In Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, you play as lawless pirate Edward Kenway. Based on a real historical figure, Kenway leads a crew that earns a living by attacking ships, killing its defenders until they surrender and stealing their cargo.
Sailing out into the sea one day, I saw a small ship and decided to let loose my cannons. The weapons struck home, and I was suddenly informed that the real Edward Kenway did not harm civilians. It was clear that me wantonly attacking civilians would not be tolerated by the game. This was passing odd, as Kenway had been running around casually murdering people since the game’s beginning. Most were not established as being reprehensible people; they were merely the unfortunate souls that happened to be standing in between Kenway and his goals. The game did not censure me for murdering them.
Which is why I started thinking about who video games find it permissible to kill in large numbers. The focus is not on the big evil central antagonists which heroes must defeat to save the day. Instead I am examining the generic grunts of AAA Games and trying to figure out who is permitted to die at a hero’s hands without opening them up to moral judgement.
My main focus is to establish which humans that video games deem it permissible to murder, but I would be remiss from pointing out an obvious truth first. Non-humans almost always exist in games so that they can be fought and killed.
In almost all games involving violence (which is virtually every AAA Games) the hero is given carte blanche to slaughter animals. More often than not their deaths are a central component in a crafting system. It would appear that there are not many vegans at the helm of major gaming studious.
Monsters have it even worse, by virtue of them not being tied to creatures that exist in reality. No one mourns the death of an Orc in any given Lord of the Rings game, even when they are demonstrated to have personalities and be capable of intelligent thought.
Games set in fantasy or sci-fi universes have a much easier time in coming up with credible threats to the player-character that the player will not find guilty in dispatching. It is the games that dare to have some sense of realism which must pit the hero against humans, and it is these games that are more relevant for this discussion.
The One-Dimensional Enemy
It would be insane to expect developers to give every last grunt a distinct personality. There are simply not enough hours in the day (or enough dollars in the budget) to make Prison Guard #145 as in depth a character as Sephiroth or Saruman. It is inevitable that generic enemies would wind up having generic personalities.
There is, however, a dual function to making enemies one-dimensional. The less they seem like realistic people, the more they can be dehumanised, and the easier it is to have the player mow them down in their hundreds and thousands. How else do you explain a situation like the first Infamous game? Cole McGrath (when he is being a hero at least) ends up empathising with the three main villains after he has defeated them and does not end up killing any of them. In the end there was too much humanity in them which, despite their many sins, did not justify their murder in Cole’s eyes.
Which would be all well and good, if Cole does not spend most of the game killing their subordinates. Yes these enemies are exclusively characterised as being indiscriminately violent, but they were also directed to be violent by the three main villains. Why do the Big Bads get let off the hook, but not grunts?
Because Cole (i.e. the player) is not given any opportunity to empathise with their humanity, because they have not been designed to have any humanity. There being one-dimensional makes it so their slaughter is entirely guiltless.
The best way to make someone feel justified in shooting at a human being is to have them shoot first. It is thus no surprise that quasi-military forces make up the bulk of enemies in any given video game.
Often times these military or quasi-military organisations are painted as being amoral or outright evil. Members of fighting forces such as Oblivion’s Mythic Dawn (who are an assassination-happy cult that worships essentially the God of Destruction) are probably not nice people, nor is anyone who still works for Umbrella Corp in Resident Evil after they have caused several zombie outbreaks likely to be a swell dude.
Yet there is an oddity that occurs when a soldier is not portrayed as a bad person. Returning to Black Flag, the game that expressly told me not to kill civilians, which does not care how many soldiers I kill. From historical context we all know that the British and Spanish soldiers who stood guard outside palaces and warehouses are more than likely working class guys just trying to make a living.
Yet because they have guns, and could thus theoretically be a threat, our hero is in no way reprimanded for murdering as many soldiers as he pleases. This is despite most them only reaching for their guns after Kenway has already murdered someone. It appears putting a man in a uniform is all it takes to make his death permissible to game designers.
Here is a list of games that all have one very odd thing in common (at least in their early installments); Uncharted, Infamous, Just Cause, Sly Cooper, Jak and Daxter, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, Half Life, The Last of Us, and Grand Theft Auto. Can you guess what is the commonality that these games share?
In all of these games the generic enemies are exclusively male.
Is that not slightly weird? Surely I cannot be the first person to notice this. More than likely this comes from designers being lazy (which is no excuse, but still the likeliest explanation). Either that or there was a memo that went around at some point which said the general public will complain if the hero winds up killing a few female enemies mixed in with the hundreds of males.
There is no real justification for why in these games there are apparently no female soldiers, police officers, guards, mercenaries or militia. Perhaps Assassin’s Creed can argue historical accuracy in some circumstances, but even then these are the games that constantly throw sci-fi elements into everything, so I am not sure they have much of a leg to stand on. Regardless, some of these games listed are cartoons, so they can hardly fall back on the realism defence.
It gets particularly egregious in a game like Uncharted 3, where the main villain is female and yet seemingly only employs men in her shadowy organisation. She ends up dying completely independent of the protagonist’s actions, incidentally, and the final fight winds up being against her right hand man.
True diversity would mean equal amounts of all types of characters. While the industry could certainly do with more female led games, so too could it do with more woman in antagonistic roles.
Alright, so we have narrowed down the field considerably. It seems that the ultimate generic enemy is a one-dimensional male soldier, at least going by the industry standard grunts. Yet there are of course exceptions to this template. There are a bunch of female soldiers in The Elder Scrolls series, some well-motivated grunts in The Last of Us and (as was mentioned earlier) many games rely on literal monsters to give the hero something to fight.
Yet there is one true unifier when it comes to video game grunts. There is one type of enemy that features in virtually all games, regardless of genre, which the player always feels justified in killing. The one enemy that it is always permissible to kill is one that is standing in the way of your goals.
Think about it. In most games enemies do not get aggressive until you do first, so self-defense is hardly the optimum excuse here. Almost every murder in a video game comes as a result of some unfortunate soul happening to be blocking your progress. It does not matter if they are a guard protecting some jewels you are attempting to steal, a combatant protecting their city, or a monster just trying to live quietly in a cave you have been exploring. Provided they in some way hinder your progress, their death is immediately justified.
This is pretty disturbing from a Watsonian standpoint, and unflattering from a Doylist one. Video game characters need only be hindered by their fellow man to resort to murder, while video game players have been trained since the 80’s to shoot first whenever a problem arises. Thus the perfect video game grunt is not necessarily a one-dimensional male soldier, but rather just any given living organism that has become an obstacle.
A Better Enemy
Undertale gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that it really is not justifiable to kill things just because they are in your way. In makes the point that the self-defense argument really falls apart once you are given the ability to save and load your progress. It is perhaps not the best situation in the world that most video game grunts die merely because they are in the way. How then could we make the situation better?
A good first step would be to remember to actually characterise enemies as being, you know, bad in some way. If your story revolves around a supposedly heroic protagonist, then the people they fight should be worse than them. Establishing the grunts as being ruthless, reckless, sadistic or seeking supremacy will go a long way to making the player character’s actions feel more heroic.
Another step would be to limit the body count. Uncharted always ends up being a target for this, but it is a problem that happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake kills thousands of people over the course of the series. Having the hero only kill a few people, and only when they pose a serious threat, would also be a good idea.
Lastly, and this might sound crazy, but maybe make it so every game does not revolve around violence. Again we can point to Undertale as an example of how a video game character being a pacifist can create really interesting problem solving mechanics. How about more stealth games were you really cannot kill anyone? How about more games like Journey where exploration is held above all else?
I am not saying that all video games should give up on being violent, or that there is nothing ever worth fighting for, but maybe the industry would thrive if AAA Games stopped almost exclusively being experiences with massive body counts.
To return to the beginning, Edward Kenway is a pirate who kills people every day with the sole purpose of getting rich. This is literally his motivation (in the first dozen or so hours), his desire to become wealthy through whatever means necessary. Why on Earth would he care about the lives of civilians?
Immersion is everything in gaming. The strength of the narrative so often rests on how much you feel as though you are the player character. Questioning Kenway’s bizarre moral double standards breaks immersion. I mean, here I am writing two thousand words stemming from this question rather than finishing the game.
This little exercise in finding the perfect gaming enemy was really just an excuse to explore the tropes designers so often fall back on. It is most likely laziness that leads so many enemies to be one-dimensional male soldiers rather than any kind of agenda. I just argue that we gamers are entitled to ask for a little more effort from the people producing art.
Thinking things through a little more can help avoid raising some odd moral implications. Working a little harder to characterise generic enemies could make for a richer gaming experience. Finally, if there is little within the story to justify a violent protagonist, then perhaps forgoing violence might not be the worst option to choose.
Images courtesy of Ubisoft, Sucker Punch and Sony
Styx Masters The Shadows In 2017
The year of 2017 is coming to an end, so nerdy writers like us are inevitably going to talk about things they’ve seen, read and played during it. And I’m no exception – I’d like to tell you all about a game you may not have heard about. It’s Styx: Shards of Darkness.
Now, this game is a third one in the series… in a manner of speaking. So I need to provide a bit of background, first. While I will avoid spoilers for Shards of Darkness (henceforth SoD), I will talk a bit about the other games’ plots.
A Little History
The main character, Styx, first appears in an unusual action-RPG hybrid Of Orcs and Men. Arkail, an orc warrior with a temper problem (if one can call uncontrollable berserker rage that) joins a mission to kill the human emperor. The orcs see it as their last chance to prevent human expansion into their territory and enslavement of their people. Each member of the elite Bloodjaw warband is to cross the great wall and infiltrate human lands with a hired guide. For Arkail, this turns out to be a wise-cracking goblin assassin, Styx.
Arkail is less than convinced… because Styx is the only goblin to ever speak or display more intelligence than a rabid dog. All the other goblins are marauding monsters that had appeared out of nowhere, a hundred years before the game’s start. If Styx knows anything about that, he refuses to tell anything, simply saying that he’s “different” and “a survivor”.
Grumbling aside, the two companions go on with the mission, their dynamic being central to the gameplay. Arkail is a large warrior who has to manage his burning rage, while Styx is a canny assassin who eliminates targets with a pair of daggers and a set of throwing knives.
Eventually, while the unlikely duo is going on a mental journey into a mage’s mind in order to save her, the truth comes out. Styx has to confront a deep part of himself that reveals he used to be an orc mage who experimented with a substance called “Amber” and turned himself into a grotesque version of an orc. Then he spawned the rest of goblinkind. Whether he embraces the truth or keeps repressing it is up to the player, but it doesn’t affect much.
Styx: Master of Shadows is a prequel that goes all the way back to Styx’s origins. Styx is trying to reach the heart of a World-Tree that excretes Amber… the very same thing that turned him into what he is. Although he can create clones now (and use abilities he certainly does not have in Of Orcs and Men), they disappear after a while and there are no goblins yet.
Master of Shadows ends with the World-Tree destroyed and a horde of goblins swarming out of the wreckage. Styx himself has forgotten most of what happened and moves on.
Shards of Darkness picks up some time after that. Styx has established himself as an elusive mercenary, while his sorry progeny has caused major devastation. I’m not sure how a horde of small, runty and dumb green people managed to destroy an entire town, but I’ll take their word for it.
The Essence of the Game
After a routine job, Styx encounters Helledryn, the head of the CARNAGE squad… which hunts goblins. The woman has a job for him, and plenty of Amber (which Styx is addicted to and which is the source of his powers) to give him in exchange. To the surprise of no one, he ends up getting in way over his head, just like he would do again 50 years later or so.
Much like Master of Shadows, Shards of Darkness is a stealth game. The core of the gameplay remains the same. Styx has to sneak through large maps in pursuit of primary and secondary objectives. The levels, much like in the previous game, are as much vertical as they are horizontal. Styx will jump and climb frequently. He’s got some jumping power in those stumpy legs. There’s always more than one path to your objective, and good spatial awareness will benefit you.
Map design remains pretty stellar, although once again, maps are also reused. You return to areas you’ve already explored eventually. Then again, you do so for good in-story reasons, so perhaps it makes more sense than always finding yourself somewhere new.
The Styx franchise is somewhat different from many other stealth games in that directly engaging enemies isn’t much of an option. When an enemy catches up to you, you’ll have to parry their attacks until you can go in for the kill. When two enemies attack you, or someone has a ranged weapon, they’re free to turn you into a goblin shish-kebab.
Thus it’s easy to dispatch a single enemy if things go wrong, but the game still encourages you to sneak around. If they spot you, there’s always the option to run and hide. Particularly as some enemies you can’t fight at all. Heavily-armored enemies such as knights, dark elf elite guards and dwarves will simply kill you. They’re also entirely immune to Styx’s dagger and crossbow bolts (it’s a tiny, wrist-mounted crossbow), so if you want to get rid of them, you’ll have to be clever. Poison their food, drop something heavy on them or use an acid mine. The last part also gets rid of the body, as Styx can’t carry someone so heavy.
Although it’s possible to run and hide from enemies, in both games I gave myself a challenge of never being spotted at all. Which isn’t easy, but possible and rewarding. You get extra experience for it, as well, which you spend on Styx’s skills. You also get it for being quick (something I could never get more than a bronze medal in), finding all small tokens in a given level (I never bothered to do it) or not killing any enemies.
In Master of Shadows, playing mercifully was difficult. You couldn’t kill anyone at all to get that medal for a particular level, and it could be very hard to avoid detection otherwise. So it you wanted to do it, you would have to forgo the medal for non-detection… or at least, I can’t imagine doing both.
On the other hand, in Shards of Darkness, I found it much easier to go through levels without killing. Perhaps it’s by design, or perhaps I was better at the game? It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a design decision to make such a playstyle a more attainable challenge. In addition, all medals are gradual. Killing no one gets you gold, but killing five or less gets you silver.
One Crafty Goblin
Shards of Darkness also introduces crafting. This is normally something that fills me with dread, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. In the original game, you pick up potions, throwing knives and other items and you have a limit of how many you can carry. The second one adds an extra decision point – you find raw materials and you must decide what to make from them. Will you use the iron ore on crossbow bolts, lockpicks or acid mines?
Of course, because crafting will always be crafting, some materials are scarce and some you’ll carry around in abundance. This depends on what items you learn to craft, but still. You’ll always be short on iron ore and raw Amber, because you use them to craft items you use all the time. Others only go into more situational and later-game items… for which you’ll also need iron or Amber, in many cases.
Although the games play the same, I couldn’t help but feel like the second one is… easier? Perhaps it was the increased ease of a non-violent approach. And the game did grow more challenging later, particularly as we encounter dwarves. Who are entirely typical fantasy dwarves… except for their keen noses. They can pick up a greenskin’s smell easily, which means Styx can’t rely on the shadows to hide him.
They’re easily the most difficult enemy to get past, and the real purpose of acid mines. Those are normally impractical, as by the time you maneuver an enemy into it, you can just bypass or kill them. But they’re a way to kill a dwarf without being spotted.
In other ways, Shards of Darkness expands on the first game’s options. There are more skills and Styx can actually change his equipment. Each dagger or outfit comes with benefits and drawbacks… although a dagger that muffles any kill but makes parrying impossible is a straight-up benefit for a no-detection run. A dagger that instantly dissolves a killed enemy but can’t make quiet kills (which take longer but make less sound) is tricky… unless you take skills that let you muffle the sounds of assassination. An outfit you can unlock through skills lets you craft anywhere, but makes running and jumping noisier. And so on.
All of it doesn’t kick in until later, when you get all sorts of gear and skills to combine into clever strategies. I was able to, for instance, attack an enemy from several meters, then kill them quickly, noiselessly and almost invisibly. And with the dagger I mentioned above, I left no body behind. This tempts me to play the game on NG+, something I’m normally not fond of doing.
Going Too Far
Where I did notice a problem with the game was the writing. Specifically, the main protagonist. Styx captured the hearts of the audience by packing enough snark, experience and swearwords to equip a biker gang into a four-feet-tall body. He retains that personality in the other games… but by Shards of Darkness, it feels like it goes too far.
It’s not an uncommon thing, I think. Many characters find their traits exaggerated over time. And I think that’s what happened with Styx. The writers had a protagonist who was notably snarky, cynical, disrespectful and had a dark sense of humor. So Shards of Darkness has him constantly joke, swear, insult people… it grates sometimes. It’s hard to empathize with a protagonist who never seems to take anything seriously, until he gets angry.
The absolute worst case is Styx insulting the player through the fourth wall when he dies. I really don’t know who thought it was a good idea and I turned it off more or less immediately. This is a good example of that, I think. “Hey, Styx is a rude jackass, why don’t we have him be one to the player?” He also breaks, or just leans on, the fourth wall in other places. It’s not as direct, but does sound forced. Which is generally how it goes; sometimes it feels like the writers try too hard to make sure we know he’s a crude, irreverent and selfish little guy.
This is particularly uncomfortable when it comes to Helledryn, whom I mentioned early on. She’s a goblin-hunter who works with Styx out of necessity. She’s a large woman… though, frankly, not nearly as much as you’d think when hearing people mention it. Styx, who isn’t happy about working with her, never passes up an opportunity to rib her about it. He delights in calling her a “cow”, particularly. Again, he’s a bastard who insults everyone. But when the most frequent and consistent target is a woman, and most of it concerns her size… it’s not a very good impression.
The rest of the writing is serviceable. The world-building is very clearly ad hoc, the writers making it up as they go. The world and story already don’t mesh well with Of Orcs and Men, particularly as Styx has no powers in that game. The game ends with a clear sequel hook, though, so I expect Styx to lose them and his Amber addiction. It’s not really a bad thing – the world, threadbare as it is, is still more appealing than the generic setting in Of Orcs and Men.
Despite my misgivings about a protagonist I had initially loved (I very much like goblins in fantasy), Styx: Shards of Darkness is a refinement of the first game’s already solid formula, that delivers the same experience with extra features. Of Orcs and Men is an entirely different game, and very rough around the edges. But it’s still worth investigating if you want something you may not have otherwise seen. And both Styx games are ideal if you want tough, channeling stealth games where you have to think on your feet and consider every angle.
Game Awards 2017 News Roundup
The Game Awards are, or are at least an attempt to be, an “Oscars” for video games. The successor to Spike TV’s VGA’s, this is their fourth year awarding excellence in all parts of gaming. But the awards are only half the fun. The Game Awards also serve as a place for devs to drop trailers and news about their upcoming properties. Here’s a roundup of the biggest news coming out of the Game Awards!
The Game Awards 2017
With the release of the Switch, Nintendo has brought their A game when it comes to releases this year. That shows how successful they were at this year’s show. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild got the big accolades with wins for Game of the Year, Best Game Direction, and Best Action/Adventure Game. Super Mario Odyssey landed Best Family Game while Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle won, of all awards, Best Strategy Game. Finally, Metroid: Samus Returns took home Best Handheld Game.
Cuphead Gets Well Deserved Love
Cuphead has been an indie monster this year. The game combines old school, hard-as-nails gameplay, with almost-slavish devotion to the beautiful animation of yesteryear. That pairing earned them a Best Art Direction Award, as well as Best Independent Game and Best Debut Indie Game. You can view Cuphead’s launch trailer below:
Female Video Game Pioneer Recognized
One of the first female game developers ever, Carol Shaw, was recognized for her contributions to gaming. Working in the 70’s, when there were barely any game developers period, let alone women, Shaw helped design games like Super Breakout(1978) for Atari. Her biggest success was the creation of River Raid (1982) for Activision. After leaving Activision in 1984, she worked for Tandem Computers until an early retirement in 1990. She now mostly does volunteer work. You can see her award speech below:
News From The Show
Bayonetta 3 Teased
Everyone’s favorite overly sexualized witch is (barely) suiting up for another game on Nintendo’s new console. It’s been three years since the digital embodiment of the Male Gaze has had her own game, but she did make a strong showing in 2015’s edition of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. While we have no word on release date, Bayonetta 3 is being developed purely for the Switch. Nintendo also announced that Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 would be coming to the Switch in February. Watch the trailer below:
Nintendo Lets Breath of the Wild Get Silly
Even though the Legend of Zelda series is ostensibly one of Nintendo’s more serious franchises, it’s still made by Nintendo. As such, there’s always a bit of lighthearted fun, and humor sprinkled around each game. But in Breath of the Wild’s new DLC, The Champions’ Ballad, Nintendo seems to be ramping up the fun. In addition to giving Link access to cosplays of Zelda characters like Rovio (Link Between World), Zant (Twilight Princess), and Ganon, Nintendo also saw fit to give the Hero of Time a MOTORCYCLE! See all this, and a peek at the new dungeon below:
People Still Have No Idea What Hideo Kojima Is Doing
Norman Reedus is pregnant? And vomiting oil? But the oil grabs people? And maybe it made him pregnant? How does Mads Mikkelsen play into this?
Veteran Fighting Series Gets New Entry
It’s been five years since Namco last released a new entry in their popular Soul Caliber series. The series is well known for both its weapon-based combat system as its unique taste in women’s wear. The new trailer doesn’t reveal much, except for the return of classic characters Sophitia Alexandra and Mitsurugi. Soul Caliber VI is set to drop for PS4, Xbox One, and PC in 2018. Watch the trailer below:
World War Z Shows Up Late To Zombie Game Craze With Starbucks
Even though it’s been four years since the world gave the film adaptation of World War Z a collective “meh,” it appears someone still thinks there’s gas in the franchise. Taking the sort of “same world, different characters” approach as The Walking Dead, the video game adaptation will be a four-player co-op shooter taking place in various infested locales around the world. The game will be developed by Saber Interactive (Halo Online, R.I.P.D The Game). Catch the trailer below.
Image courtesy of The Game Awards
Nintendo Is Making A Live Action Detective Pikachu Film…Starring Ryan Reynolds
After all of the calls, tweets, and letters…after over 50,000 people signed a petition…after the actor himself stated he doesn’t even know what Pokemon is…Danny Devito will not be playing the title roll in Nintendo’s upcoming live action Detective Pikachu film. Instead, the Electric Mouse Pokemon will have a decidedly smoother voice. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Deadpool actor Ryan Reynolds.
Detective Pikachu has only been around for a little over a year, making his debut in 2016 in Great Detective Pikachu. The “cinematic adventure game” stood out immediately thanks to its star: a deep voiced, flirty, coffee chugging Pikachu in a deer stalker hat. While not as powerful as others of his species, Detective Pikachu makes up for it with his intelligence and knack for crime solving. With his ambiguously young friend/driver Tim Goodman, the Detective solves Pokemon related crime around the city.
Alongside Reynolds, Justice Smith (The Get Down) and Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird, Big Little Lies) will star in the main human roles. Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) will be taking the director’s chair. Writing chores are being handled by Alex Hirsch (Gravity Falls) and Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel). The film will be produced by Legendary Pictures (Jurassic World, Straight Outta Compton), and distributed by Toho and Universal. Detective Pikachu will be the first live action adaptation of a Nintendo Property since 1993’s Super Mario Bros. Not doubt Nintendo is hoping that this film turns out a little better.