The recent trailer for Dead Island, an upcoming zombie actioner from Techland, brought about a realisation that there's been a tendency which has been increasing within the media recently; the use of children to elicit emotion.
Whilst there's a small contingent of dedicated developers striving to produce the most provocative and enthralling stories gaming has to offer, within mainstream gaming it appears that the narrative is more of an afterthought eclipsed by explosions, motion controls and large breasts. With the Dead Island trailer came the hint that one of the few taboos left within gaming was about to be traversed; that in the search of a compelling narrative, Techland was willing to go the next level to get the audience emotionally involved.
The point of contention here is exactly what should be classed as "sacred" as far as gaming is concerned? Can't the children be left out of the violent fantasies we like to play out within gaming? Can anything or anyone be classed as "fair game" in the name of a good story, or do we really have to ask ourselves if there are some places where gaming simply should not go?
The Dead Island trailer begins with the body of a little girl lying limp and bloodied, the brief clip telling the story of an island holiday in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The viewer learns that the girl had been bitten by a zombie and thrown out of a fourth-story window by her father who she had just tried to kill. The trailer's poignancy was linked to its use of family and the zombification of the little girl; not only do you see her die, but learning that it is her father who has to kill her makes the sequence all the more harrowing.
Dead Island's trailer shows one of the strongest uses of children in this way, but it was not the first. Self-proclaimed narrative-design master David Cage makes one of the first attempts in mainstream contemporary gaming to use children to pull on parental heart-strings—in Cage's Heavy Rain, any parent's worst nightmare is realised as a son goes missing.
In this game, the player has to search for the lost boy in a busy mall, the only sign of him a small red balloon bought only moments before. After several tense minutes which feel more like hours, the player catches up with the boy just in time to see him outside the mall, straying into the path of a fast-moving vehicle. Two years later, the main character's remaining son is kidnapped, and to rescue him the player has to successfully complete a host of tortuous challenges.
What's key here is not the bonkers premise or the uninspired game mechanics, but how David Cage employs these family tragedies. Many have protested that Heavy Rain's writing is flaccid and unmoving because of its ridiculous Swiss-cheese narrative. I would say that Heavy Rain isn't a tour de force of interactive storytelling, although I firmly believe that Cage's confidence in his storytelling ability comes from somewhere other than his own imagination. Clearly some to people "got it", but who?
I'm not a father, but I can well imagine that the prospect of losing a child in a car accident or having one kidnapped would be two of the worst conceivable experiences as a parent. Clearly Cage is hoping that people will empathise with his main character; that they'll feel that pang of horror the moment he notices his boy has gone missing and that they'll weep when they realise what has befallen him and his family.
Where Heavy Rain differs from the Dead Island trailer is that Heavy Rain's use of kids is indicative of the type of story Cage is trying to tell, whereas the Dead Island trailer is only that, a trailer. The creative use of cinematography, non-linear storytelling and harrowing subject matter do not represent the gameplay, they just "set the tone" of the game. The feeling of tragedy will clearly feature heavily within the adventure (one would hope) but was the death of the child necessary to meet that end?
Emotions are an abstract thing, and the skill which goes into invoking an emotion, (sadness, for example) is a rare one indeed. Empathy is key to players finding themselves in that situation, however, the protagonist's plight will always lose some magnitude in the journey from the screen to the mind of the player. To combat this, writers and designers have had to target some of the largest anxieties, complexes and uncertainties in order to elicit that all-important emotional intensity.
Using a child, or any family member for that matter, will most likely be the most provocative scenario possible. As I mentioned earlier, my paternal engagement may not be as high as men who are already fathers, so my nearest equivalent would be anything involving a girlfriend of spouse.
As an example, The Darkness, a graphic novel adaptation by Starbreeze, sees the player looking on helplessly as their girlfriend is shot dead by the gloating antagonist. Having just begun a serious relationship at the time, this scene was heart-rending for me. What would happen if I was presented with the same situation in real life? I'd rather not even consider it.
At this point I must ask, why is it different to use a lover or other close family member (a choice which is relatively accepted) while children remain as a no-go area? Limbo, PlayDead studio's indie hit of 2010 graphically, I believe, shows us why.
The premise of Limbo is much humbler and less convoluted than Heavy Rain's. Quite simply, the player awakens in dark, foreboding forest and all that's needed to know is that the character is a lost boy who is vulnerable. Very vulnerable.
In the journey to escape this strange world, many a dangerous obstacle lies in the player's path. Completing the game will most likely require being impaled, crushed, electrocuted, decapitated and more besides. In the general scheme of things, this level of violence isn't significant within gaming, although considering the protagonist must be a child of around eight years old, it becomes more poignant.
Heavy Rain's tack was investing a lot into characterisation of the player's virtual family before the many tragedies occur. In contrast, Limbo has no characterisation, none at all. However, I still persist that Limbo is considerably more provocative.
In showing players only a silhouette, it's clear that it's a boy being controlled, but it's impossible to see who the boy is. If anything, this blank character enables a higher level of empathy as is it could easily be anyone's child. In addition, the lack of characterisation leaves further room for a player's own projections of childhood and innocence. Rather than being a son being put in peril, it can be the player's own child self, or it can represent many things. However, the most important of them is that it's a child who doesn't deserve the ordeal he is forced to go through.
Children become a symbol of innocence and hope, the sort of person they may become has no bearing to what they are now. Watching a child forced to navigate his way through a hostile world is tragic, and doubly so since the light in his eyes is one of the only sources of hope within the game world. Watching those eyes blink shut after a fatal mistake is a truly frightening experience.
As a player, what I want is for a game to make me feel, to make me cry. I want a game to make me care so much for its characters and their plight that it makes me shed a tear or two. I want to become that emotionally attached to it.
Dead Island's use of a child, whilst extremely effective, feels like a kind of emotional blackmail if considered as part of a wider picture. Setting the feeling of family tragedy could have been done in many ways, and most of them don't involve the death of a child. Even though Heavy Rain also shows violence towards children, it functions as part of the player's narrative, something that couldn't have been created had the player not become acquainted with the children or been witness to the tragic event. Limbo's stylised aesthetic stops the gratuitous exposure of the child's fragility from becoming gratuitous by turning it into a visual allegory or metaphor rather than focusing on the character being someone's child. It is everyone's, yet it is no-one's.
We should ask ourselves if the use of children in this way is either right or not. Clearly such sensitive matter should be treated with some sense of delicacy, but from what we've seen so far I can't say that I'm angry about it. Violence against kids and loved ones isn't exploitative or gratuitous if it serves a clear purpose, if it contributes to a narrative and strengthens a game. However, I fear it's only a matter of time until the taboo has been overcome and we see violence towards kids as spectacle; it is a precipice we may find ourselves standing at the edge of sooner than we may think.