The Joys and Design of Violence in Your Favorite Video Games
I’m going to be honest: I don’t just like the best shooters out there; I play a fair amount of also-rans as well. I got my PS4 less than a year ago and have been working through the back catalog playing games like Undertale and Bloodborne.
Whenever I find myself wondering why someone I know devotes their time to a pop culture indulgence that doesn’t appeal to me, like reality TV or FarmVille or US Weekly, I try to remind myself that I spend a fair chunk of free time shooting people for fun, so who am I to judge. Because, while there are those high-end shooters for which a strong critical case can be made, there are also plenty I play not because they’re particularly good, but because they are mindlessly fun, which is, I assume, also how people get through a session of FarmVille or Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
I don’t think that playing shooters video games makes me or anyone else I know more likely to be violent in real life – if anything, the games that I worry might bleed over into my real life are driving games (just joking, ha ha ha!). On the other hand, I’m no huge fan of games that are violent for the sake of crudity or meanness (the Postal series springs to mind), but then, the same is true for, say, TV, movies, books, music, or any other form of cultural expression. The difference violence critics point to is the interactivity of games, but I have yet to see convincing evidence that this has pushed us gamers over the edge into hyper-impressionable violent menaces to society.
For the most part, though, my favorite movies and video games aren’t the ones where you mindlessly hack and shoot your way through bodies ad nauseam (there are exceptions to this – I’m looking at you, Dead Alive and Dead Rising). Some of my favorite action movies are the Bourne series, largely because of the tension created by Jason Bourne’s reluctance to kill. By my count, he kills only nine people in the whole trilogy, three of whom we see die in flashbacks from before Bourne’s change of heart (moviebodycounts.com says ten, but they’re counting someone as “mortally wounded” in the second film whom I think could live), but this makes the action – and the kills, when they do come – more impactful.
This got me thinking about non-lethal action in video games. The most obvious candidates are stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, Deus Ex, and Dishonored. I do enjoy ghost runs, but they aren’t quite the same as the Bourne movies. Then there’s Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy, but while it stresses Bourne’s sweet hand-to-hand skills, it also has frequent firefights, and even the hand-to-hand fighting isn’t clearly non-lethal. (That’s not to say that the game isn’t good as a result, just that its style is different than the films’.) What I think come closest are the Batman: Arkham video games, which take the Bourne movies’ non-lethal imperative even further by preventing the player from killing, whereas the Bourne filmgoer never knows when Bourne may be forced into a situation in which lethal violence is his only route to survival (in this sense, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is more Bourne-like in that some boss fights force you to kill, without penalizing you in terms of non-lethal playthrough trophies/achievements since you didn’t have a choice). Arkham and Bourne also share an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat and innovative tactical use of the environment to evade enemies, render them unconscious or, in the Bourne movies, to kill when necessary. There are also some obvious differences between the two series: the Arkham games stress both stealth and brawling more, while the Bourne movies focus on clever long-term cat-and-mouse strategizing and rough-edged car chases.
Could a game mimic the Bourne movie formula of strategy and gritty car chases mixed with non-lethal and, very occasionally, lethal encounters? Well, sure. But my interest here is less to find a game that does exactly what the Bourne movies do – that seems like a rather stupid goal for a blog post as opposed to a game designer – and more to use the comparison to think more about the range of things high-quality games and movies do in terms of violence and lethality. Even when they opt for bloodbaths, I think video games (and movies) are better when they are well-thought-out bloodbaths, when the designers took time to ask why the violence should happen this way. Dead Rising works because the designers realize that the fun of it is in the sheer open-endedness of the project – the game is less open-world than open-armory, and with a bunch of zombies you don’t have to feel about hacking through, that is great fun. Spec Ops: The Line goes the opposite route to problematize the violence the players are engaging in. Shadow of the Colossus has its unique atmosphere because battles are so few and far between, but also epic, exquisitely designed, and memorable. And the Arkham games, like Batman: The Animated Series from the 1990s, stick out because Batman’s restraint amidst a world of sadistic thugs and killers leads to a different kind of fight. The shooters, and brawlers, games like Saints Row The Third, and just games that I like the best aren’t the ones that are more lethal or less lethal, but the ones that know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. How about you – does lethality affect your enjoyment of a video game? Does your sense of how well designed the violence is affect the quality of the experience? Is violence design a concept worth talking about alongside, say, level and character design?