These days, it’s pretty common for people to say that a book or movie has changed their lives. Something in their favourite novel or film spoke to them on a foundational level and changed their outlook on the world completely. It’s less common, though, to hear the same about video games. Sure there are certain games that shake things up and set the benchmark for things like graphics, story-telling or even connectivity, but it’s pretty rare for someone to lay out for you how their way of thinking was fundamentally altered by sitting down and playing through an interactive experience. Well, strap yourselves in because I’m about to do just that and tell you about three of the times my impressionable young mind was shaped by a vastly underrated art medium.
The following is likely to contain spoilers, but the included games have been around for a while. Proceed with caution!
To ease us in, my first example is a little loose, spanning across a few games (in the same series) and perhaps more to do with a throwaway comment from a friend in the beginning. I’d been playing video games for a little while and after sinking an insane amount of hours into Metal Gear Solid, I picked up the weird but awesome VR Missions expansion. If you haven’t played it, it’s essentially a bunch of challenge levels built using the same engine as MGS and features a whole bunch of wacky side-missions and easter eggs. One of the challenge modes is a ‘murder mystery’ type premise where you have to investigate the people and objects in a room and determine how a ‘Genome Soldier’ (the generic enemy of MGS) was killed. In the final level of this mode, you must frantically search an office for clues (of which there are many) and try to work out what did the deed. On the mantle of the fireplace, there is a picture of the victim, surrounded by people, most likely members of the development team. My friend was over at the time and trying to help me solve the crime and I asked him who he thought the people in the photo were. “I dunno,” he said, “Maybe it’s family.”
No one’s goin’ home for Christmas
Up until that point I had never really questioned my actions in these games, I had been killing these enemies with wild abandon, never really understanding that my actions had consequences, albeit fictitious ones. I laughed it off, but it was too late, a seed had already been planted and I began to feel bad about ending the life of in-game adversaries. Fast forward a few years and that seed had grown, popping up occasionally after a particularly blood-soaked session of Grand Theft Auto or Perfect Dark, making me wonder if, somehow, there was a piece of code that was waiting for that other piece of code to come home. What truly solidified the feeling of horror for me was the ‘boss fight’ with The Sorrow in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. You are literally forced to walk through a swampy river and come face to face with every enemy you have killed in the game up until that point, some of them even shamble towards you screaming “Why’d you kill me Snake?!”
It’s because of this that I now try to play most games with as small a body count as I can, having developed some kind of empathy for these digital adversaries. If there is a non-lethal option, I always endeavour to spare anyone I come across, even though it often makes the game much harder. The amount of times I’ve had to restart levels in a game like Dishonored is actually outrageous, but making it through without sending everyone home in a body bag does make me feel better.
Do we think this is lethal?
The next example is the highly controversial and much-maligned ending to Mass Effect 3. I finished the game when it first came out and like a lot of people, I felt more confused than satisfied with the outcome of my colour choice. Not really understanding the full impact of my decision (since this was before the ending patch) I had gone with the ‘Destroy’ option and called it a day. After I watched the patched ending though and saw that I had wiped out all synthetic life in one fell swoop, I started to feel pretty gross. I was watching a lot of Battlestar Galactica at the time and already questioned the nature of synthetic intelligence and consciousness but Mass Effect really gave me characters to fall in love with like EDI and Legion. I fired up my save and played through the final act again, but this time I chose the “Synthesise” option, which creates a unity between synthetic and organic life, an option which I figured was unquestionably good. Without going into too much detail, after I spoke with some close friends about the ending, we got into a pretty heated discussion about things like bodily autonomy and AI versus real life, and I found myself arguing pretty passionately in favour of life, even synthetic life, above all else. I’ll admit that it was a little naïve to take that position but Mass Effect gave me this whole new outlook on how I think and feel about synthetic (or artificial) intelligence. These feelings were stirred up again when I played Detroit: Become Human and needless to say that I fell in love with pretty much all of the characters in that game.
What my friends had said resonated with me though, and I also started to question the morality of playing a game as ‘The Chosen Hero’. So often in role-playing games, you are tasked with making big decisions, usually on behalf of the world. I always try to make the noblest decisions with ‘The Greater Good’ in mind, but these would obviously have unforeseen consequences on those that I’m taking the decision from. To be honest, it’s still something that I think about each time I play a game where I’m put in that position, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be fully comfortable with it. Mass Effect 3 taught me to consider the full weight of my decisions, and what seems like a clearly positive direction may not be so shiny underneath.
*Sniff* Yes dammit, this unit does have a soul *Sniff*
Although the last example was a two-for-one, I still have one game I want to talk about. If you haven’t played the extremely harrowing This War of Mine yet, I highly recommend that you do so. Essentially, you are charged with taking care of a group of refugees, taking shelter from a brutal civil war that has torn their county apart. You must manage their resources and scavenge for food to survive, all the while dealing with constant life-threatening situations. It’s a glimpse into the kind of life that’s experienced by millions on a daily basis and it really knocked me for a six when I first played it. Then came the expansion, The Little Ones, which added child survivors into the mix. Always a glutton for punishment, I started a new save and took on the role of a single father who had found shelter for himself and his young daughter. At first, it played as I remembered, scrapping tables and chairs to patch the walls and setting out plans for future builds. When I had to leave the shelter for the first time to find food though, I was faced with leaving my completely helpless daughter alone in the middle of a war. I had to go and find food for us to survive, but without me around she would be completely helpless. Sure enough, when I returned in the morning some thugs had visited in the night and stolen everything we had, terrifying my daughter in the process. My first priority after that was to barricade the doors and shore up any other access points, but the emotional impact on my child was long-lasting. She was frightened of any strangers that came to the house to trade and with nothing around to take her mind off of the horrible situation, she slipped further into a depression. Every night she asked me to stay and protect her but I was forced to leave to find what we needed to survive, basic things like food, water and medicine.
It proceeded much like this for the remainder of my playthrough, and by the time I had finished I found myself much more emotionally exhausted than when I played the first time. I was always horrified by the daily experiences of refugees around the world, but I never really considered how much stress could be placed on a parent or carer in this kind of environment. The daily struggle of trying to take care of your dependants both physically and mentally is already draining enough, but to do that in an active war zone (or even while fleeing it) must be one of the worst things ever. Since I’m neither a refugee nor a parent, I’m not going to say that This War of Mine allowed me to feel that struggle, but it did bring that thought to the forefront of my mind and made my heart break for all of the people out there living it for real.
Would you know how to answer this?
On that happy note, I’ll wrap this up by saying that video games can have as much impact on the way you see the world as a book or a movie. The way they put you into uncommon situations and quite often force you to make hard decisions, can really make you stop and question yourself, question your actions.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you ever sat back after playing a game and looked at the world differently? Let us know in the comments below!