Naughty Dog knows player motivation hinges on immersive storytelling. And their new IP, The Last of Us, looks to avoid Uncharted’s biggest offense against the suspension of disbelief: Nathan Drake is a murderer.
He is not a police officer charged with defending the innocent, a military man acting out of duty and under a chain of command or a international spy with a license to kill; he is ending hundreds, even thousands of lives for treasure and with zero accountability. Some might argue that he is fighting in self-defense or to save loved ones, but it’s the promise of treasure and money that spurs him on.
Maybe that’s why Naughty Dog changed things for The Last of Us, instead of killing the human militia who presumably have families and friends waiting at home, I can kill soulless monsters stripped of their humanity. I will be free to shoot and maim without considerations of conscience. The sticky issue of killing for entertainment is completely sidestepped when almost everyone in The Last of Us has turned into a zombie, because by de-humanizing our enemies, we are actually safeguarding our own humanity. Unlike Uncharted, we don’t have to examine our motives or wonder, “Have I become a murderer?”
Even games without zombies often try to create this sub-human illusion by hiding an enemy’s face or thoroughly demonizing them. The Helghast, the enemies of Killzone 3, have crimson eyes that almost seem to ask for death. You are not meant to feel sympathy for them. And the Helgen schools, churches, homeless shelters, along with their women and children are nowhere to be found. Even their elderly are cantankerous warmongers bent on violence. In contrast, the military of Vekta almost never wear helmets to constantly remind the player of their humanity, and create an emotional response when your teammates die.
It’s the same reason games shy away from violence toward children, because their humanity cannot be stripped away. There is no justification for killing children because they can never deserve death. And in the rare cases when children are in danger, they are master geniuses, with industrial pranks at their disposal to disarm their less capable foes (i.e. Home Alone).
Instead, presumably, Naughty Dog will allow us to explore violence free of morality or inner conflict; the value of human life is never in question. But what do we learn? If you take away any doubt of an enemy’s humanity, how can we begin to address the moral complexities of what we actually spend most of our time doing on screen, namely killing?
Don’t get me wrong, I love Uncharted and I love zombie-killing games like Left for Dead but isn’t it time we start taking off the ski masks off our enemies, isn’t it time we start recognizing the humanity in our enemies? I remember watching the heart-breaking rewind vignette trailer for Dead Island and thinking this game is going to bring some meaning to the zombie genre. Sadly, there was no question raised about our own humanity or any thought provoking violence. But why not? Imagine a game where you didn’t know whether you were justified in killing the enemy, but instead fought for hours alongside your family members, only to face the dilemma of killing your own infected daughter like the Dead Island trailer suggested. Instead of a heartless killer, you’d become a tortured anti-hero, unsure of the righteousness of your actions. But at least that internal struggle is proof of your humanity.
I am reminded of one of the last scenes in The Walking Dead pilot. A man gazes over a zombie filled street from his attic perch, a rifle in his hands. He takes a bead on the nearest monster and fires, again and again, until his intended target comes into view. Then he hesitates, as his former wife shambles into the view of his gun. He takes a deep breath before fingering the trigger, working up the courage to mercifully put down the husk of his former partner, only he can’t do it. Not because he doubts whether she can be saved, but because he questions whether he can live with himself if he destroys the last living memory of her, even if the memory is an abomination. It’s not the uncertainty of her humanity that tortures the husband, but the certainty of his own.
So when we begin turning our enemies into monsters to justify our own violence, it’s time to start questioning what we have become.