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The Things I've Done

Crouching beneath the shattered bookcase, at long last I heard a break in the shots. The hammer came down, and a resonant "click" sounded. Recognizing my opportunity, I vaulted over my cover, charging towards my aggressor in a brazen, desperate display. He brought his freshly loaded weapon to bear, but it was too late. I collided into the man in a flurry of physical blows and furious screaming. Once, I brought the pipe over his head. Twice, and the already damaged weapon snapped beneath my abuse. I drew my gun, low on ammunition but also options. The battered man raised a hand, and choked out the word "Please-" I squeezed the trigger, a shot rang out, and I took a begging man's life.

Oh, yay. I was worried this conversation might get a little too serious.

It's strange. My heart races after each encounter in The Last of Us, but after the last blow has been struck, the last shot fired, and all of my enemies lay dead, I admit to myself that the encounter I've just so narrowly emerged from was a lot of fun. The action is some of the most gripping, intense brutality on display in the medium, and the enemies you face feel surprisingly human. Each fight feels intimidating, and with the smooth, precise combat, you begin to really take on the "survivor" persona the game attributes to its half-protagonist Joel. And yet, something about enjoying these fights feels... perverse. Wrong. There remains a voice somewhere, insisting that I am sick for deriving any pleasure from the horrors on display, and it's admittedly pretty difficult trying to dissuade that notion.

The act of enjoying violence in games has always created a persistent, niggling doubt in the back of my head. It's the question that breeds a thousand more question; does enjoying violence in a game make me a bad person? When I really hit a groove in Uncharted, should I feel bad when I enjoy my victory? And just how many necks have I snapped today, anyway? Are the executions presented in Gears of War proof that gamers as a culture are beginning to display sociopathic tendencies, or worse, were they there all along? None of these questions are much fun to present, and none of them have easy answers, so rather than discussing the debate as a whole, I figured I'd briefly attempt to chronicle my journey through digital violence, to help you understand how I've come the conclusions I have, and hopefully learn about it myself. So, let's go back to when this line of thought began.

Oh, yes. That level.

Recognize the above image? You should, because if sales figures are anything to go by, roughly everyone and their mum played Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. And rightly so, it's a spectacular game! Thrilling gun battles, exotic landscapes, genuinely clever dialogue, a grand time, to be sure. I understand that all I'm talking about is a pair of Naughty Dog games, and if that bugs you... eh. I'm not sorry.

Moving on, for those not aware, Uncharted 2 opens up with a slow-paced moonlit stealth level. Meant to simultaneously act as a tutorial and introduce the game's new-fangled stealth mechanics, you're tasked with infiltrating an ordinary museum and retrieving an ancient artifact filled with precious macguffinite to lead you and your merry band on treasure-hunting adventurers. At protagonist Nathan Drake's insistence, this is to be a strictly non-lethal incursion, on account of the guards being perfectly innocent workmen. Fair enough.

So then, it's worth asking why over the course of my sneaking through this museum, I personally snapped three men's necks and threw a man off a 50 foot ledge, sending him plummeting to his doom? This isn't even hard. The character was blatantly disregarding his own damn words for the sake of player convenience, fun, and in the case of Captain Plummet, a throwaway gag. (There's a guy below you, there's a guy below you!)

Needless to say, it's not the most blatant example of extreme violence in a game, but I found the whole business to be very uncomfortable, to say the least. Even the game struggles to justify the ludicrous amounts of murder perpetrated by the King of Death, Nathan Drake. Towards the end of the game in his classic, though admittedly trite, pre-death speech, the villain simply asks "How many men have you killed, just today?" This, to me, struck a chord. I had gunned down hundreds of men today, snapped necks, thrown men off cliffs, all the while convinced that I was the hero. This, to me, was a powerful moment, and I couldn't wait to see what effect it had on Drake. The effect being that our hero steps back to watch as the villain is savagely mauled to death by blue cavemen, completely validating the point he made.

 God dammit.

Honestly, I don't know what to make of this. I believe games like these are a lot of fun. Stomping skull in Gears of War has a certain grotesque satisfaction, the executions in Ninja Gaiden 2 are fun to pull off, the violence in good games is just. Plain. Fun. 

Sometimes I just get to wondering if it should be.
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About Captain Scramblesone of us since 6:23 PM on 09.15.2010

Hello! I'm Trevor, a young, often inflammatory jerkwad. I'm working on that. I spend an alarming amount of time playing, reading, and writing/thinking about games. Smart or trashy, linear or open-world, western or eastern I just flat-out like games, even when I get mad at them.