The End Game Of Violence

The End Game Of Violence

We all want games to be more than simulators of shooting people in the face. We want the best games to mean something, to say something, in the same we want the best novels and films and music to speak to us. Games should matter.

2K Marin designer Steve Gaynor knows a few things about simulators of shooting people in the face, having most recently worked on BioShock 2. But of course BioShock 2 isn’t merely about shooting people in the face; it also wants to mean something.

Does violence get in the way of a game trying to say something meaningful and worthwhile?

On his Fullbright blog, Gaynor writes that violence in games isn’t an inherent obstacle, but it’s the way that violence is presented that is holding the medium back.

It bothers me that people demonize violence in video games as a concept. I understand that it’s because violence is so wildly overused, and often so luridly fetishized, that the instinct of those of us immersed in the medium is to swing 180 degrees to the other side of the spectrum: no killing! no guns! no blood! But violence– and I’m not trying to be apologist here– is an integral element of drama through the ages. The question is in its application. Violence can and should be powerful; I argue that video games rob violence of its power by making it lightweight, pedestrian, throwaway, meaningless– by making it de rigeur, the violence no longer matters: it is made mundane.

Violence in games becomes meaningless when we’re mowing down wave after wave of generic, faceless, nameless enemies. Gaynor argues that “violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.”

He follows this to its logical conclusion. If violence is to mean something in a video game, then any character with whom the player interacts must be “a unique and specific individual.” As a result, “there are no more broad swaths of generic violence, then; there are only discrete acts of specific violence, each of which has the potential to matter.”

It’s a provocative topic, and certainly one to bear in mind when you’re playing the latest blockbuster FPS.

When writing about the confronting Spec Ops: The Line a couple of weeks ago, I contrasted its morally ambiguous approach to violence with that of another high profile military shooter I’d seen at E3. This other title – you can no doubt guess which – had you merrily piloting a helicopter through the jungles of Laos and blowing the indiscriminate crap out of anything that could’ve been a military target. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder what this game and its developers were actually trying to say. Did they even have anything to say?


Infinity Ward tried to say something with Modern Warfare 2. That game’s “No Russian” mission still served up broad swaths of violence, but the intent was to make the player question the target of such violence and our complicity in such virtual atrocities. It may not have succeeded – indeed, I’d argue it was a total failure – yet it did show how such themes could be tackled in interactive form.

In that regard, many games struggle with giving meaning to violence outside of their cut-scenes. How many games have you played where characters soak up hundreds of bullets during gameplay only to fall to one lucky shot in a cinematic sequence? In such cases we typically see an act of violence committed against – and usually by – a unique and specific individual. That act thus carries meaning and consequence.

But if every act of violence needs to carry meaning, game developers face a problem of content. How do you design a game where every victim of violence is a unique and specific individual? It’s simply not feasible given the sheer number of potential victims in any given game. When a game demands you shoot hundreds of people in the face, it’s impossible for them all to be unique and specific individuals with whom the player has forged some sort of relationship. Without that investment, violence is trivial.

But what if violence wasn’t the only mode of interaction? This is what Gaynor is pointing towards: the idea that violence carries greater meaning when is is used more sparingly.

THQ’s first-person shooter Metro 2033 is based on a book in which the hero fires a gun just once on a human. When interviewing producer Huw Beynon earlier this year, I asked him if he could ever envisage making a shooter in which the player fired a gun just once. He laughed, and I suspect he wasn’t sure whether or not to take me seriously, instead pointing out how such a game probably wouldn’t be fun for the player.

But I was serious. Developer Quantic Dream hints at a future where games can, through showing restraint when it comes to violence, be as dramatic and tense and adrenalin-pumping as any bullet-soaked FPS. A high point of Heavy Rain arrives when protagonist Ethan Mars must choose whether or not to fire a gun on a drug dealer he has only just met. In a couple of minutes the player is given a glimpse into this man’s life: through bursts or dialogue between the drug dealer and Ethan, through being taken inside his home, through seeing a photo of his family. Suddenly the decision – to shoot or not to shoot – becomes a whole lot more difficult. And, depending on how you play, it may be the only moment in the entire game when Ethan uses a gun.

Do you feel games trivialise violence through overuse? Which games do you feel best explore concepts of violence in a meaningful way? And would you like to play a shooter in which the player fires a gun just once?

Follow the link below to read Gaynor’s blog post in full.

Specific Violence [Fullbright]


  • Heavy Rain is the only game I’ve played where the violence in it has had an effect on me, because the violence isn’t meaningless.
    Most FPS games give you enemies as just another thing to unload bullets into until it stops moving. There’s no impact; it’s just progression.
    The scene mentioned in Heavy Rain there made me feel ill after making my choice. It’s a game that gives weight to your actions. All of the violence in Heavy Rain is associated with emotion, and that makes it stand out among countless killing-filled video games.

    • +1 for the high impact of Heavy Rain. No game has made me feel more remorse or weight of choice over killing a character, even if that character was a scum bag.

      It’s definitely one of the most important games of the past few years.

    • When I played Mass Effect and Fallout (and to a lessor extent, Bioshock) there were alot of times when I felt like this too. Each decision really meant something, and there were consequences for you actions. ie, kill someone now and their buddies will hate you later on.

  • Violence in video games is usually devoid of context or consequences. We’re ‘allowed’ to participate in the violence itself, but not given any kind of window into the consequences of that violence or even the reasons behind it. Many shooters justify the player’s actions by painting enemies as, for example, bloodthirsty aliens (Halo, Gears) or generic baddies/criminals/thugs (pretty much everything else). Games that challenge this dynamic are rare.

    When violence is stripped of its gravitas, so to speak, it becomes casualised and indiscriminate. There’s no point wondering about the 20 generic baddies you’ve gunned down, because there’s another 20 around the next corner and many more beyond that. I’m not at all saying this is a bad thing – I love shooters and shooter/RPG hybrids, but from an intellectual perspective I realise they ‘rob violence of its power’.

    I’d certainly welcome a more thoughtful approach to violence in gaming – more justified violence, for one – but in reality it would be difficult to carry out. So many games (especially shooters, role playing games) are military-themed where violence is necessary (if not justified) as part of the gameplay. If we take away violence in video games, GTA and its ilk become a driving/horseriding simulation and shooters lose all purpose. But more games that made us think before firing the trigger, or even gave us the ability to make that choice, would be great. As this blog says, it is possible to create pathos, tension and adrenaline without firing a single shot.

    • Gears of War always confused me. Didn’t we colonise the Locust homeworld? Aren’t the “bloodthirsty aliens” just fighting back? Admittedly, I never paid much attention…

      • haha yeah i always wondered about that one.. are we actually playing the bad guys, but we feel sorry for the humans because they’re about to be wiped out?

        Then again i never thought much about it because i was too busy mowing through the slimy dudes!

        ..which is actually the exact problem this article addresses.

        In games where i can choose whether or not i can kill one, i tend not to (fallout and the such) as i already have enough of that in every other section of the game or in other games…

        personally i wouldn’t mind playing an action type game where you don’t kill many people, as i always like to be the good guy in games and don’t want to solve all my problems with a bullet to the head of some random encounter…

      • I’ve only played bits and pieces of Gears and Gears 2, but according to Wikipedia, the planet is home to both humans and Locust. The Locust are fighting a civil war, with one side (the ‘evil’ Locust) gradually losing and are attacking humans in order to escape to the surface (away from their enemy). I guess it makes them more than one-dimensional enemies…

        • Part of gears 2 suggests that the Locust are from experiments done to humans when you are going through a deserted research compound

      • Both are outsiders trying to make the planet Sera it’s home. However, we can’t fully understand it until the rest of the story is told. Unfortunately, you only really get snippits of history in the first two games.

        • But isn’t that also the issue

          in the developers attempt to move copies of the games they normally dont elaborate enough on the story and leave you with a big cresendo cliffhanger ending

          if you don’t make an effort with the story and just go for set pieces. the enemies are just that a random sprite that ive been told to shoot

          the other issue is even if (using the gears example in one of the other posts) that we invaded them(idk havent played em) that theres no alternative to shooting the aliens

          which is where heavy rain got it right, you either had reactive violence, or you had the chance to talk the situation out

  • I always like Steve Gaynor’s insight into games development. He might goof around on the Idle Thumbs podcast, but whenever he’s discussed the meat and potatoes side of games development he always does it in an intelligent and engaging way.

    Nice to know that people like Gaynor are the minds behind the games I love to play.

  • I’ve thought about this too.

    I find it especially funny in games like GTA and Mass Effect that provide ‘moral choices’ where after killing hundreds and hundreds of low-paid near-innocent goons, you can choose to let the big bad guy go free and get massive karmic rewards for it.

    Heavy Rain is by far the best, and most consistent, exploration of violence in games that I have seen. Ethan’s decisions were simply amazing to wrestle with.

    Metal Gear Solid 3 was interesting, because the final kill is the first one that really makes you think. It made me consider everything that had come to that point, and I started regretting it a little, even though it was all scripted.

    Shadow of the Colossus also very interesting, though doesn’t force the gamer to make a choice.

    • This always puzzled me as well. Are we meant to assume that the hundreds of goons/henchmen we just casually mowed down are less deserving of life than the evil arch-enemy we let go for massive good points? How is it justified that the apparently ‘more evil’ person (if we’re being simplistic) gets away with, say, life in jail – or even mercy and freedom – while his or her legions of comparatively ‘less evil’ bodyguards get shot/stabbed/mutilated etc?

      Great discussion going on here by the way.

  • This is good stuff–and the reason I bookmarked Gaynor’s blog months ago (despite his sporadic posts). I skirted around this issue before in my own blog talking about Heavy Rain though I’ve thought more about that game since then.

    The key to this, I think, is what was said up there: violence is the only interaction your characters are capable of. Heavy Rain maybe went too far into being able to pick up the orange juice, but this is a step in the right direction. Current videogames are violence pornography. How meaningful is the sex in porn? There is no meaning, its the visceral experience that’s the raison d’etre of the genre. Contrast that to sex in something American Beauty, even the IDEA of sex in that film is very meaningful. There is no meaning to the violence in games today (by and large) its the visceral experience that we’re after.

    I’ve wondered before if Heavy Rain doesn’t point the way towards something else we can do with videogame technology. A reinvention of ‘interactive fiction’ as it were, with a focus more on story, and particularly story that is relevant to the lives of the players. Very few of us know anything about shooting or the military, as opposed to a family crisis or other soap-opera fare. These won’t replace action shooters, any more than serious drama substitutes for an action movie, but could be a worthwhile complement. These kinds of stories would require very different interaction capabilities than simply pulling the trigger (or not) of a gun.

    You guys above ask an interesting question about the motivations or intentions of high-violence games. What other scenarios are there that even remotely morally justify the mowing down of dozens of victims than the military or alien invasion genre? We could of course do a Columbine game, there’s a situation where one person can go around shooting lots of others. But I think most people would object to that. (I’m aware its been done, more or less, btw.)

    Any finally, I actually found the finger-cutting scene of Heavy Rain the more upsetting. Talk about committing violence to a well-established, unique individual. Heavy Rain doesn’t really show restraint when it comes to violence–there is violence everywhere in that story. Violence against children, no less. We just don’t see it committed or commit it ourselves very often.

    *One game that makes violence moderately meaningful is Naughty Bear, IMO. The meaning is black, black irony, but that’s something!

  • Games are a bit like cuisine inasmuch that we need to have a variety and gamers crave this variety. Ideally we’d have a large number of games that can achieve what Gaynor is talking about, because I do think it would be amazing if games could maximise the effect of the violence and make the player’s actions more meaningful. However, I also think it’s important for us to have the mindless shooting titles, because sometimes I don’t want to feel the deep impact of violence and its effects on individual characters – some times, like my inclination to pop bubbles or collect coins, i just want to shoot shit in the face.

  • In the other corner is Prototype.
    You really were not a hero in that game even though you were supposed to be. You could rip apart some random person for health and your kill-count was measured in the thousands.

    That said, getting an achievement for road-killing 500 Innocent civilians with one tank really should make anyone stop and consider what they are doing.

  • I liked how Metroid Prime handled violence. When you start out, you’re somewhat weak and need to shoot everything just because you know if you don’t kill it, it’ll kill you. But when you become more powerful and better equipped, you find yourself skipping over enemies, so you only really killed something when you absolutely had too.

  • It’s interesting the article mentions individualising enemies.
    What effect would creating a range of potential body types and appearances for npcs in a game have?
    Would making the mob/cannon fodder/innocents more individual change how players behave around them?
    I know I didn’t kill anyone in RDR if they weren’t trying to kill John or someone else, yet I mowed down hundreds of generic animals and birds.

    • I didn’t kill any randoms either but I had still killed hundreds of people by 2/3rds of my way through the game.
      Probably close to a thousand by the time I stopped playing.

      The appearance matters little, its how the npc’s are used. If there is lots of combat then lots of npc’s are gonna die and they just become targets.

      Wonder if it would be possible to make a game with lots of action but little killing?
      Cause Heavy rain I’m sure is very meaningful but still boring to a large percentage of gamers.

    • My take on individualising enermies runs a lot deeper than physical appearance in game. I interpret this as giving each enermy a personality and back story that the player is aware of when deciding to act. Could be simple things like he’s a father of two girls or more involved like his motives for joining the enemy army. Conscription, Free will or countless others.

      I think this much detail would fail on a traditional shooter as the current game mechanics don’t adapt to these storytelling techniques.

      Hence the possible evolution of games and violence.

  • Personally I’m working on a game right now, and I don’t know why but early on in development I sort of decided that the main character would never kill anybody or any of the other creatures. As I developed the story, I realised that spacing out the times the character can die, and lowering enemy count to mainly story driven scripted sequences made the game quite a bit stronger then it would have been.

    Personally I always hated Uncharted 2’s cutscenes, not that they wer’nt an adrenaline filled thrill ride, but because they always presented Nathan Drake as a moral character when technically he is a theif and mass murderer. I also found alot of things ridiculous about that game, the fact that it takes an infinite amount of bullets to kill a yeti in gameplay yet the badguy fells one in one shot, the fact throwing a grenade on the train dosent derail it but when Drake shoots a gas canister the whole thing explodes…. and why that one terrorist had more hp than the helicopter and could only be killed with mellee attacks… damn that game was ****ing stupid.

  • It is also possible to include violence in a game without killing, or without much. There are many weapons out there that are non/less lethal, and even lethal weapons can be used in ways that drastically reduce the number of deaths.

    Consider a game with a similar concept to V, where, at least at the start of the game many the majority of the population views you as the bad guys. How you choose to approach the games objectives from there could have a strong effect on how the game plays out.

    Do you chose to kill everyone in you’re way? maybe try stealth instead, or separate in to groups where one engaging in battle to distract the opposition, firing large numbers of bullets to keep their heads down with out actual trying to hit anyone. Blowing up parts of the environment.

    In this way you could have a shooter where there is still plenty of action but still have killing someone be a meaningful action by having tangible consequences for doing so. It might be the easiest path now but will it make things better in the long run?

  • Bioshock 2 sort of did this. In addition to the standard waves of indistinguishable mooks it also had several moments where you could either kill a named NPC or not. You knew loads about these people and, if you were as engaged by the plot as I was, killing them gained significance far beyond the generic face-shooting the rest of the game employed.
    And even that had a brilliant and powerful moment, can any of you honestly say you didn’t feel awful when you killed that big daddy in persephone and found the audio log on his corpse?
    Also, the goddamn ending. If that wasn’t an example of violence being used right then I don’t know what was.

  • Mirror’s Edge discouraged the use of firearms, which I thought was nice. I think the key is that the game has to give you the option rather than force either violence or pacifism upon the player, as in the example from Heavy Rain. Without that choice, there’s no real impact: if the developers always decide who you do or don’t kill, there’s no connection between the player and the action.

    There’s a lot to be said for games making an impact with violence not committed by the player character as well. I still remember the moment in Mass Effect at which a character shot himself in the head because I failed to talk him out of it. I suppose you could even say that it weighs on my conscience to an extent, and that’s a pretty powerful thing.

  • I remember doing a renegade alternate playthrough on Mass Effect and for the first time deciding to abandon the council and allow them to be killed. My gut literally wrenched when the Asari on the destiny ascension realised reinforcements had arrived and request urgent assistance only for the com channels to be closed by the alliance fleet and have them realise they were doomed.

    I had a similar experience in Bioshock when forced to kill Andrew Ryan. I remember how powerful I was at that point in the game, when even big daddies seemed to be easy prey for my genetically modified protagonist; only for all that power to be rendered null and being impotent as I watched Ryans death through my characters own eyes.

    Diablo gave me the same feeling of anger as Bioshock when, at the end, I realised that Diablo had been using King Leoric’s son as a host the entire time. Being complicit in the death of a frightened, innocent young child made me quite angry.

  • Games don’t always need violence to be amazing.

    Take PORTAL.

    You had a gun, sure, but all it fired was a non-lethal wormhole.

    More shots were fired by the turrets!

  • the reason why there isn’t consequences to be found behind killing is that, it would traumatize the person playing the game, if after the No Russian mission you had cut scenes throughout the entire game showing the main protagonist freaking out and having night terrors over what he had done.

    Those feeling would transfer to the player and the game wouldn’t have received a rating. That is why i hate when people say that video games cause kids to become violent, because that is simply not true.

    FPS games can’t have emotional enemies because that defeats the purpose of the FPS, if you were advancing on a guy holding a gun and hes like OH GOD DONT KILL ME, i dont want to be here, i was forced into this, and you shot him in the leg, and he kept trying to crawl away, and hes crying and then just before he dies yells out something about loving his wife and little girl.

    that makes the player feel emotionally distraught, now if you imagine that happened every 2 or 3 times you came across a guy standing alone, and the player new they weren’t evil, that level of violence is sickening.

  • An example that never seems to come up in these discussions is that section in the early part of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, as you approach to guards to take them out one of them tells the story of a terrifying night attack on his family and a group of rebels they ran with by a US special forces unit. The other guard tells him to toughen up and goes back to his patrol and when you grab the story teller and pull him into the shadows he gasps, ‘Finally, I always knew you’d come back to finish me’.

    It really moved me and I couldn’t bring myself to kill this one npc like I had a dozen others. It’s a PERFECT example of what Gaynor was talking about, the individualisation of characters in game, it gave the violence weight and for me it was too heavy and I changed the way I was playing as a result.

  • I feel compelled to point out the example of batman: Arkham Asylum, That was a game in which you killed precisely 1 enemy, and just knocked the rest out, yet it was just as satisfying and violent as any paramilitary death-shooter (which are awesome, don’t get me wrong), and I think there is a clear opportunity within that franchise to add serious weight to a death by bringing up Batman’s whole thing against killing people. There is most likely a niche in the industry for an action heavy game like that that can still emotionalize death, it just hasn’t been realized yet. Here’s hoping someone figures it out soon…

  • this is quite possibly one of the best and well written articles on the topic of violence in video-games, so first of all we should say thanks.

    The whole concept of impact from this view is one I’d not really considered before, yet makes so much sense.

    Even when I think back to the end of Red Dead Redemption, when you finally kill *NAME REMOVED FOR SPOILERS*, despite the fact that I’d killed many bad guys throughout the game without flinching, killing him was so amazingly satisfying for the end of the storyline – I remember even breathing out a big sigh thinking “it’s finally over”, and it’s these moments in gaming that make the game truly great. Yet this is so easily overlooked, most often by people who don’t play games, when compared to some of the more ultra-violent – yet minimal impact in comparison – games like Gears Of War

  • Why must violence in gaming always have deep meaning?

    The first movie I saw that really got me deep into the horrors of violence was Munich. That first gunshot Eric Bana’s character makes still haunts me, because it was the moment that the lines between hero and villain became blurred.

    That said, some of my favourite movies are mindless shoot-em-ups, as are some of my games. I love both Schindler’s List and Die Hard, Heavy Rain and Halo.

    Saying that violence must always have a deeper meaning or be presented in a certain way is elitist and quite wrong. Not everything needs to be handled in a serious manner; there’s a reason Shakespeare loaded his plays with sexual innuendo: if someone’s mind is only given serious material, they’ll melt down.

    That means that, yes, there should be Heavy Rains and Looms, but I don’t wanna bawl my eyes out or think deeply every time I have a controller in hand. I sometimes want to be subjected to moving stories to pull my heartstrings, but I also sometimes want to just escape from all of that heavy stuff and just mindlessly mow down enemy after enemy.

      • But aren’t there already some? Heavy Rain, for instance. Granted, there aren’t too many, but I’d be hard pressed to say that Bioshock 2 was filled with meaningful violence.

  • Big deal, they are video games. Just start the game all over again and presto! All of your characters are back to life again. 😉

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