Column

The Thrill Of Non-Lethal Runs In Games

by Javy Gwaltney on Jan 30, 2019 at 02:59 PM

I liked Mark Of The Ninja a lot when it was originally released back in 2012. I didn’t finish it, mostly because I was starting grad school, but I loved its approach to marrying platforming to the flexible stealth systems. I’ve been revisiting the remastered version of the game on Switch to finish it up while traveling, and have been having just as much fun as I did back on the original release, if not more. I also know I’ll dive back in for a second playthrough, but this time I’ll attempt a non-lethal run where I don’t kill anyone (except two characters you have to kill for story purposes). That awareness has gotten me thinking about why some of my favorite games I’ve ever played are immersive sims that give you the ability to proceed through their campaigns by non-violent means.

I’m not a pacifist by nature when it comes to games. If you ask anyone in the Game Informer office who’s had the misfortune delight of playing multiplayer games with me, you’ll probably hear that I enjoy a good dollop of carnage. One time I coaxed fellow editor Kyle Hilliard into a car in Ghost Recon Wildlands and then blew him to smithereens for the heck of it. There was another time in Red Dead Online where I shot a box of dynamite that another colleague of mine was standing next to. I like violence and chaos in games. For me, nailing gory headshots in Resident Evil 2 is fantastic, as is dropping chandeliers on targets in Hitman. So what is it about pacifistic playthroughs in immersive sims that’s so appealing?

The appeal isn’t rooted in demonstrations upholding moral standards, but instead in understanding a game’s tools in a specialized way, to the point that you know how to create challenges for yourself by limiting said tools. Ultimately, I like to come away from games that emphasize player choice knowing that I’ve mastered those titles’ mechanics and systems. For immersive sims, that often means getting through the game without killing a soul.

Take Dishonored. It’s easy to complete that game as a whirlwind of murder and chaos, summoning plague rats to feast on foes or slowing down time to blast three enemies with your flintlock pistol before they react. However, Dishonored is at its best when it convinces you to create your own rules for your playthrough, to inhabit a particular mindset for your character and stick to it.

I love my nonlethal runs (yes, plural) through Dunwall because Dishonored's systems are enjoyable enough that making rules for myself (like not killing guards or being spotted by them) created exciting challenges to overcome. For example, knowing how to get past all of the guards in the level where you return to Dunwall tower is extremely difficult when you only allow yourself to use the game’s teleportation power, blink, to do so. These restrictions force you to learn the game by heart, knowing where foes will patrol, how long you have to react if they turn their head in your direction, and where the safest places to hide out are.

I still return to the original Dishonored quite frequently because it’s one of those games I’ve spent so long playing that the familiarity makes dreary Dunwall feel a bit like home. However, its systems are robust and lively enough that I create some new fantastic emergent story every time I play, like how I managed to infiltrate Lady Boyle’s estate in my last game by possessing a fish. Sure, tearing foes to bits with your ridiculous array of powers is fun, but it's nowhere near as entertaining to me as leaping from rooftop to rooftop and vanishing without a trace just before an enemy's eyes find you.

While Dishonored’s systematic flexibility still makes it the game I play the most non-lethally, I’ve started approaching other titles in a similar manner. Obviously, Hitman requires you to kill one or multiple targets to complete a mission. However, while I could stomach a couple of extra casualties in earlier entries like Blood Money and Silent Assassin to complete a mission, killing an unintended NPC in the last two games feels like a massive error (due in large part to how strongly they punish your performance rating). I always restart or reload an earlier save until I can pull off the contract like a true professional.

With Mark Of The Ninja, I’m currently slashing people from the shadows left and right, mostly because I’m still getting a good sense of what the gadgets can do. However, as bloody as this playthrough is, I'm still jotting down notes for tactics to use in the next run, like how combining smoke bombs and firecrackers in crowded rooms makes for a great distraction. I imagine Mark Of The Ninja is going to be hard as hell to pull off a pacifist playthrough given the savvy A.I. of the enemies, but I’m looking forward to my non-lethal run to test my understanding of the game and see if I can truly be the best ninja around.

What about you folks? Any games you love to do non-lethal runs with? Any games you hate to do 'em with? Sound off in the comments below!