Most gamers aren’t psychopaths trying to escape reality.
Wait, that’s a Godawful way to introduce the idea of sympathy for villains. In many games -especially the grey/brown shooters flooding the market- there’s no expectation of sympathy for the people you’re blowing holes in. There’s only coldly mechanical murder, canned (for those who don’t speak the vernacular, silenced/suppressed) AR’s huffing in the dark as you kill terrorists by the horde. Or Russians, or Iranians, or whoever else is the Bad Guy De Jour. At any rate, many shooters focus on twitch killing everything that isn’t you. Lately, however, there’s been a proliferation of games that at least offer the option of dealing with enemies nonlethally. Along with that, of course, comes the idea that not all bad guys are bad.
It’s a dangerous notion, that. It’s one thing to slaughter Nazis mercilessly, or demons. It’s a black and white sort of situation- evil versus good. But when the modern sneaker/shooter/whatever actually encourages you to think for a moment, that’s heady stuff. Really, think about it. It’s one thing to cut down cyberdemons in Doom, it’s another to be listening to a couple of minimum-wage security guards bumming around, grumbling about the pay and hours. Then, they become more human. It’s hard to put humanity on a cacodemon. It’s another to hear some guy whose job YOU might have had, sitting there in a booth between you and your objective complaining that he thinks that his wife is cheating, or that he’s hungry because he forgot his lunch on the kitchen table. Subtle moments that remind you that most of the baddies in the game you’re planning are real people, with real backgrounds. It makes you think twice about smearing them over forty yards of warehouse.
One of the best examples of this actually came out of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I was replaying it, and sneaking into a certain apartment building in Hengsha. I had to hack a computer inside, and there were a few options: I could shoot my way in, sneak across a few rooftops, or some combination of the two. I opted a quieter option, and unholstered by silenced pistol. I crept, crawled and climbed until I reached the roof, where a few Generic Corporate Goons stood. I leaned out from a corner, and drew a bead on the back of one’s head. He fidgets as his boss talks. The boss tells the guy to shoot anyone on the roof, and he objects. He basically says, “I don’t want to shoot anyone. How am I supposed to tell them to go away? I don’t speak Cantonese,” and the boss basically tells him that the barrel of a .45 speaks a universal language. None the less, the young recruit objects again before the boss tells him to cowboy up or he’d be fired. It was something I could really understand. People need jobs, and I’ve worked security. I didn’t wake up wanting to push people around or hurt them- I and most of my colleagues woke up like anyone else, and just wanted to make another paycheck.
Sometimes, it’s fun to just give way to to fantasy, and blast some aliens. But when you’re becoming immersed in a game, one of the things that breaks that suspension of belief is the idea that there’s endless waves of mindless bad guys, fighting the protagonist for no real reason. In the real world, paid security guards won’t fight to the death for minimum wage and no benefits. They will run, surrender, panic, lay down cover fire for their friends…they are real people, with real problems just like anyone else. As I recently played my way through Dishonored, I looked at most of the average goons, and said…well, they’re not bad guys. Early on in the game, the player is given a mystical object called the Heart, which can be used to learn the secrets of others. Used on most of the denizens of the game, you learn small facts about the target. A city guard worries about his sick kids .The city watch is composed of the few brave or desperate enough to try and control the chaos, almost all of whom are desperate and ill themselves. The street thugs are simply trying to get by- I remember a moment when I used the Heart on one Bottle Street thug, and found out he gave his extra food to a dog. I couldn’t knife him in the spine unawares after that. It felt…wrong. He was just doing his job, like anyone else. That job may have been holding down his block, but it’s not like anyone joins a gang of murderous thugs if a better option presents itself. And, to be honest, it’s not like job opportunities are overwhelming in a city where half to a third of the population is dying or dead of the rat plague.
Sometimes, it’s the subtle things that give the character you might be killing life, or at least a sense of reality. I was sneaking around, late in the game, and I heard a guard below muttering to himself. I looked down, ready to drop down and drive my blade into him, drag him off into a dark corner. Looking down, I saw him stop, and light up a cigarette. Another guard passed by and nodded. He said, to no one in particular, “I’ll write her again. She’ll see reason.” I boggled for a second. There’s other, more subtle hints as to most of the people in Dunwall having serious issues- the ever-present piles of garbage, the mountains of empty liquor bottles everywhere. They are a people on the brink, and on the bottle. Who was she? Where was she, and what would she see? Little moments like that made me pause. Even the Overseers, the religious police of the game, have redeeming moments. I ended up going through their mail, looking for clues- I found two letters hinting at plans to desert, one explicit warning to stop going to a brothel, and one hinting at an illicit homosexual romance. I briefly felt bad for murdering everyone in the level.
There were other moments in the game, but that one stuck with me. The characters were human- they had real motivations, real aspirations, and I was just seeing them on the job. They were paying the bills, not being fanatically devoted thugs. In DE:HR, they’re just guys on the job. In Dishonored, it’s clear they’ve been lied to the entire time. Personally, I feel bad stabbing a guy in the spine just for doing his job. A lot of the guards in Dishonored explicitly state that they believe that Corvo killed then Empress, then went on a horrible, murderous rampage. Most of them seem intent on simply doing their jobs and trying to keep the peace or even just survive- and I didn’t think they should die for just trying to get by. They weren’t strictly *bad* guys, any more than the maid in your target’s house. Of course, yes, there were people worth killing. But not every bad guy is a bad guy.