Gaming’s Guilty Pleasures: Looting bodies

[Dogen continues the Monthly Musings theme of April with his Gaming’s Guilty Pleasure on looting corpses. — CTZ

It was a slow, sinister creep of a developed habit, like the shuffle of zombies in a dimly lit hall. The approach was barely perceptible, but I now find myself caught in it and it’s not clear how to shake it off. I like looting corpses.

I can still remember watching friends playing games for which I had not yet developed the intestinal strength to try out for myself, and the distaste I felt at the practice of looting. I would sit smugly as they sifted through the pockets of their in-game victims, imagining myself respecting the deceased by leaving their treasures with them were I ever to play. I would be a model citizen of the game world, killing only when threatened and making gold through purely lawful means. Mario never had to collect Goomba scalps to turn in for better armor, and Link would never stab a castle guard to get an improved shield. Searching dead bodies for loot was just a gruesome gimmick, and I was far above it.

Looking back, it seems my lofty goals were a bit more hypocritical than I may have realized. What, really, is the difference between hacking up a miniboss for your new slingshot and attacking a wandering bandit for his expensive silver knife? When you boil the sequence down to its essence, they are identical. An enemy dies, and your character picks up some item, be it gear or currency. The differences in presentation between the two characterize the achievement in different ways, but they both reinforce the basic connection: killing leads to better gear which leads to easier gameplay.

More after the jump. 

Most games I played before Morrowind were targeted at a younger audience, but nearly all had some version of that basic mechanic. Ocarina of Time, Mario RPG, Metroid Prime, they all rewarded kills with items or health, preparing me for my eventual descent into darkness. Morrowind was a turning point, because it was the first game that gave me the choice to reject that mechanic.

New to the game (and the genre), and driven to buff up my character until he was a God among elves, I quickly took to scavenging to supplement my questing income. However, tree bark and flower petals only go so far towards that new steel breastplate. So it was, that after my first raid on a smuggler’s den, I took a moment to contemplate the pixellated remains of the gang leader. Such a waste, to leave that axe lying in his hands. Perhaps it wasn’t disrespect, but a well-earned bonus for my enforcement of the law. He attacked me first, no? Doesn’t that mean I am entitled to the spoils of my victory over aggression?

The decision was easy, and at the time it seemed like there was nothing at stake. Now looting is so ingrained in my questing routine that I can’t stop, despite having filled an in-game house with piles of armor and trinkets. The nature of the game’s merchants means that it would take me an obscene amount of effort to sell it all, so why do I continue? Collecting gear satisfies a basic packrat instinct which I’m sure afflicts a number of my fellow gamers. And somewhere along the line it stopped mattering whether the gear came from a chest, someone’s house, or a corpse. I’ll grab it regardless if it has a high enough price : weight ratio.

Bodies in Morrowind lack emotional impact; they exhibit no wounds and might as well be floor tiles for your lack of interaction with them. Not so in BioShock, the game that made me face the extent of my habit. My first hours in Rapture were spent trying to swallow my distaste for the setting. The carnage set me on edge, and my interactions with NPCs took on a tragic tone: I would approach, hoping to elicit a friendly reaction, and would inevitably be forced to slay my new acquaintance when they attacked. The game is designed to isolate you and make you adapt to an unfailingly hostile environment, so it’s only natural that all NPCs not protected by glass are enemies.

As I came to understand the workings of the game, I realized two things that led me to develop an affinity to the dead folks surrounding me. The first was that Rapture is a delicately crafted city, and that story is woven into nearly everything, including corpses. ***MINI SPOILER ALERT*** A powerful example is that of Masha’s parents, clutching one another in death next to the bottle of pills which led them to their rest. ***END SPOILER*** This is the height of corpse placement as story, but certainly not the only example to be found.

The second realization was that bodies were stress-free sources of loot, and that passing up on those free resources would kneecap my efforts to defend myself against the denizens of the city. I began to feel relief upon spotting a corpse, because it meant one less battle I had to fight to survive. In scripted scenes which manipulated bodies, I felt betrayal among the tension and terror which heightened the impact of those moments. That betrayal was the flag; for if I didn’t implicitly trust the bodies, then why might I feel betrayed when they turned on me? I had come to rely on their aid, and I would go so far as to say that the reliance had become an attachment that I still find unsettling.

Now, I don’t intend to start bringing friends home from the morgue, but it frightens me that this game let me to develop a sort of rapport with the dead. I am hooked on corpses and the loot they hold, and I leave it to you to decide what that says about me.