Violence is the Pinnacle of Freedom in Games, not Narrative Choice

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The large majority of games are violent. Not in the Manhunt, suffocate-you-with-a-plastic-bag-while-stabbing-you-in-the-neck sort of violent, but rather the core of many games involves some level of destruction. Even the most innocuous and unthreatening games like Super Breakout or Space Invaders see the player shooting something or destroying something. And this is A Good Thing.

For the past decade or so, meaningful player choice has been held up as the pinnacle of modern game design. We’re supposed to feel like we, as players, are having some sort of impact on the events of a game through our actions within that game. Which is all very well and good, but so far this has largely been thought of in terms of narrative. Games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age are held aloft as the shining beacons of player choice within a virtual environment. Well, that’s wrong. Because those games are rubbish.

I didn’t mean that, I just said it to get a rise out of you. What I DO mean though, is that those games are rubbish examples of meaningful choice. The problem is that games work on systems. This works well when that system dictates whether or not you’ve shot a man in the face, because that’s a pretty binary concept. Hit or miss. However, when it comes to conversation or even more nuanced things like emotion, systems just can’t cut it. If I’m having a conversation in Mass Effect (any of them, it doesn’t really matter which), I have a choice of responses ranging from the passive to the aggressive, passing through different shades in between. Each response leads me down a different branch of enquiry, eliciting different responses from whoever I’m talking to. But those branches are always and will always be predefined. It’s freedom within boundaries.

To my mind, the biggest and most blatant example of this is the good or evil points scale; the renegade/paragon, the light/dark. Kill a child? That’s +1 to your renegade stat. Save a village? Another positive notch on your hero slider. Do both? They cancel each other out – just like in real life! It’s a simple system which represents something that, in the real world, is the most un-systemic concept.

If I were to do those things in real life, it would make me a more complex character (read: maniac), while in a game, it has a net result of zero, according to the system that controls it.

Which sort of brings me back to violence. Violence is a much easier concept to map systems to and, by extension, gives us more freedom as players. Think about recent indie darling HHotline Miami. At its core, it’s a simple game – kill everyone on the level without getting killed yourself. But because of the systems in place and the binary nature of violence, there are an infinite number of ways that I can accomplish that objective. Do I charge in with a shotgun, hide behind the door and mow down mobsters as they run through? Do I sneak about with a knife, picking people off one by one like some kind of crazed silent assassin? My motivation for doing so never comes into question – but we’ll come to that in a minute.

My point is that games are, at least at the moment, better at this sort of thing than they are at anything more meaningful. Player freedom and meaningful choice works better for movement and violence than it does for narrative and quieter moments.

My main gripe with meaningful choice in game narrative is that it doesn’t represent real freedom, rather a different branch of a pre-determined outcome. I suppose it’s a problem of resources – because things like conversation can’t be dynamically rendered in the same way that fights can, they have to be scripted (there are interesting experiments in getting around this, such as Sleep is Death). This can lead to what Clint Hocking referred to as “ludonarrative dissonance“. In short – when the narrative of the game comes into conflict with the gameplay itself. Now, by allowing us freedom in gameplay and also freedom in narrative decisions, we can come to a point where the player character may be forced to do something that would make no sense to the player, or that goes against the wishes of the player – with one hand it gives us freedom and with the other it takes it away.

Hotline Miami pokes fun at this in its ending (spoilers ahead, for those of you who get upset about this sort of thing). The story throughout is vague and mysterious, centring on thinly veiled assassination targets in the guise of answer phone messages left by a trio of animal-masked strangers. The story is intentionally left vague – we’re supposed to ask questions about why we’re doing what we’re doing and who is controlling the player. And then, at the end of the game, there is one of the greatest moments of bathos I’ve ever experienced: during the last mission, we abruptly find two men in a basement, surrounded by boxes of animal masks and phone equipment. We’re face to face with the animal-masked strangers – only they’re no longer masked, they’re just some guys – and for the first time in the game we’re given dialogue options. Finally some answers.

“Who are you people?”
“You don’t know? Haha, that’s pathetic! I thought you had us figured out by now! Make a guess asshole! Not that it makes any difference now, does it?”
“You’re the phone guys?”
“What a stupid question! You really need to ask? What does it look like to you, asshole? You don’t know anything, do you?”
“You think this is a game?”
“Don’t you? You mean you haven’t enjoyed it? That’s a shame, haha!”
“It’s all been pointless?”

And there it is. It’s all a game. Haven’t you been enjoying yourself? We’ve been so conditioned to try and put our actions into context in a game that it’s no longer enough just to play because it’s fun. And slicing men in half with machetes is fun, no matter what anyone says.

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