Execution of Justice
When game developers build digital bloodshed into the product, where do they draw the line between moral dilemma and gratuitous violence?
Blasting aliens and monsters? No worries—fire away.
Nazis, skinheads and other nasty criminals? Well, clearly, they had it coming. Pull that trigger. Toss that grenade.
Running over civilians and prostitutes?—OK, buddy, now you’ve crossed the line.
Just like there are varying levels of geekdom, there are also levels of killing in videogames; gamers view them quite differently, depending on how graphic and visceral they are. We don’t even think twice about Mario planting his boots on the head of a goomba and turning it into a gold coin—he’s “killing” a cartoon, and besides, he’s actually transmogrifying it into something that’s a lot more useful and a lot less aggressive.
Then there are the games that try parse the concept. In Nintendo’s Pokémon games, the cute little critters “faint” rather than die when they get pummeled in Pokécombat. In the forthcoming game tied to the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the boy wizard will be slinging powerful spells and curses at his Death-Eater enemies … who will, according to Electronic Arts reps, “faint and apparate” rather than die when the spells hit home.
Contrast that with the other end of the spectrum, where games like No More Heroes and Grand Theft Auto take a more cavalier and visceral attitude toward killing and bloodshed. No matter where a gamer’s individual preferences lie, killing in videogames is always a hot-button issue for developers—several of whom didn’t even want to talk to us on the record about it for this story. The decisions that surround it (Mature or Teen rating? Blood or no blood?) have a profound impact on a game’s marketing and eventual sales.
The Art of War
Just ask Brian Raffel, vice president and co-founder of Raven Software. Raven just celebrated its 20th anniversary by releasing Singularity, an original first-person shooter that finds you killing both human Russian soldiers and grotesque, bloodthirsty mutants—scoring bloody headshots with traditional guns or deploying a time-manipulation device that can age enemies to dust. As Activision’s go-to shop for licensed action games, Raven has been entrusted with following the rules that govern killing in the Marvel Comics, Star Trek, and Star Wars universes. Until the movie debut of a certain adamantium-clawed mutant, showing graphic death was verboten in Marvel-based videogames; in the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, killing was permissible, but no blood, thank you very much.
As the audience for games rated M-for-mature has grown over the past several years, the rules have changed. The Wolvie who starred in 2009’s X-Men Origins was a slash-and-shred killing machine, even if the violence was largely blood-free. Not surprisingly, companies like Raven pay close attention to data that tell them whether M-rated games are outselling Teen-rated games, and how consumers are reacting to titles that either play it safe or push the envelope.
Keeping it all straight is sometimes challenging, but Raffel’s found that a thoughtful approach that uses litmus tests in the storyboarding stage works best.
Would you shoot a zombie? How about a hooker?
Or a civilian on the streets of Iraq?
“With killing, we’ve taken the approach in our games of deciding, at what point is it gratuitous, versus at what point does it support the point of the game?” says Raffel, who argues that in a game like Raven’s own Soldier of Fortune, the aim is to provide a visceral experience, whereas in a game like Call of Duty, the point is to make you feel like you’re part of something greater. “It has to be the appropriate level where you don’t cross that line. You have to do enough to make the player feel uncomfortable or feel visceral, but you can easily go too far.”
Some thought another Activision-owned developer, Infinity Ward, did just that earlier this year when they shocked the gaming world—and a lot of regular folks, too—with the now-legendary and infamous “No Russian” mission from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2. It was perhaps the starkest litmus test yet of killing in videogames, asking players whether they were willing to open fire on crowds of innocent people in an airport just to protect their cover.
“That scene did exactly what the developer wanted it to: It presented a conundrum, a scruples question,” says Raffel. “They put you in a predicament you’re not normally going to face and ask you, how are you going to respond? They did a great job of where they put the player, making a personal connection—an emotional connection.”
That connection has been tapped by other developers, too, as anyone who’s weighed the decision to kill a Little Sister in 2K’s BioShock games knows. Even Tofu Hunter, a hilarious spoof of the mainstream game Deer Hunter created by developer This Is Pop that substituted chunks of soy protein with eyeballs for 20-point bucks, gave a few players pause. In an article about Tofu Hunter that ran last May on GamePolitics.com, some animal-friendly players noted that blowing away the cute little slabs of bean curd felt a bit too real. “I tried the game and it was really close to hunting games that made me feel ill,” wrote one, adding, “That being said, I didn’t find this game offensive.”
Back in 2000, Raven faced its own issue with killing. In the opening mission of the first Soldier of Fortune game, the player was charged with taking out a gang of scowling skinheads, but the mission came with a critical caveat—kill any innocents in the gunplay melee, and the mission failed. Players who blasted their way to the end of the game found themselves scrapping on the streets of Baghdad, trying to take out none other than Saddam Hussein himself.
There was one small problem, however.
“We made a mistake,” recalls Raffel. “We had innocents running around because we wanted you to feel like you were in Iraq. And we allowed you to shoot them and didn’t penalize you for it. Man, did we hear about it. And we should have, rightly so.”
Raffel emphasizes that the error was an oversight, something that should have been caught in quality assurance. But he also recognizes that it was a question of responsibility—one Raven’s teams have taken firmly to heart in subsequent games.
“When I first started, game development was just about creatures—there was no emotional attachment at all,” says Raffel. “Now it’s reached the point where it’s like we’re making interactive movies. We have to keep the player engaged. It’s not just the violence, it’s what is the violence about? It’s all about keeping the player engaged.”
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