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Violence: Sky Hook to the Eye


Most good stories involve conflict. It presents an obstacle to the protagonists that is easy to understand, creates motivation for the characters, and provides a perfect physical manifestation of our hero's internal conflict. The easiest way to represent this conflict is through physical violence.

Why do we want our hero to defeat the villain? Well, the villain is out to harm the innocent for his own selfish gain. Oh, well, okay then. Bad guy is clearly a chungus and Hiro Protagonist is definitely our idealized savior we all strive to be. I'm on board with that!

Of course, there are other forms of conflict as well. In shitty ass romantic comedies, there will usually be some sort of misunderstanding between the Two Fucking Idiots[sup]TM[/sup] that results in conflict. Once that conflict resolves, they can resume being a pair of morons engaging in coitus together. Hurray!

In video games, however, it is rare for conflicts to manifest in a form other than violence. Conflict can be engaging for a player, and the easiest way to present the conflict is through violence. Combine this with how much easier it is to tell a story where the conflict is violence, and you have a medium built off of physically pummeling the opponent into submission.

It is a disturbing thought, especially when you begin to consider how many turtles and sentient fungi Mario manages to kill in a given adventure. Yet violence itself, as used in story-telling, is a mere tool. It is not inherently evil in a fictional setting. We're not drawn to the entertainment because we want to pretend to kill people, we're drawn to it because it is exciting. Having to duck and dodge fireballs, arrows, or bullets while knowing precisely when to toss the grenade, where to fire the hook shot, or when to jump gets the player's mind going. They're always thinking, always observing, and always looking for a new solution to the obstacle before them.

Tetris is a simplified version of all these ideas. What is the conflict? Pieces continue to fall from the sky, and you must get rid of them. How does one do this? By arranging the blocks in an uninterrupted line across the screen. The more rows you have stacked, the more will vanish. This conflict is only made more rich by providing the pavlovian temptation of a score system. How high in level can you get and how high of a score can you achieve? Now the player is striving to arrange those blocks in much more efficient patterns. All the while the blocks fall faster, making the obstacle more difficult to overcome. The player soon must sacrifice the high score chance for simple survival, a small reprieve from the pressure of blocks falling from the sky, buying at least one more additional row.

Tetris, however, has no narrative. While the "end" of the game results in a rocket taking off to the stars (or the White House), it was not the player's goal. The outcome is not representative of the mechanics.

Now let's examine Catherine, a puzzle game that throws a story into the mix. Each night protagonist Vincent has nightmares where he is forced to scale towers of blocks. As time progresses, row after row of blocks fall into the empty abyss below. Vincent must move the blocks so that he can continue to climb, but there are a variety of puzzles that threaten his life.

Vincent must climb the tower to survive, but he must also be careful to avoid all the deadly traps. Now we have a narrative explanation for the mechanics of failure. The inability to solve a puzzle results in a fail state, a fail state represented in the story as the death of our not-quite-plucky protagonist.

Characters can die in Catherine, yet when people say things like "violent video game" I highly doubt it is one of the titles that comes to mind. Why? Well, simple. There's a lot more going on than just the puzzles. Vincent is also going to the bar with his friends every night. He's interacting with fellow patrons. He is drinking more than he probably ought to be. He is also gripped by indecision. Does he want to stay with his girlfriend Katherine and get married? Or does he want to continue living a free, laid-back life with the much less ambitious Catherine?

The mechanics, the climbing of the tower, are meant to be representations of Vincent's internal struggles. The nightmares are forcing him to confront a lot of his inner fears and determine what course of action he should take. While the gameplay mechanics and story seem completely separated at first, the two are actually linked together in symbolic ways.

So while there is a good deal of violence in Catherine, it doesn't come off as violent.

The issue with violence is that a lot of games are gratuitously violent, even when trying to attach meaning. This is a lot of what Spec Ops: The Line was trying to tackle. These Call of Duty games cannot treat war as a serious subject when the violent scenarios they portray are depicted in such a ludicrous, glorified manner. In Spec Ops: The Line, the violence is used to drive the point home. In Call of Duty, the violence is the entire reason for being.

The recently released Bioshock: Infinite also happens to link violence with the narrative, but it seems to have been in a much more subtle manner. Many players and critics have been noting how the game almost feels like it should be an RPG instead, that the violent shooting and melee mechanics just clash with the tone.

I'd argue this is intentional. Booker DeWitt is an outsider. He does not belong in Columbia for many reasons, one of them involving the twist at the end. He is a foreign element in this wonderful, colorful, blissfully ignorant city in the clouds.

His mere presence results in a sky hook to the eye.

It is almost foreshadowing the events to come. Booker's first real interaction with the denizens of Columbia ends in blood and bodies littering the celebration. Over time, his presence gives fuel and fire to a revolution that tears the city apart.

This is all core to who Booker DeWitt is. He's a flawed human being with blood on his hands. It would not wash away in water, and try as he might he cannot find redemption with a gun in his hand. Yet fighting and dying is all he knows. He tries to fight for something righteous, but it all ends in death.

Then there's Elizabeth. Introduced as a Disney Princess (quite literally), this young, idealistic woman follows Booker as a form of savior...and is then appalled when she witnesses him fighting and killing other men. "Monster!" she cries.

Yes, Booker is a monster. Elizabeth, however, is not...yet. And this, I believe, is one of the core themes of Bioshock: Infinite. As the game progresses, Elizabeth becomes more and more accustomed to the violence surrounding her. The clothes on her person change with her, becoming less the young, innocent girl locked in a tower and more a powerful, decisive woman...capable of horrifying things.

The violence is shocking at first, yes. I, too, was stunned at seeing a man get a hook to his eye, or shoving the whirling blades into another man's jugular. It seemed out of place, like it was intended for a much more juvenile game.

Yet the shock and surprise, the discomfort, it's the point. Over time the player adjusts to it as well, just as Elizabeth does, as Booker already has. The shock and surprise is the entire point.

It's just one of many tricks Ken Levine pulls in Infinite. He's a man that likes to take gameplay mechanics and twist them around in a narrative manner. As a result, the violence is given purpose. It is a tool, and it is a tool well used.

We should not jump to the conclusion that violence in video games is inherently bad, or that we have too much of it. While it is true that there are far fewer creative types of game than need be, there are still plenty of games like Harvest Moon, or Animal Crossing, or Cooking Mama. Not all games are violent.

Video Games. They're violent.

Yet if a game does make use of violent mechanics and design, we should not automatically reduce its value. Otherwise games like Catherine, 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, Phoenix Wright, and yes, even Bioshock: Infinite would not be as valuable to our medium as they are.

Instead of seeing a man take a sky hook to the eye and thinking "That's horrifying, it shouldn't even be there", try considering why it was put there in the first place. The answer you find could be surprisingly enlightening.
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About ccesaranoone of us since 1:39 PM on 07.08.2009

After a little over a year's hiatus I have returned to the Destructoid Blog fold. Despite how thinly-spread my writing efforts have become, I still sometimes feel the need for a canvas in which I can sloppily splash the paint of my thoughts upon in hopes to have something resembling a thing.

So who am I? Right now I'm a writer over at GamersWithJobs, a blogger, a YouTuber and a Podcaster. I specialize in games analysis and criticism, and would like to use the Destructoid blog to share in some of my experiences working on these projects.

Note that I will be linking things I've been working on, but I will do so with the intent of embellishing on thoughts unsaid or detailing some of the work for any interested in also being content providers. Perhaps some of my experiences can help you out along the way.
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