In which the writer traces some of the history of violence in games, and then takes a stand.
By Robert Gordon
Gaming is a bloodbath. We’re so OK with it, but the fact remains. Go to any major retailer, a mom-and-pop retro store, or even your own Steam account, and see how many games you can count that involve murder on the part of the protagonist. Or, for the lazy, try and count how many don’t.
But we’re OK with it, right? Well then let’s suspend moral judgments for a second and ask, aesthetically, why?
Even if you’re not of the opinion that games are a valid artistic endeavor, even if they are just entertainment, why such an huge culture of death and murder that’s gone generally uncriticized over time by our best reviewers? In low-brow incarnations of other media (film, for example), violence often plays a disproportionate role in acting as spectacle (say, The Expendables, or a host of other pseudo-militant action flicks), but even this is merely one gimmick among many- sex, substance abuse, and other exploitative elements fill out the genre film arsenal more fully than their video game counterparts.
But with games it’s death upon death all the time. Furthermore, large-scale violence permeates even the highest echelons of artistry in gaming. Recently two landmark titles, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us, have attracted a sort of negative criticism in their reliance upon violence as a gameplay mechanism (despite the fact that it is no more overstated than in the majority of titles in the medium). Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku took Infinite to task regarding the overpowering place of combat within the narrative and Cliff Bleszinski of Epic game development fame echoed a similar sentiment on his blog.
While Infinite’s artistic integrity rests more upon its philosophic core, and The Last of Us upon its emotional engagement, in both the body count sticks out like a sore thumb (in TLOU, whose narrative features prominently themes of the fragility and import of life, protagonist Joel slaughters over 700 survivors). The question here is not “Why do these games employ such extreme violence?” but rather, “Why do we care now?” And the answer goes back several decades.
During the earliest days of gaming’s commercial success, titles had more abstract conflicts. Consider the prominence of giants such as Tetris, Snake, Pong and Asteroids. Even Spacewar provides a seemingly mortal conflict without the introduction of human faces or any instance of carnage; the conflict is sterilized, more geometric than visceral. This is due in part to technical limitations, meaning a human face or form could not be convincingly reproduced, and to attempt it would have ruined the player’s immersion. Better to provide “characters” which remain abstract, a necessary consequence of which is the abstractness of those characters’ conflicts. Few would call Asteroids a violent game even if the result of every single round is the death of a spaceman.
Super Mario Bros is one of the earliest instances of explicit destruction of enemies, even if those enemies were not human beings (goombas, koopas, cognizant bullets; though they were meant to have definite “character” in their own right). With what technical progress had been made, sprites standing as representation of a human being were workable, if not entirely convincing. The time between 1985 (the year of SMB’s release) and 1987 would see the release of The Legend of Zelda, Contra, Metroid, Castlevania and Dragon Quest, all of which featured combat as an essential method of gameplay, though mostly towards inhuman enemies. It wouldn’t be until the late eighties to early nineties that mainstream games would feature human opponents being destroyed (with an ardent intent towards realism) with Mortal Kombat, Wolfenstein 3D and others.
So why the rise in slaughter? Narrative conceit. In early titles, when realistic characters (even fantastic ones) were difficult to represent due to technical constraints, more abstract narratives framed the actual challenge of “the game.” Indeed, narratives as a rule were scarcely well developed due to their secondary natures in this nascent form of pop culture. However, as more realistic actor-characters could be portrayed to convey stories, violence evolved from mainly abstract or fanciful depictions to actual attempts at illustration. This same technical progress prompted the development of narratives in major titles. Game makers found themselves trying to portray convincing protagonists who would massacre untold numbers of goons between cutscenes.
Violence had been too easy a tool for framing a challenge. The content of games began as a challenge, simply. Violence came naturally because a kill-or-be-killed scenario (well, be-killed as many times as you could pay for) was such an excellent framing device for a challenge. Failing to meet the challenge meant the destruction of the player, and so they were compelled to rise to the occasion. With such abstract representations, we had challenge as violence, but with more literal representations, the industry became stuck with violence as challenge. In fact, the creators of the God of War series told Circle founder Harold Goldberg that blood itself was considered a character in the game — the way it splattered, the way it moved, all lent the life liquid a kind personality in itself. Now, with such highly developed stories as those found in Naughty Dog’s and Irrational’s works, extreme violence persists as a sort of evolutionary quirk.
Gaming is a bloodbath, but it doesn’t need to be. A long legacy of adventure games, interactive novels, and nuanced mainstream titles (such as Heavy Rain) exhibit alternative methods to slaughtering hundreds of enemies in one game. Instead they rely on the questions that arise as the narrative unfolds, providing interesting, thematically appropriate challenges. As well, critically acclaimed games which feature violence in spades (Deus Ex, Dishonored, and, in part, Metro: Last Light) have come around to offering that all-important “no-kill” run, a device which forces consciousness of the act of murder upon the player.
Regarding Infinite and TLOU, when we ask ourselves “Why do we care now?” it’s because gaming is a different beast than it was forty years ago. Now, games can be more than highly complex challenges (though some are not by intent, and that’s fine); they are as well one of the richest platforms for storytelling in history. Video games are the culmination of scientific progress sculpted by artistic interpretation. Games aren’t just too cool- it’s become clear that they are too important for us to simply accept mass violence as a “quirk.”
Sure, violence is a story-telling trope that goes back at least as far as Shakespeare. But when I’m forced to personally kill thousands of insurgent fighters in Call of Duty I expect an enormous psychological toll on my character, and if I’m to believe that I’m any sort of good guy then I’ll need a much better reason than “they’re terrorists” to visit genocide upon them. I hope we are on the cusp of gaming coming into full artistic maturity, and I believe it will only be by treating the industry’s failings maturely and without the drama of fanboy-style emotion that we can reach it. A casual holocaust is the male nipple of interactive storytelling. We owe it to the medium to move forward.
The Circle is committed to giving a voice to compelling new authors. Robert Gordon is a writer of short fiction, essays and plays. He lives in Brooklyn and enjoys critiquing endless RPGs, endlessly.