It would be an interesting challenge for game developers to try and make a game with this single criteria:
- Every single person the player kills should have a name and a personality.
Allow me to over-explain the point while you think about that. In write ups about Crysis and Splinter Cell Conviction, I criticised the games for throwing too many nameless meaningless disposable enemies at the player. Surely we’ve all experienced the eye-rolling moment of “There’s more of them?!” one time or another. Whether they were copy and paste thugs, soldiers or aliens. This is a freakishly common practice in video games and I really don’t care for it.
First of all, it’s a cheap way of adding difficulty. Ideally, I’d want fewer enemies that are more dangerous.
Second of all, it breaks immersion and any sense of reality. From the ridiculous piles of bodies in Splinter Cell Conviction, to the bizarre realisation of just how many people you just killed – Nathan Drake has a higher body count than a number of historical wars.
Not to mention the consideration of just how many villains there was in the first place. The amount of PMC soldiers and general henchmen in Splinter Cell Conviction made the idea of this covert conspiracy a little hard to swallow. While Modern Warfare 2‘s “local militia” had me convinced I was single handedly waging war on the entire nation of Brazil.
The overuse of enemies leads to gameplay that oddly self-defeats its own design. To bring it back to previous examples, there were a number of moments in Splinter Cell Conviction where you would use your sonar and see ludicrous amounts of enemies around – especially in co-op. Rather than getting to use a clever mix of stealth, dropping on them, melee attacking them, using gadgets and clearing a few with a brilliant Mark and Execute, the amount of enemies forced you to hide in the shadows and just shoot everyone in the head with your pistol. Occasionally switching to your automatic if you were spotted.
In Crysis, the amount of enemies in encampments render your nanosuit functions, your weapon customisation and the multiple entry points all useless. Because it’s best to just stealth it to the entrance and then just blandly run through with a submachine gun and murder everyone in the face with bullets.
Massive amounts of enemies also seem to be the primary reason for the abundance of bright red objects that explode when damaged.
Some recent, critically successful games are notable examples of this. In the Grand Theft Auto IV trilogy, especially. Throughout GTAIV, The Lost and Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony, there are segments that put ridiculous amounts of thugs in your way in an attempt to add difficulty.
But the best example is the mission called Bad Cop Drop. It involves the protagonist Johnny and his buddy Jim leading two previously introduced corrupt cops to the Acter Industrial Park. It starts with you driving to the cops, Jim antagonises them to make them chase you, then the game cleverly has you driving away from them, but making sure you stay close enough that they can follow you. An optional camera view from inside the cop car is even provided.
When you lure them to the destination, the motorcycle gang you’re in launches an ambush. But it turns out the cops have called backup. There’s a lot of shooting, but it’s basically up to you and only you to kill the thirty or so police that have arrived. Even by the forgivably inconsistent internal logic of GTA, you would think that much death would be a bit more newsworthy and get you in a bit more trouble – in-universe.
Now would that mission be any less effective if it had remained Johnny and Jim versus the two cops? The industrial area is pretty empty, and there’s plenty of room for clever ambush tactics for the player to utilise. Plus, even if it ended with you quickly killing the two enemies, the mission still would’ve provided entertainment and interest with that, the chase and the story that came before it.
Mass Effect 2 is also guilty of this. I enjoy the shooting sections of the game, but it’s impossible not to notice their use of stock mercenary enemies and the amount of sections that are summed up by “Well, inbetween the story, here’s another warehouse filled with disposable people to kill.”
It’s odd because Bioware are brilliant at adding some value to life, the option to spare people and interactions beyond pulling a trigger. Yet even they fall prey to this kind of design.
How much worse would Mass Effect 2 have really been without the rooms of disposable mercs?
To bring it back to an earlier point, would those set pieces in the Modern Warfare games be any less exciting if they weren’t surrounded by a gigantic buffer of man-shaped targets?
Heavy Rain almost avoided this entirely. The first time you can kill someone in the game is a gripping sequence where while playing as FBI agent Norman Jayden, you witness a crazy man pulling a gun on a detective in response to police brutality. Jayden instinctively draws his own gun and you’re put in a very tense situation given options to try and talk the unstable man down. But you have the option to pull the trigger at any time. When I killed a man in Heavy Rain, it meant something. The characters even discuss it.
Despite keeping this up for a while, the game managed to eventually shoot itself in the foot, repeatedly and for about five minutes. It features a ridiculous sequence (arguably the worst in the game) in which a character strolls through a building killing a considerable number of identical bodyguards, each with one shot, each from a pistol that never needed reloading, complete with over the top reactions to bullets and this spree was never brought up in the game again.
But hey, no exploding barrels!
Even the value of life as a concept in the story is rarely considered. Certain JRPGs seem downright sociopathic about this at times. In the Final Fantasy series, no one bats an eye or questions the mercenary institutions training and paying all these seventeen year olds to kill hundreds of soldiers in VIII. While in Final Fantasy XIII, the brutal civilian uprising at the start of the game is balanced with a goofy hero smiling and laughing and winking and shouting about being a hero and making jokes with his friend, while ordinary people fight for their lives and mothers are blown up.
I will mention Metal Gear Solid 3 did some clever things with The Sorrow’s River. It forced you to wade through the ‘ghosts’ of everyone you’ve killed in the game -whether the river is full or empty is due to the game giving you the options of stealth and non-lethal force.
Now let’s compare this with some other mediums. I greatly enjoyed Uncharted 2 and the amount of enemies never breaks the gameplay, it’s balanced well. I couldn’t help but think about how in a movie, there would be less enemies, more escaping and a lot more instances of covering fire and just keeping them at bay.
(Although, given that Nathan Drake kills about 500 people in that game, I find it fun to consider the possibility that he’s this insane mass murderer who manically makes jokes and laughs while horrifically extinguishing the lives of those around him.)
If you look at something like Die Hard (considered to be one of the greatest action movies of all time), those villains had names. You can even count the amount of them killed by the protagonist on your hands.
In the abysmal and universally hated season 6 of the television show 24, Jack Bauer directly kills fifty people in twenty four hours. In the first and most critically acclaimed season, he kills a grand total of ten people.
Having to kill three men with guns, in close quarters should be a tense concept. They outnumber you three to one and can kill you at range! Unless they were all standing in a line, you’d have to plan tactically. Melee takedowns, flanking, blindfiring, human shield techniques and all the other cool abilities you have would be essential.
Just considering the value of life in the fiction would probably help argue against the idea that all video games are gratuitously violent. It wouldn’t hurt to reconsider the sloppy game design either.