In what is extremely clearly stated rhetoric, Austin C. Howe separates the player and character in what I’d simplify shorthand as the player actor relationship:
I have thought about this a lot and: the player is not the character and shouldn’t be thought of as such. Usually, there’s just Too Much Damn Text that makes the player character totally alienated from the player. Games are not immersive, they’re empathetic. They don’t make you feel like you’re “there”, they communicate what “there” is like.
An integral part of understanding videogames as metaphors, as meaningful art objects that fit into our lives, is separating a feeling of agency from actual, material agency. Establishing a divide between the virtual and the actual. During play of a shooter, I choose to make tactile responses that cause a character to commit murder. I do not commit actual murder. It sounds obvious, but I don’t think this is semantics for the sake of it, the difference is really important in both approaching game development and interpreting videogames.
For me the divide has always been self-evident. I’ve spent a lot of time gnashing my teeth at what is essentially an ideological split. People want to be “in” the game, so to speak, instead of being “with” the game. A desire for naturalistic simulation assists player entitlement. Consumers have expectations of how videogames need to be to correctly feel like they’re “in” the game. It is thought that videogames uniquely allow players to do the impossible, and the extraordinary, so value is placed in what you can do in some abstract rather than what you are doing. This is why players are so worried about if what they do is fun. This is why gamers are disappointed when they feel a videogame doesn’t let them do enough. This is why game designers are so concerned with alchemizing engaging mechanics as if they could be engaging unto themselves, instead of thinking about play in a way that is thematically cohesive. (I’ve seen a gamedev claim as much that jumping in mario would be “fun” and “engaging” without graphics or music.)
Mainstream games, with their long lasting fixation on conflict and the destruction of symbols as an immediate device to create “fun,” often fail to acknowledge that that the player is being asked to murder. Killing in something bright and accessible like Kirby seems absurd, or extremely dissonant, on just trivial introspection (I love Kirby, but grappling with the contradiction necessitates interpretations that stretch the text). When violence isn’t continuing the old model of having monsters for the sake of it, like any flagship Nintendo game, then the presence is exaggerated and awkward, such as the massive body counts in a shooter or an mmorpg.
A classical view of videogame, that someone is “in” the game, would support that killing in a game means actually committing murder. Drawing attention to violence, like in Nier, converts the feeling of competition with AI into what is often a one-sided massacre. This may be why extreme violence is more of an elephant in the room for game design, an uncommented on cultural tradition that is too “fun” to be interrogated. Yet, games which do not draw attention to the consequences of their violence have subtext that justifies killing without remorse for loss of life.
I really enjoyed A Subtle Kind of Murder because of a rare feat in videogames: it manages an empathetic portrayal of one of the worst human impulses. A stunning emotional range is displayed through cutscenes. Characters’ linework seems slightly crooked, off, betraying something sinister to their cartoony presentations. Everything is colored in different shades of dark greens, the dark colors and subject lending the game to feel like a gameboy noir. Though only rendered through stills, the unnamed killer and victim display their familiarity, their snark, and their ultimate dysfunction, with a conversation that manages to stay casual with a cutting flow. The titular murder, with restraint, happens off-screen. The killer’s motivation was to prevent blackmail, to eliminate the potential of a life ruining secret leaking out, but exact details are left out.
A Subtle Kind of Murder has such a specific communication because the killing and processing of shock happens without player input. The player is an invisible force guiding potentials, but there’s a distance between what’s asked to be done and what happens in the game. I think players are more likely to rationalize their correctness when thinking the violence is their own. It feels like self-defense or that there isn’t any other choice. A Subtle Kind of Murder untangles the relationship of character and actor, communicating to a player what the situation is like, without making the situation theirs.
After the intro, a three minute timer begins to count down. The killer has to clean the crime scene, hide the body, and dispose of evidence. Interactions for this puzzle are in three small rooms. Its closed nature feels reminiscent of a room escape game. Decisions are open ended. There are multiple ways to dispose of evidence; how the body is hidden changes the killer’s eventual verdict. This openness combined with a short time limit creates sheer panic and compels a scramble to act, to do anything. Inevitably quick thinking under fear leads to very dumb decisions that are easily pierced by a later investigation.
It’ll take trial and error to hide the crime. Cutscenes in between the crime and the police interrogation communicate grief and existential anxiety. The police appear mostly unmenacing. They ask questions contingent on the crime scene’s status and the player can pick dialogue that communicates one of three: statements really dumb that only the killer would know or say, statements that feign complete ignorance despite how ridiculous they sound, or statements that incriminate the bartender, the killer’s friend, and only other person at the crime scene. Statements are only effective if the crime scene was arranged in way that supports them. Sometimes certain questions or answers won’t even come up.
The “winstate” then, finishing the game, requires pinning the murder on the killer’s friend. A puzzle game compels a player to experiment and come to a solution. Drawing out satisfaction by giving the player a sandbox to recursively develop their wit and patience. With the premise of hiding a murder, puzzling becomes a black comedy, making a well understood form of play perverted and immoral. The subversive glee dissipates as A Subtle Kind of Murder ends with soberly laying out the stakes. Nobody wins in this winstate. In the ending cutscene, the killer looks into the distance, and the narration asks: “Are you happy?”
It might sound like I’ve been against violence in videogames, but I’m for the complete opposite. I want to play games that acknowledge basic grief and loss; I want to play games that can humanize that which is impressionably inhuman. Violence can be meaningful, evocative, reflective. I don’t know if empty, pointless violence is actually harmful, but I think it is insulting, and minimizes structures and individuals that bear violence. Videogames are places and vehicles to explore metaphors and communicate ideas. Violence cannot happen just because. Empty destruction is a denial of any real world connection. Uncommented, unchecked escapism, on mountains of the dead.