A Culture of Violence
When choosing the path of violence, Dishonored can be quite unhinged in its depiction.
“BOOKS ARE...NO, ROCK & ROLL MUSIC IS...NO, NO, NO...URRGH--VIDEO GAMES, ARE THE DEVIL'S UNHOLIEST CREATION!”
Rinse and repeat.
Now that we've gotten that out of our collective systems, let us proceed...
Splinter Cell: Conviction often showed a side of Sam Fisher that prior games never even hinted at.
It's been said before, but last year video games took a few baby steps towards growing up as a medium. From the rise of independent game development pushing the medium towards heady new avenues, to folks being much more open about gender bias within the culture, protesting unjustifiably exploitative business models, and even taking stock into the necessity of violence in this budding medium. If you're anything like me, reading that last bit should chime an ominous and disconcerting ringing within your inner ear, worrying whether this means the possible end of video games with images of simulated blood being spilled in exquisite detail. If it did, worry not, they're not going anywhere anytime soon.
I love my violence. Now, before you go in and call the cops on me, let me explain myself: I’ve always had a certain affinity for violence as a subject matter in my chosen form of media and the majority of my favorite examples of the moving image range from the schlockiest of horror gore fests to the most thoughtfully paced crime dramas. In addition to this, a lot of the music I listen to conveys anti-authoritarian messages and I have a fondness for literature that explores the darkest (as well as some of the most violent) periods of human history. Likewise 95% of the video games I play deal with simulated lives being ended either deliberately or inadvertently, and almost always within the context of a narrative framework. But why do I derive pleasure from performing a deed in virtual worlds which is considered a heinous act of inhumanity in the real world? I guess a part of the answer is in the question itself - the ability to separate what’s real and what’s not - but it still doesn’t explain the jolt of excitement I get whenever I successfully land a blow on a towering behemoth or shoot the hat off of an outlaw (perforating his cranium in the process) with preternatural precision. I guess part of the reason behind this sudden need for introspection would be the recent spate of shootings and massacres in certain parts of the world, where the men and women in question were apparently into playing video games a lot, resulting in the near instantaneous condemnation of the medium. Honestly I, myself, credit it more to three specific games that came out last year and spoke louder about violence, it’s prevalence, significance and necessity not only in video games but in modern media in general (and maybe even human nature as well). In the rest of this article, I will try and examine these three particular games and offer my interpretation of their commentary.
Hotline Miami's violence is so comical that it starts to become a reason for concern.
Developed by Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedinset, Hotline Miami is a 2D, top-down action game, aesthetically and tonally inspired by Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo noir crime drama ‘Drive’. Set in 1989, players are cast as a stoic, unnamed protagonist, tasked with “cleaning out” the city’s sudden surge in organized crime upon receiving thinly veiled messages on an answering machine. The game poses some uncomfortable questions regarding violence and its place in media (though more of this is evident if you’ve played the game to completion) both directly and otherwise. In almost every chapter a stray, and strangely isolated, scene of death or an act of violence can be found by a prying eye; be it the ignored, decaying body of an addict lying in an alleyway, a victim of intense torture and interrogation tied to a chair or a patron in the bathroom of a seedy bar, slowly dying next to a puddle of his own vomit. A more erudite (and debatably normal) mind may call it ‘tasteless’ and ‘insensitive’ but mine keeps yelling ‘subversive’.
The commentary is not restricted to narrative delivery either; the game’s utter disrespect for life (of man and animal alike) and punishing difficulty means that the player will be dying just as often as their foes. To counteract the potential frustration this may incur, the game employs a mechanic that sort of “reloads” the player after perishing to the starting point of the particular floor of the complex the chapter takes place in. This really doesn’t sound all that different from the ‘checkpoint’ system seen in nearly every modern game that hinges on player progression, but then again I don’t use the word ‘reload’ haphazardly. The speed at which the player is resuscitated can be compared to reloading a handgun, as if the player IS the weapon and the ammunition being used. A special mention goes to the game’s use of animal masks that, when donned, give players varying skills depending on the nature of that specific creature. For example ‘Tony the Tiger’ grants the protagonist the ability to kill enemies with his bare hands, whilst ‘Jones the Alligator’ takes the level of bloodshed to bestial territory, as if reminding you that violence is a behavioral common denominator between humans and beasts.
Max Payne 3
Max Payne 3's ballistics made me see shooters in a new light.
In what can be seen as either a sign of ageing or calculated maturity, Rockstar Games’ last few titles have been suspiciously muted in courting controversy, and this is surprising coming from the studio that birthed ‘Grand Theft Auto’, with its Good-Samaritan-baiting depiction of freeform crime, and ‘Manhunt’ a game so morbidly violent it was banned in numerous countries. But, despite the relative quietness, ‘Max Payne 3’ does something virtually no other game has been able to do for me yet and that’s how it makes gun violence seem genuinely disturbing and frightening…and I do not say that lightly.
The game is mechanically a third person shooter and narratively an intense character study that centers on the titular, Chandleresque, ex-NYPD detective suffering a bit of an existential crisis while being openly alcoholic and with a diet that comprises exclusively of prescription pain pills. Payne thrives on violence; if dealing death was a form of art, Max would be Vincent Van Gogh with a Beretta for a paintbrush. What truly separates the violence on display in Max Payne 3 from any other game is its unflinching sincerity and attention to detail. It’s rather common to see violence exaggerated to a comical degree in this medium - exploding heads, ripped torsos, etcetera - but nothing of that sort happens here; bullets realistically pierce through skin, bones and miscellaneous tissue, leaving detailed entry and exit wounds, emptying eye-sockets and leaking blood and grey matter all over. Employing a stylized slow-motion effect (a series trademark) the camera zooms in on every last kill, emphasizing the damage dealt. It may sound as if gun violence is being glorified but after frequent, inescapable, viewings the opposite starts to feel truer. This is a sentiment shared by game critic, and former war correspondent, Tom Bissell in his excellent post-release analysis of the game: “When it comes to blood and violence, my video-game stomach is strong indeed, but something about Max Payne 3 made me wonder what on earth had been added to the table creatively with its in extremis kill-cams. It's not enough, I don't think, if they're there only because someone thought they looked cool.”
Spec Ops: The Line
After completing Spec Ops: The Line I only played Portal 2 for a straight week.
*Before you proceed any further, I should state that it’s impossible to talk about this game without spoiling its ending, its purpose and impact, so if you have yet to go through ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ leave now and come back to this article after you’ve done so.
Oh boy, where do I start? I feel like I have my work cut out for me here since I am in no way knowledgeable enough or philosophical enough to comment on the numerous themes tackled in ‘Spec Ops: The Line’. This is a game that spawned a 50,000 word book analyzing its every fiber, and has been the subject of a month long, chapter-by-chapter critical analysis at the New York Public Library, after all. But I’m here only to talk about the violence and on that instance, no game I have ever played speaks about it louder than this one.
The very definition of “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, Spec Ops: The Line was fiendishly advertised as a “commercially risk free” modern military shooter to the mass market, whilst it was in fact a scathing critique and deconstruction of that very subgenre - a subgenre retrod and coddled to the point where the genre’s offerings have become jingoistic power-fantasies. Citing director Francis Ford Coppola's thought-provoking Vietnam war drama ‘Apocalypse Now’ (and by extension Joseph Conrad’s classic novella ‘Heart of Darkness’) as inspiration, The Line tells the tale of a three-man Delta Force team sent out on a reconnaissance mission in Dubai which, after a series of violent and perpetual dust storms, is declared a no-man’s-land. The player occupies the boots of Captain Martin Walker, who is searching for Colonel John Konrad (a none-too-subtle allusion to author Joseph Conrad, and the character Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now) and his ‘33rd Battalion’ who were helping with relief efforts for the affected. With this simple premise in hand, The Line subverts players’ expectations of a military-themed shooter by throwing them into a morally gray pit of self-ambiguity. The game goes to some extreme lengths to make the player feel guilty for ever wanting to play a shooter or, perhaps, to even ever having imagined what ending a life, regardless of existential status, would be like. A personal experience: following a pivotal, highly unnerving story sequence, I was engaged in a rather relentless moment of shooting ‘bad guys’ all in the name of “saving people”, when one of the insignificant virtual mouths yells out “MURDERER!” at me and my compatriots. I was shocked - no such game had ever called me that before.
Despite having my objectives clearly laid out before me, I began questioning the character’s (and indeed my own) motives for continuing on, especially after a narratively necessary sequence that would probably make less-trained minds quit then and there. Spec Ops: The Line really made me question myself over my fondness for fictional violence. It made me feel guilty for being eager enough to see it through to the end; it made me look carefully at every hollow, simulated being I shoot, maim and kill in any game and, more importantly like the strongest and most impactful works of art, Spec Ops: The Line made me ask questions.
Despite only fleeting impressions, The Walking Dead's violence managed to pique my curiosity.
It’s easy to blame something new and hard-to-understand for the new troubles that civilization is prone to experiencing from time to time, but take a step back and squint a little harder and you’ll see that those troubles aren’t really “new” at all. Think of all the great wars, all those lives lost in the name of God and country, acts of aggressive revolution that resulted in the world being changed for better or for worse; violence has always been a part of us, historically and anthropologically. It might not be a pleasant thought to brood on, but this is one truth that is as inescapable as it is unquestionable.
2012 was an important year for video games. To outsiders, doubts about its cultural significance continue to linger on, but as other struggling art forms have proven, that doubt will eventually dissipate as the medium is pushed to new territories, further unifying narrative and mechanics in ways that observe, discuss and dissect more issues and tropes we take for granted. Examining the purpose of violence was a good start, but there’s a lot more ground to cover.