Killing–it’s the vehicle through which our characters progress to a common goal. From Mario to Marcus Fenix, killing is the link that ties games together. Of course wording it in this way distorts the view, it makes Mario come off as a cold calculating death machine. He’s not out here with gun in hand, ruthlessly killing the citizens of the mushroom kingdom…he just jumps on the heads of its more seedier inhabitants. It just so happens that Mario’s enemies turn into a puff of smoke and ‘disappear’. But one thing is true, in order for our character to live, something must give way. And when given room, violence, death and life have their place in gaming. However, you have a problem when you depend on these tropes for no reason other than to have them.
Real Characters, Unreal Problems
Prime example is Rise of The Tomb Raider, the sequel to the successful Tomb Raider reboot. Lara Croft, the budding adventurer, is no killer. She is head strong, intelligent, strong-willed and assertive. But one thing she is not, is a stone cold killer. Yet, that’s where we ultimately find her during critical moments in the game. My Lara Croft, the one who hunts, and is proficient with a bow and arrow is suddenly thrown a pump-action shotgun and told to put in work.
Jack Joyce is a typical American guy with some family issues. Jack, through no fault of his own, finds himself imbued with powers to control time and space. His first few minutes are spent trying to understand what has happened to him. It’s a sense of fear and survival that leads him to his first kill. One that is validated by his acknowledgement that he might have fired a gun once. But he’s never killed a man. Yet for the rest of the game we find him become a one man killing machine.
In both instances we are given a character and a set of beliefs that build the world that they inhabit. But these worlds, similar to our own, are a stark contrast to the world we do live in. Outside of fringe cases, I’m not a seasoned killer, nor would I easily be able to kill and move on as if nothing happened. It’s not our nature. Yet, we are forced to succeed in a set of circumstances that seem at odds with not only the main character, but the actual flow and design of the game.
The Flaw of Action for Action’s Sake
Let’s look at Rise of The Tomb Raider, a game that mixes combat with puzzle solving and exploration. Lara Croft was never meant to be Marcus Fenix. She’s not presented as someone who steps into a situation guns blazing. She is calculating, and combat comes at the expense of her occupation. She fights because has to, and the game is designed to support that fact. Most of your time in the game is spent exploring tombs, collecting hidden treasures, and hunting wild life. Each of these come with their own set of dangers. Hunting bears, especially in the beginning of the game, proves to be one of the more challenging and rewarding moments of the game. The game asks you to use Lara’s wit and cunning to solve a problem. It would make sense that Lara would have to overcome a bear in a cave. Even when Lara must face human foes their placement within the game seems natural. Groups spread across the region, easily dispatched from a distance. They serve as mini distractions as you traverse the landscape. So it would seem completely out-of-place for Lara, who up until the end has used her wits to survive, must now “fight” a helicopter and a horde of armored mercenaries. Yet this is where we find ourselves, enduring mental gymnastics trying to figure out how the hell Lara is supposed to defeat a helicopter.
In Quantum Break we’re forced to take an ordinary man through extraordinary circumstances. And extraordinary has nothing to do with the fact that Jack can control space and time. Nor the manipulation of the space-time continuum, but the simple fact that an ordinary man can instantly become a trained killer. How can someone who is scared of their own powers, suddenly find themselves with the skill and knowhow to eliminate an entire military unit?
Yet that is what we’re faced with on a consistent basis. It’s not that these situations are wrong morally, it’s that they don’t fit the within the confines of the universe. Sure there is a moment where Lara fights what seems like an undead army, but the enemies fit within the reality of the universe AND you have the option of avoiding most of the fights. But you don’t have choice in fighting a helicopter. And it is that lack of choice that is driving me up the wall. Every game doesn’t have to have wall to wall action. We don’t always need the large action set pieces for a game to be great. Games have become holistic experiences and to shoehorn an action sequence that feels at odds with the game just for the sake of checking off a box is keeping our games from maturing with us.