[Is it possible for games to deal with murder as a dramatic element, and not simply as part of charge-and-kill mechanics? In this editorial, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt examines the deceptively complex issue.]
You can't do a murder game.
I'm not talking about making more games like Manhunt 2 -- a game that was widely decried and almost banned in its Wii incarnation, for inviting the player to physically mimic acts of sadistic violence.
I'm also not using the inflammatory term "murder simulator" -- even ironically -- to make any sort of point about the appropriateness of violence in games.
No, I'm thinking about other media, and how much murder -- be it police procedural, detective story, whodunit, or crime drama -- is an integral part of the medium.
If you look at the current TV ratings, shows like NCIS, CSI, and The Mentalist dominate the drama ratings. Action movies like Casino Royale manage to make death (okay, not murder) emotionally meaningful even when the main character is a walking killing machine.
Contrast that against the Treyarch-developed Quantum of Solace, which took in scenes from that film but pumped up the body count tremendously to fit the need for entertaining mayhem.
What got me thinking about this, though, is not film or television; it's the fact that the two best books I've read in the past couple of years both center on murder. Neither one is a mystery; in fact, both show their murders, early on, and then spend the rest of the books filling in the tantalizing psychological details of the characters and situations that surround them.
The two books are Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Natsuo Kirino's Out. Tartt's book is about a group of classics students at a secluded New England liberal arts college. The story revolves around the murder of one of them; in some ways, it eerily reflected my own college experience -- murder aside, thankfully. Out, on the other hand, is a gripping story of Japan's underclass, and how socioeconomic pressures in a fracturing society warp people's behavior.
Neither would make a very good game. I am of the belief that some stories probably aren't meant to be told -- or certainly can't as easily or effectively be told -- in video games. I'm not encouraging anyone to license Out or The Secret History (newsflash: that isn't going to happen anyway.)
But it did get me thinking about the power of murder as a plot device. In these books, the death of a single character has huge reverberations for the entire cast. In most games, death is a constant; it's ubiquitous. There have been effective attempts to humanize foes through clever ambient dialogue and plot twists, but these are clever exceptions to the rule, and don't fundamentally change the charge-forward-and-kill nature of so much of the medium.
Some story-based games take the death of single characters to the height of effective drama, but these often just serve to sharpen the contrast between the game's two states. Probably the most talked-about character death in gaming history is that of gentle flower-seller Aerith Gainsborough in Final Fantasy VII, run through with Sephiroth's sword in one of the game's many climaxes. But in this same game, you slaughter huge numbers of human enemies -- Shinra soldiers by the score, for example, in the company's HQ.
And as games get more and more realistic -- witness the characters in next year's Final Fantasy XIII, who look almost human, compared to the living dolls of 1997's FFVII -- the layers of abstraction that made this acceptable are less possible to maintain.
We can (and the FFXIII demo does) throw helmet-faced storm troopers at the player endlessly. We know the player knows that these are pawns, not people. I think we accept that there is a layer on which all right-minded players understand the abstraction of the game-layer simulation, and that is what, in our minds, diffuses the game violence arguments. I wholly agree with this.
But maintaining that abstraction does work to rob us of one of the most crucially human, moving, intriguing storytelling elements we could be working with. If gaming is accused of having a limited palette to work with, adopting conventions that encourage that limitation is not an effective move.
Building a game that effectively tells the story of a murder -- makes it realistic and interesting -- works against many games' strengths in other ways. It requires extremely good writing, for one, with nuanced dialogue. I do believe many games have good writing right now. But I also don't think that this is frequently precisely a strength of even many that do have solid storytelling.
Of course, the obvious answer to this is that some games do deal with the subject well: adventure games. The detective story/police procedural tends to leak into games from this angle, when it does, and it has pretty much been thus since the medium was born. It is definitely related to audience issues, but it's also down to the medium. The Japanese call many of the games in this genre -- the ones that are largely just pictures and text -- "visual novels", and I think that sums why these games work well nicely. But it would be nice if we could see a murder-focused game that branches out beyond that.
Indigo Prophecy, and its developer Quantic Dream's new game, Heavy Rain, stand something in contrast to this problem: they make murder central to the story, not the gameplay, and eschew combat except as dramatic punctuation. Yet they're still of their generation, and not in any sense a visual novel. It's hard to think of other contemporary examples.
It's not as if the drama of murder can't be effective in a traditional framework. Sega's Yakuza games are poignantly dramatic tales of personal relationships marred by death. The games also see their thoughtful protagonist battle countless thugs on the Tokyo streets. This is acceptable because it's a hell of a lot of fun, and Japanese games tend to be comfortable with gameplay abstractions.
But I so often hear Western developers express the desire to reject abstraction; the ideal is a realistic world, with believable characters, compelling situations, and integrated gameplay and storytelling. In that context, will there be a way to tell the heartbreaking, or chilling, or disturbing tale of a murder and its effect on that world? It'll be quite a challenge for whatever developer approaches it head-on.