Ultraviolence in videogames: A defence
Within the videogame industry there are a select few influential figures whose opinions and occasional remonstrations about the direction of the medium carry a certain weight and gravitas. Warren Spector resides at the head table of this unspoken hierarchy having designed the much-heralded the first Deus Ex and Thief games. As such, his recent condemnation of the ceaseless ubiquity of fetishised ultraviolence (“The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it”) at the industry’s largest media event, E3, inspired much beard-stroking and contemplative musing among the gaming media, almost as if something gospel and unprecedented had been uttered.
Although his comments originate from a discussion regarding the frankly disgustingly apathetic misogyny of Hitman: Absolution’s controversy-baiting ‘nuns with guns’ trailer, there is still a sense they were an of-the-moment generalization, born from the attention-deficit hyperactivity of E3. Regardless, his sentiments are still admirable and from a mindset of love and affection for his medium. Unfortunately they are also representing a fallacy of false choice which asks us to treat violence with maturity, by immaturely eradicating it from the design process without a discussion of its merits.
As a veteran of Deus Ex, Spector himself must have been galled by the series’ recent prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution where thought-provoking verisimilitude of the disturbing brutality present in the original was replaced by Eidos Montreal’s introduction of theatrical cut-aways to showcase augmentation-assisted ‘fatalities’.
If Spector’s words represent anything though it’s disillusionment rather than an autocratic call for censorship. It’s a sign of the times, maybe, that our trust in a game’s ability to represent provocative imagery (as seen in the reactions to Lara Croft’s attempted rape in the new Tomb Raider) is at its lowest ebb and judging from the reaction to E3’s presentation of upcoming attractions, things aren’t getting any better.
It’s difficult to tell whether the recent trend of marketing campaigns becoming increasingly enamored with slow-motion bloodletting is a product of consumer demand or creative sterility. Either way, the fact that these conventions can distill the ambitiously-designed, cerebral dystopia of Arkane Studios’ upcoming game Dishonored into a soulless montage of throat-slitting and spurting crimson is as reductive as it is depressing. Is this all that we want to see? Is this all that we want to play?
When contextualized, Dishonored’s themes quickly transcend its deplorably gruesome, one-note trailer. Nevertheless, the trailer’s singular focus on fleeting moments of salacious murder reveals an axiomatic truth about videogames: a game has to stimulate the thought that a player’s action is palpable. To put it bluntly: I hit X, this ugly bad guy gets a knuckle sandwich.
This relationship between the player and a game doesn’t always have to centre on violent activity of course, if it did I’m not sure Dance Central or Wii Fit would have been quite as popular as they have. The blueprint, however, is unchanged. The violent imagery that is so inescapable in the mainstream videogame market is essentially an attempt to harness a player’s attention by appealing to the most visceral form of physicality. Displays of ultraviolence are really attempts at dialing this up to eleven.
This was an idea that the self-aggrandizing auteur David Cage must have realized while working on 2010’s noir-thriller Heavy Rain. Cage has always made no qualms about his desire to make games with an artistic bent, often coming across as a pompous, pretentious figure. While his games are notable in their outward attempts to illicit emotional responses, they still have a reliance on violent imagery that often sit awkwardly with his lectures on maturity and morality. Ask anyone who has finished Heavy Rain their most memorable moment was and it probably wasn’t setting the table or unpacking the shopping, the game’s attempted portrayal of everyday banality and realism. No, it was probably the part which involved a player-initiated, gruesome scene of self-mutilation.
This part of Heavy Rain wasn’t without merit though. As an extension of the game’s narrative, which saw one man go to any lengths to save his son from a serial killer and to rid himself of his own guilt, it served a significant dramatic purpose. While the story did not depend on the outcome and would not have been greatly affected by its omission, its presence was a pivotal moment of player interaction which dramatized, rather than fetishised, an instance of explicit gore.
In a similar vein, Team Ico’s 2006 PlayStation 2 masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus, theatrically emphasized the final blow given to each colossus not as an expression of needless gratuity, but as a moment of fraught triumph. This only furthered the game’s fatalistic, sombre tone as the ramifications of the protagonist’s colossi-slaying actions became clear.
By ensuring that violence is contextualized rather than being simply incidental, it can serve a purpose beyond the relationship between the press of a button and an in-game gunshot. The troubling lack of trust in the industry is a sad indictment of the increasing insincerity of the content of some videogames. Because of this, we need to pick our battles wisely.
It would be unfair to judge the intentionally harrowing barbarism of Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us, a grim, post-apocalyptic survival game, on the inappropriate cheers from certain sections of the audience attending Sony’s E3 conference after each and every bludgeoning of a person’s skull. Equally, the pulpy, claret-fest God of War shouldn’t be vilified for its self-aware excess.
There is a necessity for videogames to move away from the idea that action must beget violence. This is why the frequent attempts to classify thatgamecompany’s graceful adventure Journey as an ‘interactive experience’ rather than a videogame should have been immediately dismissed as the rash misjudgments they were to something trying to be different. Equally, the idea that the promotion of sadistic violence (or naked women, but that’s another story) is the only way to get a videogame noticed is something that the marketing teams from the big publishers need to move away from.
In the end, when developers, publishers and gamers decide to raise their own game, maybe it will be ‘a bit of the old ultraviolence’ that will be the key ingredient in moving the industry forward.Tagged in: David Cage, deus ex, Dishonored, E3, gaming, Heavy Rain, Hitman: Absolution, nuns with guns, Shadow of the Colossus, tomb raider rape, Ultraviolence, videogame, violence, violent games, Warren Spector
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