I enjoy killing just as much as the next maladjusted sociopath. I like turning my enemies to purée in id Software games; I get a cheap thrill from every headshot I nail in an online Battlefield match; I think nothing of calling in airstrikes on groups of people from Other Countries in Call of Duty. Here’s the thing though. Now and again, I stop playing videogames to dip into real life, and guess what? It turns out that sometimes – just sometimes – people are nice to one another. People help one another. In fact, it seems that some people go their whole lives without killing anybody. Imagine that! So I got to thinking: is the games industry aware of this?
I tried to think of games that respect and celebrate those who seek to save lives rather than take them.
I decided to open the issue of games with a more altruistic edge out to teh intenetz. More specifically I idly cast the question out on Twitter. Much to my pleasant surprise, I was quickly riding a wave of helpful suggestions from many of my lovely followers. I’ll be taking this piece off on a few different tangents, crossing my fingers (though not while I’m typing) that it somehow falls together into a cohesive whole. To begin with however, I’ll list some of those suggestions for you now. If you’re a tree-hugging hippy who would like to play some games where the objective is to help people rather than turn them into squishy jigsaw puzzles, you’ve come to the right place my friend.
Let’s start with Night Trap (Mega CD, 1992; later 32X, 3DO, PC & Mac). I remember Night Trap for three reasons. (1) It was one of the highest profile FMV games of the nineties, primarily due to the huge controversy it stirred up (it was at one point alleged that the player was tasked with capturing and slaughtering women, which was pretty much the exact opposite of what actually happened). (2) It automatically attracted the level of attention anything featuring lots of young ladies in nightwear will do, at any point of space-time. (3) It was almost universally accepted that the game was bloody awful.
In essence, the game worked like this: the player had to keep an eye on a total of eight camera feeds monitoring various rooms in a house, in what was to all intents and purposes real time. The aforementioned young ladies were being stalked by vampires, and it was the player’s job to spot these supernatural chaps when they revealed themselves, and remotely activate traps to neutralise them. Now of course most talk about the game centred on the undeniable element of voyeurism, and more than one review noted that a certain type of person was bound to miss the moment a vampire appeared as they’d be too busy ogling an actress of questionable talent in the next room. To Night Trap’s credit however there was no nudity, and if too many people fell victim to the sharp toothed nasties it was game over. Still, ogling women portrayed to be entirely helpless, who you must save and protect. Very Tomb Raider. Perhaps Crystal Dynamics will soon announce they’re resurrecting FMV titles?
There are, of course, games where helping others is less complicated and the issue is less… messy. Take Exit (PSP 2005, XBLA 2007, DS 2008). Exit puts you in control of Mr ESC (see what they did there?) who – within the game, at least – does nothing but rescue people. It’s a 2D puzzle platformer with an unashamedly bold and simple art design. There are no enemies to kill, but plenty of hazards to avoid and people to locate and guide to the exit. In fact, Mr E will sometimes require help from the very people he’s trying to save. They might be able to move objects he can’t, or perhaps squeeze into areas he’s unable to access. On the face of it, Exit is simply a very, very good – and sometimes crushingly difficult – action puzzler. Altruism and teamwork inform not just what little plot there is, but also the gameplay experience itself.
Somewhat depressingly, a game can make itself stand out simply by focussing on selflessness in this way. However, exploring this almost untouched gaming avenue can lead to some brilliant, previously untouched ideas. Such it is with Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (DS, iOS, 2010). Your character is dead. This is a good thing however, because that means he’s a ghost. Most games would see this as a perfect opportunity to have the player terrorise and possibly even – yes – kill anybody foolish enough to be alive. Not here. The ghostly protagonist soon finds that he’s capable of ‘ghost tricks’. This means that he can possess inanimate objects and – crucially – when coming across a dead body, travel back in time to four minutes previous to that person’s death. As you’ve surely already guessed, it’s the player’s job to use ghost tricks to ensure that things go differently within those four minutes so that the person survives. Kind of like a cross between Quantum Leap and… er… Ghost Dad?
As I mentioned at the start of this piece however, people are being nice to one another and help others in real life all the time. Is it really so unreasonable to expect the industry to wake up to this and celebrate it? Well, they already have… kind of. If you were to name a job that lends itself to games – a job where you do nothing but help people, where nobody could argue that what you do is wrong, where you could be a hero, even – what would that job be? If you really, really like cakes and biscuits then, yes, I suppose you could say ‘baker’. I’d like to imagine, however, that many more of you would be comfortable to settle on ‘firefighter’. It’s not all getting cats out of trees and posing for tiresome calendars, after all. While the truth of the job involves a lot of waiting around it sometimes also involves danger, pressure, life or death situations, and – admit it – heroism. It’s a job that tends to be overlooked by videogames due to the distinct lack of intentional bloodshed, but it has at least been acknowledged from time to time. And no, stealing a fire truck in GTA doesn’t count.
Though not exactly realistic, Burning Rangers (Saturn, 1998) took the ‘hero’ aspect of firefighting and ran with it. Although it has firefighting at its heart, Burning Rangers is to genuine fire crews what bouncy castles are to medieval architecture. It’s set in The Future, which means that you get to shoot fires with lasers (just like a real firefighter). There’s still lots of rescuing people involved though and, to keep you playing, you get to enjoy randomly generated levels after beating the game once. It’s something of a cult classic; in part, it could be argued, due to the rare firefighting theme.
The year before Burning Rangers, the world was treated to Rosco McQueen Firefighter Extreme (PSOne, 1997). Not only does this game have one of the most undeniably awesome titles in history, it’s making a good proportion of you – regardless of your sex – wish that you were called Rosco McQueen right now. I know I feel that way. Though not quite so far removed from reality as the Saturn escapade, Rosco would need to refill his hose by collecting bottles full of water and – brilliantly – destroy robots with his axe (just like a real firefighter). Still, quenching flames and saving innocent people was all part of the fun.
Head back a few years further still, and you’ll find The Ignition Factor (SNES, 1994; Virtual Console 2011). Again, you’ll be fighting fires and rescuing people. Intriguingly, this game acknowledges one of the fundamentals of firefighting that (so far as I know) no other game has so far; not all fires respond well to water. The game features three different types of extinguisher for three different types of fire (this is relevant in real life. Look into it carefully if you need to – it might come in handy one day). In effect however the game features anti-fire grenades, in the form of C02 bombs. I’m not sure if these are actually ever used in firefighting situations, as all I could find out about them really was that although they’re real, they’re so dangerous that they’re illegal in some countries and several U.S. States. So don’t try this at home, kids. Also: your character can walk diagonally, but can’t run diagonally (just like a real firefighter). Also, you get to use plastic explosives.
What actually first got me thinking about all of this was news of the upcoming game Real Heroes Firefighter 3D (3DS, September 2012). It would seem that this game, unlike the others I’ve mentioned, is trying to keep its bicycle on the narrow lane of reality. Story led, it will task you with keeping your team alive through each mission, tackling fires and using a variety of authentic equipment along the way. The action will take place from a first person perspective and, promisingly, there will be “Thinking Fire” AI. Will the game be any good?No idea. It could be rubbish. I really hope it’s not though and, furthermore, I hope it’s a great success, and inspires other publishers to fund games that celebrate real-life heroes.
Another great answer to the earlier ‘real life hero’ question would, of course, be ‘doctor’ or ‘surgeon’. I could think of almost no examples of games that handled either of these jobs ‘properly’, however. If you can, then by all means please leave examples in the comments section below. My first thought was Theme Hospital (PC, 1997; PSOne, 1998; PSN 2008). It’s a brilliant game, but it’s much more a cartoony, overblown satire of hospital management than an opportunity to play doctor. The Trauma Centre series (which started on DS in 2005) is closer to the mark, using touchscreen and motion controls to produce a simple yet demanding take on surgery. As the cartoon visuals suggest however it’s far from a realistic simulation, featuring as it does the magical “healing touch” ability and a man-made toxin known as GUILT. On the bright side, the hero is usually called Derek.
In all seriousness, what frustrates me is not so much the fact that the killer-healer ration in games is perversely out of whack, but the fact that the militaristic experience is virtually always handled with wide-eyed idiocy. When I get started ranting about the glorification of military life I find it hard to stop, so I’ll need to remember that not everybody is as boring as me. I’m surely not the only one who finds the industry’s vulgar romanticising of firearms disturbing, however; and the insultingly simplified, black-and-white, good guys vs bad guys storylines are offensive to the intellect on several levels.
Heck, even Choplifter (Apple II, 1982; many more formats later) did a better job of justifying your actions than most of today’s games. This was achieved through the simple expedient of hostages. Yes, you’d be shooting tanks and jets – and why not? – but your presence in this war zone was simply explained by the fact that you were tasked with rescuing innocent people. You’d even be encouraged to be careful with your fire, as shooting said innocents would result in their deaths (an idea today’s games tend to be terrified of). The arcade version even forced you to restart the level if an unacceptable number of hostages died. The sad truth is that this simple concept carries more weight and depth than a hundred 21stcentury war game scripts.
All that said, there will now and again be an exception that proves the rule. At the moment this would seem to be Spec Ops: The Line. I haven’t played it myself, but looking into the story has revealed that there is, if nothing else, an attempt to drain the hoo-ra glory out of the war experience. I won’t provide any spoilers, but there are even four different endings to see depending on how you react to a certain situation at the end of the game. More like this please.
I feel obliged to give the much-maligned Haze (PS3, 2008) a nod here. Okay, it certainly had bugs and problems – and the graphics sometimes looked like they’d been programmed by a brain damaged cat – but I managed to squeeze some enjoyment out of it. Looking back, I suppose this was due in no small part to the way it handled the story. The writing was iffy, but the basic concept of asking you to question who was in the right (if, indeed, anybody was) I admired. It’s just a shame that the impact was dampened so heavily by ham-fisted delivery and mediocre gameplay.
I’m not saying that every shooter should be an Orwellian opus. Nor am I saying that we shouldn’t have games where there’s no attempt to justify the action. It would be nice, however, to show all these shooters in a pie chart and have the slice representing games that make an effort with their scripts visible to the naked eye.
Videogames are an increasingly important and visible part of our culture, and they will become a more visible and more important part of the social landscape with each new generation of users. There is a duty to be taken on – not by each developer who wants to make a violent game, but by the industry as a whole – to recognise this, and understand what it means. It means many things. It means, in part, that there is an important crossover between the core audiences of the games industry and the military. It is not anarchistic, or unpatriotic, or ‘wrong’, to now and again counteract the radio and TV adverts that portray military life as little more than special make up, ushering children into helicopters, and camaraderie. It is not ‘wrong’ to question the idea of ‘defending’ your country, and perhaps even to suggest that soldiers from English speaking parts of the world have not seen action in a country that poses any threat to their homeland since the second world war.
To finally get back to the sentiment I began with, it also means that there is a huge opportunity for positive reinforcement when it comes to vital jobs in society that the industry currently tends to ignore. If it’s perfectly fine to repeatedly cast gamers in the role of a soldier (and it is), then why not repeatedly cast them in the role of a firefighter? Or a doctor? Or a policeman/policewoman that hasn’t racked up a huge body count by the end of the game? I don’t have room to list all the ways L.A. Noire could have been improved, but refusing to ask the player to fire a single bullet would have helped. Not much, but it would’ve been a good start…