What if you feel sorry for the people you're shooting? The ethics of game heroes

Games are not films: if a player is going to invest in a character's actions, they need to have a chance to do the right thing.

Nobody really knows why Bowser kept kidnapping Princess Peach of the Mushroom Kingdom. It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that a giant turtle was up to no good and that meant that he and his kids were going to get got, because that’s how the Mario Brothers roll. But despite stomping on dozens of foot soldiers and chucking the guy’s progeny into lava pits, it was a given that Mario and Luigi were good guys. They freed the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser’s minions time after time without making any demands of the people and when the dust settled they were not above meeting up with old adversaries at the Kart track for some friendly racing.

In those days the heroes were pure as the driven snow and even a game like Doom, which was a bloody and brutal affair by the standards of the time, put you in the shoes of a soldier fighting demons. No ambiguity there, for all the machismo and aggression your character was saving the world, not just from scary monsters, but scary monsters from Hell, the worst kind of scary monster.

So how do we get from the video game hero as a sort of chivalric knight figure to a character who carries out a terrorist attack in an airport or who tortures people or who turns up in a country and completely trashes the place at the behest of a foreign power? Perhaps it is a desire for grittiness and edginess, perhaps it’s an appeal to jingoism, or perhaps it’s just writers within an immature medium misunderstanding of the role of a hero in a story.

There are plenty of games of course where being bad is good, where you are attacking the world order rather than seeking to protect or restore it. The Grand Theft Auto series has always cast you as a deadly outlaw, the God Of War series sees you play as Kratos, a brutal monster in his own right. These characters are bad guys, but they are generally painted as having some virtues which are considered universal and which set them above the villains of the piece, such as loyalty or a sense of purpose. In these games it is the world that is portrayed as the villain more than the villainous protagonist. There is a conscious effort to present the world in these games as corrupt.

There are in effect three sorts of video game heroes, the heroic ones, the anti-heroic ones, and those where it is the player who is in charge. Developers and writers of the first type in particular need to be careful, because if they cast a character as a hero and he comes across as a scumbag, a douchebro, an idiot, or worse yet all three then that’s bad writing. That’s a hero who makes you feel unclean for walking in his shoes. Some games approach this knowingly, such as Far Cry 3 or Spec Ops: The Line, where the main character is forced to confront his own misdeeds, but for others it is a consequence of bad writing. Any hero who makes you root for the guys you are shooting has failed.

The interesting thing with these failed heroes is how they come to fail in the first place. For example you don’t need to have a hero commit torture when you are writing the story when you can just have the hero find what he needs some other way. Somebody, for whatever reason, chose that route for the character. By the normal run of things it would be considered insulting to portray British or American government operatives torturing people in such a casual and practiced manner, but on that front it isn’t only the ethics of video game characters to have slipped in the last decade or so.

Games where you are in essence playing through a story on rails are subject to the control of writers but it is games where you are free to carve your own path where some of the strangest ethics in games can be seen.

For example, nearly every fantasy RPG features crazy amounts of looting. There you are, in Skyrim, or Ferelden, or Azeroth, or Faerûn and the first thing you do upon slaughtering an enemy is to rifle his pockets for coins, gems and other items. Needs must and all that but really it seems odd that nobody passes comment on a rich warrior hero, the would-be saviour of the world, rummaging around in a decapitated goblin’s loincloth for his beer money.

This is coupled to the fact that in games of this nature there is usually a sense that anybody and anything outside of a town is fair game to be murdered and to have their possessions claimed by the noble hero. Skyrim handles this in a very crude manner; if a person is to be considered fair play to be murdered then they will be called a "Bandit". They have no name and are thus freely killable. This is a strange feature in a game that otherwise does such a fine job of making the world feel alive, but it is one mirrored in many other role playing games where faceless goons pad out the world in lieu of characters.

Games that rely upon experience points for advancement are perhaps the worst offenders when it comes to the ethics the player is encouraged to show. The crudest interpretations of experience points based systems literally entail a path to progress and success that is paved with the bodies of whatever hapless individuals happen to cross your path. You want to be a better cleric? Kill some people. You want to be able to learn more spells? Set fire to a few dozen wolves. The world of the fantasy RPG is staggeringly predatory, although one might argue that’s the point.

In games where there is true freedom of choice you will usually find that the easy path is the unethical one, whether this means just stealing everything that isn’t nailed down from everybody and selling it on, or shaking people down for greater rewards when you’ve helped them out. But there can be a certain satisfaction in not taking the path of least resistance. In the same way that a player might want to keep the difficulty setting on high, they might also want to play by a code.

In games with a predestined story it could be said that there is something more realistic and more grounded about a hero who is willing to get his hands dirty, or to put it another way, betray the principles he claims to represent. However what games developers need to remember is that games are not films. Watching a hero on screen betraying his ethics is one thing, but if you want players to stay invested in the character as their avatar, as their hero, then those sorts of situations need to offer a choice.

When a game offers you nothing but scripted sequences of unpleasant people killing each other, with nobody to root for and nothing to hold your attention except the next action set piece, it is barely any better than a movie.

 

A still from "No Russian" in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, in which you carry out a terrorist attack on an airport.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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