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Love Thy Neighbor: The Need for Compassion in Games

They had us pinned down. There’s so many bullets flying overhead that mere seconds of exposure meant certain death. There was blood in the water, and those sons of bitches could smell it. And that’s when I hear him: “Shit! I’m down man!” I look up, and my teammate is 50 yards away behind a concrete barrier and bleeding out on his knees. Without a second thought I pop a smoke grenade and toss it between us. Within moments the battlefield is blanketed in a gray haze, and I’m off and running. I pick up my comrade, blind fire a few rockets, and then we hightail it back to our team’s fort behind the sandbags. “Thanks man,” my teammate says to me. “This wave isn’t nearly over,” I reply. “We need you.”

This is just one of the many acts of heroism that transpired during a three hour session of the Horde last week. We did eventually make it past the 50th wave. After the last brumak went supernova and gave us a well deserved light show of victory, the four of us stayed in the chat channel for another 15 minutes, giddily reliving our favorite close calls and “oh shit” moments. It truly was one of the best gaming experiences I’d ever had.

"Can I get a hug, bro?" "...maybe later, Dom."

This got me wondering, I’ve played hundreds of hours of team-based games before, so why did this stick with me so much? I had to think back to my times playing Left 4 Dead until the sunrise crept in through my blinds to recall a similar feeling. Then it finally hits me. L4D and Gears’ Horde mode provide a frenzied feeling of being overwhelmed, and from that despair you end up leaning on your teammates, and in turn they lean on you. You begin to put yourself in harms way to pull them out of fires, going back for them if they get left behind, giving them a spare health pack if they’re limping. Put simply, you stop treating your teammates like helper bots, and more like—you know, people. Individuals you actually show compassion towards, instead of just running past them and not giving a second thought about their well-being.

I think that’s kind of huge. The act of injecting a little compassion into games changes the texture of every encounter. How the team fares directly correlates to your success and survival; so you end up not only monitoring your own health, but the group’s. And what do you know? Not being a selfish jerkwad all the time feels good. In a time when gaming is so full of instances being a one man army going for top kills and the most points, it’s refreshing to be able to dial it back once and awhile.

FPS’s, MMO’s, RTS’s, the genre doesn’t really matter. What matters is that every warm body is required for survival. This is especially strong in games where there are specialized jobs. Everyone will lay down cover fire for the engineer who’s the only one that can fix the bridge. And anyone who’s played MMO’s knows how key deaths can easily = wipes. The group being a well oiled machine is the only way to win. To double back and whack those zombies off that newb who may be playing for the first time. To brave tank fire with health supplies for your squad who desperately needs it. To keep aggro off the healer because the tank died—even if you are just a squishy rogue. When the shit hits the fan, traditional gaming conventions go out the window, and the good of the many outweigh the good of the few. This mentality makes for awesome, memorable gaming.

Online multiplayer isn’t the only place that can benefit from a little empathy and compassion. There are far too few games where the player really cares about the protagonist’s motivations. We are usually given a standard issue save the girlfriend/princess/world/get revenge story and sent on our merry little way. Is it really that hard to craft a halfway decent motivation to push players? Instead we get carrot-on-a-stick rpg elements added to everything to “entice” us to keep playing.

Give us something to really fight for, something to protect, dammit. For example, even though you cannot die in Ico(save for falls), the encounters still mean so much since you’re protecting Yorda. You feel so bad letting her down, you do everything in your power to win. In Bioshock, you feel driven to help free the Little Sisters from their horrible fates. Even with the prospect of getting a ton of Adam in return, it really is difficult to look into those big, yellow eyes and harvest them. When the Big Daddies continue to search for their wards, you also can’t help but feel at least a little pity as they give a slight sigh of defeat after knocking on a wall and receiving no response.

Yeah she's a princess, but at least she's no Peach.

My favorite example of a game using compassion to strengthen a narritive is Heavy Rain. Some people may find it boring, but I loved spending the first hour of the game caring for Ethan’s sons. This brief family time is so important to setting up the story. When you see how much those kids mean to Ethan, you can’t help but feel some of his pain when Shawn is kidnapped. Of course you’re playing to find out who the Origami killer really is, but you’re also fighting to reunite a downtrodden father with his son.


This quote by Penny Arcade’s Gabe always sticks with me:
“I’ve spent a couple nights with Heavy Rain now and I think it’s really special. If you’re a parent, (especially a Dad) this game can be pretty difficult to play at timesI don’t know if it’s an 89.85%, or a 9.7 out of 10. What I do know is that after a late night playing it, I sneak into my son’s room and hug him before I go to bed. I think Heavy Rain is probably one of the most important games ever made. Maybe not one of the best, but definitely important.”

When you’ve got games touching people like this, it’s something that’s hard to ignore. Come on developers, gamers have hearts too. Why net let us use them once and awhile? The theme of Heavy Rain was: “How far are you willing to go to save someone you love?” I don’t know, but give gamers a chance and we might surprise you.

p.s. I may love a good sob story, but if I see another hometown blown up in an RPG I’m going to seriously hurt someone.
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About konaone of us since 10:16 PM on 10.21.2011

Ever since my dad held me up to a Pole Position cabinet to steer as he worked the pedals, I've been absolutely hooked on games. It just took me 25 years to figure out that I loved writing about them too. I don't have any particular genre biases, I'll play just about anything that involves pressing buttons (that's probably why I shouldn't visit hospitals...). This blog is just the thoughts of a guy who loves games, but is occasionally frustrated when they squander their potential.