Is there anything worse than killing a child? It's one of the most reprehensible things a person can do. Not just in real life: Along with Golden Retrievericide, child-murder is one of the most double-secret-ultrabad things a character can do in a movie, book or video game.
The murder of a child can be an incredibly potent moment in a story. But it can also be a hacky, cringe-inducing grasp at unearned maturity.
I played a good chunk of Prototype 2 over the weekend. It's a fun game—it's basically as though Crackdown met Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and it's a lot more balanced and enjoyable than its predecessor. I like it, despite its rough edges and dumb writing.
But man, that dumb writing can be really dumb. The game takes place in "New York Zero," a quarantined city that has been infected with a horrible super-virus that turns people into all sorts of murderous monsters. The government bad guys are represented by a seemingly endless army of hilariously amoral Blackwatch soldiers and Gentek scientists. They're all so vile that they can't even stand each other—they're designed that way expressly so that you won't feel bad about ripping a thousand of them in half.
Early on, I picked up an audio collectible that let me listen to a recorded sound-byte that seemed designed to flesh out the world and share some of what had happened in this city. On the recording, a soldier at a checkpoint yells at a terrified civilian woman who's trying to pass.
"Why isn't he talking? Why isn't your kid talking?" the soldier barks.
"He's not infected!" his mother cries, panicked. "He has autism! That's why he can't respond!"
Cue sounds of the soldiers opening fire, and a woman screaming.
Look, I get it: New York Zero is a really shitty place to live. All the same, this was just… come on, guys. This was needless. It was basely manipulative, a grasp at relevance and maturity that serves only to make the game feel more crass and less mature.
The story starts out with some child-murder, as well—protagonist James Heller's wife and daughter getting brutally murdered, so, you know, we've already got one child-murder in the game. But okay, whatever—many a comic book origin story has done this, and while the whole "woman in fridge" thing is worn and hacky, in a game like this I don't really care.
The audio diary, however, was unnecessary. I'm not all pearl-clutching about it or anything; it was just... gross. We as a culture have got all sorts of things going on with autism at the moment as it is, but just blandly throwing a murdered autistic kid onto an audio diary seems like a pretty tasteless way of enhancing a game's fiction.
[Mass Effect 3 spoilers follow.]
I was reminded of how I felt when I saw BioWare's Mass Effect 3 presentation at E3—they showed the opening level of the game, leading up to the appearance and subsequent laser-blasting of the Only Child in the Universe.
I scoffed at the time, since my god did this feel manipulative—"Okay, time to get invested! See this kid? You like him. Yeah, you do. You think he's cute. Well now… watch him die."
The full game, of course, did more with the child than simply use him as a first-act motivation for Shepard. He became a (ham-fisted but still roughly effective) symbol of all that Shepard had lost on Earth, turning up in dream sequences and eventually making a return as the form that the
Deus Ex Machina celestial presence took, Contact-style, to tell Shepard about the grand plan and give him or her that controversial final choice. Call it Chekov's little kid.
I'm one of those people who didn't hate the Mass Effect 3 ending, but I don't love the inclusion of the kid—it just felt so out-of-step with the rest of the trilogy. Couldn't we have had one of Shepard's dead allies be the one to haunt her dreams, and the one to turn up at the end and talk her through the master plan? Why did they have to write this kid into the third act?
For all its faults, Heavy Rain was one of the first games I've seen really go the distance in attempting to realistically portray the pain of losing a child. The fact that David Cage and company felt the need to use the game's shattering opening events to get us invested before ripping the other child away is perhaps less elegant. But still, points for effort.
Bioshock used child-murder as a central gameplay mechanic, and got away with it, largely because the entire game was built around that father-child/big daddy-little sister relationship. That relationship was further explored in Bioshock 2, and taken in an (I thought) even more interesting direction.
It's even possible to—gasp!—make the death of a kid a little bit funny. Limbo embraced sick thrills by making its little boy protagonist die over and over again in horribly violent (but silhouetted and vague) ways. The "Childkiller Perk" (shown at the top of this article) in Fallout is another example of kid-murder pushed to a ridiculous, offensive, and blackly funny place. (It probably wouldn't fly today, however: In the modern Fallout games, you can't kill kids at all.)
As Stephen pointed out a couple of years ago, we are in the midst of "The Daddening of Video Games." That feels truer now than it did in 2010. More and more developers are fathers, and it makes sense that they'd begin to write more stories of parenthood into their games. Think about the big-budget games you've played that are in some way or another about fatherhood. They are legion. (And while yes, plenty of women make games too, the "Mommening" of video games has yet to manifest itself to the same degree.)
It's a good thing that games are looking at our relationships to our kids, twisting and turning them to make statements that are worth making. Our fear for our kids, our desire to protect them, and even the awfulness of a child's death are all worthy topics for a game (or anything else) to discuss. That now-infamous Dead Island trailer promised us a level of emotional catharsis that it turns out we want very much. Its popularity and lasting cultural impact demonstrate that this subject matter is both potent and relevant. But it's live ammunition, particularly when a kid is actually being killed, and it's easy to handle it classlessly.
One of my favorite things about the new Walking Dead video game is the paternal, cautious relationship between protagonist Lee and his ward, a girl named Clementine.
I don't know how Lee and Clementine's story will play out, but if there comes a moment where she gets bitten and I have to decide what to do, I don't know how I'll handle it. That will be a mature, dark, and intense decision; Bioshock's harvest/save choice made devastatingly specific. It's just the kind of thing that I'd love to see a game do, as much as I'm dreading it actually happening. It would feel truly mature in a way that the hastily barked, recorded murder of an autistic kid never could.
I applaud games willing to take chances, who'll risk dealing with difficult material like the death of a child. But you've got to earn it, and keep it in a context that feels appropriate to the kind of game you're making.
Prototype 2 is good in plenty of ways. But a game that's at its best when I'm dive-bombing from a skyscraper and blasting tentacle-shockwaves into military compounds... probably doesn't need to start killing kids in an effort to get me to take it seriously.