Let's Be Careful With The Child-Murder, Ok?

Is there anything worse than killing a child? It's one of the most reprehensible things a person can do. Not just in real life: Along with Golden Retrievericide, child-murder is one of the most double-secret-ultrabad things you can do in a movie, book or video game.

The murder of a child can be an incredibly potent moment in any story. But it can also be a hacky, cringe-inducing grasp at unearned maturity.

I played a good chunk of Prototype 2 over the weekend. It's a fun game -- it's basically as though Crackdown met Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, and it's a lot more balanced and enjoyable than its predecessor. I like it, despite its rough edges and dumb writing.

But man, that dumb writing can be really dumb. The game takes place in "New York Zero," a quarantined city that has been infected with a horrible super-virus that turns people into all sorts of murderous monsters. The government bad guys are represented by a seemingly endless army of hilariously amoral Blackwatch soldiers and Gentek scientists. They're all so vile that they can't even stand each other -- these evil fucks are designed expressly so that you won't feel bad about ripping a thousand of them in half.

Early on, I picked up an audio collectible that let me listen to a recorded sound-byte that seemed designed to flesh out the world and share some of what had happened in this city. On the recording, a soldier at a checkpoint yells at a terrified civilian woman who's trying to pass.

"Why isn't he talking? Why isn't your kid talking?" the soldier barks.

"He's not infected!" his mother cries, panicked. "He has autism! That's why he can't respond!"

Cue sounds of the soldiers opening fire, and a woman screaming.

"He's not infected!" his mother screams in anguish. "He has autism!"

Look, I get it: New York Zero is a really shitty place to live. All the same, this was just… come on, guys. This was needless. It was basely manipulative, a grasp at relevance and maturity that serves only to make the game feel more crass and less mature.

The story starts out with some child-murder, as well -- protagonist James Heller's wife and daughter getting brutally murdered, so, you know, we've already got one child-murder in the game. But OK, whatever -- many a comic book origin story has done this, and while the whole "woman in fridge" thing is worn and hacky, in a game like this I don't really care.

The audio diary, however, was unnecessary. I'm not all pearl-clutching about it or anything; it was just... gross. We as a culture have got all sorts of things going on with autism at the moment as it is, but just blandly throwing a murdered autistic kid onto an audio diary seems like a pretty tasteless way of enhancing a game's fiction.

[Mass Effect 3 spoilers follow.]

I was reminded of how I felt when I saw BioWare's Mass Effect 3 presentation at E3 -- they showed the opening level of the game, leading up to the appearance and subsequent laser-blasting of the Only Child in the Universe.

I scoffed at the time, since my god did this feel manipulative -- "Okay, time to get invested! See this kid? You like him. Yeah, you do. You think he's cute. Well now… watch him die."

The full game, of course, did more with the child than simply use him as a first-act motivation for Shepard. He became a (ham-fisted but still roughly effective) symbol of all that Shepard had lost on Earth, turning up in cutscenes and eventually making a return as the form that the Deus Ex Machina celestial presence took, Contact-style, to tell Shepard about the grand plan and give him or her that controversial final choice. Call it Chekov's little kid.

I'm one of those people who didn't hate the Mass Effect 3 ending, but I don't love the inclusion of the kid -- it just felt so out-of-step with the rest of the trilogy. Couldn't we have had one of Shepard's dead allies be the one to haunt her dreams, and the one to turn up at the end and talk her through the master plan? Why did they have to write this kid into the third act?

For all its faults, Heavy Rain was one of the first games I've seen really go the distance in attempting to realistically portray the pain of losing a child. The fact that David Cage and company felt the need to use the game's shattering opening events to get us invested before ripping the other child away is perhaps less elegant. But still, points for effort.

Bioshock used child-murder as a central gameplay mechanic, and got away with it, largely because the entire game was built around that father-child/big daddy-little sister relationship. That relationship was further explored in Bioshock 2, and taken in an (I thought) even more interesting direction.

It's even possible to -- gasp! -- make the death of a kid a little bit funny. Limbo embraced sick thrills by making its little boy protagonist die over and over again in horribly violent (but silhouetted and vague) ways. The "Childkiller Perk" in Fallout is another example of kid-murder pushed to a ridiculous and blackly funny place.

If there comes a moment where she gets bitten and I have to decide what to do, I don't know how I'll handle it.

As Stephen pointed out a couple of years ago, we are in the midst of "The Daddening of Video Games." That feels truer now than it did in 2010. More and more developers are fathers, and it makes sense that they'd begin to write more stories of parenthood into their games. (Think about the big-budget games you've played that are in some way or another about fatherhood. They are legion.)

It's a good thing that games are looking at our relationships to our kids, twisting and turning them to make statements that are worth making. Our fear for our kids, our desire to protect them, and even the awfulness of a child's death are all worthy topics for a game (or anything else) to discuss. But it's live ammo, particularly when a kid is actually being killed by someone, so it's easy to handle it classlessly.

One of my favourite things about the new Walking Dead video game is the paternal, cautious relationship between protagonist Lee and his ward, a girl named Clementine.

I don't know how Lee and Clementine's story will play out, but if there comes a moment where she gets bitten and I have to decide what to do, I don't know how I'll handle it. That will be a mature, dark, and intense decision; Bioshock's harvest/save choice made devastatingly specific. It's just the kind of thing that I'd love to see a game do, as much as I'm dreading it actually happening. It would feel truly mature in a way that the hastily barked, recorded murder of an autistic kid never could.

I applaud games willing to take chances, who'll risk dealing with difficult material like the death of a child. But you've got to earn it, and keep it in a context that feels appropriate with the kind of game you're making.

Prototype 2 is good in plenty of ways. But a game that's at its best when I'm dive-bombing from a skyscraper and blasting tentacle-shockwaves into military compounds... probably doesn't need to start killing kids in an effort to get me to take it seriously.


    I have fond memories of blowing away the numerous Wright Family children in Fallout 2 with a Laser Gatling Gun and their feeble attempts to fight back by throwing rocks at my Enclave Power Armour clad character.

    I've noticed it being shoe horned in to many games recently as a weak attempt to pull at the players heartstrings and get them emotionally involved in whichever game, I generally find it amusing though, especially that annoying kid in Mass Effect 3.

    This reminds me of Dante's Inferno. Pretty standard action title but great material setting. Set when the unborn babies came out. Man that just felt wrong. the rest of the game (as stretching as it can be morally) I thought was just flat out wrong having those at a type of enemy.

      when it comes to doing a game about a literal Hell, i think it would be more egregious to leave that out, or censor it, so you don't offend anyone. the babies were fine.

        you are right and the book it's self is very full on in terms of imagery

      I thought they were a brilliant enemy. Bloody terrifying.

    Worse than killing a child?
    Why, killing multiple children of course!
    Quick, someone set up the meat grinder.

      See it's comments like this that give me pause. I mean, when i am in the right kind of "like i give a f**k" attitude then something like what Rangerage just said would make me giggle a bit, then move on.

      But if you humanize the comment; making it personal and conceptualize it in a real life scenario - things start to feel wrong.

      It's a strange thing really because the separation between reality and virtual worlds is getting thinner the further we go and people are able to become more "immersed" in games than ever before and that potential increases almost exponentially every single year without fail...

      But are the those over 30 ready for that? Those of us who grew up with videogames from day dot and have always had them understand them almost intrinsically which gives rise to vastly different value placed on the medium and the interaction they can give.

      My mother would happily watch a R+18 movie with violence, horror and gore without batting an eyelid but if i show her videogame related violence (or god forbid, sexual content) she freaks out like i just strangled a puppy.

      I think it's about not only seeing that there is context to the medium but also understanding that if you "just don't see the point" in the whole videogame thing in the first place then of course it's going to be seen as crass and vulgar.

        How do you get a 100 babies in a bucket, with a meat grinder
        how do you get them out again? with doritos.

      Anakin Skywalker killed multiple children, yet Darth Vader seems to be a cult icon. funny how that works.

        General Butt Naked comes to mind. Killed x amount of kids/drank their blood buuut it seems that all is forgiven now that he's 'found god' and become a preacher. Funny how that works.

    Lets not talk about religion or politics either. That's dangerous!

    It's not enough to say "you don't like it" when it's represented one way as opposed to another. The killing of children in Bioshock is purely for Adam's sake, and save for just protecting your own life, there's no real mature or redeeming reason for it. Is the protagonist's life worth more than the lives of dozens of little girls? Just because the whole premise of the game is built around it doesn't make it any more or less valid than the depiction of child murder in any other game.

    It happens. Kids die. It's really really sad and it should never happen but it does. And writers shouldn't live in fear of including the death of children or really any topic at all in their books so long as it makes sense.

    Shooting first and asking questions later in a quarantined apocalyptic New York is entirely plausible, however morally reprehensible. And it makes far more sense that children would be among the murdered, especially with their weaker immune systems, than to not mention them at all.

      *books, or games, or movies, or any medium

        I like the way you think. I'd subscribe to your newsletter.

      thank you for writing what I was thinking.

    Mass Effect 3's child was -bad-, because it wasn't merely forced, but because it forced characterisation upon Shepard. That's MY job, as the player. To choose how to react, to act -for- Shepard. But that was circumvented by Bioware's writing team, forcing my character (and thus shining a bright light on the gap between him and myself) to suffer nightmares and visions of failure. I think children could have made Mass Effect's war-is-hell-type themes much stronger, but it was squandered trying to imitate Peter Molyneux' dog from Fable 2.

    The one and only game where I -really- wanted to punt the child off the balcony was Skyrim. Goddamn, that kid in the Whiterun keep is annoying.

      Not to mention the fact that it could completely contradict your Shepherd from the previous 2 games. Both times I played a mostly renegade Shep who was unflinching when it came to sacrifice. Having her suddenly brooding over this single child throughout the entire game made me feel like she wasn't the same character that I had been playing in ME 1 and 2.

      Enh, something I think a lot of folks didn't get (or didn't WANT to get) about Mass Effect was that Shep is their own character. You have some limited say in WHICH of the characters available you get to see, but they are their own entity.

      It's shown subtly by the fact that your dialogue choices are only paraphrasing. Real Shep, the character, does all the talking and putting words together themselves. There are hints of it in interaction with crew members when your Shep talks about all this paperwork and other duties they perform that you never see. About how they feel about their family.

      It was never actually your Shepard. But whether by your decision or theirs, you could easily have mistakenly believed it was.

    Children dying is a cheap writers trick to get people emotional invested in the story.

      That's my issue with it. It can work when it's done right, Watchmen did it well. But this just seems lazy to me.

      It's like Clannad. Some of it feels real but a lot of it is cheap emotional tricks to make you feel shitty. I hate stuff like that.

    I was running along a rooftop in Prototype 2 when I saw a man walk up to the ledge, look over it for a second, then spread his arms and let himself fall. I was totally amazed by this person committing suicide, but it made sense that in the Red Zone, with monsters coming out the wazoo, that people would make that choice, and it really enhanced my gaming experience to see that. I slowed heller down for a closer look and immediate got ate.

    Guess my point is there's some dodgy moments and some really cool moments in all games, and the whole'child-murder' thing could possibly just be a symptom of unoriginal writing as a whole, rather than an issue in its won right.

    No mention of Max Payne. I actually thought that was quite a poignant game.

    Though I agree with the sentiment. I put down Dead Rising forever when I found a survivor talking about how the zombies had taken her baby, and how she'd 'never heard her cry like that before'. It made me feel physically ill, and I couldn't face the game again after that.

      As much as I love Max Payne its story isn't all that great. Most of it is pretty cliche. The whole "wife and baby killed" thing is one of the cheapest ways to get people involved in a character, but at least they handle it a lot better than just turning him into a rampaging vigilante.

      Fortunately the overall writing is of a high enough quality to overcome the weakness of the plot, but I always liked the 2nd game's story a lot more.

        How dare you say such a thing? I hope you get aids and die.

      Actually the first time I felt manipulated by the use of a kid in a game was Dead Rising 2: Case Zero where Chuck daughter Katie was bitten by her Zombified mother, you had to keep alive with Zombrex which was essentially manipulative plot twist as game mechanic.

      The second time I noticed this was the


      Hanging of Ezio's little brother in Assassin's Creed II - it actually did make me angry and got me motivated for the ensuing revenge spree!

    what's the difference between 100 dead babies and a ferarri?

    I don't have a ferarri in my garage.

      I love dead baby jokes.

      What has 5 legs and roams a children's park?

      A Doberman.

    I'm a dad and I love my kids. Kid-killing in games should be no more offensive than killing people in general. Are the pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto any better equipped to fight back? Why is it considered acceptable to mow them down, but not midget-sized versions of the same thing? The airport scene in Modern Warfare 2, what if there were children in the airport too? Wouldn't that have struck an emotional chord too? Or an offensive one.

    What makes more sense would be to remove any reward given to the killing of innocents. In GTA's example, you might get a very small amount of money for doing so, but not enough to make the act worthwhile. Kids may have pocket money, so realistically, you'd earn less cash by taking to a school bus with a rocket launcher.

    What disturbs me the most is when games take the liberty to include children, but are so afraid of the backlash that they ruin the realism and make them invincible. I'm looking at you Fallout 3, right at you. You can murder and dismember shopkeepers in order to get their wares for free (which I strongly recommend), yet children are invincible. I recall one such moment where a child was running through the wilderness and was standing there while a deathclaw repeatedly attacked them, yet nothing ever happened. There are plenty of things they could have done in Fallout 3 that could have included child-killing, but removed any possible reward for doing so. For instance, they could have children carry "toy" or "junk" items instead of anything beneficial. Have them award 0 experience. Give the "child killer" perk as listed in the article that has speech penalties throughout the game. They could have had the children die, but remove any option to cause post-mortem damage (didn't stop me from dismembering the previously mentioned shopkeeper to get to that stimpack her body fell on). They even could have gone as far to have the PipBoy "glitch" if a child was targeted similar to Robocop's "Directive 4", but still have a child be killed by crossfire, splash damage or other environmental hazards rather than have them shrug off fatboys and keep running.

    Children are no more precious than life itself. Fragile too. For a game depicting the horrors of war, children should not be depicted as the invincible little angels that they are. Children can be killed by explosives or crossfire just as anyone else can, and yes it is a sad fact that these things happen. If you're too afraid to approach the death of children, then don't include them at all.

      Yep. Equal opportunity murder. If you can kill an innocent unarmed adult, don't take the moral high-ground and say you can't knock off a kid. I don't see what the big deal is about, when life in general is not something to be valued in certain games.

      That said, I am always nice to people in games, even if I can kill them and get away with it I won't. If only I was as nice to real humans as I was to NPC's..

    Having seen reactions to stuff even as trite as the Dead Island trailer from people who are actually parents, I assume the only people who think the death of children in games is an ok thing are people who aren't parents and have no plans to become parents. That trailer, that moment described in Prototype 2, the other examples of it I've come across - they don't have an effect on me. I don't have kids. I don't have plans to have kids.

    But at the same time I think it's needless. I haven't played Prototype 2 and at this point I'm not sure I will. My wife was the fan of Prototype, not me, and she's been looking at trailers saying it looks too much of the same as Prototype 1. While that's not a bad thing she isn't sure it's worth the bother. All of that is beside the point. My point is, I think about the way this article criticised the slaying of a mute autistic child (my brother-in-law is autistic, interestingly enough) is not entirely on the money here. Yes, it was manipulative, and reeks of reaching for the lowest hanging fruit of our heartstrings. It's a cheap shot.

    It is, also, something that could conceivably happen. I know it feels cheap in something as artificial and wholly manufactured as a video game, and the same would apply in any written work - film, literature, music. One you put pen to paper and create something, it's created for a distinct purpose. It is seldom accidental in anything that is scripted, regardless of how organic it feels.

    So, Prototype 2 decided to get us feeling upset about the mute autistic child slaying. I can't automatically condemn them for this. Because it's something that *could* happen. They've done nothing more than explore a possibility to set a very sombre tone for their game's opening.

    Does there need to be more brutalisation of children in games? It is ok to do this now? No, absolutely not. You're pushing boundaries here. you're pushing buttons. People will get upset. Be prepared to deal with that, and make sure you can defend your reasons for it.

    I think the makers of Prototype 2 are covered here. Others may disagree, and are welcome to do so..

      I think this is a fair and balanced comment. And I agree with you - it's a conceivable event in those circumstances. And you said it - there will be backlash.

      As I said earlier, I put down Dead Rising when it got a little too much in the dead children respect... there's going to be a percentage of gamers who avoid P2 for the same reason. The remainder might find the story enriched, they might not.

      Ultimately, it's a gamble, and you want to make damn sure you put it in for the right reasons, and get something important out of it.

        I don't have kids but would like to one day.

        What I do have is a few nieces and I damn well love them like crazy and would do anything to protect them.

        But I found those baby killing jokes above funny and I have no problem with being able to kill children in games, in fact like those above, I was annoyed in Fallout 3 that I couldn't kill them (not that I would have gone around murdering the kids, but I should have been able to if I wanted to, that is the point of games like fallout).

        Anyway, just wanted to say I don't think your parent thing is correct, people have reactions to things in different ways, I can probably laugh about any situation and I rarely feel bad about it, but when I am being serious I often despair at the horrible things humans to do one and other (and animals too) for no apparent reason.

    It's just a game people. No need to take it so seriously.

    I was more horrified by the cut scene in Rainbow6V2 when the terrorists lock a whole heap of people inside a basketball stadium/rec centre and gas them all while you are forced to listen to their screams slowly come to an end...
    I was seriously troubled by that scene, I mean, this is a game right? Where our sole purpose is to shoot the bad guys and stop the bad shit happening.
    Most WTF moment evar.

    It makes you wonder about the people who install children killing mods on fallout and skyrim.

      I can explain that. I think the child killing mode in Skyrim is made just FOR That kid in Whiterun who keeps talking to you in a sarcastic tone. "Here to lick my fathers boots? Good job."

      Teach him a lesson, punch him in the face. WITH MODS!

      Because having invincible god children walking around ruins the experience.

      I can kill dragons with ease, but children are totally out of my league.

      I have no desire to harm the kids in the game, but I did think they should be subject to stray weapons. I had one massive fight in Whiterun and accidentally hit a kid and... nothing happened. It was silly, but it made my character seem totally piss weak. I was too lazy to install the mod, but I thought about it.

      Fallout (at least the originals, I haven't played 3) is that kind of game. There are penalties for killing children (negative perks, bounty hunters, etc.) but a major point of Fallout's design was that it didn't dictate morality to you.

      It's role playing. You decide how your character acts. I chose to be the hero, and that choice is what made the simple story powerful.

    Sounds like it's time for one journalist to grow up and see the world a bit, maybe through something other than an internet connection.
    This kind of thing is in our world - people were up in arms about the newest Rambo film because of the kids being murdered brutally in it, but why did they shut up? Because Stallone went on a tirade stating people have no right to be offended, because this actually happens in our world, every day.
    This didn't make for interesting reading, it made me merely think you're trying to set a 'good' or 'mature' example in the media for our upcoming R18+ classification. It felt forced, weak, and you flip-flop'd more than a fish on a pier.
    +1 for SteveO's comment, I don't personally see any difference between a child being killed, and a pretty lady, or a defenceless old person. I can tell you I've mowed more than a few of those down in Saints Row, and no, I don't feel sad inside. They're pixels, ffs.
    Also, there's a reason 'killable children' was the most popular Skyrim addon for a long time. Consider that.

    Kirk Hamilton makes fair comment. Video games are after all almost exclusively created for pure entertainment, there aren't too many games that I can think of that aspire to serious art or social commentary and I'm fairly damn sure something like Prototype 2 isn't going to make the cut. I can't make a blanket comment that killing innocents in games is always bad but just because something may happen in real life doesn't translate to it's automatically ok a game. Writers and developers would be wise to keep a sharp eye on context. Pedophilia happens in real life too but jamming it into an episode of Gilligan's Island would be in very bad taste.
    Unfortunately the amoral murder of innocents is de rigueur in Hollywood these days and games are following the downhill trend. It may have been edgy for a couple of movies but ten thousand movies later it's just crass and cheap.

    People seem to forget context. CONTEXT IS KEY
    (so is perspective)
    A lot of these events are considered more horrific not just because society has encoded us with the ideal that children are more precious, but because the imagery of human suffering is multiplied.

    The prototype 2 example would mean less if it wasn't a perceptive mistake - if the child wasn't autistic. It would mean less again if there was no screaming mother.

    Other commenters brought up a dead rising example, it was powerful because a character related their SUFFERING (important concept) and left the horror up to the imagination of the player.

    The dead island clip was powerful not just because the child is dead, but because we get to see her loving family sacrifice themselves futilely for her, in an idyllic location.

    Personally I do avoid stories that artificially attempt to make me feel bad, not because their content is in any way objectionable as part of a story, but simply because it feels bad, it is good to know why however.

    Well I shot and killed a goddamn baby with a handgun in a psx game, I believe it was still wearing a nappy.

    Parasite Eve II

    Would you prefer all games to be like GTA, where children dont even exist (or at least never go outside, or exist outside cutscenes)?
    Games like Skyrim tackle this problem by making children immortal, but that seems an overt attempt to make the game ethically-safe.
    Murdering a child, digitally, does indeed seem to be last taboo as far as video game violence is concerned. It still has emotional impact and we are not yet desensitised to it, so it is still a powerful plot device.

    I'm going to sound a bit like an jerk here.
    BUT I personally don't value a young childs life any more than I do a fully grown female/male.
    An Innocent life is a life to me, I don't value a person's life solely upon age but also contribution to society.
    A heroic figure or just a general good person trying to make the world a better place, holds a position of higher regard within my philosophy.
    Yes child murder is terrible, however in my opinion there is worse.

      Every society in the world regards child death as one of the worst tragedies that can happen. Is juvenile leukemia on the same level as cancer attacking an eighty-year-old? Surely most people would agree not. The death of a child is not only the death of a human being, but also the loss of almost infinite potential, and the death of the future. That's the kind of thing that hurts right down to the genes, especially for people who know what it's like to have a child - and, god forbid, lose a child.

      Their lives might be worth the same, but the impact of their deaths are entirely skewed in favour of the child.

        we are programmed to care about the welfare of young children, purely as an anthropological mechanism to allow a community to grow. It is something innate, some part of our psychological evolution that says that it is beneficial to care for children.

        However, a child is fundamentally worthless (culturally/economically) until it can contribute to society. The death of a child is on par with the death or a retiree, if you base value purely from a contributatory metric.

    Killing young humans is a horrible thing but after a certain age it's delightful, hilarious and even entertaining.

    Scribblenauts is by far the most immoral game in the universe then.
    I sacrifice children to the elder gods all the time.

    I understand many peoples distinctly negative reaction to children being hurt or murdered in media, but I get a little sick of it too.

    The whole pulling a cheap sympathy card is an annoying argument. So what? they tried to garner some of your sympathy so you would engage in the game/medium more. Are we not allowed to try and draw on people's emotions any more to create more engagement. Sure some games pull off these emotional events quite poorly, but doesn't mean all attempts in all games are cheap and weak.

    In the context of Prototype 2, I don't think this audio recording sounds remotely out of place, its a real possibility this could occur. I haven't heard the audio recording, so as per above, they may have done it ineffectively, but that's less pulling a cheap card to gain attention and more just poor writing skill. Also to note, its an 'audio recording', so I think they went about it somewhat elegantly. What if they showed a video of the same thing, what would your reaction be then.

    Then theres realism. Most games are trying to emulate real life. Guess what? children die in real life! Its true, wikipedia it.

    So anyway, if a developer puts a scene or reference to the death of a child in it, rather then slandering them for trying to scam you into some level of emotional investment, just decide that you personally don't appreciate that particular theme/event in the game, and continue on your merry way. Theres bound to be some people out there that actually relate to that event, and might find that it makes the game more believable and engaging. Devs didnt do anything wrong.

    Although there has to be some moral line where its not accepted by the majority of society (ie. graphic torture of children, and/or rewards associated with killing (innocent) children (self defence is a viable argument)). But none of the mentioned games, or any I can think of at all, seem to cross this invisible line, so what's the big deal?

    I am hoping that it's the writers stab at reminding gamers what are the wrong things in life.
    These days, with movies like Human Centipede and the Saw series, which just are there to shock the fuck out of people, it makes me wonder what will eventually be social norm.

    Even if it is a ploy to get the gamer emotionally invested, if the gamer does get emotionally invested, it's a good sign for humanity... Right?

    You know I do and don't agree with this. There are some games that really don't need kid killing at all but, there are some that it would make sense in. Can you really tell me with a straight face that a zombie out break in the middle of a huge city wouldn't end up effecting kids as well. Or that a survival type game wouldn't have kids that where also surviving in some way. Though a game like Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, etc those don't really need kids in them dieing.

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