Does a game need kills to be exciting, tense, believable and commercially successful?
I'm really no one to be offended by video game violence. Like in my movies I experience violence, when done right, as a catalyst for tension and drama, something that makes me feel what is happening on screen. And even when done in a silly and over the top way, I enjoy the sensations, the shock, the punishment of a villain and the relief, when the violence finally concludes into something peaceful and calm. Also when violent behavior on screen does not produce visible violence, physical or mental harm, t totally loses any hint of believability and the feeling emerges, that filmmakers and game designers in this case had to cave in and pull back. So, if you wanna bark, you also have to bite. No complains there.
In the black and white worlds of fiction, movies and games, where enemies can be recognized by the color of their skin or their job, their hometown, or by their medical condition, often enough there is no discussion about who deserves to live and who deserves to die. You blow up a planet with your death star, you die. You are an invader from space, you die. You are a zombie, you die ...for real.
Classic sci-fi and fantasy fiction heavily rely on racial and regional distinctions to clarify who is evil and who is righteous. So according to Tolkien, everything that comes from Mordor, like every single Orc and Uruk-Hai, can rightfully be beheaded. In the Star Trek universe, up until Lt. Worff was recruited for the new Enterprise, Klingons, yep the population of a whole planet, was to be feared for their violent and warmongering behaviour and better shot first and asked later. In Star Wars, the race of Hutts always is portrayed as greedy, ruthless, treacherous and decadent. And of course archetypical villains in fairy tales, like the always treacherous and deathbringing Wolf can be found many.
The thing is, when you search for those kinds of damming generalizations in real life and history, you find anti-semitism, the KKK, middle eastern terrorism and ethnic cleansing. A big part of the world population recognizes those things as intolerable.... except when it happens in fiction and of course usually not in games, where you yourself are the one that pulls the trigger.
There is a widely spread sense of justification to shoot on sight in modern video games, despite the fact that technical advancements allow for a more complex and thoughtful approach to the matter. In the old days, where every character sprite was expensive in bytes and gameplay had to be handled with two buttons and a d-pad, it was understandable to play it simple. But now, with big and complex worlds full of npcs, so called civillians, and dozens of possible different enemy types, pieces of virtual equipment and complex controller input, why do game designers still fall back to an overly simplistic solution of "kill or get killed"?
Total destruction of every person, animal, device or creature possibly causing the player character to die, and by doing so causing a game over, is fair game. Or in more simple terms: If it moves, kill it.
This of course is not in general a less favorable approach, but having to decide between taking down an enemy or killing him can add an interesting layer of depth to the gameplay and can be of strong support for the narration.
Some answers and thoughts on that in part 2.
Images used are from: Batman Arkham Asylum © 2009 Eidos Interactive Ltd, Super Mario All Stars © Nintendo and Conker Live And Reloaded © Rareware