Do you like numbers? Here are some for Monday, June 4th, the day Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, and Sony held their E3 press conferences:
I finished Max Payne 3 just a short while ago, and I loved it. I loved leaping through the air in slow-motion, perforating literally hundreds of gangsters. I loved the close-up shots, giving me the best possible angle to watch gruesome tufts of flesh burst from exit wounds. I loved being able to empty the rest of my gun into the last thug before he hit the floor, marveling at the showers of bright, flowing blood that filled the air and coated the floor. The interactive half of the game was just one long stream of violence and death -- one of my favorites this year.
I mention this because I'm about to dig at this year's E3 for being more or less the same thing. It's not just a glorification of killing, it's a celebration, presenting dozens of different ways by which to end a life. Headshots, gut-shots, leg-shots, fireballs, shockwaves, shrapnel, knives, arrows, swords, each coupled with a slow-mo close-up. It's almost pornographic. The point appears to be to draw the shortest possible line to our base "kill everything that doesn't have tits" instinct, in basically the exact same way that Naughty College Teens XXX Barely Legal 18 tries to draw the shortest possible line to the boner-instinct. Or girl wood, I guess.
Shortest. Possible. Line.
At first I was just fatigued. Halo 4 is a game in which you shoot things. Splinter Cell: Blacklist is also a game in which you shoot things. Here comes Medal of Dutyfield: Black Modernfighter 3; up go the targets, pop, they're back down. Tomb Raider has Lara shooting dudes with a bow and arrow before getting reduced to nature's punching bag. Yawn, sigh, glance at wrist, tap foot, roll eyes -- the works.
Around halfway through Ubisoft's conference, though, this turns into good old-fashioned disgust and revolt. Aisha Tyler mentions after the Far Cry 3 demo that she would now very much like to "get a tiger, use it as a weapon, and then shoot it." I couldn't tell whether or not she was being sarcastic. I hope she was. Even -- no, especially -- if the script wasn't.
I mean, come on, people. I get that quite a few video game genres and MurderDeathKill go hand-in-bloodsoaked-hand. BioShock, one of my stalwart go-tos when arguing with skeptical relatives about the merits of the medium, is primarily about shooting and being shot at with bullets and magical bee-powers, and its most powerful moment climaxes with a guy getting bludgeoned by a golf club so vigorously that the tip breaks off and remains embedded in his skull. But when (what is supposed to be) the focal point of the gaming year ends up with a kill-count that'd be enough to wipe out the average high school, plus faculty, and the most gruesome highlights are met with cheer and applause, something's got to have gone horribly wrong.
Killing is now pedestrian. We've done it before. We've collectively slaughtered more Nazis than were probably ever deployed in World War II. We've slain hundreds of demons, cut down thousands of villains, shot up millions of terrorists. We've sent more wayward souls to whatever afterlife (or lack thereof) you subscribe to than we can probably comprehend. How do new games try to combat this? More blood! More death! Bigger explosions! Slower slow-mo! It's the classic rollercoaster/hard drug effect; the more you get, the more you'll need the next time around.
I keep wanting to use the word "meaningless", but to do that requires defining "meaning", which is territory far too vast, frightening, and dangerous for me to approach as a sub-point in one article. How about "vapid"? Yes, that'll do nicely; the act of killing in 80something% of the games shown here is vapid. Empty, thoughtless, and routine. A narrow, 65 miles-per-hour highway to the next explosion or painful line of dialogue. It's cheapening; not to our perception of the value of for-real human life, of course, but to the ability of the medium to do more with it than stick it up and toss it aside once we've filled it with enough new holes.
I don't think it's any coincidence that The Last of Us and Watch Dogs are more or less universally considered the two highlights of the year's presentation. They're both new IP, of course, which certainly helps. But notice that those are probably about the only two games demonstrated in which human NPCs are treated as something more than pop-up water balloons. I could just about feel the giant, five-hundred-thousand-person groan when the latter degenerated into cover-based shooting; those little "HIV Positive" pop-ups and detailed inter-NPC behaviors were doing so much to set its inhabitants apart from the industry-standard walking blood-bags. And Naughty Dog's latest? What a way to make seven or eight guys feel both more believable and more threatening than the hundreds of soldiers darting around 2012's shooter lineup.
Except one of those guys' pleading, sobbing faces getting blown off by a shotgun resulted in the most rapturous display of audience approval yet. And we end up full circle.
Pictured: human. Couldn't you tell?
As long as there are videogames, there will be gory murder. As long as there is fiction, really, we'll be seeing and rejoicing in deaths by the hundreds. I make no attempt to defy or reverse this; Prototype 2 is sailing its way toward my mailbox as I type, and I will likely be having a grand time discovering all the exciting ways in which pedestrians bend, break, and splatter across the pavement.
What I worry about is that such a mentality becomes not only the norm and standard -- as it has been since Space Invaders, arguably -- but that it ends up being thought of as the only way to do things outside of a couple of obscure, unlocalized Ukrainian indie-imports. I feel like we've reached a point where we can't push this rollercoaster of slaughter any higher; I picked on Tomb Raider earlier, but the degree to which Lara gets brutalized was truly disturbing, extracting several grimaces and pained facial contortions that I thought were reserved for Super Meat Boy speed-runs. I want to give the game the benefit of the doubt and assume that is intentional -- a subversion of the ubiquitous iron-man-protagonist, who can absorb rifle clips and faceplants as casually as I absorb cheeseburgers -- but part of me can't help but fear that the ramp we're sliding down in search of more evocative violence will become so steep that we'll punch through the boards, crashing down into a flaming wreckage of horrible excess.
So what do I want out of this, really? Have your Call of Dutys and your Assassin's Creeds; find some enjoyment in plastering virtual people-fluids all over the walls, because goddamn is it fun. But the rest of you developers? Try more. Do more. E3 2012 seems to indicate just how homogenous our treatment of human life has become, while providing just a couple of glimmers showing how we can fix that. People are some of the most complex, interesting, and variable things in known existence. Treat them like cardboard, and they'll be as fun as cardboard, but treat them like the layered, conflicted creatures that they are, and gaming inherits those wrinkles and nuances: ugly and violent, perhaps, but capable of far more than shooting and falling down.
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