Yes. It’s an article about violence in video games. How terribly cliche.
I’m going to start here by stating my opinions on violence in games, and then work backwards to explain the reasons why I feel the way I do. So, first: Most games suck at violence. That’s my opinion. Although, because it is my opinion, it counts as fact for all intents and purposes.
Actually, sucking at depicting violence may be one of the defining traits of our medium, which is an awful shame because really that’s mostly all we’ve been doing with said medium. In fact, I believe that it’s in large part because we do so much of it that we’re so terrible at it.
Deus Ex is a fantastic game, and beloved by many, but it suffers from this dreadful pandemic silliness as much as any other. At one point I was watching a friend play it and he shared his strategy with me: He would run into a room full of enemies, run out, and then stand in the hallway, holding his gun at head-height, and picking them off one-by-one as they ran into the hall. This is, admittedly, pretty hilarious, but it’s hilarious primarily because it highlights just how unlike people these enemies are. They don’t hesitate to run into the hallway even after seeing several of their compatriots die under extremely suspicious circumstances. They all seem to be physically identical, as well, so you don’t even need to move your crosshair around to account for the pint-sizes or bean-poles among them. It’s more like a batting machine than a murder simulator.
Most single-player games nowadays have slightly more sophisticated AI (slightly), but the enemies are still conspicuously identical in build, and you still end up slaughtering them by the hundreds. This resembles actual violence in no way except for the rendered fiction built on top of it, the blood-splatters and severed limbs, the realistically exploding skulls, the extruded viscera and errant eyeballs and wildly distributed pieces of ground meat confetti. At best, this becomes a kind of self-parody, as in games such as Borderlands and Team Fortress 2. Usually, though, you just end up killing lots and lots of nazis, as in games such as every FPS made in the decade spanning 1998-2008.
This mass-murder is generally, by necessity, slightly more restrained in multi-player games. It’s rare to have the opportunity to massacre huge numbers of opponents because, for reasons of balance, your opponents tend to be relatively evenly matched against you. The focus of these games tends to be very much on competition, rather than violence; which is fine, but the way violence is used as part of the aesthetic background noise of both single-player and multi-player games undermines our capacity to use violence as a genuine narrative device. Even in most action films, each opponent gets their own fight, their own death scene; we rarely see protagonists indiscriminately mow down mobs of bad guys, and when they do it’s a commentary on how divorced from humanity and everyday life they’ve become.
I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it certainly seems like violent scenarios are the most reasonable narrative within which to couch the kinds of gameplay situations these games have. On the other, it’s disturbing to see violence treated so cavalierly. What does it say about the characters we play that they’re willing to wipe out villages worth of people?
I think what bothers me most about it is that this is more-or-less the only way that violence is portrayed in video games. Either you make a non-violent game, outside the mainstream, or you make another Duck Hunt with a cover system. I believe that violence, portrayed well, can be the foundation of the most gut-wrenching terrible beautiful pieces of art ever made. That potential for violence is a huge part of who and what we are as human beings‒ even more fundamentally than that, as living creatures. But what makes violence violence is that it has consequences, severe consequences that can never be undone. That’s what makes it powerful, that’s what violence is. What we have now are just garish violence-drag-queens camping it up in absurd fashion and making a spectacle of themselves, and yes it can be tremendous fun but… is that it? Is that all we can do with such a terrible and rich facet of our existence?
Of course, we often tend to shy away from portrayals of actual violence in our games. This is why it’s okay to slaughter someone’s entire security, catering, and custodial staff‒ they all sound the same, so they obviously aren’t important‒ but when you actually find the man in charge, you know, the one who hired the security force (to shoot you), the catering staff (to prepare and serve baby-burgers), and the custodial staff (to clean up all of the blood and baby), you are forced to let him go. Why? Because his voice actor only plays that one character, he has a custom model, and he actually talks to you kind of like a real person would. Moreover, you haven’t seen him murder anyone who has their own voice actor, so within the context of violence in this game he’s basically an innocent man.
The only violence in fiction that bears any resemblance to what violence is in the real world is that with believable characters as victims. And, of course, we’re afraid of that kind of violence, because it is real and because we care about believable characters (sometimes even when they aren’t very nice). So, as players and as designers, we flinch. Violence against human beings is repugnant to us because we are human beings. In real armed conflicts, we declare that our enemies are inhuman and that they see us as inhuman, that they will never stop until we’re all dead or that we’ll be doing the world a favor by ridding it of monsters. It’s a bit worrying to see justifications like that paralleled so neatly in the conceits we construct to make our game worlds.
I understand why it has to be this way. I understand that making characters seem real is difficult, and that then murdering them afterwards is even more difficult. But why is it that death, now, is such a more powerful theme than killing? If your story is about death it’s a drama, and if it’s about killing it’s mindless action.
Can a world that operates on such rules ever move beyond the most superficial and trivial kind of story?
Are there any meaningful consequences within such a world?
Can story even exist in a world with no meaningful consequences?
There is no cause and effect without consequence.
There is no narrative.