I had a sudden thought the other day as I was wandering through dungeons in cult video game Dark Souls. As I stabbed families of rats with my +5 lightning spear to harvest their Humanity, I thought: “Wait a minute. What am I doing here? These rats have done nothing to me. Have I actually become the bad guy?”
It’s something gamers rarely think about as we wander through forests, castles, keeps, mountains and dungeons, slaying any of the inhabitants that happen to cross our paths (and who look like they might be packing gold/loot/experience points). What right do we have to lay waste to entire communities of non-humans who are just minding their own business?
As we strap on plate armour, power up our rail guns and rock up into foreign terrain looking for things to kill, we call it “adventure” – and yet, for the creatures we’re about to slay, they might call it “invasion”.
No, I’m not making some political point about human behaviour here. I’m just sparing a thought for the beings that end up on the wrong end of my vorpal sword/plasma lance/wand of fireballs.
We’re taking out entire communities of sentient beings here, people, societies that have existed long enough to presumably build their own café cultures and local music scenes.
Sure, those Orcs look mean and ugly (and are sure to be packing gold pieces), but does that give me the right to waste their entire clan? Maybe one of their Orc offspring might have grown up to be Orc president. Now we’ll never know.
And what about those most retro of foes – dragons? We don’t really know how he or she amassed all its gold and jewels from. Maybe he inherited it from a long-lost archdragon uncle. Maybe it’s profit-sharing from an enterprise with the local elves, providing much-needed jobs throughout the region. Maybe he runs a successful chain of Fair Trade coffee outlets. Just because the dragon is giant, scaly and mean-looking, that doesn’t mean we’re justified in killing it so we can buy precious upgrades for our weapons and armour.
The game designers will make it easy for you to kill Smaug and his ilk by depicting dragons as hideous, misshapen monsters: you may not feel so comfortable if they had the face of one of those cute little puppies all tangled up in toilet rolls like in those TV ads.
I can hear the voice of my fellow gamers interjecting here. “What are you, some kind of pinko?” they’ll say. “You sound like that commie ‘bug lover’ from the movie Starship Troopers, who claimed the arachnids only started attacking Earth after we invaded their territory. They just blew up Buenos Aires, bug lover! Whose side are you on?”
I applaud the rise of video games such as Dishonoured that reward you for not killing everything in sight. It takes genuine skill to slink through the shadows to complete your mission, rather than stand in the middle of the street, sword in hand, flaming torch in the other, and scream “who wants a piece of me”?
Even killing guards and henchmen – the traditional sport of gamers – has consequences. Kill them and you’re leaving a family somewhere without a father and a breadwinner. Like the movie Austen Powers says: “Nobody thinks about the henchmen’s family.”
And games like Spec Ops: The Line twist the narrative by making you look at the consequences of your actions, asking you in game questions like: “Do you feel like a hero yet?”
I’ll feel like more of a hero if I can avoid gratuitously killing indigenous wildlife on the way to killing the really evil big bosses. If only I didn’t need that gold/Humanity/shiny new set of armour as well.
Let’s just hope the game designers don’t have me kicking Ewoks in the nuts for experience points next.
My military thriller, The Spartan, is now available on Amazon.