The Fool on the Hill: Death glory and computer games

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Death, glory, and computer games

The rookie, quick Let's suppose for a moment that you're a member – the most junior member, the rookie – of a squad. Your squad may be police, it may be corporate security, it may be a criminal gang; this doesn't matter. What does matter is that it exists in an environment in which all these things exist, and compete; in which they compete using lethal force.

As the rookie, you've been issued with a weapon. It isn't a very good weapon; it's old, worn out, not particularly powerful; and you're not yet very skilled in its use. But this doesn't matter; there are half a dozen other folk in your squad who are all more experienced and better armed than you. Your leader is a very experienced – famous, perhaps notorious – combat veteran. You feel safe, and your squad is moderately successful.


The killer in the dark Then, one dark night, within the space of about five minutes, your comrades are picked off one by one by an unknown assailant using a sniper rifle from cover. Most of them never see him; most of them don't get a single shot off on target.

And now they're all – all your experienced, well armed, competent comrades – dead. Every one of them, dead. There's only you left. There's nothing in particular to defend. No harmless civilians depending on your protection, no pass that must not be sold, not even any very significant amount of booty.


Carnage In those circumstances, what do you, the last survivor, the poorly armed rookie, do?

Do you hide, in the dark, in an environment that is full of hiding places? Do you flee into the complex maze of streets and alleys around you, or in one of the fast getaway cars that your squad so often has parked around the scenes of such encounters? Do you stay alive at all costs, to inform your superiors, the rest of your faction, of what has happened, of this new threat they face? Do you throw down your weapon, put your hands up, and beg for mercy?

Or do you fight, to certain death, against a warrior you already know is far more deadly – and far better armed – than you are?

Seriously?


The rookie, dead And yet, this is what (almost) all such characters in (almost) all video games do.

The game I playing at present is Cyberpunk, so the game I am ranting about at present is Cyberpunk. But that's unfair, because this behaviour is ubiquitous. The very rare exceptions (and as far as I'm aware, outside the 'Beat on the Brat' boxing competition, there are none in Cyberpunk) are specifically scripted individual events. The default behaviour for all opponent NPCs is to fight to the death, to fight without quarter given, to the very last man or, all too often, woman.

In Cyberpunk, enemies who are hunting you (yes, even that poor unfortunate last rookie) will call out "come out with your hands in the air," "we only want to talk to you," or "I promise not to kill you."

These apparent offers of quarter are in fact insincere. You are given no way to respond to them directly; but if you do put your weapons down and just stand there, you will be killed. Equally, you are given no way to call on your victims to surrender, or to offer them quarter.

True, you, the player, can walk away from a fight, and (usually) the enemy won't pursue you very far. But, while you remain in the area in which the fight broke out, any leftover survivors will continue, suicidally, to attack.

And surely – surely – it can't just be for me that this universal, this irrational, this suicidal refusal either to surrender or to flee wrenches at the willing suspension of disbelief?

A digression: 'non-lethal' weapons

Of course, also, in Cyberpunk, you can use 'non lethal' weapons. 'Non lethal' weapons include most or all blunt melee weapons – clubs, batons, et cetera – but also include firearms to which you have added a modifier called 'Pax' which somehow, magically, renders the firearms 'non lethal'.

You can probably guess from all the scare-quotes that I consider this a moral cop-out, and it is. Anyone with experience in the real world knows that blows with a blunt instrument sufficiently forceful to knock the victim out for a substantial time have a substantial chance of causing permanent brain injury or death. Anyone with experience in the real world knows that rubber bullets or plastic baton rounds fired from firearms frequently cause permanent injury or death.

A character sufficiently injured with a 'non-lethal' weapon falls immediately to the ground and never, no matter how long you wait, recovers in any way. Characters felled in this way with 'non-lethal' weapons never reappear in the game.

There are a series of missions given you by a fixer called Regina Jones in which she urges you to use non-lethal weapons, and says that a medical team will come to recover the victim for treatment; but, no matter how long you wait, that medical team is never seen to arrive.

In practice I think 'non-lethal' weapons are just a flimsy screen behind which CD Projekt can claim "well, you don't have to kill hundreds of people, you can use 'non lethal' weapons." But, in fact, to complete a playthrough of Cyberpunk – even just the 'main plot' quests – you do have to permanently incapacitate many tens, probably hundreds of characters. In practice, 'non lethal' weapons are a difference that makes no difference.

The reason for 'No Surrender'

So, why? Why does the rookie with the most basic, most useless weapon, sole survivor of his or her squad, still charge into battle against an opponent who has clearly demonstrated martial superiority? Why does the rookie continue to attack even when wounded?

It's partly down to something I've been arguing for ten years now. Because every interaction in modern video games has to be voice acted, characters have very limited vocal repertoire. So there isn't sufficient repertoire for negotiations of surrender (either way). But to an extent the repeated calls of "come out with your hands in the air" give the lie even to this suggestion. There is not just one voice acted instance of that call, there are several. True, they do become repetitive; true, they are not individually voice acted for each opponent.

But the very fact that they are not indicates that it would be possible for the developers to record a few variants of "I give up," "I've had enough," "I surrender." There's an animation which civilian non-player characters caught in the middle of a firefight; the crouch in the open with their hands above their heads. A defeated opponent could put his or her weapon down, call out "I surrender," and do the same.

An injured opponent could writhe on the ground, crying out in pain or whimpering, and beg for medical help. An uninjured opponent could just run away, either abandoning their weapon or taking it with them.

In any of these cases the player would have moral choices. They could succour the wounded. They could handcuff wanted criminals and tag them for the police to collect. They could let fugitives go. Or, they could leave the wounded in agony, could demand bribes from wanted criminals for not calling the police. Or, they could just kill the defeated. In any of these options, the player could either collect the victims' weapons (and, optionally, other valuables) for resale, or not do so.

And, of course, if the player leaves the victim free with their weapon, then there should be at least some chance that the victim will then break their implied parole and restart the fight.

But it's a role playing game. The player should have scope to play their role, to make moral choices. Some players will choose to be merciful; some, even, quixotic. Those choices should be there.

Not providing these options – having every non-player opponent continue to fight, obstinately, mechanically, robotically, to the bitter end, to the death of every last member of the squad, without ever considering or trying or begging for other outcomes – is lazy. It's not good game design. It rends at the willing suspension of disbelief. It sucks.

Labels: Game Worlds, Reviews

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