Three Reasons The Pacifist Run Is the Future of Gaming

Senior Contributor
06.18.12 16 Comments

Note: minor spoilers on the next few pages.

One of the things that was largely ignored about “Dishonored”, when it was touring E3, was the fact that you didn’t have to kill people. That, in fact, the developers had made a point that you didn’t have to kill anybody, that gamers who were troubled by violence could simply skip even knocking people unconscious altogether.

The pacifist run has actually been possible in games for a while. Most of the Halo games make it possible (not easy, but possible). “Deus Ex”, rather famously, only made fighting two characters scripted, and you could even avoid killing one of them. You can even finish “Postal 2” as a pacifist, and that’s a game designed to quite literally make you pull a gun and start shooting (if you actually pull this off, the game labels you Jesus Christ).

Here’s why the pacifist run is not only important for the future of gaming, but crucial, for reasons of design, challenge, and, well, ethics.

If there’s one thing that’s obvious from E3, it’s that as AAA games advance, one of their features is going to be having multiple ways of solving a problem. Even the “Tomb Raider” reboot offers you multiple ways to deal with enemies. They’ll present you with a problem, but the method of solving that problem isn’t necessarily linear: you can shoot the guard, sneak up on him, use environmental hazards or traps against him, or, of course, sneak past him.

Granted, right now, most of those options are different ways of killing people. But increasingly, sneaking past your enemy is an option most games incorporate and often the best one. Even games like Hitman have put the emphasis on limiting the violence to your target, and ideally not even killing your target directly. Just ask anybody who got “Silent Assassin” on any level in “Blood Money”.

Remember that Halo pacifist run I mentioned? Here’s one, to give you an idea of how tough it is:

The most basic aspect of gaming is challenge: that’s the entire idea. Pacifist runs are deeply challenging and offer a level of difficulty well beyond “Hard Mode”. Just play the entire Montreal sequence (well, aside from the boss) as a pacifist run. Have fun with the elevator area; I recommend quicksaving. A lot.

But they can also be challenging in a different way. Sticking with “Deus Ex: Human Revolution”, there’s a point in the game where, unless you’re quick on the draw and very, very good, your friend will die. And then, later on, you’ll come across her mutilated corpse being taken apart for her various implanted technologies.

It’s gut-wrenching. Many people, at this point, simply pull out a gun and start killing enemies left and right. Nobody would do this in real life: this is a fantasy world with no genuine consequences and the targets are just strings of code.

The point, though, is this: the pacifist run allows game designers to play on the gamer’s emotions and choices in entirely unique and sometimes uncomfortable ways, moving games to that elusive goal of becoming capital-A Art. Which leads us to…

One of the interesting things out of this year’s E3 were all the complaints about the violence shown in games. If I had to offer a guess as to why suddenly the entire industry starting wringing its hands about violence, I’d say it boils down to four words: “The Last of Us”.

Naughty Dog is up to something interesting, beyond just making a survival game. Being forced to shoot a man begging for his life in the face with a shotgun, even if he is trying to kill you, makes most of us uncomfortable, and it should. That is, I suspect, the entire point of the game: that violence needs ultimately to be the last solution, not the first, even in the most extreme of circumstances.

But this also raises a lot of interesting questions: as designers include more options in a game, stealth being one, and thus give gamers choices, it changes the moral and ethical arguments we’ve been having for years about video games.

My position is hardly a secret: video games are fantasy, and 99.99999% of gamers are sane, normal people who understand Niko Bellic is a string of code, not a role model.

But now mindless violence doesn’t have to be the norm. When I play games with stealth as an option, I’m a little surprised how often I’d rather sneak past or knock out enemies than I would pick a fight. Part of this is practical: I’m less likely to get into a firefight and thus get killed. But part of it, I tend to prefer that option.

What do you think? Does the option for a pacifist run make you more interested in a game? Or are you always going to go in guns blazing?

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Dan Seitz is a grad student and freelance writer. He currently lives in Boston.

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