Before we get to the meat of this article, I need to establish something important: I love violent videogames. Ever since Nintendo enabled my very specific childhood fantasy of being a mustachioed Italian plumber happy slapping random reptiles, I’ve been hooked. I was one of the original pixel-addled kids The Mail warned you about. When Mortal Kombat came out, with its hyper-realistic gore and enticing BBFC age rating, I went to extreme measures to secure a copy (asking my mum really nicely). Videogame writers may be stereotyped as a bunch of soft, hippy peaceniks, but not me. I was raised on the mean streets of Peterborough and I’m hard. Like, Ross Kemp hard.
So please keep that in mind when I say that I really want videogame developers to stop making me kill guard dogs. I absolutely abhor it. They come bounding up to you, like they just want to give you a big, sloppy kiss, and they always make a sad little yelp when they die. Always. What kind of monster thinks that’s a good time?
Pathway was the game that really got me. An otherwise charming, turn-based tactical Indiana Jones-em-up I stumbled across on Game Pass, it should have been right up my alley, but I had to turn it off the first time I had to put down a poor pixel pupper. He was just too cute, and it made me feel too uncomfortable.
Retro-styled indies aren’t the only titles that have this problem. Big dogs like Call Of Duty will happily throw good boys at you as cannon fodder, while more thoughtful fare uses dog death as a means of cheap emotional manipulation. Remember the end of the Great Grey Wolf Sif fight in Dark Souls? Remember how hard people searched for an alternative to killing him?
After a while, it started bothering me that it was bothering me. As I established, I was desensitised to graphic pretend violence at an early age. It’s not like I value the lives of dogs above those of humans, and I’m still okay with murdering dozens of pretend people.
It’s not killing animals in general that bothers me. First and foremost, it’s not real. I know that, you know that, but if it were the only factor involved, death in videogames would never have any emotional impact. Duking it out with some feral fiend to avoid becoming their lunch? That’s fine. Law of the jungle. Nature red in tooth and claw and all that. It may be, as my animal-studying fiancee will point out at every opportunity, incredibly unrealistic, but it doesn’t set off my personal squick-o-meter. Neither is it dogs in particular. The only reason I’ve been referring to guard dogs throughout this piece is the startling lack of guard capybaras in games these days. Similarly, I’m fine with the wild mutts of Fallout 4 as enemies, while hating having to kill the guard dogs in the same game. Actually, Fallout 4 gets a special mention for its clear double standard. You have a wonderful canine companion of your own and, if you’re anything like me, nothing gets you dashing over with a stimpack faster than the sound of Dogmeat having gone down in a firefight (see: best boy Dogmeat pictured above). At the same time, you frequently have to defend yourself from attacks by animals whose only real crime was being owned by raiders or other ne’er-do-wells of the wasteland.
"Guard dogs are just Good Boys doing what they’ve been trained to do, and they really don’t know any better."
It’s this last factor that I’ve come to realise is the key difference for me. The thing that gives me such a specific reaction. Videogame enemies are generally portrayed in one of two ways: they’re either Bad People doing Bad Things, which tells us it’s okay to use violence to stop them, or they’re trying to eat you, which is as perfectly natural as not wanting to be eaten. Sometimes, I grant you, it’s both. Yeah, Alcina, I’m looking at you!
Guard dogs don’t fit into either of these categories. They’re just Good Boys doing what they’ve been trained to do and they really don’t know any better - and you could argue the same thing about soldiers in some games, but that’s really a whole other discussion. As a rule, games tend to be pretty explicit about whether enemy combatants are supposed to be a source of moral dilemma or a slightly more technically advanced version of the little alien sprites from Space Invaders. This is rarely the case with guard dogs, which are just casually tossed into the mix with the blatantly contemptible enemy types. Nazi, zombie, dog. Spot the odd one out.
At its core, videogame violence is about a fantasy of a simpler world, where there are Good Guys and Bad Guys and the Bad Guys can be stopped in a straightforward, direct and very final fashion. Over the years, developers have found all kinds of clever ways to play with and subvert this fantasy. I love that, but sometimes I want to go back to the fantasy and be the action hero. Having to kill guard dogs lets too much of the real world leak into the fantasy one in a way that I can’t justify. I know that real world war is a messy, complicated affair, but I can put that aside and tell myself that the enemy soldiers in a game are fully aware and supportive of the Evil Leader’s plans. I can’t do the same with guard dogs, who are inherently innocent and frequently the victims of abuse.
I’m not suggesting that developers who include dogs as enemies in their games are intentionally doing it to traumatise us. My jokes aside, violence in any media is a powerful tool that needs to be deployed with thought and tact. Violence in games is the norm and usually goes unquestioned. The use of guard dogs as enemies when it really isn’t appropriate is a reflection of that, and I’d love to see videogame developers being more careful about their deployment in future.
That doesn’t mean I’m not dead hard, though! I bet Kempy cried when he killed Sif too.