Challenging Conventions 6: The Likeable, Mass-Murdering Hero

Challenging Conventions is a biweekly column by Jeffrey Matulef that discusses the conventions of games design, whether regards the games that subscribe to these conventions or those that try to overcome them.

While playing Assassin’s Creed 2 recently, it dawned that while it’s a fun game in a lot of respects, it falls victim to the same tired videogame trope so many games do: the protagonist is portrayed as a good-natured, likable guy, but goes around killing hordes of people unnecessarily. Granted in this case Ezio is an assassin, but does he really need to kill hundreds of hapless guards based solely on their being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Surely, some of those guys must have families.

It’s especially irredeemable given that so many of these guards could be avoided or distracted. A cunning assassin would reach his goal undetected, without a trail of bodies in his wake. The player can indeed choose to play this way, but doing so results in a slower, more tedious experience with no reward to show for it. Since reckless killing is often the fastest and easiest course of action, the game encourages you to play that way even despite that it doesn’t make sense for Ezio to be so callous.

Assassin’s Creed II makes murderthe easiest way out – should it? 

Assassin’s Creed 2 is just the latest of many games that have fallen victim to this formula. Even my beloved Uncharted 2 features hero Nathan Drake killing nearly a thousand soldiers in the name of his goal, though the mercenaries in that game were portrayed as being far more sinister than the poor saps in Assassin’s Creed 2. As such, I figured it was high time to look at action-adventure games that have managed to be thrilling without making you play as a mass murderer.

First off, one way of giving license for a likable character to kill is to dehumanize the enemies by making them, well, not human. Any game involving zombies, aliens, or goombas fits this bill. Most games are like this after all, but as games strive to tell increasingly complex stories where the line between good and evil isn’t quite so clear, the systems for playing through these stories needs to change.

The later Metal Gear Solid entries immediately come to mind. There was always a non-lethal method of dispatching the opposition in those games. Whether this came in the form of tranquilizer darts or by simply being undetected was up to you, but from Metal Gear Solid 2 on it was entirely possible to complete the game without taking a single life (except the final bosses which were treated with the dramatic tension the act of murder deserves).One memorable sequence in Metal Gear Solid 3 even contained a nightmare sequence where you’re attacked by all the ghosts of those you’ve murdered. Unlike Assassin’s Creed 2, the later Metal Gear Solid games had a stat-based rating system in place that encouraged the player to try and make it through the game with as few kills as possible (which in my opinion made the game more fun). Snake, after all, didn’t want to kill anyone unless he had to. So why should the player have felt any differently?

Another games that gets around this is cliché is Batman: Arkham Asylum. Batman, true to form, never kills people. He incapacitates them quite a lot, but that’s it. The game even comments on Batman’s use of violence: the Joker taunts his own henchmen whom he knows are about to get their ass whooped by Bats. While it may be stretching things to say that he’s able to incapacitate dozens of cronies without killing them, one can chalk it up to suspension of disbelief. The point isn’t that it’s realistic, but it is fitting with his character, something lacking from so many action games these days.

Which isn’t to say that games shouldn’t have violence. My personal fave of all, Shadow of the Colossus, does have rather graphic killing (of imaginary creatures but gorgeous and often benevolent ones at that). With only a mere 16 creatures to murder, it doesn’t feel excessive. More importantly, the slaughter of colossi is done in service of the story; the player feels grief for their actions, causing them to doubt if they’re really worth the pain.

In Shadow of the Colossus, you only fight 16 creatures – albeit rather hefty ones…

The Silent Hill series (prior to the combat-void Shattered Memories) has done a great job of explaining protagonists’ murderous tendencies by making enemy creatures metaphorical to some degree or another. In one of Silent Hill 3’s best lines, a character responds to the player’s homicidal tendencies with, "they look like monsters to you?"before laughing it off as a joke, all while the player begins to wonder how much of this is going on in the character’s head. It’s terrifically subversive stuff, a huge part of the game’s haunting atmosphere.

Grand Theft Auto IV is an interesting case of a game that has an actual statement on violence, even if I don’t feel its execution (no pun intended) was the best. While protagonist Niko starts out as likable, the game quickly devolves into a series of ‘go here and kill these guys’-type missions, not unlike Assassin’s Creed 2. Even when Niko runs over dozens of civilians while on a date, his lady friends will comment on the shoddy driving, but don’t seem to mind the murdering that goes with it. While the amount of people Niko murders is exaggerated to a ludicrous degree, the overall theme of a man resorting to immoral tasks out of necessity helps add weight to the otherwise ridiculous proceedings.

These are all interesting ways to get past the incongruous fact that combat is the basis for so many games, yet we want to play as characters who are likable, and likable people don’t go around committing mass murder. Games are capable of telling great stories, and it’s a shame when those stories are at odds with the gameplay. In conclusion, I say if I’m going to kill, give me something worth killing for.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef