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Earlier this year, in the midst of reading over some statistics about how violent imagery in games affects players, I found myself wondering how they affect the people who make them.
We regularly celebrate the artists and animators who pepper games with the lovely and the magnificent; I rarely hear much about the people who spend their days creating the gruesome, disgusting, and just plain gross aspects of contemporary games.
I’m not just thinking of horror games here -- developing even an austere sci-fi shooter like Halo requires that some folks on the team spend significant amounts of time poring over pretty gruesome reference material in order to create disquieting monsters and levels.
To do their jobs well, some developers spend a surprising amount of time studying disgusting material for their day job; they’re rarely celebrated, and it’s even rarer that they talk openly about how their work affects them personally. While I don’t have any meaningful stats to share on this topic, I do have some stories to share that help shed some light on what it can be like to be an artist or animator assigned to viscera detail on a big project.
"What I thought was neat at first really came to bear down on me."
Former Halo artist Vic DeLeon has seen some of the more gruesome aspects of his day job spill over into his personal life. While working on Halo 3 as an environment artist, DeLeon found himself tasked with helping to create a level in which players explore a Covenant ship infested by the parasitic Flood (two such levels would make it into the final game).
"I took two weeks to gather a bunch of different reference images: scientific stuff, biological stuff, a lot of just really gross stuff,” recalls DeLeon. "We wanted a lot of long stringy tunnels, and I'd gotten the idea of looking at colonoscopy videos for reference. So I was watching all these colonoscopy videos to get ideas on what I could do to mimic their style, that feeling of being inside something."
The Flood-infested "Cortana" level from Halo 3
DeLeon didn’t stop there, either; the former Halo dev says he started studying images of tumors and other lesions in order to get an idea of how to texture and sculpt in-game surfaces, then took a “deep dive” into mycology reports to study the grossest mushrooms and slime molds he could find.
“I remember looking at different types of gross biological things and saying ‘Okay, we can integrate this, and that...but not that,’ and then later in the day I would suddenly start thinking about these super-gross images, just...out of nowhere,” says DeLeon. “My tolerance is pretty high, but I would still, all of a sudden, just be overcome with nausea. It was a rough couple of weeks.”
Like other artists I’ve spoken to, DeLeon says he was surprised at how studying this sort of repugnant reference material led to a change in his mental state. Despite feeling like he has a higher-than-average tolerance for disgusting images (“I was a bio major in college”), the artist found these images seeping into his day-to-day life.
“They’d come up when I was least expecting it. Something would just pop into my head -- an image or something -- and for a while there I felt...I wouldn’t say traumatized, but haunted, like when you’re a kid and you see something really disgusting or gory or scary in a movie,” says DeLeon. “I started associating that level with feeling disgusting. Once it was built it took months and months of polishing, and in those months I couldn’t wait to work on something else. The level was so disgusting, and what I thought was neat at first really came to bear down on me.”
DeLeon’s fellow developers weren’t unsympathetic, either, though they eventually also learned to steer clear of his desk if they didn’t want to ruin their lunch.
“People would walk by my desk and just like shudder, or scream,” says DeLeon, recalling that it became a standing office joke that people would avoid looking at his monitor while passing or visiting his desk. “I was working on that level for eight months! So for eight months, people had to step real careful around me.”
"I was working on that level for eight months! So for eight months, people had to step real careful around me."
While DeLeon moved on to work on other projects, his strategy for coping with the mental stress of working on that Flood level wound up evolving into a permanent part of his personal life.
“I started looking at other scary images, but images that weren’t particularly gross, gory or gruesome...classic stuff like Frankenstein, or the old Romero Night of the Living Dead stuff,” says DeLeon. “I tried to look at those things and get back in touch with my childhood fears, because at least I can manage that. I figured if I could reintroduce some of the old stuff that used to scare me into my mind, maybe some of the new stuff wouldn’t affect me so strongly.”
And it worked -- sort of. DeLeon’s coping mechanism grew into a renewed fascination with classic horror, and he began posting a vintage horror image to Twitter every night before bed. People kept asking for more, and now the spooky image post is part of DeLeon’s evening ritual.
“I’m telling you man, it’s now been six years of me, every night, posting a scary picture on my Twitter account at 10 o’clock,” says DeLeon. When I ask him if he’s sleeping better or worse in the years since he started the ritual, he answers without a moment's hesitation. “Better, for sure. I’ve completely desensitized myself to this stuff now. I’m the proud owner of a human kidney.”
“It’s a long story,” DeLeon says, with a laugh. He explains that a friend in New York was going through a collection of university cast-offs that had gone to auction, and spotted a misshapen fleshy thing in a jar. Knowing DeLeon’s background as a biology major and his fascination with oddities, he gave the artist a ring.
“He didn’t know what it was, or that it was a human kidney, and $100 later...I’m now the proud owner of a preserved kidney,” says DeLeon. “I had some weird stuff before, for sure, but I’d like to think that I took it to the next level and became even weirder thanks to working on that level.”
Animator Steve Bowler, by contrast, says his time spent animating fatalities and “X-Ray” attacks in NetherRealm’s 2011 Mortal Kombat didn’t have a meaningful adverse affect on his life.
“A lot of the time, while we’re working on these things, there’s this degree of separation,” he tells me. As a Mortal Kombat animator he mostly found himself working with the actual character model of an attacker and just a blank, featureless male or female model (“we called it ‘Naked Guy’”) in place of the victim.
“So while the motions and stuff were gruesome and violent, we had this detachment because it was like, ‘well, I’m just attacking this plain dude.’ Even though I’m ripping his arm off, it’s clean; there’s no gore, there’s no blood,” says Bowler. “It’s almost like the system we created to just get through the work also sort of protected us from the hyper-violent, disgusting aspects of it."
An X-Ray attack in Mortal Kombat 9
I tell him about DeLeon’s deep dive into colonoscopy videos, and over the phone I can almost hear Bowler wince. “I think artists have it the worst,” he says, and tells the story of how even the most grisly sequences can appear outlandish and cartoony from an animator’s perspective.
"The system we created to just get through the work also sort of protected us from the hyper-violent, disgusting aspects of it."
“An animator next to me worked on a disembowelment animation for an MK9 fatality, and the intestines he was animating were basically just represented as a chain of bones, because it was the only way we had to animate them,” recalls Bowler. “The end result was really gruesome; people would see it and say ‘Oh my god, that looks horrible.’ But to the animator working on it, it was just an abstraction. Whereas the artist on that, he had to painstakingly model that intestine.”
Still, Bowler suggests that working on hyper-violent games for sustained periods of time desensitizes you as a person, even if you aren’t an artist or an animator. He compares it to an Andy Warhol exhibit that once came through Chicago (I believe he’s remembering Warhol’s Death and Disaster series) which guided visitors through a series of increasingly more shocking and gruesome images of accident scenes.
“The whole point of the exhibit, other than the shock value, was to funnel you through so you saw these things in a specific order,” he says. “By the time you came out the other end, you were totally desensitized; Warhol could put the most disgusting and gruesome images at the end, and it wouldn’t shock you anymore.”
Bowler suggests that perhaps everyone who works on a violent game goes through something like that. You learn to deal with it if you want to work on these projects, he says, or you leave and work on something else. And that’s okay. Especially if you’re an artist, an animator...or a sound designer.
“The guys I always feel the worst for are the cinematic artists, because they have to make sure that like, each bone is cracking in a realistic way,” he says. “Even the audio guys probably have a bit of like, PTSD, because they have to spent all this time carefully picking out and putting in all these gory, juicy, crunchy, eviscerating sound effects.”
Artist, animator and occasional Gamasutra blogger Mike Jungbluth says he’s experienced both sides of this phenomenon during his career in game development, which encompasses work at Raven, Monolith Productions and Deep Silver Volition.
“When it comes to working on violent animations, especially melee takedown animations using knives or other weapons, there’s often a large disconnect between the reality of the action and the [animator’s] creative process,” he recently told me via email. Like any craftsperson, animators can be fiercely competitive when it comes to the quality of their work, and Jungbluth says game animators often approach violent sequences as fun challenges that focus on perfecting the physicality, the visual fidelity, and the performance. “With each sequence, each animator is trying not only to outdo their last effort, but those of the other animators on the team. It becomes less about the violence, and more about the spectacle and the ability of the animator.”
"I pretty much just shut down emotionally, not really talking to coworkers or my wife."
While Jungbluth’s experiences back up Bowler’s point -- that game animators often have an easier time not thinking about what they’re working on because they’re typically working with outlandish, abstract models and not realistic viscera -- he also shared a story about how contemplating the realities of what he was animating had a profound (if mostly temporary) affect on his personal life.
“I was working on a game that was going to have someone publicly hanged,” he tells me. The plan was to motion-capture an actor playing the part of an in-game character pleading before their execution, but Jungbluth still had to actually animate the character dropping, swinging and hanging. “I had to look up reference material of people being hung, to accurately convey the physicality of the action. And after a day of watching people being hung, I was definitely affected.”
Jungbluth says he did his best to look at his work abstractly, trying to approach the act of virtually hanging someone as a purely academic exercise in how force transfers between the rope and the neck, but he couldn’t keep thoughts and images of actual hangings out of his head.
“I pretty much just shut down emotionally, not really talking to coworkers or my wife,” he recalls. “I wouldn’t say it had any long-term psychological toll once I finished the sequence, [but] it certainly makes me less willing to empathize with the victims of takedown animations since.”
Empathy, of course, is the common thread here. If game developers could just selectively shut down their ability to empathize with other people, working on even the most violent and gruesome projects would be unremarkable. But Jungbluth does something unexpected at the end of his email: he brings up Destructive Creations' Hatred, citing it as an example of how empathizing with victims in violent games might make people more sensitive to human suffering.
“That’s one place I think Hatred has succeeded: in making players and viewers empathize with the victims,” writes Jungbluth. “While most games feature violence, Hatred successfully makes you feel the effects of it. It puts an honest, emotional face to the victim.”
His point is predicated on the notion that since Hatred requires players to take on the role of an abominable monster of a man, the game is built (intentionally or not) to elicit sympathy for the victims instead of sympathy for the protagonist.
I don't think he's advocating for more games like Hatred, but I do think his point about developers' power to elicit empathy through game design -- to give sympathetic traits to otherwise faceless characters -- is worth thinking about.