A history of violence

By 18 September 2012 Commentary No Comments

I found myself in an almost atypical position towards summer’s end and autumn’s beginning just about a year ago. Smack dab in the middle of the loaded, blockbuster fall release calendar, I wasn’t killing people. Part of this can be attributed to playing catch up; I still had to make my way through Portal 2, for example. And it’s not to say I wasn’t engaging in surrogate violence a plenty. Portal 2 did have me destroying turrets which I think loved me in their own perverse way, while, more overtly, Batman: Arkham City had me dispensing shadowy vigilante justice in the form of my fist reaching all the faces.

Still, I wasn’t killing things. Arkham City’s comic violence washed over me like the cartoon violence I was raised on; incidentally, the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series, which Arkham City pulled much of its voice talent from, is among it. After completing a wonderful string of titles, I eagerly dove into Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. That’s where the funny feelings started to tickle my brain.

Uncharted 3 had a distinct problem that its predecessors did not have. There was simply far too much wave based shooting segments. Wave after wave of nondescripts wading into play for you to systematically murder. Still, this excess of shooting was highlighted through contrast. So many of the games I had played prior, successively, didn’t involve any shooting at all.

I had picked up a replacement PS3 in time for the mind bending block puzzler Catherine as well as caught up on titles like Portal 2 (which does technically have shooting, I grant) I had missed earlier in the year. Even the bits I started of Deus Ex: Human Revolution let me take a mischievously sneaky approach. Sure, a few other titles like Arkham City or Outland or Persona 3 (which I took the lack of a PS3 as an excuse to finish) had their share of violence, but I wasn’t shooting people. Ico (HD) had me protecting myself and Yorda in ineffectual, stressful self defense.

Shortly into Uncharted 3, which isn’t the longest of games to begin with, I began to feel incredibly uncomfortable with the amount of people Drake was murdering. The amount of people the game required me to murder if I wanted to progress. If you look at my game stats you’ll find that an absurd amount of my “kills” ended up being melee kills. That’s not because I was thoroughly enjoying the revamped hand to hand system. That was solely to let me feel a little better about myself. Because while the game marked them as kills, kneeing someone in the groin (or even punching them upside the head a few times) doesn’t feel like I’m taking life and it was better than shooting a random enemy in the face for the 600th kill.

I felt the cognitive dissonance bred by the disparity between Naughty Dog’s narrative and its gameplay in my bones and it chilled me. It was always recognizable. Yes, yes, the incredibly handsome sort-of-seedy-but-supposed-to-be-entirely-good guy kills a lot of people without losing his witty demeanor and disarming smile. But it was never as unsettling a feeling as it was in Uncharted 3, whether that was the result of an overabundance of waves to the slaughter or my not having shot dudes in some time. Maybe the disconnect between how Naughty Dog paints Drake and how you’re meant to act through him was just overwhelming three games into the series. There was just so much killing.

Video games have struggled, in large part, to move past the “kill or otherwise best opposing forces to progress” design. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s definitely the go-to, particularly the mainstream. Maybe the ever increasing fidelity in photorealism and humanoid targets, however flatly defined as “bad guys,” are having some effect on me. Or maybe I just really am bone tired of shooting people if there’s the typical level of vapidity to it.

Looking on how unsettled Uncharted 3 left me, it also did expose the inherent aggression and violence, stylized or not, in most games. Something as innocuous as a Mario title is about beating things up in some nebulous way — jump on enemies, they flip over and fall off screen to the hellish depths that we as players know await them, assuming we’ve ever fallen in one of those endless pits ourselves. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in the spirit of the original game, did let me sneak along without blood on my hands. Until it didn’t. I’m not going to harp on the meaningless boss fights that made me a murderer, but they were a poor design decision and, again, meaningless.

When Malik’s bird went down under heavy fire, I was torn. I hadn’t killed yet (as far as when the game allowed me not to), yet here was my friend and ally headed towards an inevitable death. Surely killing the soldiers trying to kill her would be more expedient and, importantly, warranted. Well, given that I wasn’t equipped to kill, that wasn’t the case, but I did wrestle with the notion before I heroically saved her without taking a life, which made that an interesting scenario in the game. I also sort of wanted that trophy for not killing at that point and I felt like the game was directly challenging my resolve with this horde of hired guns so I wanted to meet that challenge head on. Keep my morals and save a life. Very Vash the Stampede. Except, of course, when the game wouldn’t let me. For no legitimate reason.

There is of course, a place for violence in video games. It can be and often is an incredibly useful tool. At the same time, more and more do I find myself looking for an alternative, something beyond “shoot the dudes” because it’s become so mechanical, detached and vacuous. Perhaps there’s an inherent bias in relatively excusing, say, quirky platformer violence compared to my stance of being a bit more uncomfortable murdering other humans with guns; it feels like a natural extension of the way in which zombie killing is so easily dismissed as, “they’re just zombies, not people.” Still, at least I feel better about myself when Rayman spin punches his way through a Psychlops, which gets turned into an adorable bubble, than I did committing mass murder in Uncharted 3. The larger thing to take from this beyond my fragile state of mind is that we can use more games that aren’t about — or are at least much less about — loosing aggression and wanton violence.

Steven Hansen

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