He Who Fights Monsters

…should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Though my first experience with the quote came at the beginning of Baldur’s Gate, when I was an impressionable twelve year old. It made a profound impression on me, because it started a game I thoroughly enjoyed as a child.

What does it mean? Well, Nietzsche was a philosopher, so he wrote books about it. And then other well meaning people wrote books about his books, though that never made a lot of sense to me. What’s the quote mean, though? It means that I hate zombies. And Nazis, but not quite so much.

How’s that for a non sequitur? I’ll explain, of course. There’ll just be a click between you and that.

I was reading an article on post hype which you may have stumbled upon yourself, about how Splinter Cell: Conviction was ruined by its vapid ambient dialog. I read it more because I like post hype rather than any interest in Splinter Cell; in my book, Splinter Cell can go die in a corner. I don’t care about it.

But it was an anecdote in the middle of the piece that really struck me. Chris Breault talked about how, while writing dialog for The Punisher, how he was supposed to change dialog used in the interrogation scenes. Things that would make the victim seem like a human being were to be cut, because it would turn into sadistic violence. Hurting someone who wanted it was seen as less controversial. Those people deserved to die, for wanting the pain; people who tried to get you to stop by talking about their wife, their kid, their pet cat Bootsy who would starve to death if they died, they would cause some sort of sick, sadistic reaction in the player.

This wasn’t really the point of the article. It was an anecdotal remark to a bigger point I recommend reading about. What it made me think about was, how true it is of all games. Think to the video game you last played. Odds are good your enemy fit one of four categories:
-Zombies, or mindless killing machines.
-Demons, or creatures literally from an afterlife bent on killing you.
-Nazis, or pure evil people who wanted world domination/destruction
-Terrorists, or people out to destroy your way of life.

It’s very hard for me to think of a video game where this isn’t true. Even where you don’t think it, it’s true. Bowser, for example, is a classic terrorist. He’s destroying the Mushroom Kingdom’s way of life, and then develops Nazi characteristics as time passes (in the modern games) and endeavors to reshape the world. Kefka was a Nazi. Sephiroth was a terrorist with grand plans. Every shooter ever featured one of these, and usually with their specific names.

The point is, can you think of the last video game that portrayed a realistic villain? That is, someone who isn’t mindless, or possessed, or a destroy the world egomaniac, or a terrorist whose actions are portrayed without any cause? I can think of a couple, but they always end up friends, or party members. Cyborg Ninja was misunderstood. Magus was misunderstood. And when villains are misunderstood in video games, that always means they will forgive you for killing all their underlings, declare you right about everything, and join your ranks unflinchingly. And if someone betrays you, they rarely have a good reason for doing it. They betray you for the fuck of it, because they’re evil.

I’ve spent enough time bemoaning the lack of real, multi-faceted villains who just have a different, logical viewpoint from you. Who want something you don’t want to give them. No, I’m thinking about the ramifications of our actions. When we play video games, we murder at least hundreds of things, things that don’t, in any visible way, feel pain. Even in realistic games, like Grand Theft Auto, the people you kill never have wives, or children, or even pets you could see and think, wow, this man has a life outside of crime. No. They are always criminals. Hardened, cold criminals, who get off work and run over pedestrians to ease their suffering. They have to be monsters, because if they aren’t monsters, then the player might feel bad about killing them.

Grand Theft Auto IV is interesting, in that it comes closest to trying to make us sympathetic. When you (choose to) kill Playboy, he talks about all the good he could do in the world, and all the things you’re depriving from the world. Of course, he’s full of shit, and you know he’s full of shit. And that’s the closest it comes to giving us a rounded villain who isn’t just out to kill everyone. Dmitri’s goal in that game is to kill you. That is his only job, his only aspiration. His life must be awfully empty when you see the game over screen.

You are always the most important figure, and you are always a monster, who enjoys the prospect of killing. You kill hundreds without once wondering, or being informed about, what these people do for fun. Why you’re killing them, even. I mean, they’re shooting at you, and that is the universal symbol of it’s okay to kill these blokes but why are they shooting you?

It has the strongest effect in Half Life 2, and it’s weird that they never explored it. The Combine are, basically, police officers. Humans, who’ve been employed to keep the peace in a city under alien control. Admittedly, not all are humans with their sense intact. Some have had invasive surgery performed (thanks, Half Life Wiki!), while others are synthetics. However, it is established to us early on that all of the combine enjoys cruelty to humans, and for what reason? We don’t have one. Aliens just hate humanity. There’s no why to it. Looking for a why will get you nowhere, because there isn’t one. The only callback is irrational, Nazi-like hate.

And what have we become, in fighting monsters who hate us for no reason? We’ve become people who think that games exist for us to act out homicidal fantasies in. Where less than half its purchasers beat Grand Theft Auto 4 because they were satisfied going around the city, shooting people in the head and shouting triumphantly. Or driving their cars down the sidewalks. Or people who bought Just Cause 2 for the sake of grabbing people with a grappling hook and dangling them off of an airplane.

Why? Because they were there. Because we hate them.


  1. curly

    the chief reason why enemies in video games are two-dimensional hacks is because if they were similar to real people we wouldn’t want to kill them.

    as in, the only reason why we don’t kill in real life is because other people have all these traits – families, lives, motives, etc. killing them has a societal impact.

    if game enemies were like that, then a lot of people would try to not kill their enemies, but sedate/quell them.

    but videogames are about acting out things you can’t normally do. so when i come up to a pedestrian in Saint’s Row 2 and blow him a mile out to sea with my Orbital Launcher, it’s because it’s damn fun. 😀

    • Yes–i recall reading an article on the Punisher (the video game) and they intentionally made the people you kill very one dimensional because otherwise it would be too much (you can put people through woodchippers in that game, to give you an idea).

    • Tom

      It’s a very true point: no one would want to kill them. However, I think, in some instances, that might be preferable. I remember playing Deus Ex and being confused because they put so much emphasis on nonlethal takedowns, except the people you’re fighting behave like Nazi’s. Why would you sedate Nazis, instead of killing them?

      I feel like it’s an issue of whether or not it’s okay to kill everyone in games. I mean, it’s okay, but why shouldn’t we feel bad for killing everyone? If this is truly established as the right thing to do?

      Oh, right. Because most games don’t have enough plot to establish what the player is doing as the right thing.

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