Darlings

Introspective: I wanted to talk about a game idea I have, because it’s easy, but to explain how I got to the game idea, well, this came up. And it’s hard.

Around 2013 the games industry was seeing a lot of conspicuous cases of (virtual) children (in games) not dying when they rightly should. This isn’t to say such children were criminal and should have faced capital justice, but rather that disasters portrayed in games had a strong implication of being dangerous, putting any nearby children in peril, and yet the actual child-casualty counts were… low.

Examples:

~ The notoriously poignant trailer to Dead Island (2011) showed the biting, zombie-transformation and untimely demise of a little girl. There were no children (nor much poignancy) in the game itself.*

~ The French title Amy (2012) featured the eight-year-old titular Amy, who the player (as Lana) must escort. While the zombies are happy to rip Lana from limb to limb, they get all mystical and suck out Amy’s life force if they can get to her.

~ Skyrim (2013) is a fantasy game which doesn’t feature zombies (that I know of — plenty of other not-quite-dead goulies). It does feature fire-breathing dragons who are known to raze towns to the ground, killing everyone in them except — rather conspicuously — children who emerge from the burning ruins unscathed (and if I understand correctly, not too distraught for being freshly orphaned.) Children are also immune to attacks from the player, usually discovered by miss-aimed arrow shots and the shenanigans to follow.

Note that in the real world, large disasters can stomp at the human populace pretty hard, and when they do, children are disproportionately affected. Our tots are fragile little buggers, and nature is not known for being merciful to cute things.

And yet, in fiction, cuteness is more effective than power armor or a fleet of Star Destroyers in saving your butt. (Early mention of the fleet of Star Destroyers will more likely foreshadow your demise by a menace capable of overcoming or circumventing it. Bruce Willis or Bruce Lee…someone named Bruce.)

This sort of thing is actually rather commonplace, not just in video games but movies and literature as well. We human beings are very overprotective of our young, a trait we share with all mammals. And this aversion carries to our story-telling efforts. That while grand disasters such as hurricanes and zombie outbreaks and war are all very exciting, the notion that they could put toddlers in peril is too much for us to bear.

This is why fiction suffers an epidemic of child-saving deuses ex machina, even when they are insufferably implausible. Godzilla will conspicuously go out of his way to avoid an occupied bassinet. Every time.**

Cinema and in literary fiction actually get it easy. The last minute save can be made convincing and in a tale with a fixed outcome, it’s usually believable. Ripley always saves Newt from the face-hugger and when the alien-queen is poking around for Newt under the floor panels, Ripley shows up in time.

Fixed outcome mediums are free to imply the dire consequences for failure. Games must be prepared to show fail states. Sooner or later, kids are going to get caught up in the hazard, especially if the hazard is hungry for tasty little-human meat. (Sounds like every Brothers Grimm monster ever.) This means when the player fails, a monster gets lunch and it’s ugly. But this demonstrates what is at stake, what we’re fighting for. What we want to, at all costs, prevent.

When games have fail states that are terrible, we shouldn’t be afraid of those fail states being visceral. A safer but dissatisfying alternative is to tamper the outcome much like Amy did above, say, to have the monster just turn the urchin to stone or suck her amorphous soul away because petrification and soul-stealing are, while still terrible ends, not as elemental as watching the tot’s cherubic corpus get crunched into a morass of meat and blood and sinew.

A common-but-waning approach is to have cut-scene only children, in which the game behaves like a movie so long as there are kids about. When it’s time for the player to fight the monster, the wee ones are shuttled off to a safe observation lounge. Another option is to make kids indestructible, so they don’t interact with bullets or zombies or hurricane winds, and are there for scenery. In these cases, it becomes clear that the children aren’t really at risk, so the player only has to worry about bringing the hurt to the enemies. Nothing says it’s just a game like plot elements that do not matter except when play is clearly not happening.

The most common device to keep our virtual children safe from the hazards of an interactive world is to omit them altogether as was done in Dead Island. Omission of children is typical in most open-world sandbox-style games. Admittedly such games are susceptible to emergent chaos so even a street corner in the recent GTA V (2015) will, on its own, turn into a tangle of gunfire and fallen power lines. Still, the omission of children was raised as an observation after the No Russian level of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 became a public controversy: The player is a deep-cover intelligence operative who participates in a rampage assault of a Russian airport full of civilians. The question was raised, if families were mixed in with the countless travelers, would that level still be bearable to the everyday player?

Why so many approaches to toning down child mortality? Partly because these fail-state outcomes have to be considered and then created, and this isn’t easy.

But the phenomenon is aggravated due to censorship creep, in which our standards and practices institutions (such as the ESRB) have extended their ideals to keep games not merely free of indecency but free of distress (in this case those things distressful to members the game assessment committee). The presumption is that games are only intended for escapism and entertainment much the way that comics were once thought to be only for younger audiences. And thus, for example, war is typically depicted in games (such as in the COD franchise) omitting not only children, but civilians in entirety, along with enemies that have empathetic (e.g. humanizing) qualities.

From what I’ve heard (and read) of the accounts of front-line veterans, it is in unintended casualties, especially children and their relatives, that the horror of war is revealed, and it is this horror that reminds us that we are still human, that such terrible actions shouldn’t be done, and that even when they must be done, those actions remain terrible. The offensiveness of these moments in war becomes a burden we have to bear for the rest of our lives, and that is why war is a thing to be avoided.

Is this to say we should put mortal children in all games? Of course not. But it raises the intent of the developers of the game:

~ If the point is to create a cartoonish black-humored variation of cowboys and Indians where friends can shoot at each other with childish abandon, then it’s acceptable to omit children (or civilians, or long term effects of weapons of mass destruction).

~ If you’re making for a poignant zombie game that looks at the human experience of watching civilization collapse and having to return to the concern of day to day survival, then yes, the presence of children helps to raise questions of hope and despair.

~ If you are making a game about being a responder, such as a SWAT team that manages hostage / barricade situations, or an anti-terror team that handles rampage shooters and bombers, then of course children should be included among the civilians to illustrate what, in fact, the stakes are (and why we want our real responders to be super-duper-trained and crazy-prepared). I’ve discussed elsewhere how to manage instances where players are clumsier or more trigger-happy than their diegetic counterparts. While this doesn’t put children entirely out of danger it means that when they die, it will be a noteworthy event. Players will at least understand the burdens of being a responder with life-saving duty.

~ If you are making a game that puts one in the thick of war, children among the casualties — especially children that the player previously saw alive — help to illustrate the real cost of warfare, and why it is an option that we, as a species, should avoid resorting to so long as there are alternatives.

Afterthought: After countless studies and countless more agendas, we’ve come to the conclusion that violent video games don’t necessarily encourage violence in the community any more than Looney Tunes cartoons with their obsessions with firearms, explosives, long drops and wabbit hunting. On the other hand we have Jack Bauer‘s ticking-bomb scenario interrogations and the influence of that fiction on US Supreme Court Justices who found the improbable hypothetical convincing enough that the court ruled extrajudicial torture is an acceptable thing for United States agencies to do.

I’m still trying to process this.

And then I found myself dreading the need to axe my way through the limb of a trapped man to save him from zombies. (It took several swings.) Sometimes games require me to go through the motions of terrible deeds. And these sequences are provocative even when done in the name of self-preservation or the preservation of other lives.

The cringe-worthiness of the GTA V torture scene as discussed in media (I haven’t played GTA V yet.) suggests that visceral experiences and action-consequence relations can be used within gaming to illustrate why certain choices we make are good or bad, such as by showing the on-the-ground consequences of war on the people who have to actually suffer through it might tip national policies away from military action as an early resort.

And I think the preconception governing game design that games are only about escapism has been inhibiting development regarding games that might do more.

* The game Dead Island, while having its moments, is poorly represented by this trailer. For those who want a zombie game featuring little girls in peril and high levels of poignancy, I highly recommend The Walking Dead (2012) a point-and-click adventure by Telltale Games. You play Lee Everett and are traveling with eight-year-old Clementine. And there’s dangers, including (but not limited to) zombies. And Clementine can die, so watch out for her, okay?

In Season 2 you play Clementine.

** There are some exceptions. It seems okay to kill hundreds of millions of children when casualties are off-screen and ambiguous, such as in blowing-up Alderaan and it’s okay to kill a child when it’s a big dramatic moment with a point, such as:

~ The untimely demise of Robbie Wheedon in The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling. (2012, does not feature Harry Potter) illustrating the perils of neglect, and how tragedy can perpetuate itself.

~ Also the willful execution of Paul Atreides‘ infant heir by Sardaukar Terror Troopers illustrating that feudal politics make for a cruel mistress. And sometimes it sucks to be part of a fanatical loyalist military unit in that you’re sent to do dirty work.

I’m reminded of a veteran’s story of how he had section-8ed from duty on the ground. He was stationed as a guard at a checkpoint during Iraqi Freedom. The outpost was rushed by an eight-year-old boy carrying a live grenade during his shift and he had to neutralize the kid to protect everyone at the outpost, including several civilians. He shot the boy. The grenade discharged at a safe distance. But as a father with a similarly-aged child he was never able to reconcile gunning the kid down, even considering the grenade. Even in the circumstances. The soldier has been haunted by questions and nightmares about that incident ever since.

EDITS for clarification

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