Building a Better Murderer

[7 April 2010]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

I’m getting better at killing.  It stands to reason, since I’ve had good instruction.

I have written before about how highly stylized violence is used in games as an encouragement to learn their combat systems (”Splatter Porn and Additionally Strange Visual Stimulation in Video Games”, PopMatters.com, 17 June 2009).  I was also extremely appreciative of the way that Bayonetta provides a means of practicing combos between the action during loading sequences (”Learning from Loading Screens: The Pedagogy of Bayonetta, PopMatters.com, 20 January 2010).  Finally, I have also considered the various strengths and weaknesses of active and passive styles of tutoring players in various gameplay principles (”Active Learning: The Pedagogy of the Game Tutorial”, PopMatters.com, 16 September 2009).  However, rarely have I been schooled in slaughter so well as I have been in playing Darksiders.

Darksiders offers nothing especially new in terms of teaching the player to kill, but what it it does do better than many games is teach the player to be a more efficient and effective murderer by changing up some existing mechanisms of training the player in the deadly arts.  Largely, this boils down to creating some rules for murder.

Darksiders begins with very little in the way of tutorial.  Launching one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into an appropriately apocalyptic battle, the player is instructed briefly on what button is used for attacks but that is about it.  The basic quality of this instruction seems appropriate enough, since it suggests that War is already competent enough at his occupation but also just a few buttons seem all that is necessary to know about to very rapidly begin engaging both demons and angels alike.

The simplicity of combat (mash X, jump with A) suggests a very basic combat system for the game, and as a player, I was immediately under the impression that the game was a straightforward button masher.

Killing seemed to be an especially easy task to accomplish (which again seemed appropriate given the character that I was inhabiting, the personification of War itself), though, at times certain encounters revealed what I perceived to be a kind of clunkiness to the system.  In particular, some flying enemies seemed tricky to kill as War’s ground level attacks seemed less effective and jumping to attack them was inexact.

Shortly into the game, though, my perceptions of the combat system changed inordinately.  War’s progress was stalled by a living gate that could only be convinced to move if several challenges were overcome.  War found himself transported through several portals on the map to an odd dimension in which rules governing his slaughter of enemies were imposed upon him in order to surmount these challenges.  Basically, War (and in tandem myself as a player) was forced to “play a game” within the context of the narrative in which his approach to killing was given certain strictures.  Some of them were simple enough, kill 40 enemies in a room before time runs out.  However, some of them required more guidelines to accomplish thier goal, kill 30 enemies within a time limit by only using “instakill” finishes.

These strictures forced me into combat in a particular kind of way and with a need for efficiency in accomplishing death dealing.  Interestingly, I found that killing some enemies under these more strict rules (like the flying enemies that I had found to be less effectively killed using the fundamental button mashing rules that I had been initially taught) suddenly became much easier.  I was becoming a clearly more accomplished killer.  These exercises had clearly improved me as a killer. 

Upon completing these challenges, I immediately began applying what I learned to the “actual” battlefield and found War to be a much more effective and efficient killer, but then again, he had had to be.  He had been asked to kill on someone else’s timeline and that restriction had taught him to get better at killing and to do so more quickly.  A guided experience had taught both War and myself well.

It is this that, perhaps, most impressed me about this exercise, that the game had made actual and not just represented experience mean something.  Let me explain what I mean.

Traditionally in video games, especially role playing games, designers have attempted to represent this process that I have just described (the acquisition of experience in order to apply it in a meaningful way later on).  For instance, by killing monsters and completing quests a player earns points that represent these experiences.  Often “leveling up” allows that player then to apply those points to attributes or skills to represent that experience can be transformed into measurable accomplishment.  My character has grown stronger as a result of his experience.

That this mimics a learning process seems even more apparent when mechanisms like “trainers” are added into this equation.  When I pay a trainer to teach me some new skill or to help me develop an attribute in a game, my character suddenly becomes “better” at what he has been taught.

Certainly the authenticity of these systems have been questioned due to their very artificial and often seemingly arbitrary quality.  The representation of acquiring experience seems less than actual, especially in the case of the first example.  Having hewn through a horde of demons with my sword, I can now take my experience points and apply them to increase my character’s intelligence.  Killing demons makes me somehow more intellectual?  Thus, systems have been put into place to make these representations more reasonable.  Experience points might be derived from the actual actions taken by a player and applied to appropriate skills and attributes related to the action.  Hewing demons with my sword causes my strength stat to raise. The player’s “choice” exists not in a spreadsheet then but in the activities he has chosen to pursue in the game.  My representational experiences now seem more reasonably linked to an “actual” accomplishment.

These representations of learning, though, don’t extend to the player of the game themselves.  I have by no means grown actually better at accomplishing tasks in the game because my character’s stats rose.  Demons may go down more quickly or lock picking may have grown easier but this is not due to me getting any better at the game.  My accomplishment is not earned by being a better player of the game.  Instead, I have been rewarded for showing up.  Every action that I take whether especially successful or not (sure, I swung my sword a bunch of times, but if I lost many of those battles, does that mean I really learned anything or got really better at swordplay in the game?) is rewarded with a representation of the outcome of experiential learning, but the quality of my attacks, my actual (or even the character’s actual) improvement in them is not necessarily adequately represented or actually learned from a gameplay experience.

The intriguing thing about the model of acquiring experience via challenges (something that many games include as “side quests” in a game or, as Dante’s Inferno recently has, only at the concluding moments of the game as if players can only accomplish them from having practiced them over the course of the game rather than learning something useful from them to apply in the play of the actual story itself) in Darksiders is that it improves War not in a representational way but in an actual way.  My play got better as a result of actually acquired experience.  It seems that what I needed was a “teacher” willing to press me into seeing the combat system in a different way by restricting my initial instincts in how to play the game.  Time limits forced me into a more efficient mindset.  Other limiting factors on the way that I killed made me reconsider how useful alternatives were under these new circumstances.

Ironically, an action game seems to have accomplished wedding actual experience with play leading to character and player development rather than the sort of games that normally attempt to accomplish these goals, the role playing game.  In some sense, my performance in the role of War seemed more authentic than when I play the sort of games where the creation of and maturation of a character is central to its presentation.  The experience of War has resulted in a more effective soldier, one better trained and better at producing the kind of carnage that War represents.  I feel like an accomplished killer now.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/123552-building-a-better-murderer/