We begin with the protagonist being arrested, drugged, beaten, and accused of unknown crimes by a corrupt police force. Players are quickly asked to sign their name to a confession, without knowing what they’re confessing to, let alone whether they’re actually guilty. A butterfly tells you that you are the only hope for humanity, but that your chances of victory are slim to none.
There is no shortage of murder in the world of games. If you play them regularly, there’s a good chance you brutally slaughtered hundreds of people, monsters, aliens in the last week alone. It’s fine, really; one of the more admirable aspects of the hobby is that it allows regular folks to dip their toes into realities that they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—normally access. Call it catharsis, or curiosity, or feeding the brain worms we dragged kicking and screaming from the primal, dangerous origins of humanity; killing things in video games is fun and good. Even if there is way too much of it.
Besides, society was being desensitised to the human cost of violence long before games were dominating the entertainment discourse. Films had a 100 year head start, while books, art and the theatre have been around for at least a century longer, filling the public’s mind with death, dismemberment and daily visions of the worst tortures imaginable.
Then you get to animal murder, and things get a little more murky. Recently there was a minor controversy surrounding the announcement that Naughty Dog’s upcoming post-apocalyptic sadness simulator, The Last of Us 2, allows players the heavy, emotion-laden choice of whether or not to kill dogs. You see, sometimes you will be hunted by enemies with their own attack animals, and if you kill the angry pooches their owners will be sad; loudly sad, in the game, because you killed their dog. The stated purpose of this potential trauma, according to a Polygon interview with Naughty Dog co-game director Anthony Newman, is to heighten The Last of Us 2’s theme of “regrettable violence,” the narrative thrust of the series being to force players into situations where they need to participate in awful acts while also being made to recognise the consequences of these actions. Retailer GameStop made news more recently for a piece of promotional text advertising the game, highlighted in a viral tweet. The text somewhat gleefully (with typical marketing enthusiasm) describes the feature “Dogs” as including moments where NPCs will “cry out in absolute horror when they discover their lifeless furry best friend.”
As games dig more and more into emotional storytelling, seeking to create meaningful narratives rather than simply provide a play experience, it becomes useful to examine how the presentation of heavy material is handled. Basically, we need to ask what it means to kill an animal in a piece of art, and what it means to kill that same animal in a video game.
Despite the wide variety of artworks on offer from the entire history of human civilisation, animal murder still isn’t particularly common. When it does show up, its generally treated as a pretty big deal, substantially altering the plot or the state of mind of a major character. Old Yeller tells the story of a faithful dog that must be put down after a bite turns him rabid, devastating the family; Marley & Me also uses the death of a beloved pet to elicit sadness from the audience, albeit this time at the end of a couple comedy; John Wick’s hero is dragged back into a world of violent professional assassination after his dog (a gift from his deceased wife) is killed. In all of these examples there is an implicit understanding that killing a dog ‘on-screen’ is a serious decision to make, one that ripples outward. Quotes from Naughty Dog suggest that The Last of Us 2 understands this as well, at least enough to play it for emotional effect. But there are two reasons this sort of manipulative storytelling isn’t always fit for games: consequence and repetition.
The consequences in video games for even an action as serious as murder are frequently rather minor. Immediate consequences usually include removing an obstacle from your path, alerting more foes, and, in very rare examples, turning one faction of NPCs very slightly into enemies or friends. Allowing player choice to dictate narrative is a slippery slope, of course, and much harder than the average person would think, but even examples of heinous acts impacting the plot of a game further down the line by design could be counted on a handful of fingers. There needs to a tangible cause-and-effect at play if you want the audience to take anything away from a situation except “thing bad.” Killing dogs, for example, is an undeniably terrible action on paper, but if a game’s only message is that it’s a shame you need to kill these dogs while also very much encouraging you to kill them if you think you need to, then there is no message. Thoughts and prayers for the game universe.
In the Sam Raimi comedy-horror film Drag Me To Hell, the main character, Christine, is a loan officer who denies an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage. The old woman happens to be the very magical kind of old woman, and places a curse on Christine which will see her dragged to Hell after three days. The events of the film see Christine defeat the curse and seemingly escape damnation, but the final scene shows her being pulled into a hellish portal by demonic forces. Why? Well, as part of her desperate attempts to remove the curse, Christine sacrificed a kitten. There is no other point in the film where Christine does anything unambiguously terrible; even the mortgage refusal is in a morally grey area, simply being a nasty part of her job. The cat, however, died for purely selfish reasons. An innocent was harmed.
In comparison, while the game isn’t out yet, the discussion around them centres squarely on the moment-to-moment decision and reaction of dog death. You decided to do something that was bad and necessary, now you have to move on and live with yourself. Which is quite easy to do, since you didn’t really kill a dog, and it didn’t significantly impede your progress. But you regret the violence, maybe. Thing bad.
Players will always have another chance, however, as unlike other forms of media, games function on loops. The most narrative-heavy big budget game still pushes somewhere between 15 and 150 hours, and much of that time is spent replaying existing mechanics. Nothing wrong with this idea, but it does mean that there’s a good chance you will have the chance to kill several dogs in the course of your journey. Perhaps dozens, or hundreds. And here we come up against the second half of the problem: something that was emotionally resonant the first time around will not necessarily retain that resonance the 20th time. Killing one dog is a tragedy, killing a million is a statistic. Because games thrive on this concept of repetition, you can’t simply rip a meaningful misery from a crafted, author-paced story and jam it into a player-controlled universe. The main character in I Am Legend has a faithful puppy companion helping him navigate the zombie-vampire infested city streets, but when the dog is bitten and has to be mercy-killed by the hero on screen, we feel the trauma and import. At the climax, this knowledge stays with us and subconsciously prepares us for the reveal that our hero is actually the villain of the piece, having murdered so many of the aforementioned creatures. While he made the right choice in killing his dog, that image leaves us ready to believe his good intentions are causing harm to others. If the script was rewritten to include the hero actually mercifully strangling 20-30 dogs, most of the audience would likely already see him as a monster well before the twist.
This sort of dissonance isn’t limited to games where you kill dogs, of course. Much has been made of how flippant and friendly Uncharted’s Nathan Drake remains, even as he mows down hundreds of men for flimsy reasons; the Tomb Raider reboot took great pains to show players how distraught Lara was at the idea of killing one deer to feed herself, and even showed her struggling to take the life of a dangerous man attempting to assault her, but several dozen hours of bombastic murder porn dulled that revelation somewhat. There are also plenty of games where you kill normally-lovely animals without a care in the world. The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption position animals as either a threat to your safety or a resource to be hunted, Resident Evil sufficiently redesigns their dogs to make it clear these are no longer creatures worthy of empathy.
Animal death, when given focus, will almost always be shocking, it’s wired into every human to be horrified by the concept, the visual, the implications. Regardless of why that is, it makes for a powerful storytelling tool, but games can’t just use that tool as if this were a tightly-edited film or novel. If you’re going to kill a fictional dog, and you want to convince everyone that you’re making an important point by doing so, then the way you make that point had better be just as thoughtful as your philosophical musings. Using it to make the audience suffer, and allowing the natural flow and mechanical setup of video games to undermine even that paper thin idea, makes for a shallow exploration of violence and morality.
The solutions to the quandary—making game narratives meaningful without undermining them with what would otherwise be good gameplay, and without cheapening the content—could be many and varied. But I’m reminded of a recent experience with the God of War reboot, in which I killed a seagull. There are seagulls wandering the skies of video game Midgard, and it is indeed possible to kill them, watch them explode into blood and feathers. But there’s no purpose to it, no meaning; you get nothing from the experience apart from a general, niggling feeling that your son just saw you kill a bird for no good reason. In a world full of horrifically violent finish moves and constant death, it was a bird minding its own business that made me think about my actions. Maybe that’s part of the answer, devaluing the violence to give players the space to make their own decisions about what feels right and wrong. GameStop definitely didn’t tell me about the seagulls.