Imagine if I was to walk up to you in the street, grab your hand, and then use it to slap a passing stranger. As you turn to me hoping for an explanation I instead blame the whole incident on you, shaking my head in disgust and remarking on what an awful thing you just did.
Video games do this kind of thing to us all the time. Rather than patting us on the back as we save the day, numerous games force us into playing the bad guy or doing the wrong thing. This doesn’t put gamers off however; some of the most tremendous games have you playing the anti-hero throughout, or occasionally throwing you into a situation that will ultimately leave you feeling guilty, despite the fact that it wasn’t really your decision.
It’s a long standing belief of mine that one of the greatest aspects of video games is their ability to provoke reactions that other media does not. The ability to cause guilt is a prime example. Some of my all-time favourite games have had me committing the ‘wrong thing’ at some point, and the whole experience was all the more memorable because of it. Other games, whilst not my favourites, left a lasting impact because of one or more incidents when the game turned to me and declared that I was an awful person and I should feel bad. Below are three examples of games that made me feel guilty.
Spoiler Warning: I will be referring to key moments in each of the games below.
Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – Waking the Wind Fish
The guilty feeling in Link’s Awakening creeps up on you. Link ‘wakes’ up on an island populated by good-natured people and equally good-natured talking animals. The island has become infested with monsters and is being slowly enveloped by evil. Your goal is seemingly clear; collect eight instruments, wake the Wind Fish (the Island’s guardian) and save the day. However, as you head towards the game’s climax, the player is slowly clued into the fact that the waking the Wind Fish will actually lead to the destruction of the island.
With the final boss defeated, the Wind Fish appears to you and reveals the truth. The entire island is his dream. By playing the eight instruments, the evil will be defeated, but the island and all its inhabitants will cease to exist. You save the day, but at a big price.
I was quite young when I first completed this game. I remember sitting, staring at the screen, with my thumb resting above the ‘A’ button. I didn’t get a say. No choice. I was about to wipe away an entire island for the greater good. I almost wanted to leave the game there, unfinished. Yet, I had enjoyed the game so much by that point, and wanted to see Link win. So I dutifully pressed the button and watched as the land and its inhabitants flickered from existence. Link’s Awakening still stands as one of my favourite games of all time, and not least because of the impact of the finale.
Shadow of the Colossus – Killing the Third Colossus
This might be my favourite game of all time. I’m usually someone who enjoys discussion and debate, but if you were to tell me you didn’t enjoy this game, I would most likely tell you that you are wrong and/or lying. Unless, of course, you dislike the game because the level of guilt levelled at the player from start to finish.
The sense that you are doing the wrong thing runs through this entire game. The story, the visuals, even the music let’s you know at every opportunity that you should not be in this land, killing these sixteen ancient titans, all so you can save one woman (who the player knows nothing about).
When I defeated the first and second colossi, I didn’t notice what the game was trying to do. I was still mesmerised by the gameplay, art style… pretty much wowed by the whole experience. Only when I took down the third ‘boss’ of the game did I realise that I wasn’t going to get through this game without a serious challenge to my conscious.
The third Colossus is known as Gaius. He is/was a very tall human-like form with a humongous stone sword. Like all the colossi, Gaius is neither in anyone’s way, nor is he causing any harm to anyone. He only begins to attack when Wander (the player’s character) trespasses on his small and isolated platform. His mighty, slow, arching sword swings are no match for the Wander’s nimble movements. A well-timed swing leaves Gaius’ arm exposed for climbing, and the player dutifully sends Wander up the colossus to stab his head and exposed stomach.
The guilt of murdering any of the colossi is not instant. You are allowed a single, delighted moment to celebrate the success of overcoming such a massive challenge. Then the camera pans out to watch the giant creature fall to the ground as the soundtrack switches from ‘adventure’ to ‘tragedy’. In the case of Gaius, he staggers pathetically before stumbling forwards. There is the briefest instance where he tries to hold himself up using his sword, before collapsing completely. The player/Wander is then left alone, to reflect on what a thoroughly awful human being they are.
It’s very little wonder why so many people have left this game unfinished. I have myself have replayed SOTC so many times, marvelling at the way this game deliberately provokes such a negative response in the player. I’m not sure any other game has left such a lasting impression on me
Spec Ops: The Line – Using the White Phosphorous
This is not one of my favourite games, but one that certainly left its mark. Spec Ops: The Line begins like the majority of shooters. Your character is one of three members of Delta Force, carrying bags of bravado and bullets. You’re here to save the day and that’s just what you’re going to do. That feeling doesn’t last long; it’s soon clear that this game wants you to know that war is bad and you’re not going anywhere until you feel bad too.
If you’ve played Spec Ops: The Line, you will already be very familiar with one major incident in the game that intends to leave the player in no doubts that this story will not end well.
Martin Walker, the player character, and his two Delta Force buddies find themselves looking down onto an enemy strong-point. There’s an army beneath them, and no discernible of getting past them undetected (according to the game at least). Your saviour comes in the form of a mortar with white phosphorous rounds. John Lugo, another member of the trio, declares that these rounds should not be used because of ‘what that stuff does’, but Walker assures him that there is no other way.
So the player obligingly fires round after round of white phosphorous into the encampment. Dozens of ‘soldiers’ are dispatched within mere minutes. It’s already apparent that what you’ve just unleashed was pretty devastating. To confirm this, the game forces you to slow-walk through the area you have just bombarded. Charred survivors reach out to you as you trudge past them, your head held low. It’s abundantly clear that the game is doing it’s very best to make sure you know you are an awful, awful person. Before you can object, arguing that you didn’t know this would happen, the game drops another weight around your neck. Amongst the soldiers you burnt to death, were families. Before you can state your case, the game virtually lifts you up by the collar and shouts into your face: “How could you do such a thing?!”
The entire scene is amazing, in my opinion, hammering how the psychological, physical and collateral impacts of war. It’s a big risk, as well as a big talking point, for a game to attempt. Whilst I wouldn’t say I enjoyed Spec Ops: The Line, playing it was an experience I appreciated going through.
Whilst Link’s Awakening and Shadow use silence and isolation to enforce the emotional impact, in The Line we are reminded of our sins by Adams and Lugo, the other Delta Force operatives following you into battle. The only way the game could have made the guilt-trip more enforced is if Adams and Lugo had been replaced by Walker’s mother and father. Following him round; sighing and shaking their heads; criticising him for his poor life choices; asking him why he never visits…
There are a variety of games which I have played that attempted to make me feel guilty. I picked these three games to write about because they succeeded in this aim. I felt bad for what I’d done. I hadn’t made those choices – these were integral, unavoidable parts of each story that I was steered towards. It wasn’t really me making those decisions, but the guilt was there nonetheless.
In fact, if a game gives me the option to do something bad, or offers a good/evil moral decision, I personally rarely feel the same level of guilt. This is usually because I play the evil version second to see what difference was made. In the original Bioshock for example, I felt only the smallest pang of guilt taking the bad option with each Little Sister because I had actually been a good person the first time round; now I was just a casual observer to the protagonist’s evil deeds.
I also picked these three games because they each deliver the guilt-ridden blow in very different ways. With Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the guilt came as a twist at the very end of the game, at the moment when I was ready to celebrate my victory. With Shadow of the Colossus the guilt hangs over you, Sword of Damocles style, throughout the game. That guilt is reinforced with the death of each fallen giant. Spec Ops: The Line hits you with that guilty feeling at the midpoint of the game, and continues to remind you of your wrong-doings from that point onwards.
Do games ever provoke this response from you? Which games made you feel guilty? Were you aware of a game trying to make you feel guilty but failed? What’s your favourite game that made you feel bad?