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Making violent games in a violent country
Making violent games in a violent country Exclusive
August 3, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

August 3, 2012 | By Eric Caoili
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    12 comments
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Exclusive



When decapitated victims and bullet-ridden bodies are familiar stories in local news reports -- not just highlighted features for the latest shooter -- how does that affect the way game makers approach violence?

Video games are often more than just showcases of the latest graphics and design ideas; for many triple-A developers, they're also opportunities to flaunt the latest advancements in virtual violence, new ways to show how the human body crumples from a close-range shotgun blast, or how a whole person can be turned into a limbless torso with a few slashes.

When you live in El Salvador, though, where that kind of terror is real and happening on the streets, those games and their gore might not seem so appealing. The small Central American country has the second highest per capita murder rate in the world due to its pervasive gang violence, and killers there often carry out executions with the utmost brutality.

"We see things differently," says independent developer Sergio Rosa, who has grown up in that environment. His exposure to so much violence hasn't compelled him to create games devoid of blood, but it's had a considerable impact on the tone of experiences he hopes to convey at his studio The Domaginarium.

"We can come up with different ideas on how to portray violence in games, and also figure out ways to make other people understand [our experiences]," Rosa explains. That's what The Domaginarium's hoping to do with Enola, one of nine games looking to pick up funding from Kickstarter as an indie bundle.

Enola is a horror/adventure title that has players following the trail of a serial killer who tortures his victims. Rosa wants players to "see what this person does and say, 'Oh my God, that was sick,' not 'Oh my God, that was cool.' I want the exact opposite to what violence is in games most of the time, where you think it's cool to kill people."


Screenshot from an Alpha build of Enola

To invoke that disgust in players, he believes it's imperative for Enola to have a human antagonist, not a monster or alien creature without the same morality or value for life that people are supposed to have. And as a horror game, he says there are few things scarier than what other humans are capable of doing to each other.

"[With some of the violence here], everyone in this country goes, 'It takes a really sick person to do that,'" he adds. "When people are found inside plastic bags without their heads or limbs, everyone says, 'It takes a really sick person because it wasn't enough to kill someone. The killer wanted to show us how brutal he was.'

"So I came up with this idea of having brutal games, but not in the sense of you are the tough guy beating up everyone, rather you are the innocent guy seeing other guys doing all this bad stuff. From that change of perspective gameplay-wise, the way you react to the world will hopefully be different."

Humanity and The Last of Us

While growing up in a country fraught with vicious crime has left Rosa not wanting to celebrate killing in games, he's not out to condemn Western shooters and other games filled with blood, and he's made personal exceptions for some of the most violent titles.

"My biggest problems with violence in games may come from those that focus on violence on humans rather than those that focus on violence on zombies or things that don't actually exist," he explains. It's one thing to dismember a person, and it's another to do the same to a necromorph in Dead Space.

He wasn't incensed over the game many took issue with at E3 a few months ago, Naughty Dog's newest project The Last of Us -- the action/survival title's demonstration at the expo seemed to glorify savagery, eliciting cheers from conference attendees as human enemies were stabbed, pistol-whipped, hit with bricks, choked, set on fire, and finally, shot in the face point-blank.


Rosa points out that The Last of Us' premise is you're guiding and protecting a 14-year-old through a post-apocalyptic world full of desperate and dangerous survivors. You have to take the lives of others to do that, but he argues that the feelings it evokes could be very different from typical shooters: "I don't feel good about doing it, but I have to do this because if I don't, they will kill me and will kill this young girl. I have to protect us from these guys."

He contrasts that experience with another game shown off at E3, Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist. "It focused on violence as well, but that's a different kind of focus because you're a soldier, and you're killing all these people because you were trained to and you're the tough guy, and you are capable of doing it just because," he says.

It's a different approach that Rosa thinks developers should be mindful of, if they want to show violence that's more than just a way to satisfy players' bloodlust and power fantasies. "If you design it well, you won't feel like 'I am so tough because I killed a hundred soldiers,' but rather, 'Man, I have to do this because if I don't my family is going to die. It connects with your mind in a very different way.'"

[Sergio Rosa, along with other game makers in perilous countries, shared more of his thoughts on what it's like to create games amidst so much violence in Gamasutra's recent "Wartorn Developers" feature.]


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Comments


Harlan Sumgui
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Great article, and I'm glad some developers are looking at how to contextualize violence. But it seems to me that most in the industry see violence as a necessary prerequisite for sales (sports and fitness games excluded). This is of course, bull.

Nintendo proves time and time again that absolutely fantastic games that millions love do not need violence to sell. But I fear they are unique in the business.

And is it any wonder the media latch onto gaming whenever a tragedy occurs when scenes like this occur: "eliciting cheers from conference attendees as human enemies were stabbed, pistol-whipped, hit with bricks, choked, set on fire, and finally, shot in the face point-blank."

Jonathan Carruthers
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Nintendo does a great job and is, of course, unique but not in the sense that they don't "need violence to sell" games.

The reason some parts of the media "latch onto gaming" is nothing more than just lazy reporting. The prevalence of violence in games is not an aberration, it fits perfectly with many other mass mediums. The adages "sex sells"and "if it bleeds it leads" hint at societal phenomena that have been discussed and researched by people much more qualified than I am.

Also, if you watch the video in the article, there are two notable cheers from the audience. One occurs at the end of a sequence in which the girl the protagonist is protecting stands up and bails him out of a tricky situation and the other after the final enemy is defeated and the demo finishes with the game's title. I would argue that most of the audience was not cheering simply out of blood-lust due to graphic-violence but for the relative rarity in games of the little girl becoming a strong character and for their approval of the demo as a whole respectively.

Finally, make the games you want to make, play the games you enjoy.

John Evans
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So..."conference attendees cheered as human enemies were stabbed, pistol-whipped, hit with bricks, choked, set on fire, and finally, shot in the face point-blank"...and Rosa is trying to make a game where people DON'T want to see violence? Does ANYONE think that will actually work?

Ardney Carter
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"...If you show your victims clearly suffering..."
I think the issue with that approach is people will (for the most part) either refuse to play it because they find it disgusting or they will actually enjoy the simulation of human suffering and I don't get the impression that those in the latter group were what Rosa was targetting.

Ardney Carter
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I can see that, certainly. Though given the quote in John's post we then have to think about who the audience is. There are obviously people who like the graphic violence and there are people who avoid it. Are there a sizable number of people in the middle group who 'may actually weigh the ethics of murder' in such a game and would find that dillemma motivation enough to purchase it? And that raises some interesting questions about how to market such a game.

"Look at all these people you can opt NOT to kill, resulting in no gore animations whatsoever!"

Don't misunderstand, I'm not disagreeing with you. Just thinking out loud about the implications of attempting such a game. Regardless, I'm certainly not going to argue against more developers attempting to implement non-lethal approaches for resolving challenges into their games as I agree it's done too rarely in the medium.

Kevin Fredericks
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Some people have morbid fascinations with violence, and feel excited by it without necessarily celebrating the suffering that is intrinsic within it. There are basic truths revealed by savagery and brutality that provoke us beyond an ethical perspective, and I think this developer is working to provoke a much subtler reaction than outright disgust.

Kevin Fishburne
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@Daniel who said, "It could be done. You'd just have to humanize your enemies. If you show your victims clearly suffering, that could do the trick. No clean kills. Maybe have them beg for their lives. That could be intensely disturbing."

That's what I'll be doing for my project, though out of necessity. It's a realistic MMORPG with permadeath, so one of the ways I'm mitigating griefing is exactly this strategy. It will simulate the circulatory and skeletal systems, muscle groups and major organs. Mostly the reality of the violence will be communicated by audio however. Players can have have children and such, so stabbing someone in the streets, seeing them cry out and try to get away, then seeing their children rush outside crying, "Daddy, daddy!" will hopefully knock some sense into the typical MMO player. Good luck with that, right? There will be paid guards and vigilante justice as well, just in case. :)

Kellam Templeton-Smith
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Enola sounds pretty interesting, but to work, it'd have to be something more like Dear Esther (maybe with some mild interactive flourishes). As soon as you start addressing player agency, the majority of gamers will blithely hack and murder their way through it as the point of least resistance.

I'll happily say (as it'd be years before I can tackle a project of this nature and scale, and would love if someone went this route) that I'd love a game in the Deus Ex/Fallout/Dishonored sort of vein where choosing a diplomatic/pacifist route doesn't mean running through the same corridors and dungeons merely avoiding enemies, but offering an entirely different subset of gameplay. Say rather than having to bribe your way into a warehouse and then stealthing through it, you could choose to avoid that entire scenario, and discover the necessaries in a different method.

This is something LA Noire failed miserably on-the plot offered us all these character driven moments with the occasional shootout, and then sidequests basically boiled down into ludicrous shooting galleries that completely detract from the atmosphere of the game.

Jack Mahogany
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Would humanizing your enemies make killing them that much more intense? While I would find it disturbing, there are plenty of people who would probably enjoy it. I just feel that making the killings even more realistic, by giving the enemy a face and having the player choose if this person should live or die, actually moves closer to real violence - all while disgusting players like myself and playing even more into certain people's "power fantasies". I think the real sickoes would get a kick out of strangling the homeless man they just heard trying to reconnect with his daughter.

Carlo Delallana
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It depends on the individual but it's more about the consequence of killing rather than the depiction that might move us forward. Take a game like DayZ, a very open game with few rules. Yet killing other players is usually a last resort. A kill could give you more loot, but it also removes a potential partner that can help you survive longer. Your reputation suffers for unwarranted kills, the community becomes wary of you and may decline to help, even act aggressively towards you.

Eva Roberts
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As a veteran who as actually been to war and loves FPS, i think the important thing to remember is it is just a game. Shooting at AI's or other players in a virtual world is very different than real life. I'm not sure when the parallel happened but I have enjoyed FPSs since Doom. But I always knew I could reset, or come back to life. In real life that isnít an option and I think as developers and gamers we need to make sure we know the difference and let other people know. I also love Mortal Kombat when it first came out even though my mom didnít want to buy it for me. But she was active enough to let me know it wasnít how life really worked. Iím not sure games really glorify violence because thatís not what I get from it but Iím only one person. Killing AIís is an enjoyable past time. Having to do the same to another human being is totally different and I think we need to let people know that. If it wasnít common sense already. Just my thoughts but Iím open to more suggestions.

Eva Roberts
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Hi Eric I know this post was put out long ago, but I am just getting into game design and while I don't mind peopel expressing themselves I just saw something that really disappointed me.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhwk6Ulj3WI&feature=relmfu

This is pretty bad and hurtful buy any respect.


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