The art of making killing fun.
Despite their clear separation from reality, games often benefit from and rely on thematic tricks to make killing that much more palatable. The easiest and most common is simply the choice of enemies. Those with the broadest appeal, aliens, nazis, and zombies, will be discussed here. We’ll break down each one, reviewing what it is, and why it’s uniquely useful for game designers, as well as expanding each as a means of classifying all shooter enemies.
Note: each of these represents a category broader than its literal definition, however I will stick to the one name for ease of use.
Far more than Ripley’s nightmare fuel, this category encompasses all manner of monster, abomination, and demon. This includes anything that defies traditional explanation, including some game-ified depictions of humans or real world animals that go well beyond realism.
Why they’re useful:
All of these fill the same role of allowing designers freedom beyond the bounds of human conflict. Instead of designing mechanics to represent, however abstractly, real things the designer is free to design the entity around an interesting mechanic.
An alien doesn’t need to fight as an orderly army, or even resemble anything we know or understand. They may be able to teleport, reflect bullets with their skin, or have a glowing red weak spot in their mouths.
Why they’re appealing:
Humans naturally fear the unknown and better empathize with what is immediately similar to us. Playing on that simple fact it’s remarkably easy to motivate a player to exterminate an aggressive alien race without empathy or even ecological concerns entering the equation. “If only you could talk to the monsters” became a joke when it was posed to the original Doom. And while it does miss the core conceit of Doom’s design, is it really so absurd beyond the context of the game? To fight, even defensively, to the point of extinction without real attempts to communicate is an intentionally tragic point in the seminal Ender’s Game.
Ingenious alien design also translate to more memorable enemies where alternatives often fall short. Wolfenstein: New Order was a fantastic shooter, but do its soldiers occupy that same spot in your brain where Doom’s pink demon is permanently etched?
A faceless, exceptionally generic, and often despicably evil army or organization. The Nazis serve as the go-to both in media and real life for an inarguably evil force of militant human nature. Even if depicting every member of their armed forces in this light ignores historic realities, it is an easy and common generalization to make. The army that is so generic it’s hard to think of them as people is a pervasive image in media from Star Wars to Call of Duty.
Why they’re appealing to shoot:
Nazis are the ultimate player empowerment enemy. The aesthetic human trappings of these enemies lead to a sense of facing and besting actual human opponents. Meanwhile through their often evil and unsympathetic depiction they are dehumanized* and we can feel morally superior as well. It’s subtle, but one can see examples of its effects every time violent video games are called out in the media. While Grand Theft Auto frequently receives blanket condemnations of its violence, Call of Duty receives less attention and it often focuses on the series’ various attempts at edginess. The latter simply frames killing hundreds of people in a context that’s more broadly accepted.
Why they’re useful:
An organized, intelligent enemy is a great way to introduce grouped AI tactics. Though not in the feral sense that one could with ‘aliens’, you can also create a sense of being hunted or outsmarted. Even when mechanically it is a scripted pass/fail moment, the iconic sneak through the field of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s ‘All Ghilled Up’ mission would have a completely different feel with an animal stalking mere inches away. That feeling can even be pushed farther along that scale when the experience is not scripted as is common in high grass in the Crysis and FarCry series. More than simple success, this evokes the feeling of ‘besting’ someone.
Soldier enemies resembling your own character can also serve as more useful practice for the skills needed in most games’ multiplayer modes. Learning when to grenade enemy soldiers out of cover is a much easier skill to translate to online play than memorizing behaviors and phases of an elaborate boss fight. Since they serve as a mechanical foil (in the literary sense) to the player character, they may be used to introduce the player to new mechanics. It can be something as simple as facing enemy soldiers in Half-Life armed with automatic weapons you’ll soon receive yourself.
A slow, weak and vulnerable enemy. They are mindless thralls, sometimes to a greater power. Individually they pose no threat whatsoever, but become dangerous as a result of context. Most often they are used in large groups to accomplish this.
Why they’re useful:
Zombies are your shooting gallery. The gameplay challenge is not actually in killing a zombie. Instead the focus is on management, rationing, and balancing multiple resources. Ammo, attention drawn to yourself, space, and time are all considerations. These fittingly work together to create a feeling of desperate survival as a player should be constantly concerned about whether they are wasting too much of one resource in favor of another. For example: do you have enough time and space to spare to save ammo by lining up headshots, or are you better off spraying wildly to make the opposite trade?
Why they’re appealing to shoot:
It’s the living dead. We can shoot even sympathetic characters because it’s not -really- them. The act of killing a zombie is traditionally depicted as an act of mercy. It is a corruption of the pure human form, and an abomination. The player fills the shoes of a righteous purifier.
Additionally zombies are mindless or part of a hive mind, and do not appear to feel pain. Intellect and capacity for pain are generally how we, as a species, weigh the morality of harming other living things. With zombies we can easily brush these aside and treat their killing with the same attitude as exterminating an ant infestation.
Lastly zombies tend to be framed in survival scenarios. They mindlessly pursue you for the sole purpose of killing you, and often in typically safe locations. However thorough your zombie extermination, it’s hard to even raise concerns as to how it may not be justified. It is a fight of self defense and preservation.
Robots may seem like a conspicuous omission from this list. But as I’m speaking in terms of game mechanics, robots are actually too flexible as an enemy type to be a useful category. Robot enemies can easily fill the same role in a game that any of the above categorizations do. Often they are stand-ins for generically evil soldiers, or bizarre mechanical beasts. It’s more difficult to find examples of them filling a zombie-like role, but there’s no reason they couldn’t with greater regularity.
However robots do provide one unique aesthetic feature that can bleed over into game mechanics. By using a robot in place of something organic, developers are free to depict the most graphic or exaggerated of violence with little concern for target audience or rating. What other enemies can you freely dismember while keeping a T rating, and the squeamish on your side?
Keep in mind these archetypes are not meant to be literal to their depiction. In many games, enemies who are aesthetically closer to one category’s namesake, actually fall into the design pattern of another.
Aliens as Zombies in Halo
The Flood is an easy place to start. Their behavior is an obvious reference to depictions of zombies in media. But it is an alien parasite, and not supernatural.
Aliens as Nazis in Mass Effect
Most of what you fight in Mass Effect is not human, yet a large majority of enemies – perhaps less so in 3 – are humanoid and designed to fight in ways resembling an army and/or your own capabilities.
Nazis as Zombies in Call of Duty
Not the literal Nazi zombie mode, but the soldiers in certain specific scenarios who stream at you mindlessly for the sole purpose of being mowed down. In these scripted events you’re facing a relatively slow, mindless swarm, of non-threatening targets instead of an organized fighting force. Though ammunition is rarely a concern in Call of Duty titles, these specific scenes do require you to budget time and ground given against accuracy.
Nazis as Aliens in Wolfenstein
Hey, literal Nazis! Whether chaingun-handed bosses in Wolfenstein 3D, or New Order’s super soldiers you must shoot the armor off of, these hardly resemble real world soldiers. Though of course there are plenty of traditional soldiers as well.
Zombies as Aliens in Left 4 Dead
The specials are obviously built around game-y mechanics, but even the standard zombie is a common edge case I’d place here. There are still swarms of weak things, but the zerg and other aliens fit this description too. They can hardly be described as zombie-like. Left 4 Dead almost completely removes the delicate resource balance from the equation. The biggest resource to manage through a run is health, which is common to all shooters.
Zombies as Nazis = ?
Admittedly I cannot think of a good example in shooters where zombies are depicted as enemies whose character behavior was notably tactical or meant to resemble the player’s. Outside the genre infested terrans in Starcraft come to mind being functionally similar to their non-infested counterparts.
Aesthetically there is a common theme across all of these categories: dehumanization and distancing your victims from sympathy. Whatever the subject matter, this leads to a trend of over-simplification and exaggeration to the point of caricature. This brings us to another important category that can span others:
When you’re going out of your way to distance your game’s enemies from reality, it’s easy to see that you can quickly reach absurd, or even comical extremes. This is a useful tool on its own. You can see in the work of many great stand up comics how comedy is used to broach sensitive topics. We can do the same in designing games that address killing. Comedy works as a cue to not take things seriously. So when it comes time to kill, the player is not taking that seriously either.
Similar to robots, this concept can be incorporated along with enemies of all types. It is not a distinct category of its own. Yet it’s by far the more central component to many shooters such as Borderlands and Saints Row.
Of course, like the primary categories, comedy may be included in games for uses other than facilitating killing. Grand Theft Auto 5 has plenty of comedic elements, and plenty of killing. But the killing itself is generally not depicted comically, unlike earlier iterations like Grand Theft Auto 2. In GTA5 it’s used to offset the dark themes, similar to how it might in a book or movie.
These categories and associated principles are by no means absolute. Nor do they necessarily determine mainstream success. Grand Theft Auto is a top selling series that continues to get darker and more misanthropic with its violence. It’s possible that it stands out as such a large exception because of its approach of imitating the real world. If so, it embodies a different brand of escapism that lets us fantasize within our own world, rather than traveling to another.
Taxonomy for Design
I believe the main categories, as described above, can be extended more broadly as useful vocabulary for discussing shooter enemies in general.
Alien -> Beast
An enemy that is either animalistic in combat and/or with distinctive, and generally limited, behaviors. Aliens, demons, and monsters commonly fall into this category. These enemies often, though not exclusively, rely on melee attacks.
Signature: Combat mechanics.
Design usage: Beasts serve as an outlet for interesting and (at least initially) segregated game mechanics a player must learn to counter.
Nazis -> Human
An enemy whose capabilities resemble that of a person and have a variety of behaviors. Often military in nature, and as a weaker foil to the player’s own capabilities. Most commonly these enemies use ranged attacks.
Signature: Varied behavior.
Design usage: Humans represent unpredictability and can be used as a form of exhibition or test of the player’s own capabilities.
Zombie -> Dummy
An enemy that is weak, and has simplistic behavior to the point of being trivially non-threatening when alone in ideal circumstances. The threat of dummies is contextual by way of their numbers, persistence, or limitations on the player.
Signature: Rationing resources.
Design usage: Dummies are not intended to pose a traditional combat challenge. Instead they are a catalyst in a non ideal situation to force the player to balance the sacrifice of limited resources, both explicit and implicit.