These days, video games are good at a lot of things. They have excellent graphics, to the point that sometimes screenshots could be mistaken for real-life photographs. They can be very challenging, offering a wide variety of systems and mechanics to explore–survival, crafting, adventure, hundreds or thousands of non-player characters (NPCs), huge environments, thousands of combinations of items, orchestral music, crisp sound designs, and the list goes on.
But one thing video games still handle poorly: people.
Killscreen put up an intriguing review of Tom Clancy’s The Division, which delves into the game’s politics:
It’s always been a quirk of videogames that they succeed in depicting believable environments over believable people. The Division feels like the ultimate realization of this trait. The section of Manhattan island that the game takes as a setting is an artful work of digital craft. It takes a detailed one-to-one replica of the existing city as its starting point and covers it with layer after layer of enviromental detail. Every surface is creased, worn, scratched and marked, then plastered with trash, water, notes, graffiti, and greasy footprints. There is an obsession with garbage that tells the story of the breakdown of the systems of society so effectively. Bags of it lie in great drifts across roads, it fills stairways and alleys, piling up in cavernous sewers. It is an image that speaks so strongly to the supposed knife-edge the game wishes to depict society as resting on. It defines a society of endless consumption brought to its knees. When combined with the Christmas imagery that comes with the games’ “Black Friday” timescale—wrapped trees lined up on the streets, fairy lights twinkling above burnt out cars—it starts to feel like a visual interrogation of late Capitalism. And when the precisely simulated snow drifts in, and you are stalking down an empty city street surrounded by refuse, The Division seems to make sense, it seems to say something. But before long, out of the swirling flakes will come a jerky citizen, who will congratulate you for your efforts, and then ask you for a soda. And all at once, that something is lost.
The review goes on to discuss the laughably rigid way the game distinguishes friend from foe. Civilians are helpless meatbags who amble from place to place and ask you for freebies. Meanwhile, anyone in a hoodie is an obvious thug who will attack you unless you strike first.
It is, perhaps, unfair to blame The Division for doing what video games have always done. As soon as games began to have objects besides the player moving around on screen, it became necessary to distinguish mobs–enemies–from potentially helpful NPCs.
Early role-playing games addressed this contextually. If you had a random encounter while exploring the wilderness, naturally these were enemies you could either escape or kill. People who stand in one place or wander around in a set pattern are almost always NPCs who will either ignore you completely or help you out in some way. Maybe they offer a piece of information, or will give you a quest. Every so often, one of them might turn out to be an enemy, but you’d never hurt one by accident–battles were contextual, and you couldn’t attack anyone unless a battle had been initiated by the game’s programming. In other words, hitting a friendly NPC by accident just wasn’t possible.
Most games have kept this early convention, even if it has been implemented differently. Some games simply force you to disarm when you enter a friendly area. In others, attacking non-threatening NPCs has no effect at all. If you’re unlucky, the game is designed to sic guards on you when you harm law-abiding citizens, and these guards are often invincible and overpowered and will kill you in a hurry. But in those cases, it’s still a case of making the deliberate choice to attack someone the player knows isn’t a threat.
Even games which throw a bit more ambiguity into the mix fall back on a standard black-and-white tropes. Role-playing games made by Bethesda, for instance, which include Fallout 3 and 4, along with the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, etc.), usually allow the player to kill just about anybody. Attacking a peaceful civilian will bring guards upon the player when in a town, but a sufficiently-armed and leveled-up player can dispatch with such guards easily enough. This brings a bounty upon the player character’s head, and may result in being attacked by guard characters in the future without further provocation. But a funny thing happens once a player attacks an innocent: in the newer games, an aggression indicator is added to the on-screen compass to show the player from which direction they’re being attacked. Even before those indicators were present, in the underlying code an NPC’s disposition toward the player, in terms of hostility, is binary. Either they will attack you, or they won’t. There is no middle ground.
Other mechanics provide simple emulations of complex human relationships. Friendship meters–which are usually increased through what is essentially bribery or at least a clear quid pro quo–might control whether the NPC will trade with the player, or offer useful information. Again, the relationship is defined solely in terms of what the NPC can offer the player. At best, a character’s disposition toward the player has three possible states: helpful, threatening, or useless. Given that I’m talking about video game characters, any discussion of agency makes no sense–they are, after all, programs. They don’t do anything but what they are programmed to do. But what’s important is that they provide the illusion of agency. Characters who appear to have lives outside their interactions with the player seem more real, even though their behaviors are just as scripted as that of the Wood Spider that randomly attacked you in the forest.
Not all games suffer from this–only most. One company that has developed a reputation for taking character interactions and relationships seriously is BioWare, with its Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. Both games offer a heavy focus on the player’s interactions with other characters, who have their own backstories, motivations, and possible paths through the game’s plot. In each game, a number of characters are presented that the player will (or at least can) interact with heavily. This could result in friendship, eternal enmity, romance, or just indifferent iciness. Hostility is not necessarily expressed through violence, but by how much and what kind of attention the character is willing to give the player, based on the player’s actions. Key to this is that the NPCs are typically well-written. They have lives that predate the game and the player’s presence. They also often have feelings about each other. What pleases one character may anger another, and as the player, you have to make your choice and live with it. Making friends with a new party member might disgust one of the player’s close allies, for reasons ranging from the new addition being a genocidal maniac to the player’s ally being a virulent racist. It’s important that characters possess this sort of complexity and nuance if the world they inhabit is meant to be believable. A photorealistic environment full of dull, obvious automatons feels dead. Add a bunch of dynamic, interesting characters, and the world comes alive–that pretty world actually means something now, because people live there who care about it, and convince the player to care about it, as well.
But even in BioWare’s games, the player still ends up going into the wilderness and killing creatures and bandits which are obviously (and sometimes inexplicably) aggressive. One never has the opportunity to stop a bandit and ask why they attacked, nor can they be disarmed and negotiated with, offering the player an opportunity to show mercy or to examine the sort of society in which banditry is so rampant. What goes unspoken, perhaps, is that the vast majority of enemies in a game–even a game with otherwise well-developed characters–will be creatures or characters devoid of personality or comprehensible motives. There is no choice but to kill or escape.
It’s all the more notable, then, when a game chooses to do something truly different. A discussion of good and evil in video games–and a player’s options for dealing with them–would not be complete at this point without mentioning Undertale, which seems like it was designed precisely to deconstruct this hoary, binary convention that exists throughout the history of video games. To say too much would be to spoil it, and it’s a game that works best with as few spoilers as possible. But to make my point, it’s one of very few games that features combat while also making the options for avoiding combat just as rewarding–if not moreso. This is a huge deal, considering that most games demand you either kill or escape (and sometimes the latter isn’t allowed), and running away is anything but rewarding. The way Undertale handles it is unique and will no doubt be mimicked and toyed with in other games, as developers seek out similar success.
But what the gaming industry needs, in terms of pushing boundaries, is not to imitate what Undertale or the latest Dragon Age game has done. It’s to innovate not just on mechanics, but on how those mechanics connect with human experience. At the end of the day, a video game character is merely a collection of numbers manipulated by other collections of numbers. It has no life of its own. That limitation hasn’t stopped developers from finding unique ways to stimulate the thoughts and feelings of players, though. I don’t expect that every game will offer some brilliant new method of engaging emotionally with the player–the vast majority of games will likely always be light on such demands, settling for the simplicity of good vs. evil narratives and eschewing the sorts of nuances and ambiguities that are both difficult and expensive and implement. What I do hope is that developers will take more risks and experiment more, that instead of looking toward creating more realistic-looking raindrops and adding higher body counts, they truly challenge the role of the player and force players to engage with game worlds in new and different ways.
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