French film director Francois Truffaut argued there was no such thing as an anti-war movie, because the violence was invariably exciting on screen. A game’s narrative is more constrained still by the demands of its genre; an anti-violence message and an exciting combat system are uneasy bedfellows. No matter how taxing and traumatic the message is, unless it actively takes steps to make combat unpleasant (and thereby risk alienating players with poor game design), the two are at odds.
Gameplay usually leaves the more lasting impression. Titles like Modern Warfare and the freeware sprite game Iji show you can mate the two.
There have been pacifistic games. The Metal Gear Solid series is well-known for its firm dedication to antiwar messages and support for pacifist play-throughs, despite its simultaneous glorification of soldiers as people. Neo-noir Max Payne turned the usual narrative of heroic bloodshed on its head by portraying its crime-ridden city as a nocturnal hell and its protagonist as a troubled, suicidal man unable to cope with his terrifying body count.
Modern Warfare‘s infamous nuclear bombing chapter went after the player’s assumptions of heroism and narrative convenience. Though masked as a gameplay segment, its only purpose was to bring the true horror of a nuclear attack home by placing the player directly in the shoes of a dying soldier. There was no last-minute deliverance, no heroic surge of resolve — just a miserable, ignominious and undoubtedly agonizing end in the midst of a man-made Hell.
Iji does something different. Though it emphasizes the humanity of the antagonists and the stark injustice of war, its true brilliance is that it forces the player to drive its protagonist into violence, and then it emphasizes the cost of that solution.
After Earth is bombarded from orbit by the Tasen, a technologically advanced species, Iji Katakaiser wakes up having been cybernetically augmented by desperate scientists trying to save her life. The Tasen crush human civilization and occupy the planet; Iji only can hope to negotiate with the Tasen leader. But the Tasen are a refugee population with nowhere else to go to escape a genocidal conflict with their cousins the Komato. Though their leader is a warlord, the rank and file are desperate conscripts, broken by the conflict and fighting for their lives against an enemy whose idea of a peaceful resolution is asking the Tasen to lie down and die so others aren’t hurt.
What’s crucial to Iji is that, unlike these other “pacifist” game protagonists, her augmentations don’t actually make her a warrior. She has no combat experience, is as unsuited emotionally to battles to the death as any other ordinary civilian, and is not eager to put her weapons to use. That decision lies solely in the hands of the player. And at first, she reacts accordingly: whimpering in apology over the bodies of slain enemies and idealistically making overtures for a peaceful withdrawal that some Tasen actually consider. A bloodthirsty player’s reward for cutting down legions of foes is to see the formerly idealistic young woman slip steadily into berserker fury, laughing hysterically or taunting the dying, while they increasingly question her sanity and mock her hypocrisy.
If that sounds empowering, it isn’t. Though the game undeniably makes violence the easier option it by no means shies away from the costs to all involved, Iji and Tasen alike. There are no tranquilizer weapons; the choices are to run or shoot. Whether the Tasen deserve pity or righteous retribution is really up to the player, though the game does its best to humanize them with frequent diary entries from common soldiers.
Iji is unusual among pacifist titles by making the player into an active participant in its moral dilemma. It’s one thing to watch an idealist grow disillusioned and bitter on screen. It is something else to have deliberately chosen that outcome, to metaphorically have all that blood on your hands. Certainly the ultimate pacifist play-through is far more idealistic and uplifting in its conclusion than that of the warrior.
What makes this different is that most gamers aren’t used to being handed responsibility for their actions. Many titles with a karma meter or a branching path system operate under the assumption that the player character is always right to allow for more varied route possibilities and playstyles. A Mass Effect protagonist who chooses cynicism usually finds that he just so happens to exist within a cynical world where that was the right call, rather than his cynicism poisoning relationships and losing him allies. Jim Raynor in Starcraft 2 finds that members of his crew are trustworthy solely based on whether he chooses to trust them.
Iji isn’t so accommodating. It tells the player that its antagonists are thinking, intelligent, sympathetic people with reasonable motivations just after they shatter human civilization and all but destroy Earth’s ecosystem out of desperation. It encourages pacifism whilst acknowledging the reasons for violence, and enables combat without condemnation while simultaneously showcasing its protagonist’s emotional breakdown.
If the player wants to work for the idealistic solution, they’ll have to put some effort into it.
Title image found at http://shaktool.deviantart.com/art/Iji-96973055