Kill It Before it Dies!

It is interesting to see how naturally the topic of video games comes up in connection with violent activities. In reports about a German school shooting, a Final Fantasy game found in possession of the attacker has been connected to his violent nature. And while I certainly will not argue in favor of any validity of these arguments, I do see that there is quite a point in making these connections.

When looking at most games’ core loops, killing seems to be a necessary part of both their mechanics and their theme. This goes even so far that from German magazine PC Games’ list of Top 100 games, only about 19 of them do not include constant killing of other living beings as their core mechanic. And from these 19, at least two still include killing as a core theme in its story. The games without a killing core loop are mostly games that simply cannot include it due to their nature, i.e. sports games or Sim City.

To go even further, some games omit killing, but substitute it with quite a similar mechanic. The Dark Knight in Batman: Arkham Asylum for example swore never to take a life and instead beats his foes to the ground – but, I would argue, this is still a killing mechanic in a sense that its aim is to violently get rid of enemies. The Pokémon games do a similar thing – the situation of a “killed” Pokémon is reversible as it is only “knocked out”, but still the game’s core loop revolves around combat and defeating enemies.

Killing seems to be such a fundamental part of games, that even games with a totally different theme and story (like Bioshock: Infinite) use killing as their core mechanic – almost completely detached from the game’s story. Magic, too, becomes just another means of killing enemies in most games, and thus just another weapon at disposal, instead of a mysterious force that alters reality.

Why do we kill?

And there is absolutely no problem with all that. I perfectly see the reasons for all these decisions. Death is the greatest threat we know in real life. It is, as well, the greatest threat known to players, as the death of the PC (contrary to, for example, the loss of his or her family) translates into game vocabulary: Game Over. Thus, protecting one’s own life as well as one’s play progress is a big motivator (although, in many modern games, this is a pseudo-threat that does not pose any progression loss).

Also, the ability to kill at will is a unique characteristic that differentiates games from real life. The power this ability represents and the feeling of progression as the lines of enemies fall and decrease is a positive feedback that enhances the player’s experience, with the released adrenaline helping the immersion and emotional bonding.

Why not?

What I am arguing about is while there are several good reasons to include killing mechanics in a game, I do not see it being necessary. For the same reasons we see a rather small number of movie characters with a spectacular body count, interactive stories can also be told without the need for killing. Of course, such an established mechanic cannot be simply avoided without further thought. Therefore, other motivators need to be found. An example for this can be seen in social games, where the pressure of keeping up with your friends provides a motivator quite possibly greater than the fear of virtual  death.

As a matter of fact, whole genres have already successfully chosen other mechanics and themes for their core. Puzzle games, even in the hardcore line, have mechanics completely harmless. In games like Portal or Quantum Conundrum, you will not see much killing and violence, at least not against living beings other than the PC. Most point and click adventures also refrain from PCs that kill other persons, as do some survival horror games in the style of Amnesia (where enemies are not even attackable).

Point and Click Adventures also often embrace the possibilities a non-killing PC offers: Their personality can be picked from among a much broader range of characteristics, as it is not necessary for the character to be violent, tough or even able to hold a gun. A shy, cautious, hemiplegic and pacifistic PC suddenly becomes possible, which in turn allows for a great deal of inspiration for possible, plausible, and character-tailored game actions. All the while, the moral of PCs that constantly kill can easily get blurred. It is simply hard to present a character as the good guy when you have made him kill dozens of people before.

So, to sum up my position, I do not argue for removing killing from all games. In fact, it is as rightful a theme and mechanic as it is in every movie, book or song. But what I do say is that we need to come up with different mechanics and themes to mature out of telling stories about but one theme. This way, the range of game themes and game loops will diversify, possibly spawning new genres while doing so. For example, think of an open world fantasy RPG that does not include killing. You would need to step back from hero-saves-damsel-in-distress clichés to reinvent the meaning of a fantasy world in the context of living there instead of killing and looting there. And suddenly, a new game genre could be born.


P.S.: L.A. Noire with turned off action scenes comes pretty close to such a new genre, as the core loop of finding clues and interrogating suspects based on their reactions presents a whole new gameplay feel. Without the action scenes, of course, L.A. Noire's open world would be redundant.
P.P.S.: As Ian Bogost points out, Fullbright Company's Gone Home is an example of how a game like Bioshock would look like devoid of its combat. And indeed did it manage to tell a story more mature than most video games, and with an atmosphere quite as thrilling. This might arguably be the genesis of a new genre as well.