at ubisoft? They already force me to kill animals for NO GOOD REASON in the far cry games (sorry, crafting myself a bigger ammo pouch is not a good reason) and now you’re gonna FORCE me to hurt animals in WD too? Sorry but i don’t want to die so yes, i will shoot that goddamn dog but i really really wish i didn’t have to. At least i noticed that they go down with one shot with the stun gun but several with actual bullets which i imagine was a conscious decision to encourage you to knock them out instead of killing them. But still. I’m still hurting it. I know guard dogs are very much a thing irl, but its not much an issue to me being that i don’t trespass on anyone’s properties.

    See i know i kill humans in droves in games but i can at least reason that those humans are probably bad bad horrible people (often times they are). There’s no such thing as a bad animal. They work on instincts or what they’ve been trained to do. They’re entirely innocent. Therefore yes i object very much to the killing of animals in game. its probably fucked up morals to some people but to me killing an animal in a game is the same as killing children.