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Altum Videtur avatar 12:02 PM on 06.29.2012
Quest for Blood: How Seeking Ultraviolence Showed Me the Best Side of Videogames

Two violence-related articles in a row? Oh no! Well, at least this one's about nice things; I'll try and find something rainbow-sparkly for next week



During my adolescence, I would constantly preach how videogaming was the current high point of creative potential, combining every layer and facet of human art and multiplying their power by its unique interactive capabilities. I'd go on and on about the subtlety and nuance; the depth and wit; the scope and scale of its greatest landmarks, speaking in tones as excited and passionate as they were awe-struck and reverent.

I'd never admit it then, but I was a lying little shit.

For reasons I'm still unable to fully divine, my mother and father had decided early in my youth that playing Banjo-Kazooie was a thing they would very much like to do, and took it upon themselves to slowly and subtly slide into my apparently-no-longer-impermeable gaming bubble. "Neat," is what I'd thought at the time -- parents who fumble with the controller as if they were trying to pilot a jet and tilt their bodies 60 degrees as they play and bicker over directions like they were on an interstate road trip and secretly look at GameFAQs to try and make me think they'd suddenly discovered how to get to the next world and otherwise fill out the jolly sterility of a gaming stock-photo nearly to the pixel (minus much of the jolliness and sterility) seemed preferable to parents who'd torch anything electric. Family moments were had, memories were inscribed, bonds were bonded, and I got to be the one kicking them off the TV every now and then.

Something went a little wrong, though. After Banjo came Super Mario 64. After that came Banjo-Tooie. Hey, that's fine; three of the best 3D platformers both now and then. Marginally less fun was to be extracted out of Donkey Kong 64, but hardly to the point of alarm. Every now and then we'd play Mario Kart 64, which would lead to lots of flying plastic and pain-threshold noise, reminding us why we don't play Mario Kart 64. But then the cartridge slot found itself occupied by Banjo-Kazooie once again, and thus began a sort of five-year-long time-loop, in which I'd be playing the same four or five games for far longer than was probably healthy.


"A romantic comedy fantasy." Whose fantasy? You know there's somebody

You see, while parents who are at least mildly videogames sure seemed cool, my mother was the kind of person who would have to shoo flies out the window because she couldn't bring herself to swat them, and my father believed the ESRB ratings were literally law. Playing a few platformers had made them just savvy enough that I couldn't gently slide my hand over the bottom-left corner of a game-box and slip even Goldeneye past their protective eyes, but knowledge of little else made them just oblivious enough that they were convinced even a few seconds' exposure to anything more realistic than a bright red bird shitting grenade-eggs would forever 1. scar me for the remainder of my life, placing me into a permanent vegetative state of shock and fear and/or 2. transform me into somebody that'd leave even the hypothetical mutant offspring of Jack Torrance and Mel Gibson shivering in a corner and crying for pappy.

Irony (n.) /ˈaɪ.rə.ni/: This had the precise opposite effect. Shortly after an ill-fated setup where I would have to have Dad enter a password every time I wanted to get on a website, I gained mostly-unrestricted access to The Internet, which led me to quite a bit of gameplay footage of people being shot, smashed, sliced, sautéed, and otherwise massacred in explicitly gory detail. Having been carefully sheltered and shielded from such horrible things my entire life, I found these videos -- and, thus, the games -- as incredibly fascinating and infinitely desirable as they were wholly unattainable.

I found ways to survive. After finally making the case that Star Wars: Dark Forces 3: Jedi Knight 2: Jedi Outcast and its colons wouldn't lead me to cause the immediate murder of every human being in the neighborhood, I scoured (i.e. did a short Google search on) the web for a gore mod. Not finding anything satisfactory led me to pry open the asset archives myself and learn how to re-do particle effects, re-color textures, and re-enable the 14-point-dismemberment system mysteriously present but locked off in the game's code.


I've come a long way since then

While I may have been driven by nothing but juvenile bloodthirst, I had discovered what would become one of my most valuable hobbies: game modding. Other than simply playing the dick out of everything I could get my four-inch hands on, nothing has expanded and enhanced my knowledge of and appreciation for what goes into a videogame more than tearing apart its innards and reassembling its organs and entrails into a digital Frankenstein tailored to my unique desires -- yes, sticking "g_saberRealisticCombat 1" into an autoexec.cfg so I can chop heads off at first, but later transitioning into wholly new effects and weapons. Downloading SDKs and trying to improve the blood FX has since become something of a ritual to which I subject every moddable PC game I buy, taking on less prurient goals if I end up liking the toolset.

Haphazardly patchworking extra murder into my PC games wasn't going to cut it forever, though, and before long, I'd set my sights on acquiring a game box stamped with that elusive "M." The game inside said box? Half-Life 2. Why? Whatever title I chose needed to meet certain criteria:

1. The game must have a downloadable demo I can use to present my case.
2 The game must be M-rated, because that's the whole goddamn point.
3. The game must be very well-received by critics, because that lends considerable legitimacy to my position.
4. The game must be on PC, because any other gaming system besides the GameCube is a blood-spewing deathbox in my parents' eyes.
5. The game's demo must contain sufficient quantities of nonviolent content to make it appear as harmless as possible.
6. The game itself, however, must also contain sufficient quantities of horribly gruesome death, since that's the other goddamn point.

Split between the lengthy opening and the zombie-infested Ravenholm chapter, Half-Life 2's demo fit the bill as if I'd constructed the list around it rather than the other way around. Once I'd confirmed that tearing walking corpses in half by launching sawblades at them satiated my bloodlust well enough -- for that was all I really cared about -- I brought my mother (who was always the more malleable one) to the monitor and began to carefully examine the game's introduction, piecing together how each little stroke and brilliant touch subtly but masterfully intertwined, constructing a vaguely Orwellian future-imperfect which used a harsh clash of…

Starting to sound like something a little more than an excuse to get at some dismemberment?


Who cares about best-in-class worldbuilding when there're ZOMBIES TO KILL

The effort was a success, and I'd sent Dr. Breen crashing down the reactor within 48 hours. With no known homicides appearing in the following months, the hardest barrier was now shattered, and a pattern began to emerge: I'd comb through websites and old Game Informer issues looking for the cream-of-the-M-rated-crop, explain what made each game so great, and watch my collection slowly grow. Here's Deus Ex, in which the player is capable of and rewarded for not taking a single life, highlighting its open-ended and player-driven nature; this one's Bioshock, whose setting and characters are so instantly compelling and engrossing; check out Halo, which couples its breathtaking vistas with a fun, pulpy sci-fi plot; Grand Theft Auto IV isn't cool because you can shoot up prostitutes, but rather because a ludicrous amount of detail is poured into every square inch of architecture, meshing with unprecedented depth in procedural character behavior and a Tarantino-like flair in its wickedly sharp dialogue.

Almost completely unintentionally, I had attuned myself to what makes some of the medium's most beloved works so well-regarded and widely praised; it happened slowly, and, for a time, unconsciously, but my adolescent hard-on for extravagant violence had guided me, crotch-first, directly toward gaming's finest examples. Over several years, my faux-snobbery gradually morphed into honest-to-goodness for-real snobbery, slowly but surely molding my talents, interests, and personality to be thirty times more videogames than I'd have ever thought.

Would I have developed such an ardent and, at times, blind love for our little hobby had my upbringing been a little more lax on age restrictions? Would I still be churning out 1500-word articles about the subject if I'd been able to drill into dino heads in Turok 2 during my formative years? Probably. Would I care as much about its making? About what it can do as much as what it already does? Would I still want to tear apart and examine the nuts and bolts of nearly every game I buy? Probably not; so, for that, thanks, Mom and Dad. Your well-meaning overprotectiveness ended up failing in just the right way, driving me in however roundabout a manner to end up looking for and appreciating mature experiences in the sense of true maturity: not fountains of blood and geysers of curse words, but subtlety and nuance; depth and wit; scope, scale, and the willingness to push things farther and farther in the search for more compelling, meaningful, and plain-ol' fun experiences -- for real this time.


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