I am tired of video game protagonists. There’s a specific character that gets created over and over again when a video game designer asks themselves “what kind of person would only ever interact with the world through the barrel of a gun?” and it’s a pretty boring character. The worst part of these characters is the ways they try to soften them, to make them ultimately the good guy in a world of bad guys, to make them tortured and conflicted, to make them sad and sympathetic.
The problem isn’t that they try to humanize a character who does violence, it’s the attempt to somehow square the demands of a sympathetic character with the sheer scope of violence that these characters enact over the course of a game. A video game protagonist frequently kills hundreds of people, along with devastating their surroundings in many other ways. This obligatory massacre gets monotonous sooner rather than later, but the attempts to convince us that the concerns of a person who is living this life would have anything in common with the concerns of any actual existing human being are downright insulting.
I don’t mind the violence, but I detest the way it’s justified. Violence can be interesting and fun to explore in art, and it frequently is, but if we’re going to be mowing down swathes of people then let’s at least admit that that’s a choice, that we are reveling in something wicked. If we’re going to be monstrous, then make us monsters. This is one reason why I found Hotline Miami such a breath of fresh air – there is no justification for the kind of violence that the game wallows in, and it at least has the decency to acknowledge that. There’s no grand anti-violence message in the game, as much as people have tried to project that aspect onto it, there’s just the violence itself, unadorned, and how we feel when confronted with that.
The worlds portrayed, in an effort to make violent gameplay seem natural, take on an aspect of propaganda. It is a popular political and sales strategy to make people scared so they are more pliable, to terrify them with outside threats so they’ll open their hearts and their wallets. The ways games portray their worlds as full of militant threats just waiting for an opportunity to strike is eerily similar to the way politicians like to portray borders. Even games that try to have progressive messages often fall into the trap of portraying the world as fundamentally cruel and predatory just so the player is justified in fighting back against it. Of course, bad things happen in the world – but there’s a big difference between portraying the world as a place where cruelty and evil happens versus portraying cruelty and evil as a natural law which dictates everything that must happen.
Games that offer “non-lethal” solutions are often even worse, though. Playing through a game like Dishonored without killing means leaving behind a swathe of injured and very angry people who have already demonstrated themselves to be brutally violent when frustrated or bored, so not only are you still beating the shit out of them, you’re leaving them to continue whatever cruel and oppressive practices they were in the middle of when you non-lethally choked them, non-lethally threw them through a shop window, or non-lethally bashed their faces into the pavement. What’s even worse is that these “non-lethal” approaches are presented as peaceful, as leading to a less chaotic world with less violence at the end.
But non-lethal is not non-violent, and this conflation tells us a great deal about the views of the developers. You have only to look at how the so-called “less-than-lethal” measures made available to law enforcement are frequently used – to intimidate, to torture, or sometimes even just as a joke – to see how creepy and shallow the myths of non-lethality we make use of in games really are. If we introduced, today, the “sweet dreams cannon”, a weapon capable of instantly and comfortably putting someone to sleep and having them wake up refreshed and happy, it would shortly thereafter be used to silence legitimate protests, evict inconvenient tenants, and abduct people going about their business who look suspicious – as well as, of course, many extralegal applications that may be even worse. There is no such thing as a completely benign ability to disable a human being, and the more we try to disguise such inventions as benevolent the more cavalierly they will be deployed. The only situations where non-lethal disabling force is warranted are those situations where lethal disabling force was already warranted, and the role of “less-than-lethal” weapons should primarily be to reduce casualty rates when these situations arise – not to serve as warning shots.
The question raised by any game that presents violence as the solution to a problem, though, is what comes next? Do we use our power to kill and subdue to restore the previous society, even if the systemic issues of that society will inevitably give rise to the same problems? Or do we work to preserve whatever the most amenable power structure exists in the new world? Or do we seek to tear down all unjust systems so that something new might rise in their place? Or do we merely revel in the chaos we can sow, unbounded by society? Most games barely acknowledge these as decisions: In Dishonored, we seek to become re-honored, and that implies rebuilding the collapsing society. In most modern Fallouts, we just pick whatever faction seems least objectionable and back them, whereas in Fallout 76 I guess we just throw around nukes because we can. One of the few games that addresses what comes after the violence in an interesting way is Fallout: New Vegas. While you’re still picking the most amenable of several factions, each fairly closely aligns with one of these options: You can go back to the old world that the NCR represents, back Mr House’s vision of an independent Vegas, join up with Caesar’s Legion if you’re an asshole, or strike out on your own with your new personal army to see if you can make something better.
I just am so tired, not of violence in art, but of the incredible regressive tedium of the narrative violence proffered by most big-budget games. There are so many interesting and powerful questions these games could ask – but it seems they would prefer that we just don’t ask any questions at all.