While making the video preview of Sniper Elite 5, I sent a question to the developers inquiring why they added non-lethal options on top of the already-present stealth takedowns and ranged combat. I don’t know if any response could have satisfied me, or convinced me that it was a good idea – I suppose the best possible version would be ‘We really liked the whole ‘clean kill/silent assassin’ thing in Hitman, and we wanted to do exactly that’. Maybe this was all just a huge misunderstanding, and the developers were so laser-focused on the mechanics of their game that they didn’t stop to consider the context in which those mechanics were being implemented.
Part of the response does have that vibe, but another, more concerning part, absolutely does not.
The first section talks about player choice – those who would clear the map, versus those who want to test themselves by being true ghosts, slipping in and out without ever being detected. So, as I said – Hitman franchise stuff.
They also discuss the extra challenge of leaving someone unconscious, because if another guard wakes them up, they’ll be back on-mission and will likely sound an alarm.
We also get the strange justification that ‘knocking people out is silent‘, making it tactically useful. But of course, stabbing people in the throat or brain is also silent, unless the developers have made the decision to make it unrealistically noisier. Likewise, sub-sonic ammunition exists in the world – that’s what allows Karl’s iconic Welrod pistol to be functionally noiseless – it’s not just that the whole gun is a silencer, it’s that the bullet never breaks the sound barrier.
There are all mechanical considerations, though, and have nothing inherently troubling about them – where we run into trouble is the middle paragraph, which talks about the ‘enemy bio’ items that come up when the player uses their binoculars to tag foes. This has been in the series since Sniper Elite 3, and there I found it to be cute, but worried it was being used to humanize Nazis, which is a terrible idea that can only lead to bad outcomes.
My fears have been realized in Sniper Elite 5, as the developer specifically says that the bios are there to give the player more information when making their decision whether to kill or merely knock out enemies.
That’s right – the developers want the player to judge for themselves whether they’re dealing with ‘good Nazis’ or ‘bad Nazis’ and factoring that into a choice to kill or merely subdue. This is reminiscent of Watchdogs‘ mobile phone scanning, where the player can link up with anyone on the street and learn a fact about them. It was a nice mechanic there, because you would learn fun things about random people on the street, and then occasionally one would be a serial killer, and you’d murder them.
The problem with using this mechanic in a Sniper Elite game is that it creates a framework in which such a thing as a ‘good Nazi’ exists. While I was a little concerned about this before, in the end it wasn’t problematic since all the Nazis had to die, no matter who they were. Players would learn a colorful piece of information – occasionally something that might even humanize them a little – but at the end of the day, they’re still Nazis, and as a consequence, they have to get killed. Sure, plenty of them were conscripts, but these are men wearing the uniform of a genocidal regime bent on total domination of Europe and beyond, so it really doesn’t matter whether they love puppies or not, they have to die just the same.
By adding in non-lethal options, however, the developers are saying that maybe it doesn’t matter what actions a person takes part in if they’re a ‘good person’ inside. From a moral standpoint, this is abominable. At the end of the day, it’s not important whether a Nazi soldier loves their children. It doesn’t matter if if they get aroused while setting prisoners on fire. Their internal lives are irrelevant – this is a war, they’re wearing Nazi uniforms, and that means there can be only two ways out – they can abandon the cause and surrender, or they can die. That’s it.
And, as a commando behind enemy lines, Karl Fairburne isn’t in a position to be taking any prisoners.
That’s not the worst of it, though – I’ve been writing this criticism under the assumption that people were going to let the ‘good Nazis’ live, and just kill the ‘bad Nazis’ – but there are people out there with a very different conception of what constitutes good and bad. In Sniper Elite 4, if you didn’t want to kill a specific Nazi based on his bio, it made the game more difficult, because that was one more Nazi trying to kill you. Sniper Elite 5‘s non-lethal takedown mode makes it easier for people to save their preferred Nazis – whoever those might be.
Has Rebellion not thought this through?
They’ve essentially ensured that someone is going to make a video where they play the game killing any Nazi who’s insufficiently passionate about genocide, and preserving the lives of Nazis who enjoy machine-gunning people and love to taunt American prisoners in English before murdering them. It was theoretically possible, with lots of saving and loading, to make that video in Sniper Elite 4 but the non-lethal options in Sniper Elite 5 remove all the difficulty, ensuring that those videos are going to be made using the game engine.
By stepping outside the ‘kill or die’ paradigm and creating a third option in which a soldier gets to decide for themselves which Nazi is a decent person who gets to live, and which is a bad person that has to die, the developers at Rebellion have opened the door to moral depravity, and if they care at all about their game’s impact on the world, they’ll take out the non-lethal options before the game is released and the Sniper Elite franchise can go back to serving its longstanding purpose – reminding us that Nazis need to die, and it’s better if those deaths are brutal.