Here’s a story:
John Marston, old-west-dwelling, sympathetic criminal, rides into a desert town on his beautiful, brown stallion. Looking around, he spies people feeding chickens, hanging by the saloon, and generally behaving in an authentically old-western manner. Marston has been forced by the FBI to track down his once-fellow gang members and bring them in, dead or alive. Not having much regard for the authorities, whom he views as no different from the criminals they prosecute save for a badge, he has grudgingly embarked on his mission in the hopes of one day being able to live peacefully with his family, away from his old life of crime.
Marston is a man who has long grown weary of violence and chaos. Yet, for some reason or other, he suddenly decides to jump off his stallion, pull out his revolver, and empty it into the leg of a random hooker he passes by. The prostitute falls to the ground, bleeding from six holes in her leg. Then he looks through his extensive arsenal, switches the six-shooter for a Molotov cocktail, and hurls it into the aforementioned saloon, setting the piano player inside on fire. Why?
Because Rockstar San Diego wanted to build an expansive world were all was possible, and because Joe Gamer wanted to see what the “NPC on fire” animation was like. But John Marston’s spontaneous killing-sprees have no place in Red Dead’s riveting tale of heavy themes and three-dimensional characters. The possibility is there, but you’re not supposed to utilize it.
It’s a dilemma in game-design: Feature killable civilians, and risk spoiling the intended narrative experience, or disable the player from killing civilians, and possibly stretch the suspension of disbelief too far. A big part of open-world games such as Red Dead’s appeal is the sense of a living, breathing world you can impact freely. Innocent people having a magical resistance to bullets has the potential to completely shatter this feeling.
In some cases, doing things in-game that are detrimental to the atmosphere even benefit the player. Need some quick bucks in Red Dead? Gun down a few shop-owners and collect the winnings. It kills the mood, but it helps you “win”. The issue of having to “play along” with the game to properly enjoy it is not exclusive to open-world titles either: Take those “epic” moments in Halo, when the orchestral score kicks into full gear and gruff-voiced marines shout “GO GO GO!”, getting you swept up in the moment and making you want to run heroically into the enemy’s plasma fire, despite that being a tactic sure to get you swiftly murdered.
But somehow, hiding behind a rock and carefully sniping away at the enemy forces is not appealing when sweeping melodies and thumping war-drums are booming out of the speakers. The game is pulling you in different directions; you want to experience an emotionally powerful moment, but you also have an urge to win, and having to retry due to a failed attempt will no doubt ruin the mood just as staring at rock-texture will. It’s a paradox that pops up far too often in games.
As of now, the only apparent solution to the problem is restricting the player and forcing the emotion, atmosphere and narrative down his throat. Some games do, and oftentimes the result will be criticisms of being dumbed-down, overly linear, boring or a similarly negative adjective.
Is it right for developers to expect the player abides by unspoken, unenforced rules to enjoy their intended experience? Is it by the game or the player’s error that Niko Bellic shotgunning his girlfriend on date is awfully out of tune with the rest of GTA IV’s plot?
In L.A. Noire, you can’t even draw your gun when the game doesn’t want you to. And it’s your fault,gamers. Much like Red Dead Redemption’s protagonist, your past crimes are coming back to haunt you. There had to be consequences for all those hookers brutally put to sleep by the grill of your car.