Opinion: Guns And Guilt – How Shooters Developed A Conscience

With a number of high-profile shooters now forcing players to ponder and reflect on their in-game actions, Mark Butler looks at the increasing complexity with which gaming is beginning to handle virtual violence.

Spec Ops

In recent months, I’ve noticed a growing trend for mainstream action games to comment on and question the virtual carnage they portray.

Spec Ops: The Line is probably the most blatant example of this. It’s a deliberate deconstruction of the modern, macho military shooter: a hard-hitting, thought-provoking saga that explores the true horrors of war – and the effect it has on the fragile psychology of human beings.

It sees you commit atrocities, and then agonize over those actions. It has you make terrible decisions, and then question them. It’s gaming’s answer to Apocalypse Now and, as we recently suggested, one of the most under-appreciated titles in years.

But Spec Ops’ desire to make players ruminate on the issues surrounding violence is far from the only recent example. A number of high-profile releases have embarked on a similar path.

In Far Cry 3, you start the game as a terrified backpacker kidnapped by criminals, only to find yourself slashing and blasting your way through dozens of human adversaries as you elect to fight back. The game does not gloss over this huge personality change.

One character reacts with startled horror the first time she sees you kill without breaking a sweat. And, in one particularly striking exchange, the protagonist expresses the disturbing revelation that he felt terrible the first time he took a life – but now killing “feels like winning”.

In Metro: Last Light, the game makes it clear that avoiding bloodshed wherever possible is the more desirable way. But it is in the latter stages of the game that a compelling accompanying character really plays upon your conscience, with their poignant and intriguing responses to your actions.

Metro Last Light

Even beyond this, one moment in particular sticks long in my memory. In one section of the experience, I stepped out onto a building’s roof to be met by the descent of a huge ‘demon’ – a winged, gargoyle like creature that can be highly dangerous to encounter.

In FPSs, of course, we have been trained to shoot first and ask questions later. Without thinking, I hurled a pipe-bomb to where it had landed on the far side of the roof, and the resulting explosion slew it outright. “Fuck yeah!”, I thought.

Until I strolled over to where its body lay, and discovered the corpse of a helpless infant splayed out next to it. The demon had simply been tending to its nest, minding its own business – and I’d killed a child. Not a human child, sure: but a child nonetheless.

I felt awful. Up until that point, I’d simply blasted any creature that had stepped into my sights. I’d never stopped to question whether that was reasonable, or necessary, in every case. It was a sobering – and quite remarkable – moment.

One of the biggest releases of this year also found the time to make you think about its inherent brutality. BioShock Infinite, a genuine masterpiece that has more than its fair share of bloodshed, really hits home when a horrified Elizabeth – witnessing Booker maim and slaughter for the first time – flees in dismay from the man who seeks to protect her.

To Elizabeth, Booker himself seems little more than a monster. And it’s a hard-hitting reminder that although Booker’s intentions are noble – and many of his adversaries warped, twisted and offering him little choice but to use lethal force – his talent for death is not necessarily something to be celebrated. As the story makes clear, the man has been genuinely haunted and twisted by his violent past.

BioShock Infinite - Elizabeth

Personally, I feel that these examples are truly laudable – and should be celebrated. To me, they’re a sign of gaming growing up; a willingness to tackle complex and difficult issues, and not simply revel in endless, juvenile displays of wanton carnage.

That’s not to say I have a problem with violence in games per se. I’ve certainly never bought the argument that virtual violence leads to real-life violence (in fact, I’ve strenuously argued against such assertions in the past), and I enjoy a good, gory bout of blast ‘em up mayhem or hack ‘n’ slash skullduggery as much as the next man.

There’s also a danger that the kind of approach discussed in this article could descend into overwrought hand-wringing or moralistic finger-wagging if used in too frequent and heavy-handed a way. Becoming outright preachy would probably cross a line, and do none of us any favours.

But I do think that if video games are to mature and be more widely respected as an artistic medium, we need to see more of this kind of provocative reflection. And I think it’s worth pointing out that none of the above examples dampened my enjoyment of each experience, but actively enhanced and elevated it instead.

There’s something quite encouraging about this trend for action games to challenge convention and satirize their own bloody image. Gaming is growing up, shooters are developing a conscience – and I for one think that’s a good thing.

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