Opinion: Is Violence The Last Refuge Of The Incompetent?
Isaac Asimov seemed to think so, but as much as I like his writing, I’m not sure I fully support that statement.
Although you could be forgiven for thinking that, the state of the FPS genre doesn’t do much to oppose that quote from the sci-fi idol. I would certainly not tar all the games from said category with the same sullied brush, but there does seem to be a growing problem within the industry, not with violence itself, but the way it’s used.
This was something discussed at a recent Game Developers Conference (reported by Gamespot), where Walt Williams, the writer of the bleak, but surprisingly good Spec Ops: The Line, wasted no words in saying that violent video games are “creatively too easy”.
Spec Ops, for the uninitiated, primarily comes across as a fairly average shooter, the mechanics are dull (arguably on purpose), and you kill more people than cancer in the few short hours the game lasts. If you do manage to get through to the end though, you are treated to one of the most striking revelations in gaming. It’s something that puts context on all the mindless killing, and it does it extremely well.
It is context, which can give meaning (if there is any), to the mass slaughter that takes place in a great many games, even the most well meaning of characters can stumble when it comes to tallying up the body count.
Take the Uncharted series for example; Nathan Drake, a very light hearted and seemingly caring character, relieves hundreds of “bad guys” of their use for oxygen. The second entry in the franchise even sees the game’s villain mock Drake for his supposed purity. It’s at this point that I find myself nodding along with the crisis of creativity.
Even the most holy of heroes will find himself mowing down biblical proportions of enemies in the pursuit of saving the girl/world/day/neighbour’s dog. Is there really any way around this? Without a superbly written story, like in the aforementioned Spec Ops, or another explanatory conduit, I would have to say no.
There really isn’t any humane way of justifying a culling like that, but the shooter genre, be it third or first person, demands that kind of digital sacrifice. So does the violence make plot devices and character development unnecessary? Pointless even? Actually, I believe they are an integral part of many of today’s games, and it’s in that context, that I disagree with Mr Williams.
I do agree that they can be easy, creatively wise. You can always look at the Call of Duty games to prove that point, or in fairness, any modern military shooter. The Call of Duty franchise is what I would refer to as “press X to save the world” gameplay. The AI within the game is your basic whack-a-mole portrayal of intelligence (or lack thereof). The narrative is a thinly veiled attempt at cohesion, and rarely shows any kind of real moral value whilst pushing the protagonist toward his next overly scripted Michael Bay-esque set of pyrotechnics, whilst killing the standard “terrorists”. That is of course if it allows you to deviate from the large follow icon in front of you.
Playful jabs aside, this type of military style shooter is what I believe is “creatively too easy” within the industry, unfortunately, this vortex of inexorable economics, aligns us (the consumer), as the enabler.
The other side of the coin bears much less potential profit for developers. It’s not hard to see from a business standpoint why they keep churning out sequels every year. It does however, make you sit up and take notice when something special comes along. I can think of few better examples of this from recent times, than BioShock Infinite and The Last Of Us.
Both the original BioShock and the new BioShock Infinite, are two superbly told stories, although for different reasons. The original for it’s overwhelming excellence at portraying Rapture, and the internal working of the place and people. The latter for it’s wonderful characterisation, including one of my favourite personalities in gaming.
The pair are equally as violent, but show a rather unique way of looking past it. The drug addled nature of the inhabitants of Rapture, versus the racist, and almost indoctrinated madness of the citizens of Columbia. You certainly still have to wade through an amount of people that would make Leonidas give you a brofist, but the violence has a more palatable force behind it.
It doesn’t necessarily give credence to mass slaughter, but a cohesive story and strong characterisation can alleviate the need to focus on the atrocities you cause. If I’m honest, for the most part I ignore the fact that I have generally lowered the world’s population by almost 10%, I almost take it as a given, as I said earlier, games require it as some sort of sacrifice (no pun intended). The vast majority of gameplay across most genres, is violent in some way.
The Last Of Us feeds you a similar sort of conscience relieving story. Where it starts to differ is the morality involved, or really, the absence of it. The Last Of Us employs an incredibly strong sense of survival throughout the game, people doing what they must to survive, no matter the cost to others. This isn’t excusing the actions of Joel and Ellie, far from it; it’s simply suggesting they don’t care. It may come across as self -serving, but it is what it is. You don’t often find that purposeful lack of empathy in gaming, not handled from that perspective anyway.
Where BioShock and The Last Of Us tries to tie the violence to the main narrative, this year’s release of Tomb Raider made it a more personal journey, one seen through the eyes of a budding survivor, and all around badass, Miss Lara Croft. Rather than using cleverly written stories with cheek smacking plot twists, Tomb Raider tries to make you feel the impact the violence is having on the main character.
It works very nicely during the opening moments of the game, the gravity of the situation and the sudden horror of Lara having to see and endure violent atrocities, take their toll on her visibly. After Lara makes her first kill, she is noticeably shaken, and the morose nature of the encounter threatens to overtake her, but where it falls down is shortly after; our heroine quickly becomes a ruthless killer and begins to tear through enemy ranks with about as much emotion as a Cyberdyne creation.
Though it doesn’t quite come off, the theory is sound, trying to push the affect of violence on to the player, not just the act itself, but the distress caused by it. A survivalist theme is also prevalent, making sure the player views the character as, once again, doing what is necessary. You could possibly apply this to nearly any recent violent game, it certainly isn’t a new concept, and one that can be viewed from either side of the battle, blurring the lines between good and bad. I would (very carefully) contend that this could be scrutinised as “creatively too easy”. I’m not inferring that those games are poorly made, nor am I saying that the story is badly written, but that tiny aspect of the narrative can excuse the need to apply any meaning to your actions.
So there you have examples of using story telling and visceral emotions to help carry over the games murderous intent, but what about the violence itself? Can that be creative on its own? Well, yes.
In 2011 EA published a game that was built on the very foundation of creative violence, Bulletstorm. Even the tag line of the game (kill with skill) invites you to dispose of enemies in an imaginative way. The story is almost as cheesy as Far Cry: Blood Dragon, the characters are forgettable and the entire game is basically a mass graveyard in waiting. However, there is no pretension here, no claim of a lofty moral standing, it’s just plain violence.
Nevertheless, the game asks you to artistically reduce the inhabitants of the digital world to puddles of goo, in the most entertaining way you possibly can. Different guns with alternate fire modes can be used along with the games kick and energy leash mechanic, thus sending things in to slo-mo, giving you time to line up the perfect shot, using pitfalls or any number of environmental traps at your disposal.
You could argue this plays right in to what Walt Williams stated, and in fairness, there is no perceived connection of emotion to the story line or anything that goes on, it’s just brutal (albeit rather humorous) violence from beginning to end.
Although I choose to view it as creative violence in the most literal sense.
It’s with that thought that I will disagree with the Spec Ops writer, there are games that certainly feed his claim, but there is plenty of context that allows for a huge amount of artistic freedom. It may be easy to drop a protagonist in the middle of a nameless war, and have him start using lead as the new cure to population control, but it is very hard indeed, to make it meaningful. To give purpose and feeling to what could be deemed, mindless slaughter. That in my eyes takes a lot of foresight to overcome.
Will there be a change to the popular formula anytime soon? I seriously doubt it. I do however, think that we will continue to see some brilliance from developers in handling the subject. I also believe that the more mainstream “creatively easy” violent games will simply help in pushing the imagination of others to realise that, there are so many ways we can give meaning to what we play, and what we experience. Violence is not the end of innovation, but it can be its inspiration.
Featured image taken from http://www.abc.net.au/technology/articles/2010/12/06/3086094.htm