Six Damn Fine Degrees #83: Talking and killing

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I made my first kill before the age of 10. By the time I was a teenager, I must have killed hundreds. By the time I reached the age of 20, I expect the number was somewhere in the five-digit range, at least. And I suspect that the same is true for so many people these days, at least in the west – because murder is just a click away.

So much of video gaming is about killing. Not all of it: among the best-selling games you’ll find Tetris, various sports games and fun racers of the Mario Kart variety. There are also gazillions of casual games, often hidden object and puzzle games, that people play on mobile phones. But so many of the big sellers, and the games that make it into public consciousness, have you killing – and generally this means shooting – gangsters and mercenaries and cowboys, and, yes, aliens and monsters. To a large extent, that’s because it’s a relatively easy interaction to design: you shoot, you kill, they die. Win and fail states are clear, there’s none of that fuzzy logic that you get with more social interactions.

And for the most part, gamers don’t question this. Back in the early ’90s, when the original Doom came out (for non-gamers: you play a space marine and kill scores of demons and undead, using shotguns, rocket launchers and, most memorably, a chainsaw), there was a much ridiculed review that said “If only you could talk to these creatures…” Gamers weren’t having it: these are demons and undead, their sole purpose in their digital lives is to kill you and possibly eat you and then kill and eat other human beings until everyone’s been killed and eaten. You don’t talk to them as they gnaw on your entrails. You make sure that they don’t even get the chance. So, KABLAM! it is. Talk to the monsters… whatever will they think of next?

In the years following Doom, computers and consoles became better as the technology advanced, so before long you’d have enemy bad guys vocalising. Sometimes these so-called “barks” (i.e. short lines of dialogue issued by non-player characters, or NPCs) were there to indicate that the enemy was aware of your presence, sometimes they were just there for flavour, and I loved these later ones especially in games where you could be stealthy in your approach: you’d stick to the shadows and you might come across some guards talking about what they did over the weekend, whether they’d seen the big game, and what their wife and kids had got up to-

Hang on a minute. Wives? Kids? These characters I’d been murdering have family? They have pets? They do the kind of things that I might do, when I’m not sneaking through underground lairs and killing hundreds before I’ve even had breakfast? Yes, I loved that these NPCs started coming to life, but the more they did, the less I wanted to kill them. Sure, they were working for a Bond-style super villain who was plotting to destroy or enslave mankind, but hey, a job’s a job, right? They had to provide for their digital wives and kids and pets.

Obviously, these barks weren’t signs of life. The bad guys in these games were still relatively primitive virtual animatronics, and a bark indicating that they had a daughter who was waiting for them to come home and finish reading Charlotte’s Web to them was not intrinsically different from the unholy growls and groans of Doom‘s demons and zombies. Even when games started giving their enemies more complex routines and behaviours, they were still not alive: there as just more effort put into creating and maintaining the illusion that you’re inhabiting a living, breathing world that’s far, far away from the digital abstraction of early video games. There’s as much life in a couple of guards in a 2022 game talking about their plans for the weekend as there is in one of the ghosts pursuing Pac-Man – or indeed in the pills Pac-Man gobbles up. It’s all bits and bytes (okay, these days, megabytes, and many of them) and pixels. It isn’t life. You’re not killing anyone.

And yet, the more video games started to put an effort into the illusion, the more ambivalent I started to feel about digital murder – and it’s really less the complex behavioural routines that some game characters have than just the simplest of things: writing and performance. A silent NPC with a gun that’s in my way? If the game lets me, I will sneak past him or knock him out, but I won’t have too many qualms about shooting him. That’s what the game wants, that’s what it’s been designed for. If that NPC starts talking, if their lines are interesting or funny or just… human, for want of a better word? And if the voice actors do a good job of conveying this humanity? I’ll hesitate, at least. Because, after all, who’s going to read Charlotte’s Web to poor little Susie at home if her dad is killed by yours truly? (Okay, if we accept the logic of the game world, chances are that the Blofeld-alike who hired Susie’s dad in the first place will just drop him in the lava pit for failing to do his job properly… but then it’s ersatz Blofeld who’s responsible for Susie never finding out what happens to Charlotte and Wilbur.)

I still kill in games. I suspect that my victims still number in the hundreds in the course of a year. And obviously, killing a digital character isn’t really killing – and that’s before you even get to the way these deaths are often framed, namely as Heroic Deeds in Service of a Greater Good (and yes, this notion should absolutely be taken apart and examined critically). But I appreciate it if a game at least makes an effort to add wrinkles to its virtual violence, to make me pause and think. I don’t need video games to do that facile, hypocritical thing where they give you a gun and an enemy and then say, “Oh, you monster, you killed him!” But at the very least, I like it when a game at least acknowledges that it isn’t entirely wrongheaded and silly to ask: what if you could talk to the monsters?

After all, if they say the wrong thing you can still kill them.

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