Wow. Have I seriously been gaming since the Intellivision?
Currently I own a Wii, XBox360, and a gaming laptop (I know because it had a sticker of Marcus Fenix on it when I bought it.) I work in tech support and manual writing for a non-profit organization and teach courses in audio and music recording and production as an adjunct professor.
I went to school to study singing and music composition, which I do as often as I can. Lately, that's meant much more singing, but I write slow anyway.
This is gruesome. I'm going to talk about rape and the murder of children and innocents. I'm upsetting myself writing it, so please click away if you don't want to do this. Or use The Other Button.
You will also be faced with potential spoilers for MW2, Prey, Rule of Rose, [prototype], and Edmund as well as the films The Hills Have Eyes and Dead Girl. Almost all the images I could find were blatantly sexual. I think that's fitting in some horrible way, so I'll go with it.
There is a point in all people where they get squicked. A line, that when crossed spills over into tastelessness. Diff'rent strokes for diff'rent strokes means this line is entirely subjective and is going to change throughout your entire life. I saw a good example of this on bloodydisgusting.com in the write up for the Alexdre Aja remake of "The Hills Have Eyes" uncut edition in which the reviewer, a writer for a gorehound website, describes the movie as having gone too far in a sequence in which a woman is raped while a gun is held to her infant child's head and another in which a teenage girl is raped and forced to watch her sister murdered. (I haven't seen this movie and I feel sick to my stomach just typing this.)
He got this one right. What the hell went wrong?
In the comments below a few other people agreed saying that they felt ill and one father pointed out that he couldn't help but imagine his own wife and child in that terrible situation and had to stop watching the movie though he is a fan of many current slasher flicks. Then a post from a young twentysomething (or maybe even younger?) accused everyone else of being wusses. Paraphrasing his statement, he said that he wanted to see as much sick stuff as possible before he got old and sentimental and hemmed in by having feelings for other people, and that was what was wrong with the reviewer and the commentors before him.
So. There are lines. There are squicks. My wife loves horror films but has to leave the room whenever anyone, victim or killer, is burned alive. She went to a Baptist school that reminded her everyday that there was an eternal pit of flame waiting for her because she did things like draw pictures of Catwoman. And the question is, should we challenge these feelings and take a step over the line occasionally, or will that be too much? Would it be better to stay comfortable?
I've got to relate this to videogames, obviously so let's talk about what prompted this writing. Here: is a spoilerriffic article about a level that apparently features the player firing on innocents in a terrorist assault on an airport. There are comments going back and forth about what a "brave choice" the developers have made or how they can't expect this to fly with the American videogaming audience. Context will certainly change opinions about what is actually happening in that scene but regardless, any interest I had in MW2 was killed right there. Even in some sort of simulation of an undercover guy forced to do terrible things, I don't think there is enough justification to make this okay for me. In my mind there is a very strong line between enemy combatant and innocent civilian. Guy with a gun screaming for your blood and woman fleeing in terror. And even that is wavering these days. I began to wonder how many marines had earned their evisceration while playing [prototype]. Maybe getting married and buying a house means I'm too old and sentimental.
It's okay. There're all unmarried orphans.
Besides, where are the families? Where are the screaming children tugging at the arms of their mother as she bleeds out through a bubbling wound in her stomach? Where are the old men crushed beneath the feet of a fleeing mob? What about the screams of people begging to be spared? How about the ones who didn't die right away? We see them crawling away from the player. Where are their blood trails and hands scrabbling to hold their insides together?
People are praising them for their gritty realism and their desire to push the envelope. Would these same people still say that it's a fascinating study in the maturity level of games when a flight attendant is trying to hide a lost infant under her ruined body before another terrorist calls to the player to "go over there and finish the job."?
Yes, I'm a horror fan. I'll watch things like that. The Texas Chainsaw films frighten and entertain me and the opening to most revenge films get my blood pumping to see the murders get their eye-for-an-eye treatment. But don't ever ask me to get involved. That's not safe and it's my squick.
Monster. Also, labia wall.
Prey threw me off. I may not remember this segment exactly because I refuse to rewatch it. While exploring the murder factory that is the alien space ship, two children on the other side of a glass-wall-force-field-thing are screaming and crying for help. A ghostly spirit rises out of the floor and separates them before flying into the body of one of the children and with a bloody splatter, the child becomes a monster. He then turns on his still crying cellmate and lifts him up and throws him across the room, impaling him on a spike. Squick.
At this point in the game I discovered The Other Button. It's not on the controller actually, most hardware devs keep it away from you so you won't use it too often. I leaned over to my computer and mashed the power button until I was looking at a blank screen.
I know one of the former Human Head writers who worked on that game (to clarify, he was working on dialog for that project, not story.) He's also written an excellent table-top RPG called "Little Fears." (A new edition has just been published.) In the game players are children who have found that all of their nightmares are real and that missing children are usually taken away by the Bogeyman or the other Dukes of Closetland to be devoured by one horror or another. It's a fantasy that presents the players with the very real problems of child abduction and abuse faced in a society that supposedly works to protect children while refusing to take them seriously. This is a great game. Thought provoking and frightening.
I don't know what went wrong with Prey. Up to that time, adults are being run through a slaughterhouse by the hundreds, screaming for help. It's a sequence designed to get you angry at your captors so that you will "give them what they deserve" with every weapon you can lay hands on. Already unsettling, but it got my revenge desire online. The children hit me too hard. I didn't want revenge anymore, I just didn't want to have to see that again.
Rape is a terrible crime. It is expected that MOST women are sexually assaulted at least once in their lives, though perhaps not to the point that a court would bother to step in. Especially when they are young. Several of my female friends have spoken openly about being coerced or even physically restrained to the point that they felt rape was imminent. It's still not alright even if no one was genitally violated.
The movie Dead Girl has been lauded for its challenging subject matter. A group of teen boys discover a beautiful girl strapped to a gurney in the basement of an old building. She is some sort of zombie, and naked. They proceed to use her as a sex toy. After they break her, they go and hunt down another girl, to zombify her and make a new one. Rue Morgue, another gorehound's publication, despised this film. They called it out for being senseless. What is the theme here? What are the creators trying to portray? That all teenage boys are so sex crazed that they will promptly turn to rape given the chance? That girls are confusing and a lifelike doll with orifices is really all that they want from a woman?
Seriously? Also, labia imagery.
The indie game Edmund is a crude rape simulator. Yeah. Not even in the manner of the perverse hentai games that are embarrassing Japan right now. This is simple brutality. The only option of the player is to beat and rape a woman and feel bad about it. Or are we? What about the person who doesn't feel bad about it? Is this a test to determine sociopaths living among us? Reviewers and players have said they felt they had to continue the game to it's end because there was no other option. There is always another option. The Other Button.
Why do we confuse the inclusion of rape and murder with maturity, or artistry? A mature handling of the subject of rape is a psychology textbook in criminal behavior. A mature treatment of murder is a history lesson or a panel of experts debating the death penalty. It is not depicting it in gruesome detail in a film or video game or painting. That is an attempt to elicit shock. Rob Zombie did not pretend to be exploring trigger behaviors in the minds of the mentally ill when he started off Michael Myer's killed spree as a supposed response to a female patient being raped by orderlies on his bed (director's cut version.) If a debate arises from that, that is when the maturity enters the equation, but that could be provoked by a lecture or shift in conversation just as easily, and without the graphic challenge. Should we be praising these depictions because this is what it takes to get people to think about the issues of violence?
Alright, so are games just incapable of hangling these issues seriously? Beyond the wacky cartoon antics of Saint's Row that dress it all up as mindless fun because it's just a game? Not at all. The problem is that it requires subtley that most designers, children raised on stories written by the graphics engineers on the backs of napkins and inspired by the trailer to some action flick, very rarely possess. I'm looking right at you, John Romero.
Nothing more dangerous than a tween who knows she's beautiful.
Rule of Rose is an amazing and horrifying game. A cast of orphan children who have formed a society of cruelty and abuse among themselves. Prepubescent sexuality, "puppy love," drives them to acts of desparation and eventual murder. Yet despite the clamoring of the EU ratings boards and their almighty ban on the game, these subjects are treated with a respect and subtlety that still entrance me.
The headmaster, all too eager to smooth Diana's hair while she cries crocodile tears when being accused of killing his pet fish; the doll shaped like Jennifer that Amanda beats with a stick while still offering Jennifer presents and compliments; the scene in which Margaret holds out a rose to Diana, who crushes Margaret's hands against the thorns before kissing away the blood; the "stray dog" Gregory who kills the girls (off camera) on the orders of Wendy, disguised as his dead son whom he misses too much to disobey. This is powerful, artistic stuff. This is a game that is still entirely clear about its themes without forcing barbaric images on the player. Without blatantly stepping over lines, this game made me think about the issues of what is happening through the veil of the character's stories.
So. These are my squicks and the ways that they can be veiled to communicate meaning while still staying within my boundaries. Your mileage may, and will, vary. You might play GTA4 to let off steam by mowing down a street full of faux New Yorkers. I played it as a sort of life simulator. Working the mob missions and cursing myself every time I clipped a pedestrian. Remember, Nico Bellic came here to get away from his life of killing. Not to become a more casual mass murderer. I got angry at Alex in [prototype] whether he's hero or villain. Once the story missions were over, and his character fully revealed, I jammed the Other Button and traded in the game. I had no desire to continue playing such a creature.
This became a ramble at some point but my hands are shaking now. So badly, I almost don't want to reread and edit. Suffice to say, I'm very upset at any developer that makes me use the Other Button.