Killing, as video games know it, has grown tiresome: I’m tired of wading through countless foes, each as forgettable and soulless as the last; I’m tired of leaving levels covered in death and decals; I’m tired of killing something identical to the thing I killed just moments before – and I’m tired of cleaning the blood off my barrels and blades.
In an industry with such a singular focus, killing has been done to death.
Indeed, taking a digital life has lost its kick. Developers know this. It’s no longer enough that we merely save the world, massacring hordes of alien beasties as we do so. We need experience points, we need upgrades – they know it isn’t what it used to be. We’ve become so accustomed to being unstoppable ‘win’ machines that they’ve had to incentivise being the hero – they’ve had to incentivise saving the world.
In a weird twist, then, developers empower us by throwing ever-growing groups of foes at us. “Oh, look! You’ve just taken on two hundred bad guys.” And yet with each new enemy, with each new kill, any meaning – well, as much meaning as killing in video games can have – dies with it.
But perhaps it isn’t the act itself that has become tiresome. It’s the indiscriminate nature of it all. I can’t choose not take the life of a grunt in Halo or an opposing soldier in Call of Duty. It’s only in, say, Dark Souls, that I’m able to exercise this right. And it’s because I have that choice, it’s because I can make that simple decision, that I feel empowered.
And so killing only carries weight in a world where it can be helped – in a world where it’s not an inevitability.
Metal Gear Solid is a fantastic example. Not only does bypassing an enemy make me feel like the smartest Snake that ever lived, it’s the mere fact that I could kill them but choose not to – that’s the kick. From a narrative perspective, too, it’s vaguely possible to identify with a hero who doesn’t murder everything between here and the credit screen.
To me, Metroid Prime’s beauty lay with its choice to put the shooting part, the conflict with Talon IV’s wildlife, in the background. It was still there, of course. But it wasn’t my primary drive. I was concerned with being in the world, exploring – that was my kick. Although it was a small shift in focus, it was a profound one.
As I grow older, killing for the mere sake of killing in video games is beginning to wear thin. Once I begin to see that killing is the sole answer to the world’s problems, the entire experience falls apart. Game by game, level by level, foe by foe, it’s appeal fades. Developers, show me a game where killing is a conscious choice – not an inevitability. Or a conflict where I don’t kill. Show me an experience where the hero can’t effortlessly slay the villain.
Because in a world where death is cheap, it can be incredibly difficult to feel alive.
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