One of the defining elements of my favorite RPG franchise, Shin Megami Tensei
, isn't just the supernatural-cyberpunk post-apocalypse it inhabits but also in how it approaches conflict. In main series SMT
entries - and even occasional spin-offs - you will have many random or even triggered encounters which can result in combat - but not always. Sometimes you can just talk to your enemies instead of killing them.
Depending on the situation, your allies, their abilities, the moon phase and sometimes moral alignment there are a number of different ways these quirky conversations can play out. The payoff in these negotiations is commonly the recruitment of a new ally into your ranks - turning an enemy into a friend - but occasionally money, items or healing can also be the reward. Sometimes if the enemy is made aware a member of their clan is in your ranks, they will cease all hostilities toward you and tell you to take care of their friend. However, if that's not the case and you respond to conversation in a way that displeases them, you may just be locked in combat anyway.
Sometimes enemies even approach you out-of-the-blue and offer to join you because you're that awesome.
Given all the opportunities for violence in the series, these conversations provide the player a means to break the monotony of combat and shows us the worlds of SMT
are about more than just exchanging blows, but having conversations and making other choices as well,
And I think in a lot of cases, that's a missed opportunity for a lot of video games. Even barring the lack of conversational options, sometimes discretion and non-lethal options are better tools for winning the day.
Nowhere is this better expressed than the Metal Gear Solid
. Snake is a killer, but its not like bringing death to others is something he takes great pride in. He dislikes the praise and occasional hero worship he sees purely on the basis that he's taken the lives of enemies, friends and even family to complete a mission. Killing is making a choice and as the MGS
series has evolved, the choice to not kill your enemies has become rather integral to the game design of the series.
killing an enemy outright removes the potential to interrogate them and learn new things about the immediate area he might know - or in MGS2
killing at least deprives you of a potential human shield/hostage when you're low on ammo and need to BS your way out of a fight. In many situations a dead body is certainly quieter than a sleeping one, but a sleeping guard laid out in the open would make the enemy think one of their allies is sleeping on the job. That could serve as an extra distraction so Snake can sneak away - meanwhile a dead guard tends to place other guards at full alert if you didn't bother to hide the body.
Factor in MGS: Peace Walker
and killing enemies can also mean the loss of potential, kidnappable recruits for your army. These recruits could serve as more than just combatants in your army, too. Some of them might have technical expertise that would better serve your R&D division on Mother Base, add staff to your medical team or maybe you just need a good cook for the mess hall to boost army morale.
In Peace Walker
even enemy commanders are fair game for recruitment. It will be a hard fight taking out a tank commander and his troops without killing them, but once his allies are skyhooked off the playing field, you are free to break out the heavy artillery and peel the commander out of his armored shell.
Getting back to talking, in Deus Ex Human Revolution
or Fallout New Vegas
, we occasionally get the ability to talk our way out of a fight or a situation that could end in needless death. Depending on how you handle these conversations (or what your skills might be, in the case of Fallout), you can avoid needless bloodshed, possibly gain an ally or informant and other rewards.
Or you can attack and kill them. That's still a thing.
Whether its cyberpunk dystopian Detroit or the Mojave Wasteland you're still going to see lots of opportunities for violence, but as with Solid Snake you can make sure Adam Jensen keeps his hands as clean as possible during his journey. The Courier, meanwhile, will still be exploding heads and dismembering limbs in VATS - but The Courier will see their choices reflected in the long run by way of reputation, karma and how they chose to complete quests. History will remember if The Courier was a bloodthirsty monster or a saint, even if war never changes.
Though I hear Solid Snake disagrees with that sentiment about war.
Violence is going to be a thing in games and there's really no way around that, but there is a lot that can be done to make games more than just about violence. Seeing a spark of humanity in an enemy NPC - to see they're just a working Joe, that they have a sense of humor or are having a bad day - may be enough to make a player reconsider violent action and seek out another way.
That said, if we had more opportunities to talk things out in games and occasionally avoid a combat situation entirely, I think that would be good progress, too. There are also other means, other options to explore beyond what is laid out and not all of it needs to be conversational or morally just, either. Games like Dishonored
prove that framing, blackmail and public exposure are also non-lethal means by which to dispose of an enemy.
All it takes is putting a little more thought into game design and realizing there's more than one way to give a player a satisfying outcome to a potential confrontation. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go chase down a demon I've been bribing to join my group for the last half hour.
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