I recently came across this excellent article by Carolyn Petit that examined the way the over-the-top violence is used in Hotline Miami... and because I found it on Anita Sarkeesian's page I then got to watch a bunch of GamerGaters ironically denounce censorship while telling a woman she shouldn't even discuss what violence in a video game means.
There is a ton of talk about how violence is portrayed in video games. Whether it's Sarkeesian illustrating how violence against objectified sexualized women colors how we react to sexual violence in the real world or Petit remarking on how Hotline Miami makes you walk silently through your massive bloodbath back to the start so you can contemplate the carnage you unleashed people are commenting on violence in deep, wonderful ways. That's not even delving into the age-old "how does violent media affect people" argument in which gaming is just a new arena.
All good stuff but it occurred to me while reading it that no one is talking about an aspect of violence that is unique to gaming alone; the fact that gaming requires necessary consistent mechanism.
At its core every game has a control scheme and a set of skills. It doesn't matter if it's a racing game, a fighting game, an interactive story or a first-person shooter. This is the skill that you use to progress through the game, and as you do so your continuing improvement with the mechanism becomes part of the progress of the art. Story may be driven in cut scenes, but emotional advancement is driven by how you interact with the world through the chosen mechanism.
By necessity these mechanisms must be relatively few in number to achieve a cohesive work. You don't want to throw a rhythm game in the middle of a shooter or a series of complex puzzles in the middle of a beat 'em up. Doing so throws off the pace of the game and forces you to restart your feeling of progress. A perfect example of the right way to do it is the Batman Arkham games which allow a steady evolution of abilities that still fit into a fairly narrow play style. As Batman advances you feel like you advance with him because you get better with his utility belt.
The problem is that the limited scope of mechanics forces them into an overuse that in any other medium would feel tacky and unbelievable. Take Bioshock Infinite. It's very hard to keep Booker DeWitt in your head as a hero when he personally racks up a body count in the hundreds if not thousands over the course of play. These are generally just regular guys in the game as well, not the mutated splicers of previous titles.
What you end up with is hours upon hours of murder in a way that puts most movies to shame, and after a while it begins to feel very weird. The problem is that by the time it does you are locked in that mechanic with no other recourse. You can't suddenly have Booker start stealth missioning his way through Columbia. After all the time and resources I just spent making him a walking arsenal? You're out of your cotton-picking mind!
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It's fine at the beginning when you have to fight off a racist hate mob full of bullying policemen, but by the time you're gunning down people in private homes so as to not get caught it feels like you're trying to use a hammer on a screw from a narrative perspective. You do that because a hammer is all you've been given. Death is the only tool.
It's not like that with a movie or a book. One of my favorite movies is Boys Don't Cry which is about the brutal rape and murder of transman Brandon Teena. There are two scenes in the film encompassing about eight minutes of the total running time that are bloody and awful and disturbing. The rest of the film is not. A movie can bust out a sudden gunshot to hit you emotionally. If Boys Don't Cry were a game Teena's murder would be the boss level and you would have had to spend all the game leading up to it learning how to fight it.
So if someone wants to do something about the sheer amount of violence in gaming I think one of the things we have to look at is expanding our use of the mechanism. Portal is a good example, essentially turning a first-person shooter into a puzzler with little change in the way you would normally play a shooter. The recent Thief is also excellent, enabling you to be a predator if you wish but making it as difficult as getting by through stealth alone or a combination of the two.
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It's not about eliminating violent games, but perhaps making continued repetitious and desensitizing player controlled violence less of an automatic go to. Picture the first Bioshock, but instead of killing every slicer you came across you hit them with plasmids or weapons that drained them of ADAM and left them weak and unconscious and normal. All their violence would remain. There would still be those terrifying moments in the Medical Pavilion. You could even keep the ultra-capitalist thing going by taking their guns and selling them in the vending machines for more power ups.
It would keep literally everything that makes the game great -- the unique setting, the philosophical themes and the white-knuckle play -- but Jack would no longer be a human avatar of death. Because for a game where the backbone is "a man chooses, a slave obeys" the only choice Jack is ever really given is whether or not to kill little girls after murdering their best friends, and that's really not much of a choice is it?
There's nothing wrong with a game like Hotline Miami or other bloodbaths like God of War. Sometimes the effect of endless kill-or-be-killed is even the point like in The Last of Us. However, if we're ever going to explore player-led violence in gaming the thing we have to start wondering about is whether or not we're relying on violence as a basic element of play because when all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.