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]