In my many years of playing video games, I’ve murdered countless henchmen. Alien soldiers, zombies and stormtroopers all fell to my mighty hand (clicking a mouse or mashing down buttons). My relentless fury sometimes even turned to humans with recognizable faces that weren’t hidden beneath big, frowning armor like the stormtroopers. And for a time, I was more than happy to do it.
The aliens I murdered in Halo could be justified, even the tiny grunts that ran away screaming once they saw me; they were all out for humanity’s collective ass. Zombies are, of course, endlessly fun to slay in droves because their high body count is guilt-free. You do them a favor by setting them free from their prison of zombification, and the only way to do that is to kill them. You might as well make it fun and hilarious while you’re doing it, so go ahead, pick up that chainsaw! As for the human henchmen in GoldenEye, well they were all Russian; I had no idea what they were saying.
Obviously, part of the dissociation of killing video game henchmen is that they aren’t real, but I digress. No Tom, Dick or Stormtrooper ever said anything to indicate that they had more to do than patrol this small corridor, or guard a key that really only leads to more small corridors patrolled by more stormtroopers. Or in the case of Halo’s grunts, sleep harmlessly in a corner, neglecting their henchmanly duties and just asking for me to bash their faces in. So it was always easy for me to fill these henchmen with bullets or dismember them with lightsabers.
The henchmen of the virtual world feared me, and I reveled in it. I laughed maniacally as grunts ran from me, their short, stubby legs that were no match for the speed of my genetically enhanced and super-armored space marine. I carried the same laugh with me as arm after arm was removed from stormtrooper’s sockets in classic Star Wars tradition, but when I fired up the game Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast for the first time, I encountered two stormtroopers that would change the way I looked at henchmen forever.
There wasn’t anything too special about them, at first. They were just two stormtroopers, having a conversation while guarding a precarious ledge over a canyon with no railings (a common occupational hazard for the Empire’s employees, it seems). My first thought was, “Great, I’ll shoot this guy in the back of the head while he’s distracted and then I’ll steal his gun and use it to kill the other guy.” But as I got into prime murder position, I began to listen to their conversation. One stormtrooper asked the other about whether or not he had accepted a transfer to the giant city planet from the prequel trilogy known as Coruscant. The other stormtrooper responded with a very bored sounding, “Yeaahhh, but–” that he never finished, because my blaster had finished charging and cut him off with his untimely death.
What struck me about the conversation was just how much wasn’t included. All I knew was that the stormtrooper had accepted the transfer, but he didn’t seem too thrilled about it. Maybe he didn’t want to go. Maybe he had a girlfriend he wanted to move in with, but she had just accepted a prestigious position on the canyon-planet and didn’t want to leave to go to the big city planet. NOTE: Planets in Star Wars are constantly defined by a single topographical feature. A change of scenery means interstellar travel.
But what if that had nothing to do with it? Maybe he was a loner and the only one who might care about his demise was the other stormtrooper? But that actually makes it worse, because in that scenario even though his life wasn’t very fulfilling for him, I just ruined any chances of him moving up the stormtrooper ladder. Maybe he had just been going through a rough patch, or maybe he just wasn’t all that motivated.
Either way, I had just shot him so hard that he fell into a canyon and probably broke every bone in his body on the way down, making him look all mangled and unrecognizable. I couldn’t help but think of the poor bastard as I continued killing all of his co-workers.
The Empire goes through stormtroopers like copy paper, so I doubt they would even attempt to retrieve his body. There wouldn’t be a coffin sent home with him laid out in his armor with his helmet set off to the side so that his family could take one last look at him. There wouldn’t even be an imperial flag draped over the casket to be folded up and placed in his grieving family’s arms as his fellow soldiers fired their standard issue blasters into the air.
It wasn’t fun to slaughter the rest of the troops. I felt a little bad about it after thinking so much about that first guy. The stormtroopers didn’t say outright, “We have hopes and dreams and families,” but that conversation seemed so boring that it was even more human that way. I tried to go back and find it, but I don’t have the game anymore, and any other footage of the game are just walkthroughs where everyone else did exactly what I did and killed him before he had the chance to finish.
Sometimes I think it’s better that way, because then I can fill in the blanks in a less depressing, or at least more justifiable way. Maybe he was going to say something super offensive after that, like “Yeahhh, but there are just so many Twi’leks there.” Then I could have righteous indignation at his imagined space xenophobia.
But that maybe racist jerk stormtrooper ruined video games for me. Now I can’t help but think of henchmen as more than just faceless, hateful drones. Sometimes games will make that easy for me, too. When I played Half-Life 2 I was pretty psyched to start wasting some zombies. “Great, a guilt-free murder spree,” I thought. But these zombies were different. They weren’t infected or bitten by other zombies, they were being controlled by creatures called headcrabs, which are essentially parasites that infect people who wear monochromatic dress shirts and jeans. They cover the head and sink into the neck and then blow open their host’s stomachs and give them claws for some reason.
Shortly after encountering the first few zombies, I realized that they were still aware of what was going on, as their awful noises had traces of the words ”god help me,” among their horrible screams of anguish. Killing them wasn’t the hard part; I was doing them a favor by killing their host and just letting them die instead of walking around in “oh my god my organs are falling out” pain. Now it was just their general existence that got to me. Every time I found one I had to hear them calling out for help, and I had to realize that the best thing I could do for them was kill them. And when you’re putting something down to ease its pain, it’s a little hard to make it fun. I mean, Ol’ Yeller wasn’t killed by having a folding chair rocketed into his face.
Being a young, indoorsy male I have gone on to do the thing most young, indoorsy males do and play more video games and thus, murder more henchmen. But now I think about their lives and aspirations as I dispatch them, and for those virtual foot soldiers that I’ve silenced, I would like to say I’m sorry. Unfortunately, my dear henchmen, it is still way more fun to slay you than to leave you alive, but I just want you to know that I won’t enjoy it.
Patrick is a writer and comedian living in Chicago and has way too much pent-up guilt for fictional characters. You can check out his drawings and some other writing at his Tumblr. You can also give him some new followers on Twitter @fatfraud.Now that he’s playing video games compassionately, we have to question whether Patrick will continue to Play Guitar like a Jerk. –>