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Killing NPCs

This sort of ties into the whole ‘do violent video games cause violence’ debate, but that’s not a subject I’m going to touch on too much. I’ve just been thinking about morality in games, what it means to kill an NPC, and how that reflects on the gamer doing it, if at all. You see, in real life, I’m not a violent person. I don’t get into fights, I don’t yell at people, I don’t secretly contemplate murdering everyone around me, that’s not me. But in games, it’s what I do. I don’t view NPCs as people. They’re just bits of code I can interact with in interesting ways. I laugh at ragdolls tumbling through the air and smashing into things, but I imagine the real life equivalent would be a thing of sear horror for me to witness. So what does this say about me? Maybe I have some dark underlying personality that actually revels in other’s pain? No, I don’t think so at least.

Now, I’ve been playing video games for a long time, I started playing way back when 8-bit sprites were our NPCs. These weren’t very convincing at being people with families, a past, and a possible futures that I was robbing them of, they were just a picture (and more often than not, non-human). So ‘killing’ them meant very little, they’d just respawn on the next screen. Still these are things we see. NPCs don’t have much depth, they can’t. Development teams simply don’t have the sort of time it would take to build a city full of compelling people. And what happens if you kill one? More are going to spawn. So they’re hardly even entities, they’re just moving objects that you can interact with via combat, training robots even. What remorse do you have over experiencing additional interactivity, over learning how to play the game better? None I would imagine, and this is simply how those who have played games for a long time view our current cast of players in games.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Should I care when I kill PED1357? Should PED1356 miss him? The thought of a troupe of compelling of players is intriguing. What if a development team had the time to actually generate a set number of truly interesting people for you to interact with? What if they all had different faces, voices, lines, and personalities? What if once you killed them, your game world was a little emptier? Then you would care. Then I would care. This would stop my rampant attacking of anything that moved just to see how the game handled my input. Fighting off an endless wave of guards would cease to exist. Eventually they’d all be dead and you’d be left alone.

In the Fable series, I play an evil character almost every time (I kill people for calling me names). I find the noble route a far less interesting one in those games, but maybe that’s by design in this series. In the first game, I wanted to own every town, but you couldn’t buy a house that someone was living in. So I proceeded to go around the world, and town by town I would slaughter the citizens there and then buy their houses. At first, the towns were empty, they were boring, and I had nothing good or bad I could really do there. But slowly, they would repopulate (who would want to live in a town that had just been ransacked I can only imagine), and the populous would begin to pay me rent. It seemed as if the game wanted me to going on killing rampages, because now all of the citizens of Albion were paying me for my ransacking of their country. This strange approach to land acquisition was fixed in the second iteration of the series wherein you could just buy any property outright, provided you had the money. Now I wasn’t running around killing everyone, but I was jacking the rent up as far as I could.

So, Peter Molyneux has taught me that good is boring, and evil pays well. I doubt that’s what he was going for, but there it is. I’m sure I’ll just have to be an evil dictator in Fable III.

Maybe I’m missing the point here however. Maybe it’s not that I view these game worlds as code and interactive art rather than a story full of characters and people who matter, but maybe games are just my outlet. Maybe because I’m not evil in life, this is my safe way of trying something juxtaposed to my own beliefs while still preserving my own conscious. If I do something terrible to people in a game, I can laugh it off and point to my avatar, claiming he’s the evil one and not me. It doesn’t matter that he was just acting on what I asked him to do, he still did it, and he’s the evil one! Now I have a safe outlet for all of the frustrations that I build up throughout the day, and I can just shut it off when I’m done.

Recently I’ve been playing quite a bit of Assassin’s Creed II. In this game, you can’t kill too many civilians at once, because that’d be against your character’s creed. You can however kill as many guards, pickpockets, messengers, and (the actual evil guys) Templars that you want.  At first I was worried about killing the pickpockets since the thieves sort of align themselves with me, but the thieves don’t seem to mind. So I then went about killing every pickpocket I would see (to collect the money they stole from me). At another point in the game, I was killing every guard I came across. This wasn’t senseless violence though; I was training myself in the combat system. Learning how to counter, disarm, and dodge properly. So these guards turned into experience points for me as a player, the more I killed, the better I got at killing them. I didn’t think twice about the fact that I was killing them, they meant nothing to me.

Only once did I feel sorry for killing an NPC in Assassin’s Creed II. I was asked to find a wife’s cheating husband, give him a solid beating, and send him home with his tail between his legs. I came across the adulterer, talking with his mistress, who was (to my surprise) a guard. I promptly beat him into submission, and once he said he begged forgiveness he started to make his way home. Before he got far however, I assassinated him. He was an adulterer, he was a guard, he was a bad person… but, he was someone’s bad person. He had a connection with someone else in the game, and I honestly regretting killing him. I had been asked to let him live, she was going to give him a second chance, and I had just ruined that. But it’s just game code, right? I just modified a series of bits, and the wife didn’t actually exist anymore, she would never lament her loss to me, even if I looked for her.

That’s what our medium needs: compelling characters. Who cares that you can now fit 10,000 NPCs on screen at once if I don’t care about any of them? No one should, this is something movies have learned. You can throw extras at a movie all day, but if you don’t have a solid core cast of deep characters, it won’t be an interesting story. This isn’t to say that no game has a compelling story; it’s something that Bioware strives to do in all of their games, and they make you make tough moral choices. But are they the only ones who get it? It’s not long until the game industry gets over making just action games and starts making games with earnest drama. Heavy Rain and Alan Wake are who I’m looking for to push this new style of game.

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