This week I wrote about the uncomfortable dissonance created by the violence in recent releases like Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite (“Killing Spree: The Inconsistency of Video Game Violence.” PopMatters. May 7 2013). Both of these games try to treat murder as a profound horror while at the same time making shooty fun and sweet headshots central to the enjoyment of the experience. Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite seem to want to treat violence as just a pedestrian solution to an ongoing problem while at the same time using it to unsettle the player. Violence is a big deal or it’s not. You can’t have your cake and shoot it too. At least, you can’t in most games. However, Sega’s Binary Domain, released early in 2012, does just this.
The violence of Binary Domain is able to be stylized, goomba-stomping fun while at the same time being critical of violent conflict. It’s able to do this through the security drones of the Amada corporation standing in the player’s way at every step. The drones—whom the game’s characters dismissively refer to as “scrap heads”—are not people. Scrap heads don’t act like people and they barely look like people. They march and fire in predictable patterns, buzz and chirp mechanically and burst into sparks before rigidly collapsing into—well—scrap. Removing their limbs or blocking their paths changes their behaviour, but they don’t ever act like an enemy front. They’re there to be killed for fun and they’re fun to kill.
Binary Domain creates a space of acceptable murder, where opponents have no agency and are built only to pose a threat. There is no reason to question the player’s violence against them any more than there would be questioning the destruction of an unsafe bridge. They’re just things that are dangerous: it’d be irresponsible not to break them down. Scrap heads aren’t reacting to aggression, they’re just shooting at the player because they’re designed to shoot at the player. Of course the player’s Dan Marshall is going to defend himself and of course he has no reason to feel bad about it. Scrap heads are just targets that have the nerve to shoot back.
But something surprisingly subtle happens over the course of the game (subtle, at least, for a game that has you shoot down a fourteen story robot spider). The player encounters a handful of “hollow children,” cyborgs covered in human tissue living in the human world without realizing they’re machines. Whenever somebody is revealed to be a hollow child, they’re shot to death while they’re confused and defenceless, often pleading to be left alone. The entire premise of the game is based on the fear that these hollow children could infiltrate seats of power if they were ever taken control of remotely. Yet for such a monumental threat, they’re never seen defending themselves.
There’s a scene early in the game when a nameless NPC is taken before members of a gang Dan’s squad has started working with. The townie’s face is torn up by an injury resulting from the destruction of the aforementioned giant robot spider. His chrome skull shines through the gaping rip through his face. In the somewhat melodramatic scene that follows the man pleads with the gawking crowd of strangers that there has been a mistake. He catches his own reflection and snags a pistol from a gangster and tries to shoot his way out. In that cutscene, Dan takes it upon himself to gun the man down. The man again pleads,
“I don’t want to die.”
“Don’t worry,” Dan assures us, the audience, “only humans can die.” Then the man, desperate, shoots himself under the chin, his face frozen in mutilated horror.
The scene takes the player away from using guns as toys to break other toys. It humanizes an unempathetic enemy. Still, there’s plenty of distance to this scene in that it’s out of the player’s control. Dan acts on his own, the player’s feelings be damned, Dan killed a man and didn’t feel bad about it. In fact, nobody around him seemed bothered: they’re grateful. To the game’s characters, the hollow child is not a human, he might as well be another scrap head. Bystanders enjoy Dan and co. shooting robots with heavy weapons from the comfort of their power armour; just as the player had been doing up to that point in the game.
And the scrap heads continue to humanize as the game progresses. Their palate swaps show greater intelligence and strategize in more effective ways. Advanced models are patterned after police uniforms or are otherwise associated with human institutions like custodial or service staff. But nothing builds a better case for android intelligence better than the character Cain. Cain is a scrap head the player recruits a few chapters into the game. Cain has a personality and a discreet identity, he knows know that he exists, he experiences, he discriminates himself from others, he has emotional reactions to his environment, he has goals and intelligently approaches them. Pick your definition of humanity and Cain fits it.
Until meeting Cain, the player had been busting up roombas. Sure, there are hollow children floating around but they’re few and far between and Dan’s interacts with them independently from the player. Before meeting Cain the line in the sand is still fairly clearly drawn; Cain’s apparent humanity erases it. When the squad reaches president Amada, he’s only able to overpower the heroes by activating Cain’s capacity to feel pain; if the player has not gained Cain’s respect than he does not survive the encounter. If Cain does not survive than one of Dan’s squadmates, Rachel or Bo, are killed in the game’s finale. Cain is responsible for the survival of the crew, human and machine, and the player’s failure to respect Cain as a comrade results in the loss of a team member in the game’s end.
The game’s finale is monumental in transforming violence from the neutral into the personal. The penultimate cutscene has the cast point their weapons at a flesh-and-blood human being for the first time. In the game, the player and player-character are only responsible for the death of one person: the final boss. When finally tasked with killing a person, they’re doing it to defend the different variations of cyborg in the game’s universe. By the end of Binary Domain, humans and machines have changed places; rather than shooting down vaguely human-shaped scrap heads for empty fun, the player is justly killing a man protecting himself with machine armour in defence of artificial life.
Binary Domain begins with machines as an acceptable outlet for murder fantasy and ends with machines as a stand-in for the other. Machines steadily become more human and humans become more mechanized. Even though it never stops being fun to shoot down robot-bearing helicopters, the violence still has weight when it’s committed against a clearly intelligent victim. The game becomes nearly pornographic when it shows the effects of violence against an intelligent person, whether through the discovered hollow child begging for his life or the normally whimsical Cain collapsing and convulsing in pain. The game makes a special effort to illustrate real death in between long stretches of innocent, innocuous gunfighting.
Dinicola, Nick. “Binary Domain and the Joys of Cut Scenes.” PopMatters. Feb 14 2013.
Swain, Eric. “Binary Domain: A Shooter that Assumes You Are Intelligent.” PopMatters. Sep 25 2012.