Whenever this gets brought up in a discussion on violence in videogames, I roll my eyes. Too violent for who, for what? For society? To be accepted as an art form? Too violent for parents, who are worried their children's minds might be warped by the violent content of games they shouldn't even be playing? Or perhaps people (well, politicians) who need something to pin the blame for acts of real-life violence on.
So I've decided to tackle the question of violence in videogames by looking at how I think games are unfairly blamed for violence in real-life society.
I always ask the question about other media; who's complaining that films are too violent? Well, some people obviously do, but people seem to gravitate towards games when the finger-pointing starts. I think a cause of this is the relative youth of videogames as a medium; film, books, theatre etc. have all built up a substantial pedigree to allow violent content to be acceptable. It seems to be a case of the "little guy" being picked on, since his older, larger cousins can't be touched.
Now of course games are different in that they involve interactivity; you are in the shoes of an avatar existing in a virtual world. When it comes to games featuring heavy violence, you are more often than not controlling the perpetrator of violent acts.
This interactivity is a large part of what causes the distrust of videogames. They are sometimes called "simulators" in which already violent-minded individuals can practice their "killing-skills". To anyone who has never played a videogame, this makes sense because, well, why not? It sounds reasonable, until you think about it.
I've played first-person-shooters a lot and I have a fascination with weaponry; when I was younger I used to make pistols out of construction blocks and I thought my first Airsoft gun was the coolest thing ever. The one part I dislike about them is, ironically, the fact that they are used to kill things. I know that if I was ever handed a real loaded rifle I would be terrified of pointing it at anything other than the ground for fear of it going off.
But suppose someone who would be williing to shoot a human target picked up a gun. I can't imagine any amount of time spent with a shooting game would train them to shoot; it is still a far-cry from holding a gamepad and watching a screen.
Using myself as an example may not be that suitable I admit. I'm probably one of the least violent people, I hate it in fact. I wouldn't hurt a fly (unless it pissed me off too much). That being said, I've played violent games most of my life and never been inclined to translate my actions performed in a game into real-life. I played Pokémon when I was at more impressionable age and I have never thought it a good idea to throw a mouse at a caterpillar ordering it to "use tackle!". Pokémon's pretty violent when you think about it...
Anyway, back to the more serious comparison: playing a game in which you use a weapon, a gun for example, does not teach you to use a gun.
In wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, Democratic California Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke out against "really violent videogames," saying that "they "enable the (would-be mass murderers) to become much more familiar with that depiction of death and blood,".
It's this kind of knee-jerk reaction to the fact that the killer played videogames in some capacity that I find dismaying. It's understandable to want something to accuse out of fear and anger, but the way in which some people act as though games are the cause of all evil is laughable.
I also dismiss the view that violent media desensitises (normal) people to violence; I recently saw a photo taken at the Boston marathon bombings, which showed a street covered in patches of blood, the mere aftermath of the attacks, and started feeling ill. By contrast, I can witness Leon's head getting torn off by Dr. Salvador's chainsaw or even innocent people being mown down by gunfire in No Russian over and over, but they wouldn't invoke the same reactions in me. To me at least, the rift between real-life and pixelated violence is very large.
I'm also inclined to recite this common rebuttal; If, hypothetically, violent games are fueling people with already unbalanced temperaments to turn to killing, then is the answer to ban them? Should the majority be punished for the acts of a few? If a person's mind wanders towards thoughts such as "hey, maybe I should kill people", that person was probably already messed up. Something went wrong in their head long before they played a videogame and it's likely they'd have found another stimulus if not them.
As for the many ways violence is used in games, whether it be to evoke emotions, to shock, to tell a story, to enhance realism, or merely for visual feedback, each of these reasons are as valid to be used in videogames as they are in any other form of entertainment media.
The story of Dishonored is set in Dunwall, a fictional industrial city with an aesthetic inspired in part by early 1900s England. Much of the city is in a state of lockdown put in force by the oppressive government. Guards constantly patrol the streets, reacting to curfew-breakers with hostility, employing roadblocks, security checkpoints and advanced, futuristic security systems and weapons to keep the citizens of Dunwall in check.
You are given the role of Corvo Attano, who at the beginning of the game is bodyguard for the Empress of Dunwall, Jessamine Kaldwin. After returning from a mission to seek aid from foreign lands, (due to a plague that has overcome the city and infected many of its inhabitants), things quickly go horribly wrong when the Empress is assassinated despite your efforts to protect her. To make things worse her daughter Emily is kidnapped by the mysterious assassins, and you are blamed for both the murder and abduction.
You are promptly locked up and put on death row while power-hungry men take over from the Empress. Through the rest of the game you are sent on missions to assassinate corrupt officials and politicians, rescuing Emily and eventually hunting down those who killed the Empress in the hopes of clearing your name.
While not the most original story, it is told well and supported by a cast of believable (if somewhat stereotypical) characters brought to life by some (mostly) great voice acting. I felt something for most of the NPCs I met, ranging from pity to disgust and pure hatred by the end (I seriously had to restrain myself from stabbing a story-critical NPC in the throat due to how vile they were); Dishonored's narrative is rife with betrayals, shady deals and political corruption and as such the people you meet typically have something to hide, be it skeletons in a closet or secret perversions.
Many diaries, notes, extracts from books and other texts can be obtained while exploring Dunwall, all of which provide more insight into the world and the characters that inhabit it should you care to explore to find them (which I did, being a bit of a completionist). Some of the texts describe aspects of the world beyond Dunwall; there are mentions of various continents and foreign lands in the diaries of sailors, political reports and though you never get to visit those locations, they create a feeling that you are part of a larger universe.
Developer Arkane Studios does a great job of creating a non-linear gameplay experience and catering to player choice in Dishonored. Each mission area is designed as a sandbox in which the player can choose from multiple routes to traverse and methods of dealing with enemy characters, completing objectives and assassinations. The choices you make also have an impact on the world; choose to kill the majority of your targets, the Citywatch guards and fire-breathing (yes, FIRE-BREATHING) gang-members and the city becomes darker, plague-infested rats and Weepers more plentiful and NPCs react to you differently.
Corvo can be equipped with weapons and powers that can be used to compliment different play-styles. In a very Bioshock-esque style, Corvo uses a blade in one hand and in the other an equipped supernatural ability or other equipment such as crossbow or trip-mines. You can go on the offensive and outright kill those who cross you using your blade and gadgets including grenades and a pistol, along with abilities such as Rat Swarm, which does pretty much what it says on the tin and summons a swarm of plague-ridden rats to munch on your foes and eventually devour them.
For a more stealthy approach, players have access to sleep-inducing darts for the crossbow, a rewire device that lets you disable alarms and security measures, alongside abilities like Blink which lets you teleport short distances, and Shadow Kill which causes enemy corpses to combust and disappear when you kill them with a sneak attack. Early on you meet a man called Piero, an famous inventor who can upgrade your weapons and equipment in exchange for coins which are scattered throughout the city, and the supernatural abilities are purchased and upgradeable by acquiring mystical Runes.
You can mix and match any combination of weapons and abilities to suit your play style; In my first playthrough I opted for a mainly stealth-based arsenal, though also made use of my offensive weapons as I messed up a lot when trying to be stealthy and got into fights more often than I anticipated.
Traversing the world in a first person perspective took a bit of getting used to, particularly when trying to leap across rooftops and thin pipes. You get used to it though, early on you are given a power that lets you teleport short distances which assists greatly in moving around the world and a few hours in I was jumping/teleporting around Dunwall with relative ease. When engaging in sword fighting the first-person view is a hindrance when trying to keep track of multiple enemies, I found the sword combat a bit awkward and usually boiled down to swinging my sword wildly while shooting and gulping down heath tonics.
Instead of water and steam power for machinery, Dunwall utilises processed, volatile whale oil as its primary fuel for everything from street lamps to huge, missile-launching turrets. Whale oil plays a large part in the game mechanics; you can disable gun turrets and the deadly "walls of light" that block pathways by removing the nearby whale oil tanks, you can can also shoot or throw the tanks to cause explosive havoc. Your pistol and crossbow can even be modified to shoot explosive/incendiary ammunition using the oil.
Visually, the game emulates the aesthetic of 1800-1900s English cities very well. The environments you explore are a selection of beautifully bleak, grimy, run-down buildings on cobbled streets, underground sewers, huge suspension bridges and opulent, aristocratic residences.
The architecture and design of the buildings inside and out is superb, lighting effects are lovely, although some of the textures are noticeably rather ugly in places if you stop and look at them (bear in mind this is for the PS3, I can't speak for other versions), there's some screen-tearing here and there along with minor frame-rate judders but nothing too distracting.
The game is well polished, a couple of glitches I encountered include the occasional disappearance of the marker used to target where you want to teleport, and at one point I actually fell through the ground and into the space beneath the environment models, although this happened only once in my third playthrough and in very specific circumstances so I imagine it would be unlikely that most people experience this.
Dishonored is a great example of what can be produced when a publisher puts faith (also money) into an original concept. Though it borrows many game design elements and mechanics from various other games, Arkane Studios manages to implement them all effectively and cohesively in Dishonored to create an engaging and exceptionally enjoyable game.
I usually make a point of finishing games, particularly these days since I find myself more resilient to a particularly tough challenge in a game compared to in my earlier days, making it more likely that I'll power through such situations. I'm also a bit of a completionist by nature, I am not usually satisfied until I've seen and done everything in a game. And there's usually more incentive to do so, what with trophies and achievements and such.
Alas there has been a select few that I regret never reaching the end of. Older games from the days of yore, a different time often without the modern conveniances of autosaves and wireless controllers that we now take for granted. A simpler time. These were good games too, some of them classics even. Not necessarily ones that I quit I out of boredom or lack of enjoyment, but rather titles in which I hit a snag somewhere along the way resulting in long-term abandonment.
So here they are:
Jet Force Gemini (N64)
One of my earliest and fondest memories of gaming and one of my favourite games for the N64. Also, being the first 3rd-person-shooter I played, it taught me The sad thing about this one is that I actually played through it several times, but only ever reaching the final boss. I remember the game being fairly difficult in general, though that may be because I wasn't as experienced in gaming back then.
I would blast gallons of green goo from the hordes of screeching drones over and over, in battles spanning across several planets and eventually get all three characters to Mizar's Palace. Only to be defeated by the tyrannical "insect" time and time again. Even when me and my brother joined forces with one of us as Floyd, we put up a good fight but were ultimately vanquished by the spindly-legged overlord.
I wish I hadn't, but since I'd given up all hope of beating the game I looked up in a magazine walkthrough (remember those?) what happened at the games ending. So my desire to one day finish JFG is not based on seeing the story come to a close, but overcoming the first digital adversary that made my then 10-year-old self completely abandon a game...
Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (GameCube)
This game was right up my street. Horror, monsters, supernatural forces, Magick and guns. A story dealing in the occult and strange, Lovecraftian leviathans.
It's been so long since I played this that I don't remember most of it. This is another where I reached the final battle, but gave up there for some reason. It seems silly that I put over 15 hours into this game (I know because I tracked down my save file) only to fall after one attempt at the final hurdle.
I could easily just finish off the last boss now I've found the save file, but I'm tempted to play through the story completely again and finish it that way. Decisions, decisions.
Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life (GameCube)
This is an odd one, due to my usual complete disinterest in most games in the simulation genre (especially of banal, everyday things like farming) I wonder why I even bought it. But I was pleasantly surprised to find managing a farm and, well, life of the cheery anime farmer dude was a lot of fun.
It appealed greatly to my penchant for routine and order, by having you perform certain tasks every morning and evening, like feed the animals and let them out to graze and shut them in their sheds for the night, planting and watering crops and such traditional farming chores. It also catered to my slightly compulsive nature of liking to have things in their right place and organised. Another strong point was that the characters in the game truly were characters, charming and fun to interact with. Oh and Murrey the Hobo. Murrey's awesome.
What I didn't realise was it was his entire life that you could play through. I stopped playing I think when my red-headed son was still just a toddler, barely after the first chapter. But damn was that a long chapter and apparently there are four more after that! This is one I may have quit out of boredom, though it's possible that I played it so much that I just needed a break but never returned to it.
Looking back now, I wish I'd returned to it sooner. I recently tried to revisit my farm, but my save has been overwritten somewhere down the line (a result of sharing games with two brothers). I suppose I missed the opportunity to see my child grow up...
Oh well, fuck it I'll just start again some time.
Final Fantasy 3 (& 4) and Chrono Trigger (NDS)
I do enjoy JRPGs, Golden Sun being one my favourite games ever. I just don't play that many, and finish even fewer. I'd heard about this obscure little JRPG series called Final Fantasy and something called Chrono Trigger. Remakes of the third and fourth Final Fantasy games had been released on DS, and in 2009 I also got the DS version of Chrono Trigger, so I took the opportunity to try them out.
And they were great, I progressed well until that one darned boss battle in each game that annihilated my party.
I think my problem is that these are games that you need to put a lot of time into, which leads to me playing them so much that I get burnt out. So when I get stuck on a tough boss, the thought of putting more time into grinding unitl I get my team stronger just stops being appealing. I would then move on to other games and forget about them.
Now with more experience, patience and skill, these games that were a challenge to me years ago now seem trivial. I have no doubt I'd be able to be finally complete all these games on another try. It's really just a question of having the time.
(Bewaaaarre: contains spoilery description of scenes in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Also, mild peril.)
No game has had the ability to freeze my body in my seat, make me clench my teeth in anxiety and squint my eyes in fear of glimpsing something that was usually not even there, until Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
I love the horror genre, like many others I like the rush of feeling scared of something on a screen which is fictional and cannot harm me. My first taste of a proper horror game was at the age of 13 with the Resident Evil remake on GameCube and from then on I've always sought out scary games, often those with dark, disturbed content. So, yes, good wholesome stuff!
So it was inevitable once I started getting into PC gaming that I would eventually discover Frictional Games, Swedish developer of just the type of games that I love: survival horror adventures with intensely macabre atmospheres and themes. I played through all of their earlier Penumbra games before trying the demo of Amnesia, consisting of the first 20 minutes of the game including a section with some of the most tense, panic-inducing gameplay I've experienced...and it left me wanting more, but at the same time dreading what else I would find deeper in Brennenburg castle.
"Keep Out of The Water..."
The last section of the demo begins with you entering a dark corridor flooded knee-deep with water. A couple of steps forward though, and the music kicked in, which is never a good thing. A strange, blood-red substance materialised on the walls, and I heard splashing footsteps coming from around the corner.
Then I saw them. Just the splashes in the water, nothing else. Nothing there. At that point you'd expect Fight-or-Flight to kick in, but I remember just standing there, wide eyed and paralysed as whatever-the-hell-it-was approached, let out a horrible, otherworldy screeching noise and proceeded to slash my face up. I'm not sure why I didn't think to move, maybe I had expected (or fervently hoped) it to be a hallucination of my character, that it would stop before it reached me and discover I had blacked out.
But no, I would have to live through this particular nightmare. The game provided a hint after I died: "Keep out of the water...". So after I restarted I jumped onto the crates piled up against a wall. It appeared again, still lacking a visible form, and it stopped just in front of the crates apparently unaware of where I was. Another thought had crossed my mind: had the game glitched? Was the in-game model for water_monster1 missing from the games files? It quickly dawned on me though that it was probably simply invisible, and the presence of the water convinced me of it. How else would you tell where an invisible monster was?
That was a stroke of genius from the designers, I think. Stalked by something that could be mere feet away from you and that you can't see? Strangely, that water-dwelling Kaernk scared me more than any zombie had in spite of, or perhaps a result of, the lack of visible teeth, claws or indeed anything to suggest it posed a threat.
Night in the Castle
The game was hyped up substantially as an experience guaranteed to make you scream in terror, as the many "Watch People Play And Scream In Terror At Amnesia" videos on YouTube showed. I'm always a bit sceptical of those kinds of claims, as I was with the recent Slender game (which was a bit disappointing.) Nevertheless I went into the game expecting to be scared, though I wasn't prepared for how much it would affect me while playing.
I think the pacing in Amnesia was done very well, with the first actual threat not appearing until I had explored a while and solved the first challenge. This was effective in that it left it to my imagination torment me. I feared the worst and dreaded that each door that blew open unexpectedly and every distant howl were precursors to something appearing to bugger up my night in the castle.
I didn't even get a good look at the monsters until I looked up pictures of them after I finished the game, (besides the ones that you actually cannot see!). They were just too much of a threat to try and catch a glimpse of up close, and you were at risk of diminishing mental clarity from staring at their mutilated features. Which was brilliant; the best kind of terror is the unknown, one you don't fully understand and that you have almost no defense against, and to try and look at it blurs your vision and damages your mind.
This is something that separates the shambling, moaning creatures of Amnesia from the Necromorphs in Dead Space (which I also loved) or even zombies in Resident Evil. In those games you know, or can take a good guess at what they are and you are well equipped to tackle them therefore the threat is somewhat diminshed.
Of course, Dead Space counteracts that by sending groups of them at you at once and having them jump out of space-closets for surprise attacks, while Resident Evil forces you to tackle enemies in claustrophobic environments as a character that controls like an M1 Abrams. In Amnesia though, you have no weapons. The best you can do for yourself if you are spotted is maybe a futile attempt to lob something heavy at the grunting monstrosity stomping towards you, before running away and cowering in a dark corner.
It's a different type of fear that Amnesia's enemy encounters give; a desperate, panic-inducing "oh fuck what is that, did it see me?!", Flight-not-Fight situation as opposed to a jump scare followed by an adrenaline filled gun-versus-claw battle. Amnesia's brand of horror is one I find much more palpable.
The constant feeling of unease and wariness that Amnesia evokes is unlike anything else I'd experienced. It seldom lets you up from the mire of despair and anxiety to take a breath of relief and repose. Even in the "safe zones" where all you do is solve mechanical puzzles, I was distracted by paranoia. I would constantly turn my suspicious gaze toward the doorways behind me, just to check nothing had followed me inside.
As the game took me further into the depths of the castle, the feeling of foreboding increased as did my unease of venturing any further. But I'm glad I did, glad I conquered the fear and thankful I had the opportunity to do so. Even if I couldn't sleep for a few nights afterward.