9 people die in the Shakespeare’s story of Hamlet. At least 3 die in Romeo and Juliet. One of Shakespeare’s earlier works, Titus Andronicus, is also quite the gore-fest. In The Odyssey the hero violently kills monsters and men alike. In Rome men fought and died to the cheers and jeers of a crowd. A game of Chess is an analogue of a war. And today we wonder if we really need violence to tell stories in our videogames.
The simple answer to the simple question is that we don't. The simple answer is we do not have to ask a player, even allow him, to act out a story as a walking arsenal. Whether we tell more interactive tales like Dear Esther or create tension without any empowerment like in Amnesia, games do not necessarily need to coerce the player to violence in order to work as they do. Even games where the story and atmosphere come second to gameplay don't need to have violent players, ranging from any myriad of puzzle games like Bejeweled or the pure skill and reflex asked of a player in a game like Super Hexagon. Violence is not a necessity to the creation of interactive experiences. We don't need it.
But we do want it.
We don't need violence to tell all our stories, but we shouldn't feel that we need to limit ourselves to none-violent stories for anybodies sake. Violence is part of our culture and society. It makes stories more accessible. Perhaps we look down on it, but violence, on some level, is something that most people in the target audience understand on some level, if only because its so ubiquitous in all our media. Skyrim's Dovahkin was not the first to slay a dragon. Our heroes have been slaying monsters since we had heroes. Before the Greeks gave humanity it dialogues and philosophy, it already had countless stories of adventure, heroes, villains and violence. Violence is something so base and primitive, that even as we complicate it, and make it more terrifying, that the tame version locked inside the monitor is still something that many people can still have simple emotional reactions too. Humans have adrenaline and violence and videogames use that as one of many ways to tap that for a sense of excitement, to give the player a very base thrill.
We don't need violence to tell all our stories, but we do need to use it if we are to create art that reflects the world around us. Life is cruel, though often we create frameworks to emphasize that cruelty, such as in Dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds. You could consider the various twists and terrible actions of The Walking Dead, but I prefer to think of a game I actually bought and played, The Organ Trail. In many ways, the narrative of the zombie apocalypse is one meant to give the audience a sense of comfort, that of having acceptable targets for that very base aggression. Why is okay to come up with creative ways to kill hundreds, hopefully thousands, of creatures in Dead Rising? Because those creatures are zombies, and zombies are going to eat everyone's brains if we don't. But consider the action of putting down a teammate in The Organ Trail. The violence is here, even in pixels, is rather outrageous. Would you really be able to mercy-kill a friend? Is what you are doing really mercy-killing, since you don't really know if an infected person is going to turn until its too late. A player is so afraid, though, of that other option that they can personally aim and fire their rifle, wasting one good unit of ammo, to quell their fears, and so these infected do not get in the players way later. And that is how things are. That world, terrible as it is, is still based on the real one, and understanding that on this side too people do mercy-kill and abandoned and terrible things happen. It may be just a game, but as just a game we made its part of the reflection on us.
One of the complaints I've heard critics raise about Infinite is how unlike in the first Bioshock, the standard enemies are just policemen, zealots yes, but not really deserving of all the gun and skyhook and vigor based violence you bring upon them. But whether or not they deserve it as much as the addicts in rapture is a question already decided upon. If Infinite means to capture, or even criticize the idealization of Americana, then violence is certainly going to play a part. A Texan friend of mine told me that in Texas, you shoot first and ask questions later. That is a real part of our culture. Not every American shares this view, but it does exist. Violence has a place in a more mature version of a videogames because if art does reflect reality in anyway, then that art is going to on more than a few occasions be rather violent.
We don't need violence to tell all our stories, but that doesn't change that fact, that since its so accessible, it can be used to reach into feelings we enjoy. The Punch-Out series is my choice in example here. Here we don't have bloodshed, or gore, or scary noises, just one-on-one not really clean fights. Even in that, we create an allegory that is so easily accessible because violence is just so easy for humans to understand. Every Punch Out fight is an escalating David vs. Goliath, the smart outsmarting the strong and predictable. In learning the patterns of their opponents, players create an allegory of the hardworking and smart using their mind to outwit their opponents, with each KO of an opponent giving the satisfying reward of a strong thud of the ground, while trying to muscle through most fights, disobeying the narrative, only leads to the muffle of blocks and whiffs of an opponent dodging. Throw in the less honorable opponents, and now you have the additional allegory of the virtuous and fair beating the dishonorable knave. Sure there are other ways of creating the same set of messages without violence, such as in the Ace Attorney Series, but then we run into new problems of a game over-relying on text. As far as creating an experience where the players input tells a story of good versus bad, and noble versus ruthless, a set of fights cans still make the player feel not to different from thousands upon thousands of words.
We don't need violence to tell our stories, but of course we are going to use it. That does not mean we shouldn't question our use of it. But I think reactions of over-reliance on it are coming from a rather sheltered view point. Games are not special for over-reliance on violence. The movies that become popular are the ones with the violence. Some of those movies know what to do with the violence and others don't. The same can be said for books, though we don't notice it as much in literature simply because there is so to read and it has been around for so long. Are games special for putting the player in the role of the violence-doer? I suppose that is up for debate, but I rather doubt it. There have for a very long time been characters meant to be blank-slates for self-insertion. Maybe its not an idea everyone is comfortable place, but the world is not a safe place, and its residents are not peaceful. That reflects in our art and in our culture, and games should be part of both.