Pacifism in Video Games

A few weekends ago I was playing Fortnite while a friend of mine was visiting (the wonderful Harvey Z who frequently guest stars in my YouTube videos). He’d never played Fortnite before and after playing it myself for a bit I let him take the reins on my PS4 because Fortnite is very casual play friendly – there’s no ranking and no stats to skew, so turning my controller over to a completely new player was not going to be detrimental to me in the slightest (another point for the accessibility of the game).

His strategy was very specific – he tried to stay out of combat as much as possible. When he discovered that there was a bush item you could use to become even more stealthy, he was all about the Bush Victory. In one run, Harvey made it all the way to 3rd place in a solo royale without killing anybody. He stuck to his pacifist gameplay pretty regularly (partly because he didn’t trust himself to be good at the combat with a PS4 controller, but also because he was determined to get a pacifist victory) and usually was able to get fairly far into the tournament by simply avoiding the high encounter areas.

I myself got my first Victory Royale in Fortnite last week with the introduction of the Thanos solo mode. I succeeded in finishing Harvey’s strategy – when it was just me (as a bush) and Thanos left, I was able to hide and outwit Thanos and he ended up killing himself. I was awarded a victory without having killed a single person the entire match. It was pretty awesome – but it is also not what people want to see in Fortnite. They want to watch big plays and showmanship – like rocket rides into 360 sniper no scope headshots. Pacifists are the “boring” players – despite the fact that my Victory Royale counts the same as one who racks up 10 kills in a match.

And while I was proud of my victory (and also 100% realizing nobody would have wanted to watch me stream that) it also made me think about how games themselves rarely even allow pacifism. Fortnite itself barely achieves it – in the main modes you’ll likely have to kill at least one person to achieve a victory. The Thanos mode was an outlier because of how quickly the battle arena shrinks and kills you if you aren’t inside it – it’s much harder to get an opponent to kill themselves in a final 1v1 in the main game. Most other games don’t even acknowledge pacifism as a possible choice of action.

Just in case you need proof of my victory…

There are games that are specifically designed to not have combat – you have puzzle games like The Witness where there is nothing but puzzles and using your brain is the only way to progress. But that doesn’t instill any sense of actual pacifism because you aren’t choosing not to fight – there’s no option to fight to begin with. You’re just playing a puzzle game and while it’s refreshing to have a game that’s goal isn’t “kill everything on screen” it’s still ignoring the concept of choice. Solving the puzzles are the only way forward.

In games where there are the black-and-white good vs. evil ratings – for example, the popular Mass Effect series – you’re given options that are clearly “good” and “bad.” In one of the Mass Effect games, the “renegade” option to end one of the game’s conversations is to kick a man out of a window to his death. The good option doesn’t involve murdering this particular guy, but even if you choose the “good” dialogue options you’re still forced into combat in the combat-specific sections of the game. You don’t have the option to be a pacifist outside of words. And what’s that famous saying? “Actions speak louder than words”? And in most role-playing games your actions are still pew pew slice slice despite choosing good words.

Stealth games often tout multiple ways to complete objectives and they have lethal and non-lethal ways. You’re even usually rewarded for being stealthy and not killing people you weren’t supposed to. However, the objective of many stealth games is usually still to kill people – it’s killing the “wrong” people that you can avoid. Dishonored comes close – you can complete the entire game without killing anybody – there are non-lethal ways of removing your targets from the playing field. But most of these non-lethal ways could be considered even worse than death – one non-lethal end to a mission involves you branding the target with a heretic’s mark instead of killing him, and because of the brand he is shunned into homelessness and eventually contracts a deadly disease after being forced to walk the slums of the city.

The Metal Gear Solid series is another stealth series that plays with pacifism but doesn’t quite get there. MGS3 in particular allows you to non-lethally take down bosses, but the boss fights are still considered just that – “fights.” You have to use the tranquilizer guns to stun and eventually eliminate their stamina bar instead of their health. The end result is the same “defeating” your enemy and moving onward in the game, but there isn’t ever any option to avoid the boss combat entirely like you can avoid combat through the rest of the game. Another game – Deus Ex: Human Revolution – was actually widely criticized for something similar. The game allowed a pacifist run-through except for a few mandatory boss battles scattered through the game, and you had to fight in these cases as well.

Even games that are built on the Dungeons & Dragons mechanics of role-playing and allowing other skills to get you through conversations still have combat built into them – because D&D has combat built into it as well. Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, new games like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity – these all offer all sorts of options and ways to play your character the way you want to, but you’re still going to have to fight zombies here or a demon lord there despite maxing out your Charisma or Lockpicking skills.

Undertale is probably the game that best tackles the idea of having combat available but still giving the player the opportunity to avoid it. Every encounter in the game can be solved without violence – you just have to figure out the correct way for each encounter. It puts an interesting twist on the typical leveling up system of certain RPGs where winning in combat is the only way to gain experience – because even without gaining any experience you can still complete the game. And the ending you get is called the “Pacifist” Ending which, for once, actually means pacifism in its true nature.


I don’t need your judgment, Undertale.

Now I’m not saying that combat in games is bad or overrated or should be eliminated completely, far from it. I just finished playing a game called God of War and the combat was exhilarating. In fact, I don’t really think stealth or pacifism had much of a place in that game at all. Not all games need to have pacifist routes.

But what I am saying is that the idea of pacifism and truly avoiding combat scenarios can lead to some fun and tense moments. In my Fortnite victory, I watched from my hidden position as Thanos fought three other people across the lake from me. I had my sniper rifle up and aimed in case anybody saw me, but all the players were too preoccupied with fighting each other and then the winner of that battle dashed off away from me. It was its own kind of fun. And designing more games that allow for that type of choice could lead to even more fun scenarios.

Combat encounters in games are usually designed with fighting in mind as the primary way of progression. Stealth and avoiding combat is the secondary objective. Take Uncharted 4 – it’s possible to avoid getting into gunfights with soldiers in certain areas of the game, but it’s very difficult. And the stealthy way of removing soldiers off the battlefield is snapping their necks. The game just isn’t designed with “hey, let’s give the player the opportunity to avoid this!” in mind.

If some games with combat allow themselves the possibility of playing with true pacifism – so you feel good about that “paragon” road both out of combat AND during possible combat scenarios – I think the medium could be opened up even further to new ways to tell stories. But it’s just a thought.