The Game Boy: Killing Millions Since 1857

Nathan Grayson

Batman’s a bit of an odd case, even as far as videogame characters are concerned. I mean, aside from the tight-fitting latex suit and bat fixation (or should I say Bat-bat fixation), he doesn’t kill anyone. Ever. Oh, sure, occasionally he’ll twist people’s arms for info by breaking their legs, but when it’s all said and done, Batman’s enemies come away relatively unscathed.

Of course, when distilled into videogame form, this strict moral code results in a number of strange, oftentimes chuckle-worthy discontinuities. “So let me get this straight: I hit him with a barrage of pointy metal projectiles, stuck him with a grappling hook and reeled him in Scorpion-style, and then proceeded to jump up and down on his chest like it was a trampoline? And his heart rate sits at… something above zero?!” Doesn’t make much sense, does it? And here I was, all ready to talk about suspension of disbelief and how games still have a long way to go before they create truly believable experiences when I realized something:

At least Batman – a purported “good guy” – doesn’t wantonly murder thousands of people like, you know, every videogame character ever.

I mean, I don’t know about you, but it’s just as hard for me to buy an average Joe mindlessly slaughtering a decent portion of the human population as it is Batman improbably beating criminals within an inch of their lives. Yes, the Dark Knight’s method seems nigh-impossible to actually pull off, but at least his character is somewhat believable. At least he’s not a homicidal maniac in sheep’s clothing.

Now, I’m not saying videogame characters should start aiming exclusively for kneecaps instead of headshots, but I think that – when the enemy’s losses start piling into the thousands – games should try harder to justify their body counts. Short of making your main character a criminal (Grand Theft Auto) or a war hero (Call of Duty, Halo, too many other games), developers have crafted surprisingly few characters with dispositions to match their penchants for wholesale slaughter.

And even in the aforementioned sub-genres, few games have managed to walk the fine line between character personality and death. Gears of War comes to mind as one particularly egregious example, with characters alternatively tearing up over the loss of a companion (“He had a kid!”) and – shortly after -- bumping chests over football, bro . Grand Theft Auto IV, similarly, tried to depict a character molded by constant exposure to death and murder, but eventually, Niko Bellic dropped the “I just want to start a new life” act and reveled in his self-drawn bloodbath.

And, of course, you’ve also got guys like the Prince from the latest Prince of Persia and Nathan Drake from Uncharted (who, incidentally, even share the same voice actor) with their rough, roguish charms. When thrown against outrageous odds – like, say, a gatling gun-equipped helicopter – they say exactly what we’re thinking: “Oh crap.” And it’s charming! I love this archetype. But right after flashing a cocky grin in the camera’s direction, these same characters transform from loveable lugs into ruthless murder machines. It’s such an odd disconnect; how can men who’ve caused so much death pretend to be normal, slightly naive people?

Fortunately, a few developers have managed to nip this thorny issue in the bud. Most obviously, Gearbox Software tackled the issue of death head-on with its Brothers in Arms series. Sergeant Matthew Baker and co. witness the brutal sacrifice of a very important ally, and it shakes their whole squad to its very core. (Granted, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway also has a slow-mo kill cam that glorifies the notion of in-game death just as the game’s story is trying to subvert it, so maybe this is more of a case of one step forward, two steps back.)

Left 4 Dead and Halo 3: ODST also at least divert your attention away from the fact that you’re capping enemies right and left by throwing your character – and by extension, you – into sensory overload mode. Through sheer enemy numbers and unsettling aural cues (your character’s beleaguered breathing and shouts of terror, for instance), you never really feel like an empowered killer. Instead, at the end of each level, you just thank your lucky stars that you made it out alive. So yeah, your character may have pulled off an awesome triple-headshot, but you were probably too busy hyperventilating into a paper bag to notice.  Now, obviously, both of these games take place in very fantastical situations, but I’d love to see their ideas applied to other slightly more grounded settings.

So, what are your thoughts on death in relation to videogame characters? How do you think the tenuous ties between the two topics could be strengthened? Know of any games or characters that put the examples I listed to shame? Comment! Or I’ll kill you. Haha – just kidding. Or am I? (Yes, I am.)

Around the web