Alright, let’s talk about violence in video games. This is NOT about how violent they are or how they are influencing kids to be violent. No, this is about the use of violence in video games. And just for the record, I disagree with the fact that video games cause violence.
Have you ever thought about how games tend to have a lot of violent sequences? Just have a look at some of the best games of 2015, whether critically or commercially. Bloodborne, the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Fallout 4, Until Dawn, Halo 5: Guardians, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Well, you get the idea. Even Life is Strange contained some violence, though often not directly perpetrated by the player.
So why do so many video games include violence as part of their gameplay? The reason is simple. Because it’s easy. It’s easy to pad your game with areas full of enemies where you spend some time shooting at them. The mechanics stay mostly the same throughout the game, so you just need to reskin your enemies to add variety and maybe add a new skill or enemy type every so often to keep things engaging. When you have this formula down, the only limitations to a longer game is creating the environments where you can shoot stuff in. That and however much you can stretch an already thin story.
Most of the innovation in this industry has been focused on the improvement of the combat element in video games. Faster paced shooters, with verticality added to the equation. Magic spells in RPGs get more and more grandiose as time passes. Compare the summons of Final Fantasy 3 to Final Fantasy 15. Worlds apart. Compare that to other interactive elements in a video game. Dialogue systems have largely stayed the same, maybe even regressed a little depending on who you asked. Attempts to innovate do not seem to stick, like LA Noire’s facial lie detection thing.
I’m not saying that violence should be removed from all video games, I’m just saying that the developers should consider what purpose the violence serve. There are some games where violence thrive. DOOM, Saints Row, Grand Theft Auto, Twisted Metal, all games that were fun because of their over the top violent nature. Say what you want, but there is undeniably something cathartic about violence against virtual, often faceless, enemies. In Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty, wanton, non-cartoonish violence is justified in the setting and the tone of the games. (Side note, I want more war games in the vein of Spec Ops: The Line instead of Call of Duty. Something that paints war as a cruel experience instead of a heroic one. I still find myself wishing that they didn’t cancel Six Days in the Fallujah because of the controversy it caused.)
No, the problem comes with a level of violence that does not match the narrative and tone of the games. Take the often cited example of the Tomb Raider reboot back in 2013. The prologue sets the narrative. Lara Croft is a fresh adventurer, out on her first expedition. There’s this powerful scene quite early into the game, where she is captured and almost killed. She survives by killing her assailant. She gets emotionally distraught, shocked at having taken a live. Next thing I knew? I was spraying bullets all over the place, killing everything that was moving. Consider if she hadn’t been portrayed as an innocent, first time traveler? I probably won’t have bated an eye at that. I have no issues with Uncharted, even though those game have crazy amount of body counts too.
Tomb Raider wasn’t the only one with ludonarrative dissonance when it comes to violence. In LA Noire, Cole Phelps is a street cop that gets involve in shootouts in the middle of LA. He has a body count so high that calling it police brutality doesn’t quite describe it. It’s more like the body count of a mass murderer. Violence is perhaps not unjustified in a game about cops, but the amount of combat situations in LA Noire is just too much. BioShock Infinite is also another much cited example, though some argue that the violence is a portrayal of the deep seated wrongness of the Columbia utopia. I can see some points in that, but it can be jarring sometimes. You’ll find yourself walking through an area of folks living their regular lives and turn down the next street into a fierce firefight out of nowhere.
In my opinion, one of the best examples of violence done right is the Last of Us. It perfectly encapsulates the collapse of society and morals in the aftermath of a world ending event. It suggests that selfishness and survival is a rather human instinct, one that surfaces when we are pushed to the brink. Joel’s atrocities are done for the purposes of survival, as he bashes in skulls and breaks the neck of other survivors, yes survivors. This is most apparent in the way David’s group view Joel. A crazy man that kills many of their men, who were just looking for food and supplies. They’re not entirely innocent either. They view Joel and Ellie as food.
The violence that Joel commits is not limited to the violence on screen either, as is apparent from his comments about being on the other side of a Hunter ambush and Tommy’s comments about nightmares of his time spent under Joel’s “protection”. At the end of the day, the violence is there to portray the desperation of survival and keeps in line with the tone of the world. Contrast Ellie’s first kill with Lara’s. Hers was something that felt much, much more inevitable. In this world, it was killed or be killed.
Basically, the gist of this post is this: I don’t care if a game has dismemberment, disembowelment or a gory explosion as long as it fits. I care when the violence runs contrary to the narrative and setting of a game. I just hope that developers think twice before putting violence into their games.