How games use death and violence to talk about life


Have you ever counted how many people you’ve killed in video games? Probably not; after all, we need to do everything we can to get to a certain point or to accomplish a specific goal, and that includes killing anyone who tries to stop us. After all, do video games trivialize death and the act of killing?

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  • Before we start the discussion, let me add an addendum: my goal is not it’s about discussing the morality of video games, not falling for the faux pas that “games make people violent” — we’re tired of reading scientific studies and research pointing out that there is no evidence to link games directly to violent acts. I just want to propose a reflection on how we kill without thinking, especially NPCs (non-playable characters), and how some games have tried to make us think about it.

    Death has always been a mechanic present in games, whether for extra lives, game over screens or defeated enemies. But we rarely feel anything about it: the characters simply disappear from the scene, or “respawn” and everything starts all over again. Now, death is no longer a mechanic to become a central theme of the narrative.

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This already happened in indie games, like The First Tree

, by David Wehle, To the Moon

, by Freebird Games, and Last Day of June, by Ovosonico; but now it’s happening in triple-A games (ie big budget games), like The Last of Us Part II

. Not to mention souls-like games, where the player will likely die numerous times in the same challenge, and permadeath games, where death is permanent.

Last Day of June is a story about love and grief, in which players change past events to avoid a tragic fate (Photo: Disclosure/505 Games)

“There is an interesting player relationship (and society as a whole) with death, because we don’t know how to deal with it”, says Livia Scienza, a doctoral student in Psychology at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCAR). She studies the impact of video games on the formation of empathy and violence in children. “We have a craving, a certain fascination with death and violence. We are afraid of dying and of what comes after that.”

The researcher also remembers that most of the great launches have mechanics based on weapons. For her, this is a legacy of the way of life in the United States, a country that has “a culture of conquest of people, of land through brute force”, she says. “The heroes of the movies we consume also use violence to win peace,” for example. This pattern, however, gradually reframes itself in a two-way street.

The psychologist and video game researcher Livia Scienza (Photo: Personal archive/Livia Scienza)

Spiritfarer and the maturation of the industry (and developers)

“The game industry, from the beginning, cares about young men in general. They tend to be more violent in their lives, to get distracted by killing people — and I say that being a young man,” said Nicolas Guérin, creative director of Thunder Lotus, in an interview with Canaltech

. The studio has released on 1024 the game Spiritfarer, in which you help spirits fulfill their last wishes before death. “It’s the only approach: we need to overcome a challenge and then confront it from a physical violence perspective.”

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  • In Spiritfarer, Stella and the cat Daffodil help souls fulfill their last wishes and move on (Screenshot: Wagner Wakka/Canaltech)

    However, he points out that games like

    Call of Duty, Rainbow Six or any others whose only goal is to kill are still fun — and it’s okay to like that. I myself, who am writing this article, am in love with VALORANT, a shooting game from Riot Games. But it’s interesting to note how these games (and ourselves, as players) trivialize violence and death. “I think, yes, we normalize death in video games. It’s not as if we were killing other people, but as if we were surpassing a goal, completing a challenge.”

    Nicolas’s vision is curious, as he has worked at Ubisoft for eight years and was one of the top names in the franchise Assassin’s Creed. Now, older, the father of an eight-year-old girl, he says his perspective on gaming has changed. “You feel more vulnerable. I think ‘if something happens to me it will be terrible for her’. It slightly changed my taste” — no wonder we’re seeing an avalanche of “sad parents simulator” games hitting the market.

    Nicolas Guérin, creative director of the game Spiritfarer: “I think, yes, we normalize death in video games” (Photo: Disclosure/Thunder Lotus)

    He credits this to a few factors: the first is maturation. “As we get older, we tend to lessen this urge to destroy things, this violent impulse,” he says. The second is the maturity and growing diversity of the industry itself. “We have a lot more women, people from other backgrounds and cultures playing and creating games. Violence can still be a means to an end, but it’s just one of the ways we can distract ourselves. There are other possible ways to create these experiences.”

  • And which games use these other ways? Nicolas cites some titles that “talk to him”, such as Disco Elysium

    . “It’s an adult game, with a political tone, fun characters and a deep experience. And all you do is select dialog options.”

    Elysium disk is a Open world RPG in which a detective seeks to solve a murder (Photo: Disclosure/ZA/UM)

    He also cites other examples, such as The Last of Us Part II, Red Dead Redemption 2. “These are violent games with huge budgets, but they mean something, not just free killing — which is still fun,” he points out. “I try to spend my time consuming entertainment that brings me something like a human being.”

    The Last of Us Part II and the weight of violence

    Warning: the following text contains spoilers from The Last of Us Part II.

    OK, let’s talk now of a rather dangerous game. Many hate him, many love him, but one thing is consensus: The Last of Us Part II

    , by Naughty Dog, tries to make the player feel the weight of every decision made, as well as empathy by putting him in control of Abby.

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      Abby, the villain from The Last of Us Part II, depending on your point of view (Photo: Disclosure/Naughty Dog)

      “The person sees and says: ‘this is nothing. I can hit something that is nothing. I can be violent with something that has no feeling, emotion, life”, says Livia. The researcher also points out that there are academic studies stating that “to trivialize violence, zombies are used as characters”. none for me. From the moment you know the life of an NPC, you think: ‘hey, he has a daughter, a wife, a father’. This makes you wonder if you really want to hit him”, reflects the researcher. “And it’s even worse with zombies.”

    • That’s exactly what happens with the relationship between Ellie and Abby. After all, who could say that the doctor at the end of the first game, only one of the hundreds of people we killed in the game, would have a family? A story? And who would have a teenage daughter who, years later, would avenge herself for the trauma caused by her father’s murder?

      Who would have thought that this death would bring so much trouble? (Photo: Reproduction/Naughty Dog)

      This same trauma is experienced by Ellie after Abby kills Joel. After all, the character also had a family, a history, and a person who, although not a biological child, had a paternal relationship with him. Both the girl and the villain (depending on your point of view) become, in the end, equal people, terrified and obsessed for the same reasons.

      An academic article published by Rosana Ruas Machado Gomes, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), explains that traumas “are experiences connected to catastrophic or very painful events”. The text continues:

      “How note Freud (674), these experiences do not present the possibility of ever having produced pleasure in the past, and are no less unpleasant today. Furthermore, they do not take the form of dreams or memories; rather, they haunt the survivor in the form of new experiences, repeated under the pressure of a compulsion. Freud (1902) also notes that one of the features of these cases is linked to the way in which the survivor had a passive experience, over which he has no influence, and in which he repeatedly encounters the same fate.”

      Ellie is addicted to Abby, and maybe that’s why we are too . In order to fulfill our goal, we need to go through some obstacles—and that includes some people. Normally, this wouldn’t shake us; however, the game inserts us into situations that make us uncomfortable and make us question the compulsion of the very character we control. It’s like Ellie has crossed the line, and so have we.

      Ellie feels the consequences of her revenge on her skin and in her mind (Photo: Reproduction/Naughty Dog)

      Moments like this abound: like when we’re forced to press the buttons on the controller to beat Nora to death, stab Mel in the neck — stop, then , we find out that the latter was pregnant—or to assault and strangle Abby.

      Other interesting details that aid in immersion are that some enemies crave for life when they are about to be killed, or the dogs that cry over the corpses of the guardians (watch the video below, in the minute 18: 07). It’s like these NPCs have stories and relationships too.

    • Death’s Door and respect for enemies

      Th and Last of Us Part II made me think of villains by putting myself in the shoes of one — if you can call someone there a villain. But other games also made me reflect on that. The most recent was Death’s Door, an indie game developed by Acid Nerve and published by Devolver Digital in July this year.

        Review Death’s Door | Everything that lives will die

        One of the most acclaimed indies of 2020, Death’s Door is a mix of Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda (Screenshot: Felipe Goldenboy/Canaltech)

        “It’s interesting that many games have the act of killing as a central part of all gameplay. Your main activity is killing people, and you do that without thinking about the concept of death,” said David Fenn, one of the co-creators of Death’s Door in an interview with Canaltech.

      • In the game, death no longer exists. The job of bringing souls to an eternal end is in the hands of a select group of crows, who work obsessively in a gray office. The player controls one of these crows, which, after an accident, needs to travel between worlds to harvest some gigantic souls — and of course they don’t want to die.

        Mark Foster and David Fenn, the two creators of Death’s Door (Screenshot/Edit: Felipe Goldenboy/Canaltech)

        What called me to Attention in the game is that, after each battle with a boss, you attend a funeral. The gravedigger and some of the people closest to the villain are present. A speech is given that always exalts the qualities and deeds of the enemy, explaining the reasons that made him to be such a bad person (or, just, to seek eternal life).

        “ It’s not necessarily a winning moment,” says Fenn. “The gravedigger doesn’t tell you how great you are, but about that person’s life.” Fenn’s colleague Mark Foster, who is also co-creator of Death’s Door

        , says: “they all have their own motivations, why they do what they do. Villains are always based on your perspective. If everyone had more empathy, maybe the world would be a better place.” He points out, however, that some limits must be considered (reporter’s note: some of these limits are described in the legislation).

        “There are characters you can empathize with, put yourself in their position, understand why they do what they do,” says Mark. He ends: “I think you just need to be a good person and hope you’re not the villain in someone else’s story.”

        “Her time in this world is over” (Photo: Reproduction/Acid Nerve)

        This is one of the lines of Epitaphio, the gravedigger, that touched me the most:

        “Your motivations may have been silly , but the will to live is deeply rooted. Who can say what any of us would do if we had the same options as this gentleman. Let’s keep silent in his honor.”

        Should I feel guilty for enjoying killing people in games?

        The answer is no. “You don’t need to blame yourself for what you do in video games, but just try to think about why you do it”, summarizes Livia. “If you’re afraid to be aggressive in the real world but use games as an outlet, it’s still a valid excuse. Because it’s a virtual world”, she says.

        The researcher also makes a parallel between video games and a dream. “Do you feel bad about dreaming something that would be socially unacceptable?” he asks. “There are people who say yes, and there are people who will think it was just a dream. The game has that same function for some people.”

      • In other words: don’t feel guilty, hypocritical or a merciless killer when killing a zombie or any NPC — it’s not like we were about to create the “NPC rights”. It’s our ways of escaping into a virtual world, where we project ourselves into other characters, stories and contexts — and we all like that. “The focus should be on a conscious person, and be a conscious player. But no fault!”

        • Buy the Xbox Series S here and enter the new generation with the most compact model from Microsoft

        With information from: UCS

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