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It’s early 2005. My brother has just started working with an experienced mentor at the workplace he intends to make his career. They get along well, so they sometimes talk more casually.
At the time, my brother plays a lot of Halo 2. He’s pretty good at headshots with the BR. He goes on to explain, vividly, how he kills aliens and shoots people in his spare time. His mentor is quiet for a while. “I don’t like stuff like that. Guns and such,” he says after a while.
It’s several minutes before he explains himself:
As a teenager, he got an assault rifle in his hands and was asked to kill people who used to be his neighbours, even his friends. Years before he could legally buy a beer at the pub, he knew what a bullet does to a human body. What a bomb does. How artillery shells sound like. Not in Halo 2, but in the real world, on his own childhood street. Since then, guns and killing, fictional or otherwise, is connected to a strong sense of discomfort. He has a hard time finding entertainment violence in its most graphical incarnations amusing.
These are memories my brother can’t possibly share. Memories that make shooting and violence something much worse than aiming and pulling the right Xbox trigger.
“It’s not about the violence,” my brother says. “It’s more like the score in a soccer match. You get points, and you’re better than the other guy.”
This was paraphrased from an actual conversation. One that reminded me of what all the shooting and killing in the games that I love really represent. Shooting another person in the head - in a game - isn’t a big deal when you do it thousands of times per week. But maybe it should be?
For a majority of game titles, violence is key. To reach your goals, you have to shoot to kill, before they kill you, before someone you’re expected to care about is killed, or for no other reason than that you were put on opposing teams in matchmaking. Gun in hand, you must use it. It’s on the slip covers, it’s in the marketing, it’s everywhere. It goes so far that we attach positive value to words like kill, headshot and loot. Words whose meaning we’d never want to get acquainted with in real life under any circumstances.
However, let’s not rail against violence. That’s not what this is about. Violence can be thrilling, its narrative exciting, and the skills required to master the gameplay can be quite rewarding to attain. We’ve played first-person shooters for decades for reasons other than murder. We’ve played them to win prizes in eSports events, because we enjoyed the sense of mastery they gave us, or because we would kindly get engrossed in a compelling narrative. Same as in other entertainment, the violence is just part of a larger whole.
But we need to talk about violence. Why games wear the violence on their sleeve, and why that is actually a problem.
Game Violence and Other People
In games, you often get violence without context, or even violence with no other purpose than gameplay mechanics. But we still talk about realistic blood effects and weapon handling, even if we’re killing virtual aliens. We care about ballistic trajectories and how effective grenades are, because it’s part and parcel of the military romanticism we’re indulging in, and much of the language is borrowed straight off the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine.
Maybe the most harmful effect in all this is when someone observes our games from outside the hobby and the aggressive behaviours we express. All they typically see is the violence. All they hear is our defensive desperation in protecting that violence. They don’t see the countless hours it takes to master a weapon in Counter-Strike - they see the headshots and blood spatter. It makes our hobby (or job) look shallow and sadistic.
They may see the often one-dimensional exposition that serves little purpose beyond putting a gun or sword in the player’s hands or putting the player in a position where the only route to solution is violent or criminal. They don’t see the long hours of practice or athletic levels of hand/eye coordination you need - they only see the maiming and the murder and the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Simply put, they don’t see my brother being better than the other guy - they see a teenager with an assault rifle.
“Other media is also violent.” This is our first line of defense.
You remember the starting scene from Saving Private Ryan? Lots of people die and there’s blood and guts, and headshots too! Have you read or watched Game of Thrones yet? Lots of violence there! It’s just the nature of entertainment. Games are no different from films, TV or books.
Yes they are.
In fictional literature, which screenwriting and therefore films extrapolate, conflicts can be split into one of three to six very broad categories depending on how specific you want to be. The categories are extensions of the main components of storytelling (characters, setting, and theme), pitted one against another.
You see variations on these all over the place, in literature, but let’s look at them briefly for the sake of argument, and consider how games handle the same types of conflicts.
A conflict of person against person occurs when the interests of two parties collide. When individuals apply for a job or try to get the same prom date. When the knights fight the evil demon, or there’s a turf war between rival gangs. Most games fit here, from Super Mario Bros. to Counter-Strike. It can be as complex or as shallow as the writing allows, though games always tend towards the shallow. I kill Person X, therefore I win. One reason why myriad video games conclude with a bossfight and reserve any semblance of depth for cutscenes is maybe that it’s a very simple manifestation of conflict, and gives a very obvious finale to the hours invested.
Person against nature puts people against the weather, a white whale, or isolated on their own looking to simply survive a hostile environment. The current survival trend would fit here, from DayZ to Ark to Don’t Starve. Narrative can handle this as metaphorical conquests, where games once more tend towards the shallow. You search for food because it says “Hungry” somewhere, or because you don’t want to see the “You Died” screen and be forced to start over. Then you person against person over whatever scraps you can scavenge. Even nature itself is often represented by monsters or zombies, so that the practical survival is also represented as a conflict person against person. If there is subtlety, it’s typically in the ambience rather than the player’s experience.
In person against society, it’s an individual or a group against hate, oppression, or other injustice. Deus Ex and maybe Red Faction would fit here, to some extent, but it’s a category that is rarely represented in gameplay. You’re normally told what the badness is in a cutscene, and then you proceed to person against person against a very practical representation of the problem in the form of an evil corporation or government. There is no 1984 or Fight Club in video games, except by implication, or as interpretations of the most superficial aspects of such works. There is also rarely any ambiguity. There’s usually a bad guy, and you’re the good guy.
There is also person against self. Struggling against depression, making a really tough choice, trying to overcome personal obstacles, or simply beating that record run time on the morning jog. Games rarely venture into this territory in their narrative, but there are some exceptions among more story-oriented games, and every competitive game has a giant serving of this in the longer-term metagame. Arguably, Soma could fit here when it indulges its more philosophical themes, but then the narrative is still external to the player’s own motivation. The story in Soma mostly happens while the player flips switches and turns knobs. (More on Soma later, it’s still a great game.)
The person against technology category can be either a metaphorical depiction of person against society or self, or it can represent arguments for or against specific developments. Some argue that The Terminator is a conservative argument against advanced computing and artificial intelligence. Be that as it may, technology is typically an extension of its inventor and therefore often becomes a conflict person against person. But System Shock and Portal would still fit here, with the artificial intelligences of SHODAN and GLaDOS representing technology as characters with dialogue.
Finally, person against the supernatural generally pits people against gods or other broad concepts of a metaphysical nature. As with technology conflicts, the supernatural tends to represent something else, but strictly mythological stories exist, and the overall theme of Lovecraft’s undying horrors in the widely gamified Cthulhu Mythos can be categorised this way. Of course, games once more tend towards the shallow. They rarely imply mankind’s insignificance in the cosmos, but have you kill tentacled many-eyed fiends instead.
In all forms of western fiction since probably the first stories were told, this focus on conflict is prevalent. The whole point of most stories is for a protagonist to prevail or at least to deliver a fundamental moral lesson. Get the boy. Save the dragon. Kill the evil princess. You show the conflict, you flesh it out along with the characters embroiled in it, and you solve it after overcoming a central obstacle. Setup, confrontation, resolution. Roll credits.
Renown screenwriter Aaron Sorkin phrases it even more directly, calling the main vehicle for conflicts simply “intention and obstacle.” Characters have intentions, they must overcome obstacles to get to them - drama happens as a result. Two characters with the same intention will invariably become each other’s obstacles, and that’s pretty much all that matters.
Sometimes the opposition isn’t clearly defined - it’s just there to represent darkness against the heroes. In The Lord of the Rings, the opposition’s only motivation is that it’s oh-so-evil. In Mass Effect, it does this thing every 50,000 years because reasons.
This means you can kill orcs or the agents of the Reavers because they’re bad, and that’s enough. Same goes for pretty much all epic fantasy games as well. Not to mention the space opera, super hero, or pulp adventure brands of oh-so-evil, where the opposition becomes a caricature in its unwillingness to see reason and its motivations are muddled in vague and often spiritual handwaving.
These are shallow conflicts that normally serve to bring out the characters rather than the story or plot. You care more for Spider-Man or Rey than however they solve their predicaments. Even if the villains can be quite iconic in their own right, they’re mostly foils for the heroes. Like every Yang needs a Yin.
But the problem is - games are often even shallower than this. In many games, conflict and theme are one and the same. Mankind’s war against the Covenant in Halo. Mankind’s war against the Locust in Gears of War. Nathan Drake’s war against the populations of Russia and Shangri-La in Uncharted 2. Mankind’s war against the Blight in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Mankind’s World War II. Mankind’s war for no other reason than you have a gun in your hands when the tutorial loads.
A myriad of wars and battles throughout fictional and real histories, where the conflict is always resolved using physical force and the player is chosen to be caught in the middle as the sole savior. It can often seem like a story about swords or rifles more than a story about characters. There is very rarely a resolution in sight, which renders most of the traditional forms of conflict useless. You can’t win. You can’t conclude anything. You can just kill everyone in the room and go to the next room, because it’s the only way to progress. Your intention is go on, and your obstacle is whoever stands in your way. Why? Because you’re a soldier/hero/criminal/police/terrorist, and you follow orders/convictions/GUI waypoints. Barring how that angle is problematic ever since World War II ended, it’s also lazy both as world building and as writing or direction.
Looking at the world wars, for example, with their world-changing political themes and endless lists of films both acclaimed and controversial, games rarely go beyond the soldier taking orders. An effective illustration of how games generally stay as shallow as they can and focus on the repetitive mechanics. If there is any heavy subject matter, it’s handled in cutscenes before and after Johnny gets his gun. Many games throw in a famous quote or two, as if to accentuate or moralise over the death and destruction, but all it does is remind us how disconnected we are from the violence.
Presentation of Death
In most games, enemies simply fall over as if an off-switch is flipped. Barring a yell of agony, characters don’t ever die, they just stop running their AI behaviours and turn to ragdolls. There might be blood, bone, or even lost limbs, but we don’t perceive this as part of anything but a posthumous spectacle. It’s often just the cue that tells us the enemy is actually dead, and won’t stand back up. A flashing cross in the middle of our screen or an exploding head doesn’t really matter - it’s interface.
In John Cleese’s most recent (and allegedly last) tour, one of his many brilliant anecdotes was about violence in comedy. What he’d found was that it was entirely about context. The black knight’s expression while shrugging off the loss of his arm as a “flesh wound” makes people laugh. If he’d started crying and praying, vomited, and reacted with any kind of realism, it had elicited an entirely different response. People would’ve become uncomfortable, and the reality of the character’s pains would’ve become obvious.
This same anecdote is something that illustrates how games normally handle death. It’s something you can shrug off, because the enemies don’t respond to the violence. They’re just gone, as if they were no more relevant than Pac-Man’s biscuits.
Non-Violence in Games
There are of course many games that aren’t violent at all. Puzzle games, simulators, racing games, and a mix of genres that don’t need conflicts of force to remain compelling. But there are also games that are true exceptions to the norm. Games that do something a little differently.
Let’s look at some of those games, and sample the difference it makes with a change of perspective.
Thief: The Dark Project
Though the visuals may not have aged too well, Thief still takes narrative and player motivation much more seriously than any other series to date (in my opinion). The strongest feature set of the game revolves around avoiding contact with enemies, remaining hidden in the shadows and moving quietly through the levels. You sneak on thick carpets and take out torches with water arrows. By turning the player’s objective from confrontation to avoidance, it challenges every assumption of players of first-person games.
No discussion of alternatives to violence would be complete without the iconic Planescape: Torment. Though the game definitely requires combat in traditional CRPG ways for the most part, it often allows dialogue to take its place. You can talk your enemy into not attacking you, or you can convince the enemy to change the outcome of the scene. This holds true even at the very end of the game, where you can end without killing the boss. For its time, this was quite revolutionary, and it’s still a great example of taking genre tropes and turning them on their head. Not only in the context of violence.
Spec Ops: The Line
As in every other third-person shooter, Spec Ops has you running from cover and emptying clip after clip into enemy soldiers. Superficially, it’s no different from any other game of its genre. But it does deal with the consequences of your violent actions, forcing the player to consider what’s actually happening. This generally happens as a story moment right after a forced decision, decreasing the impact of the choice itself, but it’s nonetheless quite effective as a brief reminder of what the gameplay actually represents.
With John Carpenter’s movie as its inspirational foundation, The Thing has many features that are based on psychological effects rather than violence. Many of these features are diminished by bugs or by events happening at predefined points in the story, but they are well worth mentioning. An example is from early in the game, where you meet an injured man who really doesn’t trust you. To earn his trust, you can give him a medpack, which he sorely needs, and you can even give him a gun. You can also point a gun in his face and tell him to get his shit together, but then you should be careful before you turn your back to him since it’s quite well established that he doesn’t trust you. These situations are incredible, and range from handling suicidal panic to forcing your team to cope with revulsion, and though the game doesn’t quite achieve what it sets out to do, the interactive nature of these scenes and the ideas behind them are worthy of an honorable mention.
The Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth
Technically, Dark Corners of the Earth is a first-person shooter. But for the first few hours, you don’t have access to a gun. You’re carefully examining a strange village that feels increasingly unsettling the more you explore it, until you’re finally chased through a rotting hotel with the whole village intent on your death. Once you do get access to a gun, you never feel powerful. There are no HUD elements for aiming or for telling you how much ammo you have, so you have to tread lightly every step of the way. The trappings are the same as in most FPS games, but the presentation is completely different. It’s not a power fantasy - it’s a horror game. In the same way Thief challenges FPS assumptions in its own way, the same is true of Dark Corners of the Earth.
I Am Alive
One of the more interesting mechanics in I Am Alive is the ability to coerce enemies by aiming at them. You can do this to save ammo, or to set up a scene in such a way that you can finish an enemy or two before they have time to react to your hostile intent. Unfortunately, most scenes must end in violence at one point or another. It’s hard to avoid combat entirely. Because of this, the coercion mechanic becomes little more than a tool to set things up in your favour. But it adds one more stage from the use of force continuum than most games have.
Frictional Games has more copycats than maybe any other genre developer. But Soma is a game in its own class. The focus on atmosphere and story permeates the whole experience and makes it one of the most enthralling horror and science fiction games ever made. It uses menial busywork as filler during conversations between the game’s protagonists, much like a noir femme fatale would smoke a cigarette, and leaves your interaction with the game’s sparsely placed monsters as blood-pumping chases or slow-paced stealth. If anything, it could benefit from fewer monsters. It effectively sidesteps the need for combat and death by telling a compelling interactive story and inviting you to explore its atmosphere.
Like few other games, Undertale asks you to pay attention. Read the description of your foes and see if force is really the best option, or if you can compliment them, threaten them, or simply walk away rather than use force at all. Though mostly about matching words and having fun with quirky conversations, Undertale manages to be very different from similar games by turning expectations on their head. In this way, it’s not all that dissimilar from Planescape Torment, but with fewer RPG tropes to muddy its presentation.
Nathan Drake killed 2,925 people in my playthrough of the first three Uncharted games recently. By way of reference, Indiana Jones killed 67 through four feature films. But there’s usually context that tells us why Dr. Jones kills someone, where Nathan Drake is mostly just following a breadcrumb trail of enemies that always feel more or less out of place and always keep coming, no matter how many that die or whether it’s in a secret London bunker or some lost city in a remote location.
I don’t mind that people die in entertainment. They’re the bad guys, usually. But I think we need more games that explore what violence really means, what consequences it has, and the fact that we end up representing death as loosely and easily as if heads were eggs in an omelet. The Finnish sniper dubbed the “White Death” by the Red Army had 505 confirmed kills in a major war: Nathan Drake trumps that several times over in just a few hours.
More games should experiment with how death is represented, how violence is used, and what meaning a weapon may have to a story. Maybe it’s as simple as asking why we kill who we kill rather than how, as we work on our new sales pitch or hobby prototype. Maybe it’s building ideas around implied violence rather than physical force. Maybe it’s about giving the player the choice to put the gun down or to just aim at the enemy without pulling the trigger.
How about a game where the last three enemies in a firefight put down their weapons and surrender, so you must handle prisoners of war? A game where you have to take therapy sessions after discharging your firearm, and if you fail, you don’t get your gun back? Games where the ammo you carry at the start is all the ammo you’ll ever have, so that you’ll have to think more carefully about how you use it? A whole story about finding and capturing a single dragon in a fantasy world, rather than running a fantasy pest control service?
For creative reasons, it would be incredibly interesting to see what happens when games no longer rely on repetitive uses of force, but delve into more serious subject matter, and proceed to take those subject matters seriously.
I think the problem is that we don’t see the violence for all the killing.