You’re making a first-person shooter or a third-person action game. Your gameplay centers around combat, but you don’t want your protagonist to come across as the sort of person physically and psychologically capable of massacring hundreds over the course of a day.
That’s okay! I’d love to see more nonviolent games, but violence is exciting, dramatic, and we know how to support it with solid game mechanics. Here are eight simple options to help keep your protagonist from coming across as a monster–just the first eight that came to mind, but I’m sure you can think of others. Some of them can work in combination while others stand alone. Some focus on game mechanics, some focus on art, and some focus on writing. But most–so long as they’re considered early on–are pretty easy to build a game with.
Make Combat (Mostly) Non-Lethal. Give me an arsenal of stun guns, tranquilizer darts, rubber bullets, gas grenades, and more. Make me an expert archer using blunt-tipped arrows. Or a boomerang-tosser. Give me a shock prod. Let me use old-fashioned fisticuffs. If your game is science-fiction or fantasy, you’ve got even more options–freeze rays and goo blasters can apparently incapacitate, as can (with the right art direction) sleep darts and quarterstaffs.
Make the Killing Optional. This can be used in combination with the point above (sure, I normally use blunt arrows, but I can pick up guns off enemies if I want) or with the addition of stealth or a similar mechanic. But remember, most of your players will play the most efficient way possible–so make sure that killing isn’t the only optimal solution if you want the narrative to feel less violent.
Use Human Opponents Sparingly. This doesn’t always work for “real world” games, but for anything with a little magic or a few science-fiction elements, you’re golden. Let me fight aliens or zombies or ghosts or minotaurs or robots. Pit me against wolves and bears. Just not people.
Downplay the Gore. The Indiana Jones films are, in fact, extremely violent. But the fact that we don’t see much blood, don’t hear Nazis whimpering on the ground, and don’t see limbs go flying helps immeasurably. The violence is de-emphasized and unambiguously unrealistic.
Abstract the Killing. Make the enemy faceless–put my foes in spaceships or tanks. Put them in full-face masks. But whatever you do, don’t let me think of them as human. (Star Wars would get a lot more disturbing if the stormtroopers didn’t have helmets.) This is a natural partner to “Downplay the Gore.”
Make Your Setting a Pulp Setting, and Your Protagonist a Pulp Protagonist. This doesn’t mean making your characters two-dimensional or unrelatable. But it does mean that your protagonist should feel like he or she naturally lives in a “heightened reality” where life moves faster, where dialogue is rich and dramatic (but almost never naturalistic), and where violence is symbolic, not literal. Many science-fiction, fantasy, and superhero works naturally have a pulp feel–the problem is trying to take a grounded protagonist from a domestic drama and putting him or her into a shooting gallery.
Make Me Mechanically Vulnerable. Do I die when shot a mere two or three times? Or can I survive protracted machine gun fire and a grenade blast (with or without armor?) If I feel like I’m constantly, genuinely vulnerable and in fear for my life, I don’t feel like so much a monster when I’m hurting people who could harm me.
Write to the Level of Violence Present. The single most effective tool on this list. It’s okay to tell a story about a character who’s traumatized by the violence around him or her. It’s okay to tell a story about a sociopath, so long as the story is about being a sociopath. Show your soldiers coping with violence as well as experiencing a rush. Let your medieval fantasy hero mourn the hundreds who’ve fallen before him or her. Just remember: your story isn’t separate from your gameplay.