The one ever brilliant thing about the video game industry is that as the business has thrived over the years the tastes of the gaming audience have matured. Compared to other types of entertainment such as films or even music, most gamers have stuck with games their entire lives, starting out with stuff like Zelda and Mario and then moving on to Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, and Uncharted. It’s kind of interesting to look at the gaming audience as there are certainly those who left it for good at one point or another, but there are those who have sticked with it despite growing up and becoming fathers, mothers, or simply having a more complex life.
What strikes me as interesting at this point is that the video game industry as a whole now finds itself in a situation where it needs to mature in a lot of ways otherwise people may finally bid it adieu. No, I’m not going to go on another rant about the business side of the industry and how indie games can be a savior, but how the industry needs to change one thing that’s present in almost everything we play: violence and action.
Now I’m not going to stand atop my soap box and pull a Joe Lieberman and say that video games need to stop featuring violence or some such nonsense. As a gamer I’m totally down with games having violent elements to them since at the end of the day it can be entertaining and most of the games out there are rooted in such a thing. But where I find myself at now is that I’m hoping games mature in how the action that’s featured in them has more of an impact and maybe if we’re truly lucky will have gamers actually think about things before they pull the trigger.
For me I think there’s a place for everything in the video game industry, hence I think there’s a lot of ways violence can be portrayed in a given title. Stuff like Lollipop Chainsaw is obviously a pure goof since it consists of an overly sexy female cheerleader disposing of zombies in a way that has sparkles erupting when an enemy is decapitated. But what caused me to look at the game industry and violence in particular was none other than the big breakout hit of E3 2012: Watch Dogs from Ubisoft.
Like the rest of you out there I was blown away by what Ubisoft showed of Watch Dogs. Completely unknown about going into E3, Watch Dogs showed some gorgeous visuals, an understanding of gameplay that actually feels impactful on how our current generation is (from a purely social perspective), and as a Chicago native it was just cool to see Chicago be the setting for a massive open-world game. I won’t go on too long about what made Watch Dogs awesome for me, but I was truly blown away by how the elements of the game gelled as the music, art direction, and obvious knocks on our tech focused culture were amazing and could provide one of the best new franchises released in the last ten years.
What struck me as odd and a bit disheartening about Watch Dogs was the last two minutes of the E3 2012 gameplay video since the game suddenly became akin to a typical 3rd person shooter. Up until that point it appeared as if Watch Dogs would go on a different path in which actual thought and planning would be implemented into certain scenarios as opposed to the hero suddenly pulling out a gun and doing glides across the hood of a car while shooting guys in the head. To be honest I won’t label Watch Dogs as being a tech infused dudebro shooter, but the moment in the gun battle in which a NPC is crying over the sudden death of his wife really stood out for me as one of those things that made me instantly think about the violence and action that was happening instead of being totally mindless about it.
Looking at the Watch Dogs finale action sequence and the crying husband bit I really didn’t know if we’re approaching an era in which developers are beginning to realize that there needs to be some substance to the actions gamers commit or if they’re merely trying to illicit a direct response from us by doing something “shocking” once in a while. Will the emotions people feel upon seeing a grieving game character be genuine when such a moment is directly highlighted by the developers in such a way that it almost comes across as pandering?
The tone and direction of Watch Dogs in particular made me think of some things as it’s not a completely normal game in a sense. Based on what was shown to us at E3, Ubisoft seems to be creating a world in which every person that’s walking down the streets of Chicago actually has a short backstory to them that can be seen through the hacking the main protagonist can do. So my question is whether or not Watch Dogs will make gamers feel bad if 28 year-old plagiarizer Michelle Trang is killed in the crossfire during a gun battle or if we’ll simply move on with business as usual and have a carefree attitude when it comes to how our actions impact the world. It may be difficult to care for a small character, especially one that’s a mere NPC in a video game, but trying to instill a sense of care would likely result in a game that may looked upon as the next level of gaming instead of merely seeing genre X given a slight twist.
There are a lot of things we still don’t know about Watch Dogs and seeing as how we’ve only seen around nine minutes of a presumably long game it’s not fair to come to one immediate conclusion. But in general it’ll be interesting to see if Watch Dogs establishes a connection with its players to the point where they’re actually think about how they play and try to keep civilian casualties to a minimum, not just so a Trophy or Achievement can be obtained or the Police will stay off their back but because they want to be a good human being.
Such a predicament does lead things to go down the ever deep rabbit hole of violence in video games and what should and shouldn’t be done since the industry is no longer working with visuals that are a step behind what’s found in movies. In a lot of ways video games now eclipse films in what can be done since the graphical fidelity is so high that the worlds feel completely immersive and tangible, as evident by what Watch Dogs showed us.
My main issue right now is that it seems like games and to an extent game developers are either holding back in trying to provide mature elements when it comes to violence or simply want to do it in a way that’s deemed “artistic” yet comes across as a cheap way to make us think about something for a split second before going on a ten kill spree without blinking. In order to make the actions a gamer commits feel impactful a lot of things need to be done as the graphical representation of the violence has to be in the middle of not being quite real to make it appear disgusting yet not be too cartoony to make it lack the desired impact. Besides the visual representation of violence another key thing is the actual setting and motivation behind the action that’s occurring. We as gamers know that most stories in games really don’t lend themselves to intense or thought provoking narratives that would be akin to a film David Cronenberg (A History of Violence) or Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) would direct so it’s not possible for every game, at least as of now, to create a narrative that is deep and heavy enough to make the action and central violence feel like it matters and isn’t simply a way to rack up a high-score.
However, one recent game that did do a tremendous job in illciting a feeling for the action and the violence it featured was none other than Spec Ops: The Line. Presumably looked at on the surface as another dudebro shooter, no doubt because of the marketing, Spec Ops features some scenes that truly resonated for me since seeing the after effects of raining down phosphorous on my enemies was something that was flat out haunting. There are moments in the minute-to-minute action of Spec Ops in which I may not have had a major thought before popping the head of my enemy, but playing a game in which the action isn’t glorified, has an impact on the narrative, and is unsettling to look at during a few encounters is what I think more games need to strive for.
I obviously know that the point about video games is to be fun so not every game can have a premise or direction that results in gamers questioning every kill we make or how that affects the world we’re interacting in. But at some point there needs to be an attempt made to improve things since there’s potential abound to make games more than just a simple thing that some people do as a hobby. Such a comment made be the springboard to a bigger debate as to what games should be, but at this point the industry is slowly going into a lull in which we’re seeing nothing but the same things we saw ten or fifteen years ago regurgitated with no real innovation or growth at all outside of technical improvements.
So what sort of things can be done to change how violence is perceived and done in video games? Finding such an answer may not be immediately easy, but if there’s one game that may be on the right track to doing such a thing it’s The Last Of Us. Now again I may be putting myself in a hole by talking about a game that only snippets of have been released, but based on what was shown at E3 this year I think The Last Of Us is on the right track of portraying violence that’s impactful, has a true meaning on the characters and the world, and isn’t designed in a way that it’s trying to make gamers feel a such way that it feels forced.
Just seeing things like the main characters of The Last Of Us do battle against a small gang was amazing since it felt real through the limited amount of bullets and how the actual movement of the battle flowed. There were still things that seemed a bit too much such as bashing the head of someone on a piece of furniture, but even then such an occurrence could be perceived by the gamer as to the mental state of Joel, the main playable character in the game, and simply how brutal the world has gone since it was sunk into chaos. There’s obviously still a certain level of entertainment that Naughty Dog is setting out to achieve in The Last Of Us so particular elements may be heightened as opposed to being set in the rules and physics of reality, but this is what impressed me the most: will gamers actually blow the face off of a man with a shotgun just like how the demo ended or will another route be taken? I think whether or not a game can be truly considered great is when the player is in direct control of their actions and feelings instead of convenient thematic elements popping up when the developers feel it’s required.
I still think there’s a place for everything in video games but seeing as where we are now and what tools are available to gamers it would be nice to see things evolve and be given more meaning. In the past certain games have tried to give violence a meaning to the player and the two old games that spring to mind which were successful are oddly enough GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption. In a few areas GTAIV proved to be an interesting experiment since it was a game that in a lot of ways created a psychological connection between gamers and Niko Bellic, the protagonist of the game who was attempting to leave his violence past behind him. With Niko bemoaning all the killing he had done in the past, it at least instilled the sense in me to not be totally reckless when I played the game and kill everything that walked.
I don’t know if it was wholly intentional on the part of Rockstar or was merely one of the issues that game had, but ultimately both I and Niko fell into our old ways since the story presented as much and I ultimately grew tired of the game but the true point is that it still attempted to do something different instead of having run-of-the-mill violence that had no true consequence, either in the game or on the mind of the player, at all. Red Dead Redemption was a bit more successful in achieving a greater meaning in its depiction of the old west since I as John Marston could decide to kill whoever rode past me and if I did such a thing was represented in a very realistic and convincing way which saw limbs contort and gaping holes erupt from the back of someone’s head.
At this point I think people actually wouldn’t mind playing a game that has a bit more thought put into it and may make the conscience of the player be at the forefront instead of their immediate reflex skills. I wouldn’t expect a game like Call of Duty to suddenly opt to give us a realistic sense of warfare and even then it’s a bit difficult to make players decide whether or not to kill an enemy that’s either charging at them or is in an outpost with a sniper rifle trying to blow their head off. I think that having to think about what we do instead of mindlessly doing it in a video game could prove to be as entertaining as engaging in a high speed chase that in reality, or even in the context of the game world, would result in 100 people being killed and millions of dollars in damages.
For every game like God of War or Halo there should be at least a few games which realize that giving us the same sort of thing will get tiresome, desisentize our feelings concerning what’s presented, and simply lack an impact compared to what could’ve been done. I don’t think games are close to disentizing an entire generation of people towards violent imagery since what’s depicted through a series of polygons can never truly match a real flesh & blood thing, but soon we may just grow bored with even great games like Uncharted as they feature action that has about 1,000 mercenaries or guns for hired killed in the blink of an eye by an easy going adventurer. We may not see games immediate change their perspective on violence over night, but perhaps titles such as The Last Of Us could push developers to think more about the battles they put gamers in and that there’s more at stake than just passing a level and reaching a new high score.