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To Kill Or Not To Kill part 2

Non lethal takedown techniques, weapons, tactics and strategies represent a vast and mostly uncharted area of unexplored gameplay possibilities. In this post, I'd like to begin mapping that area.
How do we incentivize the player to make strategic and tactic decisions regarding killing or not killing his enemies in combat gameplay? And how does it feel?



Hostage situation in Army Of Two: The 40th Day.

In the last part I questioned how appropriate and how much fun it is for most combat based games to offer just one default combat solution: Kill or get killed.

Let's explore the possibilities of long term and short term changes in gameplay and narration depending on the player using lethal or non-lethal techniques.

Non lethal takedown techniques, weapons, tactics and strategies are not only a significant part of modern, futuristic and ancient forms combat and are generally neglected in the majority of games, ... in my opinion, they also represent a vast and mostly uncharted area of unexplored gameplay possibilities. In this post, I'd like to begin mapping that area. This map wont be complete in any meaning of that word, since the amount of ideas and scenarios to put in there is virtually endless.


Before we start, a few rules first:

  • Everything goes. Though production resources are limited we still collect as much ideas as possible. It's just a brainstorming session, so don't be limited by costs or expenses.
  •    
  • When considering non-lethal techniques and gameplay elements for a game, the designer always has to keep in mind, that the player needs incentives to try those techniques out or even truly master them. If the player has no somewhat satisfying reason to only subdue his opponent, why should he?
  •  
  • The average player is used to killing enemies, since Pacman or Space Invaders and killing your opponent generally produces the sensation of winning. So it is important that subduing one's enemies results in at least the same feel of winning and/or killing is still a method for winning.
  •     
  • Non-lethal combat techniques should not be less fun than the very lethal ones. They should not result in noticeably slower gameplay, in frustrating moments or less feel of impact. Neither should they make the player feel weak and restrained.
  •     
  • Always try to balance the risk and reward of non-lethal combat. If the player risks to get shot in the back by an only subdued enemy, he should at least get some worthwhile reward.
  •       
  • Do you know more?


  • Arrest in SWAT 4.

    options vs limitations

     In the comments to my previous installment there where a lot of concerns, that the player would feel restricted and punished when he uses kill methods while non-lethal techniques are available and that non-lethal techniques would take the simple fun of going berserk on your enemies away. That of course depends on how the designers implement those techniques and what kind of payoff the designers offer for different play styles.

    In games like SWAT, where non-lethal techniques are by design the preferred option and you can lose the mission when you are too trigger happy, it of course limits the player's choices and maybe even forces the player into a play style he does not enjoy. But that is just one way of adding non-lethal combat to a game. There are many ways to add those kind of mechanics and instead of limiting the player's choices, broadening those choices and making them more relevant. This is what this little series of articles is all about.

    The non-lethal approach, that started Joker's reign of terror in Arkham Asylum.


    Where to begin?


    To map this infinite amount of cause and effect scenarios, design ideas and mechanics, I'd like to work with four areas of player-game-interaction.

  • Game feel:
    Referring to principles established in Steve Swink's Game Feel, meaning real-time control, spatial simulation and polish. I this particular case focussing on non-lethal weapons, non-lethal takedown methods, negotiation tactics and audio visual polish to make them rock.

  • Tactics:
    What are the risks and rewards of using non-lethal tactics in the very mission or combat sequence the player is currently playing? How can we incentivize the player in the short term?
  •     
  • Strategy:
    There are games who support moral choices, which allow the protagonist to develop into two directions (good vs. evil). Are there really just those two directions? How can we incentivize the player in the long term to focus mostly on a lethal, non-lethal or a cleverly mixed play style?
  •     
  • Narration:
    Often enough the depiction of the protagonist and the overall story allow for kill-all play style. But some do games struggle or even fail to match their narration with their combat gameplay and while the narration tries to sell us a hero, the gameplay delivers a killing machine. How can we match gameplay and narration? And how can we have the narration follow the player's play style?



  • Moral decision situation in Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

    For this post we begin with long term and short term incentives for the player, meaning strategy and tactics. Game feel and narration will be subject a later installment.


    Tactics – Engaging the Enemy

    It all comes down to what kind of tasks the player has been given. Seek and destroy, clear the area, assassinate target, retrieve an item, don't raise alarm, capture somebody, escape area, progress to next area, simply survive, free hostage and so on. A lot of those tasks can be done in a way of the player's choice, while some of those tasks require killing of course and some tasks explicitly require non-lethal methods.

    In real life, in some professions, police officer or security personnel for example, you are required by protocol to try to solve situations in a non-lethal manner. Also, there is no further interaction with a dead or unconscious enemy. That means on the one hand that the enemy threat is eliminated, but on the other hand offers no possible forced or free support from the enemy unit.

    A few games already support non-lethal tactical options to a certain degree:
    Splinter Cell (interrogation), Army of Two (hostage), SWAT (arrest), Gears of War 2 (meat shield)

    Who are you going to be? Play style option beyond good vs evil.

    Strategy – Disengaging from the Enemy

    Depending how the player decides to end the encounter and what he decides to leave behind, it shapes who his in-game character is and how the world is receiving him. Being a valiant hero, a weak opponent, a killing machine or tyrant can not only affect the character  of the protagonist, but also how enemies engage the player in future encounters and what kind of support he gets from civilians.

    In Afganistan and Iraq the U.S. Forces do not only engage in military combat, but also try to establish a positive image in the public. This would be much harder than it already is, if the engagement policy was something from a Modern Warfare playbook. In contrast, warlords in Africa do not only raid whole villages, kill men and women, but also take children to train them to be child soldiers and leave some villagers alive, heavily mutilated to be an effective weapon in psychological warfare.

    So, non-lethal techniques do not only apply when you want to have a positive impact.

    Quiet a few games use a moral system to offer strategical options for the player in that regard. Usually they offer the player to develop into two opposite directions, good vs evil or paragon vs renegade. I'd like to offer at least 4 different character development paths as strategical options for the player.

    Also quite common is that the player can not decide on the fly how to behave, but has to wait for certain  sequences, cut scenes or interaction points to appear, where he is directly asked to make a conscious moral decision. Combat sequences are, with only a few exceptions, moral free zones, where nobody keeps track of the player's behavior. Can we make every confrontation count?


    Rules of Engagement

    Let's explore engagement and disengagement options and their consequences on a general level, before we dive into detailed examples.

    I examine 4 engagement methods: kill, knock out, capture or talk. Every method offers own short term consequences and determines which disengagement options are available for the player. The chosen disengagement options determine the direction of the protagonist's character development: savior, jackass, cold killer or monster. Every direction of character development comes with own long term consequences for the player.

    Check out the different methods and their consequences in comparison below.

    Zoom in:




    Gameplay Examples

    Let's take a look at detailed examples of the short term and long term consequences mentioned in the diagramm above:

    Short term risks:
        
  • threat eliminated
    no risk from killed enemy himself
    possible need to hide corpse
    other enemies finding corpse can get alarmed and scared
  •     

  • risk of enemy regaining consciousness
    enemy can continue attacking player
    enemy can alert other enemies
    enemy can shut doors or hide items
  •     
  • risk of enemy breaking free
    enemy can continue attacking player
    enemy can alert other enemies
    enemy can shut doors or hide items
  •     
  • risk of alarming other enemies
    enemy is able to scream for help
  •     
  • risk of surprising attack
    enemy can exploit the players low guard and attack him
    possible severe damage or instant death because of low guard


  • Short term rewards:
        
  • threat eliminated
    no further interaction with enemy
    can search body for items
  •     
  • can force enemy to cooperate
    interrogate to get passwords, enemy locations, item locations
    can search enemy for items
    force enemy to lure other enemies into a trap
    use enemy as meat shield
    take enemy as hostage
    can force enemy to open doors or containments
    can force enemy to drive vehicles
    can force enemy go ahead on a mine field
    can force enemy to guide player thru area
  •     
  • can ask enemy to cooperate
    ask for passwords, enemy locations, item locations
    ask enemy to open doors or containments
    ask enemy to drive vehicles
    ask enemy to keep quiet and to let the player pass
    ask enemy to guide player thru area
    ask enemy to convince other enemies to cooperate
  •     
  • can gain possible new ally
    ask ally to lure other enemies into a trap
    ask ally to open doors or containments
    ask ally to drive vehicles
    ask ally to join forces with player
    ask ally to convince other enemies to cooperate
    ask ally to convince other enemies to become new ally
  •  

    Long term character development:   

  • savior
    enemies may be less hostile, because they have no reason to hate the player
    enemies may be more hostile, because they don't fear the player
    enemies will be more likely to cooperate, because they have no reason to hate the player
    enemies wont run away or surrender, since they don't fear the player
    npcs may offer better goods and services to the player to support the player's good cause
    npcs and enemies may join the player's forces to support the player's good cause
    npcs may offer less goods and services to the player, because they consider him weak
    npcs and enemies don't join the player's forces, because they consider him weak
    more non-lethal methods and abilities become available to the player
  •    
  • jackass
    enemies may be more hostile, because they hate the player
    enemies will be less likely to cooperate, because they hate the player
    enemies wont surrender, since they don't want to be humiliated
    npcs may offer less goods and services to the player, because they hate him
    npcs and enemies don't join the player's forces, because they hate him
    more funny humiliating lines and abilities become available to the player
    special abilities become available to the player, like stealing or extortion, to make being a loner worthwhile
  •     
  • cold killer
    enemies may be more hostile, because they don't want to get killed
    enemies wont cooperate or surrender, because they would die anyway
    enemies are more likely to run away, because they don't want to get killed
    npcs may offer more goods and services to the player, because they want him on their side
    npcs and enemies may join the player's forces, because they consider him em
    more lethal methods and abilities become available to the player
  •     
  • monster
    enemies may be more hostile, because they don't want to die or get captured
    enemies may try desperate attacks, because getting captured by the player is worse than death
    enemies will be more likely to surrender, because they are afraid of death and torture
    enemies will be more likely to run away, because they are afraid of death and torture
    npcs may offer better goods and services to the player to not get killed or tortured
    npcs and enemies may join the player's forces to not be targeted by the player
    npcs may offer less goods and services to the player, because towns are evacuated
    npcs and enemies don't join the player's forces, because they find him appalling
    more lethal and brutal methods and abilities become available to the player


  • Of course this lists are in no way complete, but still offer a fairly complex load of gameplay variations. Especially in rpgs or rpg-heavy action adventures many features on those lists offer exciting experiences. They also can suggest to the player, that he is in full control of his character, something the default kill-or-get-killed concept of combat gameplay sure can't.

    Every character development needs the support proper narration, of course. Techniques and methods must feel awesome to execute. Next time we will tackle those two issues and hope end up with a nicely structured collection of gameplay features waiting to enrich future gaming experiences.

    Thanks in advance for all suggestions, harsh feedback  and comments.
    I now go and  play a round of old skool Mortal Kombat 2, see ya.

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