Moral choices: killing in Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line

“I hated it… in the end it does not matter if you execute a civilian, leave him to be killed, or try to save him. Just doesn’t matter.”

This is a comment on a Gamasutra article about Spec Ops: The Line (2012), specifically with regards to the moral choices that the player is presented with during the game. Set in the ruins of Dubai after a catastrophic sandstorm, The Line is the story of Captain Martin Walker’s recon-mission-gone-wrong. As he attempts to track down Colonel Konrad (The Line wears its Heart of Darkness influences quite plainly), Walker experiences and participates in horrors that eventually break his mind and spirit.

It is these horrors to which the commenter is referring: at certain points in the story, the player is given a choice between how to react to a specific situation. With one of Walker’s squadmates, Sergeant Lugo, lynched by a mob of locals that the American troops are purportedly there to protect, the player is put on the spot. Fire into the air to disperse the mob, or – as Lieutenant Adams insists – open fire on the mob itself and take vengeance for Sergeant Lugo’s death.

Whichever way you choose [1], the story doesn’t change. Adams continues to blame you for Lugo’s death, even if you comply and gun down the civilians, and the events of the narrative are not altered – as the commenter says, it “just doesn’t matter” what choice you make. Or does it? I would argue – strongly – that this choice matters very much indeed, on a moral level rather than a narrative one.

Morality is a subject in which games have become increasingly interested, particularly in the role-playing genre. In titles like Mass Effect or Fable, virtually every action the player makes is assessed on a sliding scale of good or evil, which in turn affects how non-player characters react to the player and even governs which quests/missions become available in the game. Fable even goes so far as to transform your character’s appearance depending on how you’re playing the game: consistently evil characters grow devil horns and consistently good characters walk around with a glowing halo.

A "good guy" in Fable

A “good guy” in Fable

Morality is a core mechanic in these games. Essentially, they reward the player for the consistency of their character’s moral stance (sometimes it’s fun to play the bad guy). Unlike The Line, these games explicitly signpost every moral decision, either with in-game alerts or as part of the character menu. Yet what does it therefore mean to play the good guy? The player is being actively rewarded for their moral choice: be good to join the Jedi Order, or make this character like you so that they sell you gear for less. Can an act truly be called “virtuous” if there’s a tangible, otherwise-unattainable reward gained by it?

To take this on a step, and return to the above quotation, what if a player’s moral choice – good or bad – leads not to a reward but to a narrative change? Multiple endings have become increasingly prevalent – even Black Ops 2 (2012) offered a plethora of possible outcomes depending on players’ actions and choices, including whether or not to spare the chief antagonist, Menendez [2]. BioShock (2007) is rather more primitive, offering a “good” or “bad” ending depending on whether the player chose to harvest (kill) Little Sisters or save them. Role-playing games generally offer a huge divergence of story and outcome that hinges on player choices. Arguably, those choices “matter” on a narrative level, rather than a moral one.

Bioshock's "good" ending

Bioshock’s “good” ending

The Line has frequently been compared to Far Cry 3 (several critics have argued that they satirise the shooter genre), and there is much to be said about the relative ways that the two games handle moral choices. At the end of Far Cry 3 (2012), your character is given a binary choice, intimidatingly-presented. After one of the game’s many expositionary drug trips, Jason comes round to reality to find himself holding a ceremonial knife to his friend’s throat as she begs him to stop. The choice is to either complete the tribal ritual by killing her, or “save your friends” [3]. A choice, right at the end of the game, independent of anything you might have done before, and even called out as such by the tribal leader Citra:,

“Complete the path, or all your progress, […] everything you have done on this island will be erased.”

The irony here is that by attempting to trap Jason by warning him that he’ll lose all the warrior power that he has earned and developed up to that moment, Citra fails to realise that there is a part of Jason that wants very much to lose that power, as addictive as it is. The choice is more murder – this time of the friends you originally set out to save – or a shot at redemption. Choose the honourable option and you save your friends and Jason is on his way to being absolved of sin for all the hundreds of people he’s killed. Simple as that, a single click of a button.

Left click or right click

Left click or right click

This concept treads fragile ground. Far Cry 3 changes narratively depending on this final choice; The Line does not. True, The Line also has multiple endings, but they all leave Walker as a broken man [4], whereas Jason is given a second chance. As a player, Walker’s story is more satisfying because it forces the player to see the moral consequences of their actions: there is no escape for him from the civilians and soldiers that have died by his hands. Conversely, the moral loophole offered by Far Cry 3 cheapens the significance of Jason’s (and the player’s) actions up to that point. Like Walker, Jason comes to relish his kills – in his words, “killing feels like winning”. But unlike Walker, Jason can escape from that insane moral stance, without consequence.

Far from being a game where a player’s actions “don’t matter”, The Line holds those actions up to the light and reveals their ugliness. When Konrad presents Walker with two prisoners and asks him to select one for execution, it is possible for the player to defy Konrad and instead turn Walker’s fire on Konrad’s men. Indeed, this seems like the heroic choice: don’t shoot the prisoners, shoot the “bad guys”. This was the choice I made and felt better for it. Does it change the outcome of the game? Not in the slightest: in a late flashback, we are shown that the two “prisoners” are already dead, and Konrad is just a voice in Walker’s head. But did I feel that I’d done the “right” thing by defying the game’s antagonist, and refusing to follow Konrad’s eye-for-an-eye philosophy? Absolutely I did.

Left or right?

Left or right?

So do the player’s choices in The Line matter? For sure they do: they matter on the player’s internal moral compass. While The Line doesn’t provide an alternative to killing (outside of simply turning off the game and refusing to play), it made me think about my actions. Lugo and Adams frequently question Walker’s orders (without disobeying them, significantly), particularly when firing on Konrad’s American 33rd Battalion.

At one point – when Walker’s grip on reality is becoming strained – he ziplines into a neighbouring skyscraper and surprises a 33rd soldier there. But the soldier doesn’t appear as an enemy to Walker – it wears Adams’ face and uniform. The only option (again, other than turning off or allow Walker to be shot by “Adams”) is to hit “Execute”. Earlier in the game, hitting this button would see Walker knock out the downed enemy, usually with a knee or a rifle butt; here, Walker bludgeons Adams’ face into bloody oblivion, a shockingly violent moment in a game about violence. The real Lt Adams then ziplines into the room and gasps:

Adams: Jesus… what the fuck did you do, Walker?

Walker [panting]: He, uh, caught me off guard.

Lugo [after a pause]: Hey, it happens… come on.


In the above clip, the player allows Walker to linger over the corpse of the man he has just killed (murdered?) for a few seconds, just enough to show the Captain’s chest heaving. Note too that Walker noticeably gasps as his Adams-vision flashes back to reality [5] – his actions are taking a toll, mentally and physically. This is what The Line wants the player to feel: the impact of the violence and murder that the game’s characters are enacting at their command [6]. As madness grips him, Walker is almost reduced to tears by the game’s conclusion, whispering “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody” – again shifting the responsibility onto the player.

The Line does not offer rewards or incentives for making moral choices – shoot the civilians or fire into the air, in this respect it doesn’t matter what you do. Not to The Line. Yet in some respects this purifies the player’s moral choice: it simply comes down to whether, despite all the questions that the game asks, you still feel comfortable killing someone. And that does matter.

It matters because your choice doesn’t change the game, and, unlike Far Cry 3, you can’t exonerate yourself for your actions. When Walker orders a devastating attack on what he mistakenly believes to be the enemy but transpires to be a large group of civilians, he has to live with that fact. This is mirrored by the player’s position when The Line presents its choices – the only variable is whether the player will be able, like Walker, to blink away the consequences and “keep moving”.

Walker

If Far Cry 3 presents an outright satire of the shooter genre[7], where killing feels like winning, flamethrowers are awesome and warrior power is to be embraced, then The Line is more subtle but no less satirical. In one of the game’s endings – the one I saw on my first playthrough – Walker is finally picked up by American soldiers. One of them asks, in the game’s closing lines, “If you don’t mind me asking… what was it like? How did you survive all this?” To which Walker replies, squeezing his eyes shut, “who said I did?”

Where Jason can escape his actions at the end, for Walker killing will only ever feel like defeat. That fact alone adds meaning to the choices the player makes in The Line. Does murder matter? To Walker, sure it does.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] It didn’t actually occur to me to fire into the air. I tried to walk out of the mob’s circle, hoping that this would be enough to disperse them – it’s not. That led me to conclude that there was only one option available: shoot the civilians. Honest!

[2] I do feel that Black Ops 2 deserves a lot of credit for not making the implications of its moral choices as black and white as might be expected.  As each ending is influenced not only by the player’s decision to kill Menendez or let him live, but also by whether they completed all optional Strike Force missions and fulfilled certain other objectives, there is a multitude of possible outcomes, some more “good” than others.

[3] I guessed that a scene like this was coming – the mission is called “Hard Choices”, after all – and I had mentally prepared myself to do whatever it took to fulfil Jason’s apparent destiny to become the ultimate warrior. But I couldn’t do it – credit to the game for the way it switches from dream sequence to close-up of Liza’s face, credit to the animators, and credit to voice actor Mylène Dinh-Robic for being just too human for me to go ahead with it…

[4] Arguably the most “positive” ending for Walker is that he has truly accepted his status as an insane killer. Instead of surrendering to the US troops, or dying at their hands, the player can kill every single one of them which leads to Walker’s ominous “welcome to Dubai” sign-off.

[5] Reality, or Walker’s version of reality, as Brendan Keogh has highlighted in his excellent close critical reading of the game, Killing Is Harmless.

[6] I like to think that Lugo’s casual dismissal in the above scene is The Line’s comment on the notion that perhaps not every player will feel this way, that shooting a civilian “doesn’t matter” unless there is a narrative change effected by that action. As Lugo says: hey, violence happens. This is jarring given that it comes from a man who so openly decried Walker’s actions in an earlier scene that leads him to scream that Walker has turned them into killers. Like many players, Lugo has already become desensitized to the murder around him and is able to just dismiss it as part of the experience.

[7] Far Cry 3’s writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, has often referred to his game as a genre satire, notably in a series of interviews on Rock Paper Shotgun. Here is one – although it should be noted that there is some contention as to whether the game constitutes satire, as highlighted in that same article..

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Who is Gordon Freeman? An examination of a detailed blank canvas

Gordon Freeman, age 27, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works as a Research Associate at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. He is assigned to the Anomalous Materials Laboratory, has a level 3 security clearance, and an administrative sponsor listed – cryptically – as classified. He is the player’s window into the universe of Half-Life and, by popular opinion, the greatest video game character of all time.

What is it that makes Gordon so memorable, and so well-loved? Maybe it’s the beard, or the glasses. It’s certainly not because of any one-liners he delivers, or the sympathy he shows to other characters during the game, because the lines of dialogue uttered by Gordon Freeman in his four appearances in the Half-Life series amount to exactly zero.

Halflife 2 Gordon Freeman 4

This lack of dialogue was not uncommon around the time of Half-Life’s release in 1998 – similar games in the First Person Shooter genre like Quake (1996) or Unreal (1998) divulged barely any details about the player’s character. Half-Life gives us a few hints about Gordon in those opening moments of the game, but it amounts to nothing more than the bare facts listed above.

Nonetheless, those facts alone are enough to tell us that Gordon is no ordinary hero – at least, not by 1998’s standards, where the Schwarzenegger-styled Duke Nukem was still viewed as the archetypal FPS lead. A physicist from MIT was new ground for a genre where the main characters were super-soldiers with overpowered weapons with names like “the BFG” (the F didn’t stand for “friendly”) – suddenly here was a guy called Gordon running around a disaster zone with a crowbar.

These sparse details aside – and Half-Life makes no attempt to build upon them at any stage during the series – Gordon is a blank canvas for the player. With no dialogue, and no visual appearance in the game, there is nothing for the player to work with. In 1998, it wasn’t expected that you would walk past an in-game mirror and see a reflection of your character. Nonetheless, it’s tempting to believe that the developers, Valve, made this omission consciously to keep Gordon purely in your head – especially given that his lack of speech was reputedly an intentional decision to keep the player immersed in the Half-Life world. There isn’t even a glimpse of any part of Gordon’s body until he swings his crowbar – and he doesn’t acquire that until at least half an hour into the game (1) – at which point you see his hand. Even that, however, is concealed within the Hazardous Environment Suit that you pick up early on. Gordon’s appearances are restricted only to the box art (2).

In 2001, another seen-but-unseen protagonist arrived, in the form of Halo’s Master Chief. Like Gordon, Master Chief wears an armoured suit that conceals everything that lies beneath. The game’s creators, Bungie, go as far as to tease the player during cut-scenes in the Halo series that suggest we’re about to see Master Chief’s true face – only to be summarily fig-leafed. Master Chief is an interesting comparison to Gordon, not least because of the sheer weight of material that has been written about him and the Halo universe (3), which is in stark contrast to Dr Freeman.

In the book Halo and Philosophy, Joyce C. Havstad suggests:

“Master Chief’s personal identity […] is to some extent determined by each player of Halo. This is an ingenious consequence of generating a character without a face. By never revealing, and perhaps never creating, the face of Master Chief, the designers of the game allow each player to imagine Master Chief’s face however they choose. Part of his personal identity is unfixed, and can thus be envisioned in a multitude of ways. Players can make up and relate to the character that they choose.”

Havstad is suggesting that, perhaps contrary to common perception, the best characters are the ones that aren’t mapped out for us. This seems like a paradox: how can Gordon or Master Chief be two of the most memorable video game characters of all time when there is little to remember them by? We knew more about the characters of Mario in 1985 (cutesy, pudgy Italian plumber) and Sonic in 1991 (sassy, impatient so-and-so) than we do about Gordon Freeman, even four games into the Half-Life series.

Yet, while I don’t dispute Havstad’s claim, I do think that her theory would be much better applied not to Master Chief, but to Gordon. Even if we discount all Halo canon outside of the games, there is actually much more to Master Chief than Havstad suggests. Yes, he wears a near-impenetrable suit of armour and symbolically reflective visor, but we have in fact been given a very detailed look into Master Chief’s character in the four Halo games released to date. We now know that John-117 was acquired (“kidnapped”, even) as a child and augmented into the ultimate soldier. And, by the start of Halo 4’s timeline, he is “at his core, broken”.

In mitigation, Halo 4 was released the year after Halo and Philosophy was published, but even ignoring that most recent game we still know more about Master Chief than Havstad suggests above. For starters, he has a voice (LA DJ Steve Downes) and every Halo game has plenty of cut-scenes that not only advance the story but also give an insight into the game’s characters, Chief included. We know he has an action hero’s sense of humour (“Sir, request permission to leave the station […] to give the Covenant back their bomb.”) and we get further clues as to his character by the fact that he is shown in third person in those cut-scenes. This means that, despite the depersonalising armour, we get a wealth of information through Chief’s body language – he double-takes, he flinches, he moves slowly and softly during emotional scenes with Cortana.

In short, the player gets a much clearer picture of John – the man within the armour – than we ever get of Gordon Freeman. There are no cut-scenes to speak of in Half-Life, with the story being told exclusively within the game engine (somewhat revolutionary at the time). Gordon is much more “unfixed” a character than Chief – he has no voice, no face, no body language. In a game, every time a character opens their mouth, they are prescribing a little bit of their personality onto the player. Not so with Gordon. It’s not until Half-Life 2 that he even gets a cast of characters with which to interact, save for some interchangeable – and very disposable – Black Mesa scientists. Even his name is begging to have a personality applied to it: the Free Man (4).

Yet if we accept that Gordon is a blank canvas character, does that really explain the accolades? Is it not simplistic to say that we love Gordon because we readily transpose ourselves onto him?

Certainly, there are more factors involved in making him so well-liked. On a basic level, we like Gordon because we like Half-Life: the series is a regular fixture on all-time greatest video game lists. Gordon is our window into the world; we enjoy the world, ergo we feel positively about the character. In the case of Half-Life, the character is inseparable from the experience. This would not be the case if Gordon had a “fixed” personality, to borrow Havstad’s term.

In Half-Life 2, the story expands to include more characters, and these are fixed, particularly in the case of Alyx Vance. Alyx is a character who is extremely easy to like: feisty and knowing (crowbar joke), and devoted to her father and his revolutionary cause. It is great testament to the work done by Valve that any way I attempt to describe Alyx Vance’s character seems totally deficient (5). By readily developing an affinity between Alyx and the player, the game positions Gordon in a much more emotionally-driven position than in the original Half-Life.

When the player rescues Alyx, Gordon has become the hero and the conduit for the player’s emotion towards her – and vice versa. When Alyx hugs Gordon, she’s really hugging the player. We thus feel even more positively towards Gordon – the conduit – for rescuing her. Without Gordon, we wouldn’t receive our emotional and narrative pay-off.

Compare this with Jason Brody rescuing his girlfriend Liza in Far Cry 3 (to choose another example from the FPS genre) – when Liza hugs the player, we know that she is hugging Jason – we are distant from that emotional interaction. Unlike Gordon, Jason is a fully fixed character who talks, has a network of family members prominent in the game’s storyline, and a drip-fed backstory. In fact, Jason’s character – and the transformations it undergoes – is key to Far Cry 3’s narrative. He is anything but a blank canvas.

Conversely, Gordon’s non-personality means that any interaction between him and Alyx remains underplayed. There is no gazing wistfully into the eyes of the player; in fact there is not really a hint of physical attraction from Alyx at any stage (the presence of which, in retrospect, may have compromised her as a character). Like Gordon himself, the emotional link between Gordon and Alyx is left entirely in the player’s mind.

The player’s mind, then, is where Gordon’s fame rests. It is not just because we, as players, can invent any kind of hero that we wish and transpose it onto the unfixed Gordon. Instead, it is because Half-Life – a visually and narratively stunning series of games – lets us feel those thrills and emotions in a manner as close to first-hand as possible within the medium’s restraints. If Half-Life were dull, or if Alyx Vance was a clichéd damsel in distress, we would care far less about Gordon than we do. Half-Life invites us into its world, terrors and all, but never treads heavily over the experience with a cut-scene or a piece of prescribed characterisation.

Who is Gordon Freeman?

Only you can answer that.

ENDNOTES

1: Unless you’re doing a speed run.

2: There is a solitary moment in the Half-Life expansion pack Blue Shift, released in 2001, where Gordon can be seen in third-person being dragged away by two soldiers – a moment that we experience as Gordon during Half-Life’s story. EDIT: there are actually a couple of other glimpses of Gordon in Blue Shift – thanks to @blackmyron for the heads-up.

A glimpse of Gordon in Blue Shift

3: I may look into this in a future post – why do some games have so much written about them, fiction and non-fiction, where others (Half-Life being a case-in-point) are left by the wayside? The amount of words written about Halo is quite staggering, to say nothing of web series like Red vs Blue or the Halo toy range. As a brand, it nears comparison to Star Wars.

4: Half-Life 2 actually makes this point somewhat more heavy-handedly, with the alien Vortigaunts openly referring to Gordon as “the Free Man” following his ascendance from scientist to liberator.

5: Seriously – does anyone not like Alyx Vance? It’s not just me, right?

What music does to us: non-diegetic songs in Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 3

Ask most gamers to name their favourite memory of Red Dead Redemption, and the chances are their eyes will mist over a little and they’ll describe crossing the border into Mexico for the first time.

Red Dead’s open, Western setting is beautiful in itself, and crossing the river from the fictional state of New Austin into the harsher, reddened landscape of Nuevo Paraiso is indeed a visually impressive moment. But what is it that makes this resonate so strongly in gamers’ minds? It’s that as you mount your horse, and set out into the new country, a piece of music starts to play. Not unremarkable in itself – music is as big a part of games as it is films. So what is it about this particular piece of music, the lilting song Far Away by Jose Gonzalez, that enhances the experience so much?


The song itself is non-diegetic – that is, it does not “exist” in the “game world”, but is artificially laid on top of that world. When you drive around Grand Theft Auto’s Vice City listening to Gary Numan or Tears for Fears, you are hearing diegetic sound: the songs are being played by Wave 103, one of many fictional radio stations in the game. In Red Dead, the howls of coyotes, the sounds of your horse’s hooves, and John Marston’s speech are all examples of diegetic sound: we are given a clear grounding of where those sounds emanate from. But Jose Gonzalez isn’t riding alongside Marston as he enters Nuevo Paraiso. And although both Vice City and Red Dead share the same developer (Rockstar), Marston’s horse is not fitted with a radio.

Another non-diegetic song can be found in Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3. Your character, Jason Brody, is handed a flamethrower and tasked with setting fire to the local drug lord’s weed fields. Upon reaching the fields – a veritable playground of explosive barrels, plentiful ammunition and panicked enemies – Make It Bun Dem by Skrillex and Damian Marley kicks in, and plays on a loop as you complete your mission. Added to the explosions, the spreading flames and Brody’s gleeful shouts (“I LOVE this thing!”), it makes for quite a spectacle.

As with Red Dead Redemption, the majority of the rest of the music in Far Cry 3 is contextual: it plays when you encounter an enemy, or unlock a bit more of the map, get in a chase or complete a mission. It fits seamlessly with the playing experience and is a “normal” bit of game design, to the extent where as players we barely register it, or at least rarely distinguish it from everything else that is going on at that moment. Brooding drumbeats may set you on edge as a cougar strides towards you, but it’s a rare moment indeed that you would think back to the cougar attack and muse on just how effective the music was at that particular instant.

It’s a device rooted in filmmaking, albeit cleverly adapted to be contextual given that both Far Cry 3 and Red Dead are open-world rather than a more linear game like, say, the Call of Duty series. In the most linear of games, players are effectively progressing from Story Point A to Story Point B with little or no divergence from that path – just like the experience of watching a film*. Music can be used in films to make scenes more emotional, more dramatic, or just plain more awesome, but we barely notice that the part of the reason we feel that way is because of the music. We’re so used to the film-watching experience that we expect and accept music as part of the package. Unlike the linearity of a film, open-world games like Red Dead and Far Cry 3 have to adapt to what the player decides to do, and where they decide to go, and play its music accordingly.

But Jose Gonzalez and Skrillex are used in a very filmic way in these two games: the game’s developers have decided that at those specific moments in the story – entering Mexico and reaching the weed fields – they will add those songs to the gaming experience. They are two rare moments of directorial intervention in otherwise very open-ended games. And, as many commenters and countless YouTube clips attest, it’s highly effective. I defy any gamer (or at least, any who enjoy First Person Shooters) to watch the video of Far Cry 3’s Kick The Hornet Nest mission and not break into a big, dumb grin, whether you’re familiar with the game or not.

Burn!

Why does this work so well? In some respects, it shouldn’t work at all. It’s a fourth-wall-shattering piece of intervention that should break the flow of the game and remind the player that they are just that – a player, sat on their backside, playing a video game. In the case of Red Dead, the fact that the game is very definitively set in 1911, and goes to great lengths to remind you of this setting, yet features a piece of music from the 21st century, should be somewhat jarringly anachronistic.

Yet the opposite is true. A commenter on Kotaku.com sums up the Skrillex/Marley song on Kick The Hornet Nest thus:

“…this song was perfect for this mission and made it feel truly insane […]. The detached brutality of fiery death set against the flaming fields and this song felt completely unhinged. I felt that this mission, more than almost all others, marked Jason’s complete surrender to the jungle.”

Quite apart from destroying the moment, Make It Bun Dem is seen as a crystallisation of Jason’s move from privileged middle-class brat to a semi-psychotic jungle warrior. And while not all commenters are as positive about the song’s inclusion in Far Cry 3 as the one above, there is near-universal approval for Red Dead’s use of Jose Gonzalez and how it enhances the beauty of those first moments in Mexico.

It may be a lazy observation, but as games have become more film-like – graphically, aurally and narratively – it may well be that we are becoming more comfortable treating them as similar to films. Certainly there were very few titles fifteen years ago that had the narrative or visual complexity of a game like 2012’s Black Ops 2 (however flawed that narrative may be), which was a part of what made 1998’s Half-Life so utterly groundbreaking at the time.

Yet if we’re playing games in a similar mindset to when watching a film, why do we remember these two moments in Far Cry 3 and Red Dead because of their use of music? Shouldn’t we just remember the moment as a whole package – visually, aurally and experientially – rather than picking out that specific detail?

Perhaps not. When it comes to songs – as opposed to score, original or otherwise – games are still keen to keep their music diegetic. When, in Bioshock, your character is attacked by Sander Cohen’s horde of psychos, it is accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers – the swooning melody clashing with the violence of the attack – but only because Cohen, an artist, has a penchant for matching fine art with death.

Like Apocalypse Now’s Ride of the Valkyries, the classical music in this instance is played through a public address system in the game. In Grand Theft Auto or countless other games where the player spends significant time driving vehicles, songs can be found on your radio. As a gamer, you’re aware at all times of where the songs are coming from (and in many instances, you have a choice over what song you’re listening to, in-game).

Do game developers fear that non-diegetic songs will kill the experience for the gamer? Quite possibly – there are so few examples out there of non-diegetic songs in games that it’s a tempting conclusion to draw. Yet, as we’ve seen with Far Away and Make It Bun Dem, non-diegetic songs can significantly enhance a gamer’s experience, if they are sufficiently well-integrated into the game.

As a gamer, would I care if Skrillex started playing in Far Cry 3 while I was doing something fairly mundane like walking around the jungle? Of course not, if anything I’d think it was a glitch or find it faintly annoying. Conversely, would I have enjoyed the mission Kick The Hornet Nest if it only included the sound of burning weed, or if – heaven forbid – I was playing the game with the sound off? Without being able to know for sure, I am fairly confident that, while I might have enjoyed the mission, it wouldn’t stick in my head and I certainly wouldn’t have dived for YouTube to share the clip with others. Burning stuff with flamethrowers has been FPS fodder for decades (even Mario was lobbing fireballs back in 1985). Equally, you spend your entire time in Red Dead Redemption traversing stunningly beautiful landscapes that John Ford would have been proud to include in his films – Mexico is “just another level”. But add a little non-diegetic music, and…

SUNSET IN RED DEAD REDEMPTION

Whether we accept non-diegetic songs in games because we’re used to them as a filmic device, or whether we – as gamers – simply don’t mind that fourth wall being broken in ways that everyone seems to assume we would (it’s nothing new, playwright Bertolt Brecht was doing it a century ago), it does seem as though developers are missing a trick in not using them more frequently. That’s not to say that every game needs four or five pieces of pop music dropped in at crucial points – Far Away and Make It Bun Dem work in part because they are so unexpected – but, as all film directors and producers know, what you’re hearing can be just as big a part of the experience as what you’re seeing.

ENDNOTES

Finally: two contrasting examples of fourth-wall-breaking music in games. One is stunningly good: Portal’s villain GLaDOS singing the closing song Still Alive (from beyond the digital grave) is probably my all-time favourite piece of music in a video game (“I’m not even angry […] even though you broke my heart. And killed me. And tore me to pieces. And threw every piece into a fire.”).

In the other, the characters of Black Ops 2 perform Avenged Sevenfold’s Carry On (many of them also from beyond the digital grave). Stunningly, unjustifiably bad.

* I’d like to be clear here that a game’s linearity does not necessarily imply a lack of quality or enjoyment. Halo 4, for example, is very much a straight line – albeit a straight line through some large and open areas – but is a fantastically tight and thrilling experience for all that.