Death of a Henchman: the Bad, the Good, and the Gray
I can remember one of the first times I thought about death; I must have been about five and the victim was a standard-issue Koopa Troopa. I know a Goomba is the first thing killed, but the Troopa's demise lingered in my mind. It was how I left him, bouncing back and forth in a ditch, trapped in a kinetic prison, that tugged at my mind; that Troopa would stay like that, not dead but not exactly alive (and most certainly nauseated), an 8-bit purgatory. Nonetheless, I kept moving. There were inept monarchs and a princess that required some saving.
Years later, I can’t imagine my death toll since that Troopa. How many monsters, mutants, guards, terrorists, anthropomorphic creatures, insurgents, robots, nazis, zombies (both the virulent and undead variants), nazi-zombies, aliens, thugs, vampires, self-aware computer programs, genetic mishaps, clones, orcs, and raptors have I dispatched to henchman heaven, a charming place probably in a hidden volcano lair, where protagonists always have 1 HP and health packs are nowhere to be found? What strikes me is that I’ve never regretted any of these fallen, operantly conditioned to drain health bars without a second thought. There were a few times this thought dabbed at my mind’s surface, like when I played Shadow of the Colossus, but I never actively thought about it until some interesting situations arose in Assassin’s Creed 2.
Starting in Florence, I was the Ovid of obituaries, as I’ve always been. My father and brothers had just been killed and I couldn’t be on my merry womanizing and leisure-free running way as any 15th century Florentine nobleman should. People had to die. Then, there was the archer. It was on the Alberto Uberti mission and the first time an archer confronted me. He said something along the lines of “Stop! Get down or I’ll shoot,” to which I instinctively responded with my hidden blade. I stopped for a second and thought about what I had just done. I had killed a guard who gave me a warning. He hadn’t attacked me, he just told me to get down, like he’s supposed to; this guy was just doing his job. He wasn’t even guarding Uberti, he was just doing his rounds. It bothered me.
Is killing the only solution?
From then on, there was a subtle shift in my gameplay, I was more sneak than stab, with the regret constantly troubling my brain. And to add to that quandary was a funny situation in Tuscany. After lowering my notoriety, due to my massacre of Vieri de Pazzi and his men, a thief pick-pocketed me when I wasn’t paying attention. He quickly climbed up some boxes and rafters, and I fell behind a little after tumbling through some civilians. Annoyed with my sudden devolution to a giraffe’s coordination, I finally started pursuing the thief, but to my surprise, I wasn’t the only one running after him, the guards were too! They had seen what had happened and were already up the building. They actually ended up knocking him off a roof shortly thereafter and I got my money back. The guards had helped me; they too were just doing their job, like a cop or a firefighter, well, minus the knocking the guy of the roof to his death bit.
Now this weird Assassin’s self assessment probably has a lot to do with my Saturday-morning- Batman-cartoons-grade ethics, which led to odd thoughts like “What if the guard who just shoved me is one day away from retirement after a forty year career,” or “what if this is a rookie guard’s first day on the job?” The rest of that first run was riddled with clunky morality. There was a lot of disarming and taunting guards until they ran away (really wishing there was some sort of intimidation function), or on the more martial side, just beating them stupid. I never minded slaughtering guards as long as they were on the Borgia payroll, discernible by the color of their uniform and especially fun to kill with that double-ocular-biopsy move, or if I had no other choice due to the nature of the mission. There were also situations, such as after Florence returns to Medici control, where I couldn’t kill any of the Medici-loyal guard. I’m not sure if this was Ubisoft’s intention when programming the game’s AI: you can go around killing as many guards as you want, and as long as you have a city’s corresponding cape, your notoriety will not increase. Still, I honestly experienced guilt in some situations, and no game had made me dwell on an NPC’s tragic mortality so much before.
Morality and consequence isn’t novel in video games at all, but the degree to which it’s developed has been limited. As I mentioned before regarding Shadow of the Colossus, there is a slight morality cringe; you find out you’re pretty much the bad guy and you go around killing what I thought were these magnificent, titan creatures. The feeling of awe was reminiscent of seeing a majestic blue whale. (Well, if blue whales could smash you with the Washington monument.) In addition, Agro’s plummet caught my breath. But you have no choice in any of these matters. You don’t have the option of sparing the colossi, so the moral choice facet of the games comes off a bit as ancillary to the game’s progress. Hell, you want to finish the game, so that factor is curbed to a degree. In other games, the consequences of morality have usually been centered on peripheral effects on game play. In Bioshock, the only discernible effect of choosing to food-process little sisters or not was receiving more or less genetic tokens to blow at the splicing arcade. And if I happened to meet the little-sister-smoothie quota, I would get a stern slap on the wrist from Tenebaum as one of the endings. The problem was, though I usually saved little sisters, I wouldn’t exactly regret harvesting them either. That’s not to say Bioshock didn’t engage me emotionally. One moment it did engage me was in an apartment in Olympus Heights. I walked into one of the side apartments and witnessed a family that killed itself in front of the TV. I felt a little sad, but this was more of an atmospheric element than one integral to gameplay.
I felt the same about Fable 2. Sure morality here is a little more interactive, with people shying away, and me going all Regan MacNeil when I did mean things, but doing so felt quantified and stiff, with a bad-o-meter acting as my conscience. And ultimately, the ending is the same whether you’re good, bad, or indifferent. It’s when a game elicits a response from the player’s natural sentiments and ethics that morality can add a deeper level of engagement with a game. This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be emphasis on game play; that's the whole point of a game. It’s exactly that interweaving gameplay with narrative elements that makes you simultaneously uncomfortable, ambivalent, contemplative, or even empowered, providing for a deeper and more realistic experience.
Morality and moral choice should be used more often and more deeply because it puts more at stake for the player than just completion and achievement trophies, as consequences of decisions could be more interactive and significant. Now I’ve never killed a person (though some maiming may or may not have occurred), but I’m sure there’s a tangle of emotions that arise: wrath, fear, disbelief, ecstasy, regret, closure, disgust, any number of emotions surging in a person’s synaptic pathways. Isn’t that really the most interesting aspect of any action—the motivations underlying them? These elements are integral to depth and meaning in narrative.
Venture Bros. FTW.
One possible manifestation of this could involve putting the player in charge of an infantry squad: you’re the new Commanding Officer and the men aren’t exactly going to welcome you with a our-lives-are-in-your-hands fruit basket. Through narrative craft, the game could make you feel the weight of that responsibility. That squad depends on and trusts you to make the best decisions. The sense of obligation could develop by emphasizing the bonds between you and your squad. As you play, your decisions on how to approach a target could influence whether squad members would sustain wounds or die, the team’s chances of a clean success, and your chances of an easy getaway. However, the chances would not be calculated for you beforehand in percentages, but rather would depend solely on your instincts. And if someone does die on your team, the game would make you regret it. You’d feel the scorn of your team and that you-just-got-Wade-killed feeling. Your squad’s morale and loyalty could shift, and your HQ’s trust in your competence could decline, influencing their decisions about which missions they send you on. Here we could see a significant impact on the storyline, with different possibilities creating different tangents.
And yet the flipside of interactive consequence is that it can also appeal to individuals with no moral compunctions (in games) at all. Let’s say that in another game, being absolutely ruthless and taking out a whole squad of henchmen unnecessarily could result in later retaliations being more frequent and difficult, with henchmen being more vengeful due to their grief for their fallen comrades. And in some cases, your savagery could even persuade some of those henchmen to rally to your cause out of sheer fear. Then, your initial allies could either become more distant out of revulsion, or more emboldened out of respect, causing them to follow your increasingly murderous lead. You would basically be rewarded with more challenging gameplay and, at times, the satisfaction of one-upping your antagonist at what’s supposed to be their job. It would also provide for a deep character analysis of your allies, resulting in an even richer palette of emotionally engaging gaming.