Life and Death in Pixels

By: Douglas Nash 

     There is a opinion about weapons that many people love to throw around which is this, never carry a weapon, be it a gun or knife, for self protection unless you’re willing to use it. A prime example of this is Salman Rushdie, a famous author, who had a Fatwa declared on him for running afoul of Iran’s religious sensibilities. A Fatwa for those that don’t know is essentially religiously motivated hit and Rushdie had to live under one for ten years between 1988 and 1998. For his safety Rushdie was placed under the protection of the British government. In an interview with Bill Maher, Rushdie mentioned how he was offered firearms training so he would be able to shoot an attacker. Rushdie however explained that he had denied the offer, citing a version of the opinion stated above 

     So why is it that somebody, who’s life was in a very clear and present danger, would be unable to foresee themselves being capable of killing a would be attacker? While I can’t speak for why Rushdie has this view I can speak for myself. Personally I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist. In a survival situation I would likely pull the trigger. Although in many other situations I would act differently. An example of this would be an armed robbery. During an armed robbery I have strict take my wallet policy if the violent alternative means one of us wouldn’t walkaway. That is because when someone dies their whole journey through life ends. Their reaming dreams and goals will never be fulfilled, and their family and friends would be emotionally shattered. It’s some heavy stuff and it’s why so many people are incapable of pulling the trigger even in extreme situations. 

     Most games don’t take this complexity into account but feature violence and killing. Examples of these games include Uncharted or most recently Titanfall. This is not a knock against either of these games. Both Uncharted and Titanfall are set in worlds that are over the top where you aren’t meant to feel or empathize for the opposing side because they’re just their for spectacle. In the case of multiplayer they represent other players who you’re competing against in a bloodless and harmless fight to the virtual death. Although these games feature a large amount of violence, there are other games that approach the concept of killing differently. 

Titanfall is a modern Coliseum 

     Of the games that have tried to broach the theme of life and death most have been stealth games. These game give the players plenty of options for sneaking around enemies or having the ability to take them out non-lethally. In most stealth games this is almost always seen as the best way to play and is rewarded above all else. That said many stealth games also give you an assortment of murderous toys to play with leaving the choice on whether or not to methodically murder every guard is up to you. Most stealth games simply break this down into a binary point based system, in other words the less people you kill the better your score, but that’s it.

     In Splinter Cell Blacklist for example you play as Sam Fisher whose character boils down to a hybrid of Seal Team Six and James Bond. Sam from the start of the game has both lethal and non-lethal stealth take-downs, both of which are equally effective. So the question then becomes why would you ever use the lethal take-down and end someones life instead of simply knocking them out? The game approaches this question by simply awarding points in certain categories depending on your choice; be that being a total ghost who would never hurt a fly, a stealthy knife in the dark, or a full on murder machine. Though at no point does the game pass any kind of moral Judgement since points are awarded based on difficulty of play-style, not morality. 

This would be the murder machine approach 

     Now Splinter Cell Blacklist contextualizes that taking the lives of these men is not horrible because they’re terrorists so therefore they are your enemy. That may be true but anyone who can think critically for more then ten seconds could tell you that just because someone is on the opposite side of a conflict doesn’t mean they’re evil. Though Splinter Cell Blacklist, a game that encourages non-lethal play, at no point mentions how stabbing people in the back, when given an alternative, is morally gross. In my opinion a hero, or at the very least a good person, is not someone who kills when given a viable alternative. 

     There are games that handle this issue with a bit more grace without becoming too over bearing. Dishonored, which is also a stealth game, uses a more ambitious system and treats it’s world like an actual ecosystem. An ecosystem that is affected by how big or small of a body count the player leaves in their wake.

     Dunwall is a city that is in sharp decline due to the death of their once beloved Empress. Furthermore a plague is killing vast numbers of the cities former citizens. The game then puts the player in the shoes of Corvo Altano, the once royal protector, who was framed for the Empress’s murder. Dishonored does what all other games do. It puts you on a path of revenge against those that framed you. 

     From here the game takes two very different paths. Corvo is an extremely effective murder machine. So if the player wants they could go through the whole game slaughtering all the city guards between them and their objectives. The other path they can take, is a more deliberate and non-lethal path, where they slowly sneak around without killing anyone including their targets. These two different approaches do more then just create different play scenarios they also affect the world in different ways. Dishonored treats the city of Dunwall like a fragile ecosystem that can be influenced in subtle or not so subtle ways. For example if Corvo goes through a whole level without killing a single person then Dunwall’s ecosystem will stay relatively intact. Though if Corvo instead goes into a level and kills every city guard, which will cause chaos, then Dunwall’s ecosystem will be worse in return. 

     The idea behind Dishonored’s ecosystem approach is rather clever in it’s simplicity. If someone where to go on a cop killing spree in a city on the edge of collapse, that would probably not do that city an favours. Not to mention the plague and the dead, rotting bodies would only serve to help further spread it. So it should come as no shock that Corvo going on a massive killing spree would make things worse.

     This gives the act of killing in Dishonored more weight because each life you take means one less person to help save the city. Furthermore the characters in Dishonored will also react to these choices; reacting to Corvo differently depending on how much of a murder machine he is. Those guards are just doing their job after all and even though Corvo might be on the wrong side of the law, do to an injustice, these guards aren’t the one’s who put him there. So while they may be protecting the people who put Corvo in jail, they are not exactly deserving of a knife in the back.

     Dishonored is not the only game to use the idea of your protagonist doing shady things for the greater good. Deus ex: Human Revolution takes players to the future where the rise of human cybernetic enhancements has brought about a massive social and culture shift. This shift from our current paradigm, humanity being limited by the physical and mental limitations given to us through thousands of years of slow Darwinian evolution, to faster human controlled evolution. This new paradigm creates a political landscape where corporations are starting to overtake nation states as the new political power blocks. These social and political trends dominant the world of Deus Ex and inform the player’s choice on whether or not meet their opposition with lethal force. In world as morally grey as Deus Ex’s, that is devoid of ideology, at what point is killing ever justified.

     Deus Ex puts the player in the shoes of Adam Jensen, who is the head of security for one of the many monolithic corporations in the world of Deus Ex. In the beginning of the game an attack on Jensen’s company occurs which leaves his ex-girlfriend dead and him crippled to the point where he is forced to be augmented by cybernetics. Jensen is then sent on a quest  to discover who was responsible for the attack and get some form of closure. 

     Just as in both Dishonored and Splinter cell you can play through all of Deus Ex with out killing anybody. For a while in Deus Ex the non-lethal approach seems like the best way to go for two reasons. One is that knocking out enemies or avoiding them all together gets you extra points to upgrade Jensen with. The second is that the people Jensen comes across are just doing their jobs. Therefore killing them in cold blood, when given another choice, is a tad monstrous. 

     Although, whether by accident or on purpose, Deus Ex puts Jensen in a position that made me someone who rarely kills anyone in a stealth game, kill every guard in an entire section. Near the end of the game after you’ve had a while to get to know the supporting cast fairly well and grown attached to one or two of them it does the cliched video game thing of putting one of them in danger.

     Now at this point most games would give you a dialog choice on whether or not to save them, with pros and cons, and make you hem and haw for a few seconds.  Instead Deus ex turns this into a gameplay choice. Do you stay and fight to keep Jensen’s friend alive or do you sneak away quietly not harming anyone but letting your friend die. Now here is the thing if you do decide to stay and fight you’re non-lethal weapons won’t be affective enough to take out the enemies in time. Instead you will be forced to kill every soul in the area. Now remember these guys are just doing their job just like Jensen and his friend. So the question becomes in a world with such subjective morality is it still the moral high ground to not kill even when someone's life is on the line.  Most people who are not absolutists would argue that standing by and watching your friend die and doing nothing about it makes you a killer by association.

     Though many games that have lethal or non-lethal options fail to address this question, of when is it more moral to kill to save someone then not kill anyone and risk letting someone die. This is a moral quandary many games avoid instead opting for a  model I like to affectionately call the Batman model.

Batman Would not approve 

     The Batman model refers to how killing anyone ever, regardless of circumstance is always morally wrong; if you went back in time and shot Hitler then shame on you. The obvious flaw about this model is its lack of nuance to account for circumstances like the one described above. This model is problematic because its a model that most people in real life don’t live by. You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks the allies interfering in World War 2 was a bad idea. 

     Yet it is the model most games use when judging the base choice on whether or not the protagonist kills their enemies. Even Dishonored, which has a fairly complex system that reacts to how many people Corvo kills, it still runs off of the Batman model at it’s core. As previously mentioned Corvo’s main antagonists are city guards, in other words they are policemen. I think we can all agree that cop killing is wrong but what about the other people who stand in Corvo’s way such as assassins or people who have been turned into zombies by the plague. Is it morally wrong to kill people, who kill for money or zombies who are dead anyway, that will try to harm more people if they’re left alive? Most people would argue it would depend on the circumstance but would not preclude the idea all together. Though in the world of Dishonored killing assassins or zombies is considered on the same level of cop killing and also counts towards rising the game's chaos level, even though you could argue killing these people isn’t completely morally wrong. You could even go so far as to argue that removing said threats should make the city less chaotic over all.

     These Moral and intellectual inconsistencies are the bane of any game that tries to tackle the morality of killing in video games. It’s why while games like Splinter Cell give players the option to not kill a single soul while not affecting the narrative. Or why Dishonored’s chaos system sounds interesting on paper but the second you give it more thought it all comes apart. Life and death might just be one of those topics you can not explore with complex gameplay systems. Instead it is something subjective that can not be quantified in ones, zeroes and pixels and is instead up to each virtual pacifist or pragmatist to decide if they can live with pulling the trigger or not.