What five games say about violence

“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”

– Terry Pratchett


I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach.  Below, I table their key differences.




(Note: each game’s violence is largely directed against human enemies, such as mercenaries, cultists, soldiers, or police/city watchmen, as in the quote at the top of the page. Also, there are a few bosses, in both senses of the word; but most enemies are low-ranking grunts.)


My comments, and mild spoilers, below.


The closest to the video game norm, and also the least interesting, is BioShock Infinite. Here the player kills hundreds of police, soldiers, and revolutionaries largely without comment (the one exception being Elizabeth’s horror at witnessing her first shootout). This also creates a gap between BI’s narrative and its gameplay. Booker DeWitt isn’t trying to fight a war, he’s trying to escape Columbia with Elizabeth; and his character arc is about making his way back from a bloodstained past. Yet what do genre and gameplay do, except force him into even more bloodshed? I didn’t consider this a deal-breaker, but it is one area in which BI fails to distinguish itself from the vast majority of games.


I’m even less fond of Tomb Raider’s attitude to violence. TR’s narrative at least acknowledges the combat-heavy gameplay, but not a way I like: Lara might be guilt-ridden after her first kill, but by the time she picks up a grenade launcher, she’s almost gleeful. More so, the player is encouraged to cheer, now that she’s turned the tides. A hero, TR seems to say, is a killer; and that message makes me uncomfortable.


It’s also clearly a message that would make the creators of Spec Ops: The Line uncomfortable. Other writers have spilled a lot of ink about this game; I will confine myself to saying that its story is a tragedy brought about by multiple characters deciding, at various points, that violence was the easy way out. And I’m glad that a shooter, of all games, made this point.


Turning to the stealth games, Deus Ex: Human Revolution (boss battles aside) and Dishonored both allow the player to bypass or stun enemies instead of killing them, and there’s even an achievement for completing Dishonored without killing a single human being. I have reservations about how Dishonored implemented this – it offers far more means to kill than to stun people, so playing with fewer scruples would probably have been more fun! – but the basic idea is sound.


In both cases, refraining from killing has some gameplay ramifications, but the interesting difference is in what their narratives have to say. Dishonored’s morality (“chaos”) meter makes a major difference to the story; kill too many people, and the game world will suffer. Or, in thematic terms, “killing has consequences”. In contrast, DX has no morality meter, and almost no story consequences to killing – at one point a couple of NPCs observed I’d killed almost nobody on my last mission (one sounded surprised/approving, the other mockingly called me “Gandhi”), and that’s about all I can remember.


Of these two approaches, I probably prefer Dishonored’s. I like the idea of a story in which killing has consequences. I like a story that rewards me for roleplaying a man who tries to hold onto his humanity. And I really like the ending I achieved, which was satisfying and felt consistent with the way I’d played. On the other hand, the absence of a morality meter in DX perhaps has its own advantage: your actions are between you and your conscience. You spared that security guard? You didn’t do that for the good ending (though you might have for the extra EXP!); you did it because you wanted to. (1)


Where to from here? True, there are already many games that have a message beyond “killing people is cool”, but more won’t hurt. Even in traditionally combat-heavy genres such as reflex-driven first/third-person games, I’d like to see more reliance on mechanics other than combat. For instance, I’d love to play a first-person diplomat game! And if we are going to make violence integral to gameplay, we can surely do it in better ways. Here are a few examples I’d like to see:


  • A detective/secret agent game that was 80%-90% exploration, problem-solving, and conversation, and 10%-20% shootouts. (Note that in Casino Royale, one of my favourite action flicks, James Bond kills “only” eleven enemies. Video game protagonists kill this many before breakfast.) This has been done by adventure games, in which combat often feels annoyingly tacked-on, but why not in a first-person game?


  • Similarly, what about a game that had only a few enemy encounters, but that made them really tough? Shadow of the Colossus shows this could work.


  • A “run and stun” game, with an array of interesting powers to immobilise, incapacitate, knock out, or otherwise non-lethally subdue enemies. Maybe in a future Dishonored 2?


The best thing is, I’m hopeful we’ll see some more ingenuity along these lines. Spec Ops tanked commercially, but made enough of a ripple that, hopefully, more designers will pick up on its message.  Dishonored beat publisher Bethesda’s expectations, to the point where Bethesda considers it a “new franchise”. Thief 4 is on its way, being developed by the studio (Eidos Montreal) behind DX: HR (2). And there are the possibilities for indies, in our wonderful new world of Kickstarter and digital distribution. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll be able to compare five big-budget games’ attitudes to non-lethality.


(1) In DX’s case, I kept to a house rule: no killing security guards, ordinary hoodlums, etc. However, mercenary hit men were fair game. Similarly, in Dishonored, I adhered to a similar rule, “no killing City Watchmen”, that was much stricter than the requirement for the good ending. So even without that story carrot, I’d probably have played Dishonored the same way.


(2) Though I’m not sure what non-lethal options this will provide, other than simply sneaking by/blackjacking guards. Any Thief veterans want to chime in?



This piece, by Jamie Madigan, is an interesting examination of why we enjoy violent games in the first place.

3 thoughts on “What five games say about violence”

  1. Thought I’d comment on how Thief handles violence. Though the game provides tools for violence, a Sword and Broadhead Arrows being the two constantly available ones, the discrete difficulty settings have strict criteria for when and where lethal violence can be used. On Normal there are no restrictions on when lethal violence can be used, on Hard you can use lethal violence but not on civilians (unarmed humans), on Expert you cannot use lethal violence on anybody. In the latter two cases this is contextualised in the pre-mission objective screens as a matter of being professional, “You’re a thief not an assassin” is a line that is used at least once. The actual narrative within the game does not changed based on any violent actions you commit, but neither does it assumed that you have or haven’t committed any. It is constructed in a way that the protagonist, Garrett could conceivably be willing to be violent or not.

    This is altered slightly for the third game Thief: Deadly Shadows, where even on Expert you are only restricted from killing civilians. What this game does do however, is include some feedback on the actions you have taken. With wanted signs being posted around the environment citing whether you are wanted for burglary or murder; the game also allows you to “hold up” people at arrow point and steal their valuables. This offers a third options between stunning them and killing them, though once you let them go they will alert others to your presence.

    1. Thanks for chipping in, Justin! Quite interesting to hear your description. The wanted signs sound like they inspired Dishonored – IIRC its wanted signs changed depending on whether you went low or high chaos. Also very interesting to hear about the mugging mechanic!

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