The typical game narrative of being a hero setting out to singlehandedly save the universe is often at odds with the mechanics of killing hundreds, if not thousands of people to do so. This can often be masked under the guise of being a grizzled anti-hero on course for revenge or redemption. When put in a bad situation, hard drinking, pill-popping Max Payne will bullet time his way through as many bad guys as you need dead. When it comes to characters like Jackie Estocado (from the Darkness franchise) then it makes sense for a demon infected mob boss to be killing a few people here and there. In games such as Darksiders or God of War, you may be able to massacre hundreds of souls, but they all tend to be more fantastical beasts, that (without wanting to upset anyone from PETA) are somehow less sadistic to kill than straight up murdering humans.
Where this does all fall apart for me is when you start tending towards realism. Take the fight out of space or the not-too-distant-future and you will likely have to add another dollop of realism into your recipe. Viciously and grotesquely stabbing someone in their eyes can be a unique selling point. It seems at odds with the Saturday matinee style approach seen in titles such as the Uncharted series. Nathan Drake is, almost unashamedly, the videogame equivalent of a modern day Indiana Jones. The fist-fight mechanics of the Uncharted series is very much in keeping with the Saturday matinee style, but the shooting is not so. Yes, Indiana Jones did shoot people (especially if they start waving swords at him) but he does so fairly sparingly and usually in a manner that forgo any of the potentially gory details.
Whereas for Nathan Drake, the number of deaths is alarming. While there are 76 deaths in Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of Crystal Skull (i.e. in the more than slightly crap film) compared to approximately 400 hundred in Uncharted 3. That figure is not particularly high for a typical violent game either. In 1992, at the time of its release, Hard Boiled had the most number of deaths on-screen of all time, with over 300 people dying in the course of the film. In Stranglehold, the game that was the 2007 sequel to Hard Boiled, you could probably Tequila Bomb your way to killing that many people in one level! The Lord of the Rings films, among others, have since surpassed Hard Boiled‘s total, but even with Return of the King topping out the list at a total of 836, it is not exactly going to be a difficult number for games to surpass. Any Lord of the Rings game, be it of the visceral hack-and-slash genre or a more tactical real time strategy title, are based on wiping out entire armies of Mordor’s hordes. The figures of any movie are dwarfed by a game such as Gears of War 3, which has nearly 4,400 deaths in the campaign alone.
While a large part of this death discrepancy can be explained away but the difference in running time (9+ hours for Uncharted versus just over two hours to find out that “knowledge was their treasure”) it still seems somewhat at odds with the cheeky-chappy nature of Nathan. Given that he is usually solely motivated by treasure, it seems somewhat more mercenary than his personality would suggest, to blow hundreds of people away. It is an aspect of his character that the game’s developers, Naughty Dog, are clearly aware of and even go on to make critical references to in parts of Uncharted 3. It is also something that Naughty Dog are looking to actively deal with head-on with their latest creation, The Last of Us, currently in production.
The live demonstration trailer for The Last of Us caused a bit of a stir at this year’s E3 press conferences. While the demo did a fine job of exhibiting a very good looking game with an element of choice in how violent a given situation may be handled, it was the reaction of the crowd to the violence in the demo that was some cause for concern. The whoops of delight and hollering when acts of extreme bloody violence were taking place on-screen did not exactly show gamers in the best light. I understand the attraction to the technology, but it still made me cringe.
Technology plays its part in the killing of people becoming an increasing problem in videogames. There was a time when the worst you could be accused of was being an Italian mushroom flattener or a rapid anthropomorphic liberator of small furry animals. One of the first prominent debates on violence in videogames kicked off with the arcade (and then later console) release of Mortal Kombat in the early 1990s. Family-friendly Nintendo ensured that blood was left out of the SNES version, which gave SEGA’s Megadrive/Genesis version a distinct advantage in the minds of consumers looking for the authentic arcade experience. These days it is difficult to imagine a violent game not having showers of blood. As technology changed and adapted at the start of the last console generation, and as titles such as Halo and Call of Duty grew from strength to strength, the first-and-third-person shooter genres started to dominate the market. There was a time that the default way to tell a story in a game was to design a mascot and then design a suitable platform game around them. Now you just need to chose from theme A, B or C, (i.e. Space, War or Fantasy) animate a couple of gun arms and decide on whether it is necessary to include a somewhat unique gameplay mechanic — shall we allow manipulation of time or gravity this time or do we actually have an original idea? How about just more people to kill!? More violently!
The other problem with game technology and the association with murder is the increasing level of detail and realism in aspects such as death animations. I am not going to start taking up the Daily Mail approach of saying that every game that remotely has any violence attached to it is nothing but a “murder simulator!” — in fact in the absence of evidence, I am not saying that playing computer games will in anyway negatively impact anyone, but that would be a fairly blinkered approach to take. It is true that violence in games is unlikely to be encouraging people to be more violent — or to put that another way; violence in videogames is likely to encourage a very small number of people into committing violent acts. Games may not be looking to positively promote the murder of others, but they have to, at the very least, add to the level of desensitisation. If this is to be believed, then as technology traverses the uncanny valley and as the in-game character models become more and more lifelike, slowly this becomes more and more of an issue. While it is probably true that we can not always descend to the lowest common denominator (i.e. we should not make the rules based on what the worst of us would do) the games industry as a whole still has a certain responsibility, not just to fans of the medium, but also to those others that might be adversely affected by it.
Perhaps this was part of the thinking behind Sony Santa Monica’s decision to tone down some of the violence from the next God of War game. Given that it is a game fundamental telling the tale of violent and bloody revenge for a man being tricked into killing his own family, where do you draw the line? When interviewed about the subject by IGN, lead designer, David Hewitt said; “[Kratos’] motivation is violent, bloody revenge, and the milieu of mythology puts us in this distant, exaggerated world. We do revel in it somewhat but the violence is there to show Kratos dealing with his demons and enacting that revenge in a very physical, hands-on way.” David Hewitt went on to say; “There are some things we’ve pulled back from. I think where this has been an issue is with violence against women — the team’s pulled back from some of that and assessed that a little more carefully. There are certain things that carry a different kind of resonance that we don’t want to get into. This isn’t about statement-making in that regard. It’s about fleshing out this character.” David Hewitt’s comments shows that it is at least an issue that game designers are becoming more aware of. Although, I know the point he is making and as much as I abhor violence to women, it does seem a little strange to have no reservations to giving carte blanche for Kratos to violently massacre as many people and creatures as possible – just as long as they have a penis.
An interesting and, perhaps more realistic approach to the issue of being a mass murdering “hero” is seen in recent game, Spec Ops: The Line. In which you get to see a view of how a soldier put into a grim reality has his mind warped and adversely affected by the physcological effect of his actions. While elements of the game’s mechanics do not seem to gel all that well with the themes of the story, it did manage to have a certain gravitas to the events and decisions made. I do not know of many people who play through the game without recommending that everyone should see the ending — probably twice, to see it from both sides of the equation. While the story may not be perfect, it certainly does make you consider the implications of your actions, at least in the game and it is difficult to play through without at some point giving consideration to how being forced to make similar decisions in real life could adversely affect someone’s mental state. It may not be bringing the true horrors of war to your living room and the overall message may get a little confused when standing next to mechanics that reward you for kerb-stomping helpless foes, but in the end you certainly feel like more of a mass murderer than a hero – not matter how hard you were trying to be the latter.
*N.B: All movie figures sourced from www.moviebodycounts.com
Tags: Crystal Skull, Darkness, Gears of War, Gears of War 3, god of war, Hardboiled, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, Max Payne, Mortal Kombat, naughty dog, Return of the King, Spec Ops: The Line, Stranglehold, Uncharted, Violence