28 November 2013

So, there are a bunch of discussions that come up once in a while about how violence in video games might be bad because it might turn people into killers by “training” them. If you want my opinion, that’s a load of radioactive bullshit. But that’s not what I want to talk about here, because I’m really sick of all those scare mongering jerkwads bringing the issue up over and over again despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

Anyway. I want to talk about the use of violence as a literary device, in the context of interactive media. That’s right, good use of violence can make your game a better one! But not always.

I started thinking about this subject many years ago, but never really got around to properly arranging my thoughts in any coherent fashion. In 2007, Yahtzee released his review of Manhunt, an incredibly violent game from professional shit storm makers Rockstar North (better known for their Grand Theft Auto franchise). Near the end of the review, there is this quote:

There’s a very clear certification indicating that twelve-year-olds aren’t supposed to be playing it, but there’s no denying that they play it anyway, because no one other than twelve-year-olds are into this sort of thing. Gushing breathlessly about garrote wire decapitation and baseball bat cranial explosion is a good way to win friends in middle school, but around the office water cooler it’s a good way to lose them.

And this led me to think about the separation between “mature” and “violent”, and how overuse of the latter is normally used as a substitute for the former. For instance, modern Call of Duty titles typically show the horrors of war from the perspective of an impressionable right wing conspiracy theorist, and never really go past the “war is cool, kids” mindset. That is, it is over-the-top despite being about something that is quite serious. But I feel like I’ve crapped enough on military shooters, so let’s go with something else.

Exhibit A: Dead Space

Dead Space is one of those flawed games that I love very much. It’s far from perfect, but it’s still incredibly enjoyable. That being said, there’s something I find rather off putting in it, and it’s the rather jarring clash between the game’s tone and it’s presentation. If you just look at the graphics, you’ll see levels of gore only matched by horror comedy films such as Braindead. Said differently Dead Space has so much graphic violence that it looks like a parody. Everything feels like it’s made of plasticine. You can dismember a corpse by stomping on it with your foot, and being brushed by a necromorph while at low health will likely result in your limbs flying off. Nothing really has weight, and nobody seems really attached to their body parts.

Yet, on the story front, Dead Space is incredibly dark; it’s a horror game, after all. The end result is that it becomes incredibly hard to take the plot seriously when everything else looks so surreal. And after a while the violence is no longer effective at conveying any feeling of discomfort, because it becomes routine. That’s right: Dead Space manages to make dismemberment boring. In fact, in the entire franchise, the only really unnerving part for me was that bit in Dead Space 2 where you have to jam a needle in your own eyeball. And that song.

In short, Dead Space and its sequels makes the cardinal sin of trying too hard. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad game. But it could have been much better.

Exhibit B: Assassin’s Creed

I got into the Assassin’s Creed series starting with the second title, because I figured the first one was essentially a large tech demo. And I have quite the fondness for the franchise: it looks good, it has great mechanics, and most importantly, it’s unique. And, to stay in the current subject, it also uses violence in a very effective way in order to reinforce the game’s themes.

Assassin’s Creed uses a simple combat system that mostly revolves around blocking and counter attacking. Blocking an enemy attack with the right timing will usually lead to an incredibly brutal (and lethal) counter attack. In my opinion, the use of violence here is much more effective, since it helps show how broken the protagonist of every game is. Anyone who can perform such gruesome acts and then have enough time to woo a few ladies is definitely not the kind of person you want to hang out with. All that fits with the game’s underlying theme that there are no real good guys, and that the Assassins and the Templars aren’t really that different from each other. And no matter how many times I saw those finishing moves, I still felt a bit weird inside. Because they are frighteningly realistic (animation engine bugs nothwistanding), and they made me feel bad for the innocent guards I used them against. For reference, here’s a montage for Assassin’s Creed 3. I apologize for the dubstep, I did not make this.

So, Assassin’s Creed manages to cross the line in just the right way in order to better get to you.

Closing words

I could list a lot of examples in either categories. But that would be pointless. The point I’m trying to make is just a follow up to my “depth in games” article. I am not saying violence is bad. I’m saying it should be used intelligently. It shouldn’t be overused, because otherwise you get the same kind of issues as you would with poor pacing: violence becomes meaningless because it turns into routine, just like explosions in Call of Duty are boring to watch because they happen so often. And, as with anything else, context is essential: I need to know who is killing who and why he is using that specific level of force.

Said differently, I want my violence to be subtle. Otherwise it’s just noise. And noise isn’t mature, it’s childish. And before you accuse me of being “anti-fun”, keep in mind that I don’t dislike exagerated gore and showers of blood. I’m just saying we should stop using that to make our games more “mature”. It should be seen for what it really is: dumb, juvenile, fun. It works perfectly well for parodies and more lightweight stuff. But if you want to make a serious game, try to be slightly more subtle.

In related news, Hotline Miami is still as insane as ever.