The Busywork of Killing

In this review of Spec Ops: The Line, Gus Mastrapa discusses the way the player-character’s companion characters can be directed to target specific opposing characters with “kill orders”, which he describes as “a useful way to multitask the busywork of killing enemies”. Spec Ops: The Line is a game with a lot of ambition to tell a story with parallels Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, and its perhaps more well-known film adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now’, and yet, it reduces the business of murder to “busywork”, something for the player to do in-between set-pieces and cutscenes. And it’s far from alone in this among video games, even those with high ambitions on a thematic or narrative level.

This Onion News Network video from 2009, about a game that “consists solely of shooting people in the face”, but has players praising it for creating a “deep, complex world” might seem like a gross misrepresentation of what video games are about, but to an outside observer, that’s often pretty hard to tell. Take BioShock, for example, which I’d argue is one of the best games of the last five years. It offers a rich and fascinating world to explore, filled with complex characters, and also deals with Objectivist politics and themes of free will and morality. Unlike The Onion’s “Close Range”, all of that stuff is demonstrably present in BioShock. And yet, the vast majority of a player’s time spent with the game, and a vast majority of what they’ll actually spend doing in the game, revolves around, basically, shooting people in the face. Even if it’s with bees or fire.

There’s an undeniable pleasure to the simple act of doing something and getting a response. Performing an act, and getting a reaction. It’s part of the simple pleasure of most games, pressing A to make Mario jump, or hitting a tree in Minecraft and getting a block. Press button, get cheese. Some people would argue that it’s just a convention in a lot of games that the action you perform is clicking a mouse button or pulling a trigger, and seeing an enemy character get hurt or die. I’m not even suggesting I don’t like these games. But why are we stuck on this particular convention, this particular form of interactivity? Why is this almost the default mode of interactivity, especially for big-budget, high production value games?  Even for the vast majority of games that critical consensus calls the best of the medium?

A lot of critics decried the level of graphic violence on show at this year’s E3, but I’m not even talking here about how graphic the violence and killing is, just how widespread it is. Fans drooled with anticipation that one game, Dishonored, might allow them to play through entirely without killing anybody. But shouldn’t we be horrified that just having the option of non-lethal gameplay is noteworthy? Even then, most games with non-lethal options involve violence short of lethality, or simply avoiding engagement with non-player characters. Why is violence the default mode of engaging with non-player characters for so many games? Why are so many of our best games so bereft of any other option?

I really wish they'd localise this game's title to use the correct spelling.

Imagine… *not* killing this guy?

Violent murder acts, in these games, as a sort of punctuation, a series of pauses between the actual things people praise in a game like BioShock, which are the environments and the narrative, and the themes and ideas they concern themselves with. Yes, people praise the opportunities a game like BioShock provides for killing people in inventive ways, but it’d be hard to argue that offering players opportunities to be inventive necessitates all that killing. And yet there’s so much of it, and it dominates so much of the activity of even the most highly-praised games. Why? Couldn’t we just dispense with the busywork?


Remember that one guy?

Growing up in the 90s, I and most other kids I knew owned very few games for whatever video game console they owned. Presuming they owned a video game console at all, of course, and most didn’t. Owning only a few games generally meant that the games you owned got played to death, even if they weren’t very good. So you got pretty skilled at whatever games you owned. I got good at the pretty terrible Jurassic Park game for the SNES. A friend of mine could beat Super Mario World in under an hour. And then there was that one guy who owned Street Fighter 2. Or whatever other fighting game.

He knew every character’s moves. He jumped all over the place. He used “cheap” moves like leg sweeps. He knew about and had unlocked the secret characters.  He had his favourite character’s moves memorised out of a game magazine, and allowed nobody else to play that character, ever.

You’d probably only played a bit of Street Fighter in an arcade a couple times, or maybe at a friend’s place. You picked whichever character you thought looked cool (I picked Blanka, because, electric shocks!). While you were still trying to work out which buttons did what, that one guy wiped the floor with you. Maybe he’d throw you a bone by telling you how to do one of your chosen character’s special moves, but then he’d counter it every single time. Sometimes he might even let you win one of the three rounds, only to trounce you in the other two.

Electricity! Awesome, right?

Electricity! Awesome, right?

Playing the game against that one guy was just no fun. You weren’t even playing the same game.

Maybe, if you were very lucky, that one guy wasn’t a jerk, and your group of friends played the game a lot together, and you all achieved a modicum of skill. Maybe you banned leg sweeps, because they’re cheap. You knew the characters your friends liked to play, and the way your friends played them, and got used to how to fight them. Then you’d go play the game with someone else, and it was like playing with That One Guy again. He pulled out shit you never even had a clue was in the game. It was amazing, but you still just got beat a lot. He just wasn’t even playing the same game as you and your friends.

If you go play something like Street Fighter or Starcraft 2 these days, That One Guy’s level of skill is pretty much the baseline requirement. Everybody’s read the guides, knows all the moves and strategies and the attributes of every character or unit. That sort of information is assumed knowledge, given its free availability online. If you don’t know it, you just can’t play the same game as everybody else. Likewise, it’s assumed you’ll be part of the one big community that plays the game online, and that means you have to know this stuff to play at all. Even if you only ever play with friends, there’s always That One Guy who *has* read the guides and whatnot, and brings all that knowledge to bear, and you just can’t even play the same game as him without it.

ur doin it rong

This “6-pool” strategy does not seem to be as awesome as I was told.

Personally, my suspicion is that this is an inevitable outcome of the contemporary gaming environment, where online play and access to online information is assumed. Accounting for that environment has to, equally inevitably, be a part of how multiplayer games are designed these days. That affects everybody who plays those games, whether they can or do play online, whether they access that information or not.

This seems to me to be inherent to multiplayer games. Multiplayer games have to account for the way the community of players engages with each other through the game in a way that singleplayer games do not. Having a secret uber-powerful, unbalancing weapon or other element in your singleplayer game is feasible because not every player will look up a guide that will tell them how to get it (or, less likely, experiment enough with the game to find it on their own), and even if they know about it, they can choose not to get it. Having the same in a multiplayer game would be devastating, because accessing that unbalancing element would become the new baseline. Economists and psychologists and people who research game theory can probably tell you all about the ways that knowledge, and assumptions of knowledge, of a system affect the way people engage with that system and each other.

These days, we pretty much all have to be That One Guy.