Violence and vindication: The seedy psychology behind a sociopathic medium
Outside of the casual and educational spheres, violence abounds in games. Even Mario is violent, albeit not gratuitous. Combative, at least. Much of the game is purely avoiding obstacles, but eventually some form of cartoon, innocuous violence will be necessary for progression, be it dumping turtles in lava or tossing a mustachioed bomb on his royal, explosive tuches. And that's fine. Cartoon violence is one of the ways we handle it, render it inert -- unless a childhood full of Loony Tunes, Tom and Jerry, et al did a number on me -- but that idea is complicated in the realm of purportedly "serious" games in which violence is more....violent.
In his Tomb Raider review, Jim mentions how after the first few hours of the game it sets out to make your adversaries seem as abominable as possible, “to make us hate the antagonists.” He also mentions how the viciously skilled Lara and generally fun gameplay “undermines the whole narrative about the impact of taking human life,” which was the concern that came over me when I played through the Tomb Raider’s first three hours late last year. The killing is too good. Now they have to justify it.
While I’ve yet to play Tomb Raider in its entirety, it does seem we have yet another case of ludonarrative dissonance, in which the design aims (game based around doing gruesome murders) don’t jive with the narrative (“good,” and in this case wet behind the ears, lead character) and the developers have to work extra hard to try and bridge this gap. You can wax poetic about what it means or takes to commit murder all you want, but it's old hat after the seventieth bloke kisses his trachea goodbye courtesy of your pick axe. It’s the same reason why the enemies in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune spout incendiary cussing outs, egging you on, just begging you to kill them and to wipe that audible smirk off their goddamn faces.
Games more open about their wanton violence, like most sandbox games, are gleeful in their use if civilians as set dressing. It's pleasant to run down civilians in Twisted Metal 2 and see their vague, pixel bodies fly into your screen with a screech that sounds like an interrupted dial up connection. Pleasant, albeit dark.
But what about when you're playing a good guy in a narratively driven game? A super human one, no less? It goes beyond saying that other humans pose little threat to you. That's why the enemy stakes have to be upped. Take the thugs in Rocksteady's Arkham franchise. Are we to believe that every criminal in Gotham lifts weights with Chris Redfield and Marcus Fenix? Every single one of them looks imposing enough that Ving Rhames wouldn’t want to meet them in a dark alleyway.
It's not an attempt to even the playing fields for the Batman, who can take out 40 of those steroid-seeping freaks in one combo despite their Herculean physiques. It's a sly character design choice to make you feel better about yourself, you monster. Batman is brutal in the Arkham games.
Even with foes that look intimidating, I'll cringe as Bats effortlessly breaks a thigh-thick arm in three places and leaves them unconscious. The worst is always the vicious kicks to the knee that you know will ensure the victim never walks right again. Oh, did I say victim? I meant criminal scum. Throw some more inane cursing and provocation at me before my human tendency towards empathy kicks in and I regret collapsing some punk's solar plexus and leaving him to probably choke on his own fluids, alone and in an alley -- but I didn’t kill him. Not directly. Not as far as I am blissfully unaware.
With Arkham, Rocksteady wants you to have your cake and eat it, too. You’re playing at Batman the same way a child might. You get all the perks (unstoppable force of the night) without the draw backs (physical harm, dead parents, Peter Pan complex, fear of the theatre). Insofar as I can tell, Rocksteady isn’t concerned with unsettling the Batman mythos and questioning the sanity of the character in the manner seminal works like The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth have, and that’s fine.
But despite my cringing at Bats’ brutality in the Arkham games, I got over it. While Arkham might not hit hard on these elements, its Batman doesn’t parade around as a handsome John Q. Everyhero. And at least as Batman I wasn't committing mass murder, ala Nathan Drake. Just leaving a disaffected group of individuals with a much lower quality of life and a serious drain on public healthcare. Though Gotham is probably heavily anti "socialist," so no public healthcare, but because the penal system is undoubtedly mandated to aid in the recuperation of criminals, I’m sure it’ll cost some tax dollars. Anyway.
The failure to put you at proper odds with your foes can trouble single-player games striving for a particularly heroic or redemptive narrative. Playing John Marston with an insatiable bloodlust in Red Dead Redemption flies in the face of the narrative. Giving the player the option to be repellant when the character is meant to be repentant can be problematic. Worse still is when the design demands they be repellant.
I love the Uncharted franchise, but its third installment does not sit well with me. The heavy, wave based onslaught of enemies requires you to massacre endlessly while Drake smirks, cracks wise, and is generally handsome. It's a tough sell. I was able to stomach it in the first two, to mind the disconnect, but Drake's Deception felt so oppressive to me. I could see the seams in the enemy waves and strung together set pieces serving no purpose but to give me another butchering ground.
Occasionally I felt a little bad busting skulls in Arkham City. I felt like a monster in Uncharted. I turned to melee “kills” more than half of the time because they looked non-lethal and I felt a little better about myself. Hopefully Drake wasn’t ending lives with equal ruthlessness with those swift kicks to the nuts. Definitely a good chance he preemptively ended the lives of the thugs' unborn children, I suppose.
Dark Sector was one of the early “next-gen” games I was hyped for, but never picked up until I saw it sitting lonesome on a shelf with a $6 price tag affixed; I wouldn’t play it for months still. What a filthy game. It’s nasty, grim, dirty feel permeates every inch of it. You rip limbs from their owners and they just sit there and scream in agony. Not just a gurgling exaltation and then they’re dead. It’s a nonstop, lengthy cacophony of pitiful, dying men yelling. I couldn’t handle that ad nauseum and stopped playing.
You're not supposed to feel bad for your obstacles. It's one if the biggest reasons there are so many games in which you gleefully murder robots or aliens or even humans with masked faces -- some semblance of distancing from the spine-tingling truth. It's why zombies have been so long in vogue. Gone is the almost half century old social commentary. They're fodder, allowing for the primal release of killing ostensible humans en masse without the moral quandaries and look of disdain from the ESRB.
Mainstream games are too steeped in rudimentary notions of conflict in which somehow besting another person or thing is the only means of progression. This forever conflicts with trying to present straightforward, serious narratives with likeable leads. Less killing, more, well, anything else, really.
Exploring. Journey-ing. Dancing. How about a proper detective game? Fevered dreamscapes in which existential and interpersonal issues manifest as ovis-infested, hellish block climbing puzzles? Or at least stop thinly veiling escapist power fantasies and humanizing monstrous murderkillers. I nearly gagged when Drake reached into the quicksand in Uncharted 3. At least Kratos knew his shtick. At least Far Cry 3 reveled in its depravity. At least Spec Ops asked why the hell you were playing in the first place.