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.