Guilt. It’s not easy. In many cases, it can be the smallest detail, something almost unintentional that you latch onto and form some kind of “bond” with, or that leaves you feeling awful for days. This is my favourite bit, if I’m honest.
There are many, many ways to make you feel “conscience” in a game. The two main ones come from a punishing you for losing, and from a result of story progression. The first one is particularly key for videogames, due to the non-interactivity of most other mediums (choose-your-own-adventure books notwithstanding). Some games simply have a Game Over screen, but others will have full-on indulgences on your failure. Most survival horror games have these, or some manner of these. Dead Space is a prime example, because of its gory “punishments.” YouTube will have all of these ready for you to watch, if you’d like, but for the sake of brevity I’ll just say that when you die, you often die front and centre, painfully and violently, for your misstep or poor gameplay. You are incentivised, very bluntly, that you shouldn’t make that mistake again and to avoid having you (that is, your character and your emotional connection to them) go through that kind of situation again.
This connection has been attempted (with varying success) with animals, as well. People often accept the abuse or murder of other people in fiction, but the death of an animal often has a far more immediate, powerful response in people. Some examples including Haunting Ground (2005), Shadow of the Colossus (2005), The Last Guardian (2016), Fallout 4 (2015), and Fable 3 (2010) all attempted to make you empathise with your animal companion and care about their well-being in order to increase the impact and effect of the story. You can train them, abuse them, reward them, etc. according to your varying whims and gameplay restraints, and they’re often important (or critical) for you to progress the story. It’s not about treating the main character well, but the guilt for having caused the pain/death of a trusting creature.
So with examples like this in mind, let’s focus on choice and intent.
One key factor to keep in mind is what would actually make us care about some digital character, what actually would illicit some empathy. Many games make you feel nothing about killing countless creatures/people/robots, and that’s fine. Ever play Mario and feel bad for a Koopa? One of those oh-so-stompable Goombas? I imagine not. The story, gameplay, and intent of the game doesn’t have any reason for you to empathise with anything, really.* Think of Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row, or Just Cause. It’s usually a series of bad people doing bad things to each other amidst a city of generally useless and pointless automatons a.k.a. civilians. Most people likely don’t or won’t feel guilt about their actions because of a sort of… banality about the civilian population. There’s no consequence, there’s no actual response from anyone except for running away from you, and sometimes even the bad guys do that, too. There’s basically no suffering, which is a huge factor. It’s a blood-filled toybox, and the people found inside are lifeless and infinite; basically just to have guilt-free fun with.**
There are some notable exceptions, but it’s one of the first things against the wall when game rating boards classify a game. If there’s a depiction of suffering, it is often refused classification (which retailers won’t sell), gets an AO [Adults Only] sticker in the US (which retailers won’t sell). In addition, many individual countries have laws against showing certain things in the media (Germany and Australia are two very common countries for this) and will often ban games for their violent/sexual content. Show someone suffering, and the average person’s empathy meter goes off the charts. For example, in most shooting games released these days, you have a melee take-down option. A special, sort of humiliating special sequence where you kill someone with a special animation. A glory kill. The attacker gets the satisfaction of watching their triumph over the enemy, and the victim gets to sit and rue their demise, their failure. Halo does this, Call of Duty does this, Battlefield, Far Cry, Titanfall… well, basically any modern third- or first-person shooter will do this these days. Very rarely, if ever, will the victim actually show much response at all. In Battlefield 1, the recent WW1 shooter, you can do various brutal take-downs with all sorts of hand-held weapons, as well as full-on bayonet charges, and the person you hit will often have a completely neutral expression, or maybe vaguely surprised- as if they found out that they now sell peach-scented toilet paper at the local Tesco’s. You’re indiscriminately slaughtering people for points, but they don’t seem to mind too much. No begging for their lives, no writhing on the ground, no sad whimpering as they bleed. Just a “fair play” sort of acceptance. War is hell, but war games get you points.
Show someone hurting, someone in actual pain, and it becomes much more difficult. There are a few games that do manage this, including Hotline Miami to some degree, but also The Punisher (2005), and most recently Hatred (2015)***. There’s very little lingering, without trying to sound morbid. If a person is shot, they die. If anyone lies around bleeding in pain, it’s usually a main character waiting to be picked back up by a teammate and nothing else. No consequence, just slap on a bandage and get back to the fight.
If you’re playing a hitman/mercenary/soldier or just a good ol’ fashioned murderer, the enemies you face are often just a faceless clone-like army with no hopes, dreams, or backstory that actually warrants any kind of attachment. The Punisher, as a rare exception, has a morality system where some enemies that you’re about to kill can have a sort of “epiphany” moment that reminds the main character about his past, and you can then spare the life of that goon. They will sometimes beg for their lives. Other than that, the only characters that actually will show pain or suffering in games will be the main heroes or villains because it’s story-convenient. Like snacks between meals, the average enemy is just filler, a barrier from point A to point B.
In the same vein of story mixed with gameplay, Hotline Miami (2012) is a hyper-violent game that pushes for the fastest, most stylish ways to kill absolutely everyone in a room while catchy, pounding music plays to get you into a murderous rhythm. Its pixelated graphics are nostalgic and cute in their own way, while the hyper-violence jars you in a very adult way. A very interesting dichotomy. The thing that makes it worth discussing are the bits between the chaos. It’s very self-aware, because there are several times where it opens asks whether you enjoy the killing, or asking why it has to happen in the first place. The most critical part is actually beating a level: You have this fast, thumping music; you’re perfecting the timing and technique of killing everyone and fight your way to the top floor, you’ve played it over and over and over, and then it all just… stops. Music’s gone, leaving a sort of deafening lack of sound; the only thing you hear is a dull buzz like bad florescent bulbs. You have to walk back down every floor, past every person you killed in this uncomfortable silence, and it seems to ask “did you really enjoy this?” In the end, you realise you’ve been duped the whole time. Everything that you’ve been doing was effectively for nothing, and these quiet, death-filled halls were the truth behind what you thought you were achieving.
Then you have the more complex, non-violent examples of this guilt. The Stanley Parable (2013) has a brilliant sequence where you can repeatedly try to kill yourself by jumping off a tower that is just too short enough to kill you. Just for context- you, as Stanley, are trying to escape the cyclical narrative of the game, and this is one method you may or may not attempt in order to “escape”. It’s the narrator that truly sells this though, because it’s the only other “person” you interact with through the entire game. Witty, blithe, and occasionally sympathetic to your plight, the narrator becomes increasingly upset, hurt, and despondent from your attempts at suicide. When I first played it, this sequence began as amusing, but I legitimately couldn’t keep jumping off the tower because of how hurt he became. You do it at first because you want to see what happens, maybe hear what the narrator will say next, but they show him anguished over someone trying to kill themselves repeatedly instead of spend a single moment longer with him (as he’s lonely and stuck in the same situation), and it just becomes heartbreaking.
The other example that suits this idea would be from Undertale (2015), a game that made the rounds a while back, and has won quite a following. A very simplistic game at first, it presents charming characters that you either befriend or kill, but it often has moments to make you question using violence to solve a problem. The example I wish to mention is immediately at the start of the game, where you are saved by one very maternal character, and she wishes you to stay safe with her inside her home. She suggests reading a nice book (I believe involving snails), and you can sit politely until the plot dictates it’s time to progress, or you can be blunt and dismissive to her. She has this pathetic, painfully-sweet insistence about reading this book to you that it felt horrible to tell her to basically piss off and leave you alone. Like swearing at a grandmother for making a cake too dry. Just cruel and unnecessarily hurtful. Unless that’s what you want.
Soma (2015), a sci-fi/horror game, attempted to bring existential dread as a plot element. For the sake of story and brevity I won’t go too far into it, but I’ll just give one specific example which requires some odd context. In a nutshell, humanity at large is gone. You’re basically alone in a deteriorating undersea base, trying to figure out what happened. The last-ditch plan of the researchers there was to give humanity some semblance of a future. The Earth is uninhabitable, and the only “people” left are some AI and the uploaded brain scans of a select few dozen people. Their plan is to upload the brain scans into a simulated reality and blast it off into space on a satellite. “Humanity” lives, but only on a hard drive, and only as long as the electronics last. One job, as an actual bodied-being in the base, is to test-run the program, but upon faulty equipment. Less power, less capacity, and you have to choose what humanity gets to see for the rest of its existence with these hardware/software limitations. If you want the city, you can’t have the forest or the river scene. You want sunset? You can’t have wind. It’s a horrible feeling to have to choose and restrict so much in order to give something, anything decent to anyone who would actually be living there. It’s like being put into one level of a videogame with all of the knowledge you, the reader, have right now. Same situation, but for “forever.” Is it worth saving the minds of so few for such a paltry life, or is the preservation of life so dear that any existence is worth it? It was truly upsetting to be given that responsiblility, even for a simulation of the final product, and the guilt that if anyone realised what happened, there would be literally nothing they could do about it. Ever. No violence, no actual suffering in the scene(though the game is full of that), it’s just being stuck with insufficient time/resources/knowledge and being expected to immediately save everyone.
Many people are actively turned away from films with moments like this, and even less interested to play a game that makes them feel awful or “accused”. The important point to consider is that games can do this, and films that do the same thing are often lauded by critics. Eliciting empathy and guilt in your audience is a bold, yet dangerous move, and there are far more failed attempts than successes. All the same, games always want to give you some hook, some incentive to keep playing or to do better, which fits in the win/lose split most games- tabletop games, videogames, board games, etc. You play to win, and if you don’t win, you need to do better and do it again. How do you do that? Points, competition, empathy, whatever- it’s involvement, or investment in the product. You often watches a movie to see the hero win, or to see someone overcome adversity; you play a board game to become the best capitalist, or the last army in a global conquest, hell, even the first to enter the Candy Kingdom, whatever. Videogames are now attempting to do the same, but making you the one who needs to manage these things as a “person” in this world, not as a symbolic piece on a game board.
*Yes, I’m fully aware that later games attempt to do this, particularly the Paper Mario and Superstar series, but those are fundamentally different than the core Mario games in both gameplay and story, so there is an attempt at emotion in these stories. The core “jump, dodge, and win” Mario games clearly don’t.
**There is one exception worth mentioning and elaborating upon here: In the most recent game, GTAV, there is a notorious torture sequence that you actively have to participate in (think of Mr. Blond and the captured cop in Reservoir Dogs). Many people (including longtime fans of the series) were turned away by this gratuitous, visceral scene, and led people to accuse the developer Rockstar of trivialising torture for mere shock value. It’s dark, it’s disturbing, but that’s what the characters are, according to Rockstar.
Whether it fits into the atmosphere of the rest of the game is a valid question, but Rockstar has never been a studio known for subtlety and shying away from the worst in people. The tone of whatever thing you’re playing/watching/reading gives a huge degree of acceptability with the audience. Watch a horror film, a war film, or anything with spies, and it won’t necessarily be surprising if someone is tortured. Unpleasant, sure, but not unexpected. Stick the same scene without context into a comedy, and the same scene comes off very jarring and disgusting, like finding a chicken beak in your pizza. The mission is very Tarantino-esque, in fact; a strange, unsettling blend of dark comedy and disturbing content. It’s certainly not for everyone, and the fact it’s more-or-less mandatory for the story arc makes it even worse for people. This would, however, be a perfect example of guilt and empathy stuck into an otherwise standard GTA experience. Because it’s so hands-on and unlike the prior GTA experiences that makes it so much more jarring and effective, honestly. There’s begging and pleading from the victim, you can torture him to the point of cardiac arrest and bring him back with an adrenaline shot to the heart- it’s extremely uncomfortable to both watch and play, and has little to no result in the big picture. It happens, it goes, and it’s over. Cruel, sadistic, and ultimately pointless- it truly makes you have to wonder what kind of characters you’re playing and to what you gain from assisting them to achieve their goals.
***Hatred is kind of a unique thing because it was made to be violent and offensive, really. There is no deeper message than “kill everything,” which can reduce any sense of empathy significantly, because killing civilians is the sole intention of the main character. There’s an interesting article about the creator and his intent on Vice here.