Landry’s Rants: Video Game Violence: What Do Gamers Really Want?

14 Dec, 2009

chop-chop

It’s a topic that gets a lot of attention. And for good reason. Violence is an easy talking point for the media. It’s an intense allure for a gamer. It’s a wonderful tool for the developer. Violence can be the central theme of an entire marketing strategy. I’ve heard that love and peace are the great unifiers of civilization. Nonsense. Nothing reaches across multiple demographics like some simple, in your face, head exploding, shotgun pumping, shovel to the back of the head style violence.

That said, I’m starting to find modern video game violence a bit… lacking.

A very roundabout and disjointed example: I was recently playing Batman: Arkham Asylum while hanging out with a friend (we’ll call him “Rob”. Mainly because his name is “Rob”.) I didn’t want to hog the game, so we handed the controller back and forth and random intervals.

Watching him play the game was a bit of a revelation for me. His style completely foreign. His method for dealing with the vile gun-toting criminals of this digital Gotham City? Run up to them and punch them. There was practically zero sneaking. Almost no subtlety or grace. He would just run up and punch the bad guy, usually taking a few machine gun shots to the face, and then zip away to a magical gargoyle that would render him invisible while his Bat-health recharged. Then he would repeat the process until there was nothing left to punch.

It was effective, I will grant that much. But to me, it kinda missed the point of Batman. Here’s a snippet of the ensuing conversation.

ME: You got shot.

ROB: Yeah.

ME: Batman doesn’t get shot.

ROB: It’s fine. I already healed.

ME: No… it’s not fine. You’re supposed to be Batman. Batman doesn’t get shot. He doesn’t get shot, because he’s Batman.

ROB: I’m wearing armor. I can get shot.

ME: I don’t think you’re listening to me.

I want realistic violence when I play video games. So, my goal when I played Batman: Arkham Asylum was to not get shot. That’s how Batman (yes, the guy dressed in tights fighting the clown) becomes realistic to me. And since I write comics with the name “Batman” in the title, I’m claiming an authoritative voice here.

Though now that I think about it, I already wrote a story where Batman got shot. So now I’m a hypocrite. Ah well.wrong-batman

Anyway, that’s my problem with video game violence. Bullets are something we shrug off. Point blank fire with a machine gun is something that a tiny bit of flexible body armor and 20 seconds sitting on a magic invisibility inducing gargoyle can cure. Time and time again, I’ve heard people claim that they want to see a greater degree of realism in video games. But that’s a lie. We don’t want realism. We want fantasy. We want unlimited ammo and we want rapid respawns. We want to jump out of second story windows without a scratch. We want to dodge bullets and shake off mortal wounds without pause.*

I’ve been shot at a couple of times. I don’t mean I was sitting at the TV waving a controller around so a little pixel person could dodge cyborg powered armor piercing poison tipped bullets. Nope. These were just bullets from a simple and boring hand gun. In each instance, the bullets missed. Lucky me. Because there were no handy first aid packs or carefully planted green herbs lying around waiting. If I had been shot, I expect it would have been amazingly unlike a video game. Assuming the bullet did not inflict irreparable harm to my body, the experience of actually being shot (let’s assume a grazing strike to the shoulder) would have likely done irreparable harm to the cleanliness of my pants. Yes. I realize the imaginary bullet hit my imaginary shoulder. You do the obvious math on how that correlates to the un-cleanliness of my pants. batman-right

Unlike video games, being shot at doesn’t really give you time for much more than a sense of dull panic while a part of your brain shuts down in shock over the fact that you are looking down the barrel (literally) of your own death. If one of those bullets had managed to strike home, say, in my skull. My last thoughts would likely have sounds like this:

ME: Golly, is that a- GYUH!

Rapidly followed by some sort of sickening thud noise as of a part my body meant to still be inside my body hits the ground.

I want to see video game realism brought to that level. I don’t want to roll my eyes at the thug carrying a pistol as overly simple and unexciting. I want round the digital corner and freeze upon realization that this combination of pixels is holding the power of my simulated life and death in its carefully rendered hands.

And I don’t want any of this out of some overbearing concern that we as a society are allowing ourselves to become numb to the grim realities of blah blah blah. Nope. I want a game that recreates that insane rush of endorphins and adrenaline or whatever it is after hearing a simple bullet crack past your ear. That’s what games should be. So real that I just have to put down the controller for a minute because some part of my lizard brain is shaking in disbelief over the scenario I somehow managed to survive.

That’s what video game violence should be (or violence in any medium, frankly). A tool to provoke an emotional response. Not just an excuse to show off graphics because they’re really freaking awesome (for the record: they are). The blood might look really pretty on screen, but after the tenth gallon or so…

Meh.

*I have no doubt that there are many games available that come closer to achieving a realistic setting than what I describe. I don’t care. I’m making sweeping generalizations here. It’s what I do.

About the author

Landry Walker

I’ve been working on comic books, toys and various art and writing projects for more than fifteen years, typically collaborating with artist Eric Jones. My creator-owned comics work include Filthy Habits, Skank Dick Skank, X-Ray Comics, Little Gloomy and Kid Gravity. Additionally, I have been hired to work on properties such as Kim Possible, Tony Hawk, Dave the Barbarian, Duck Tales, Scooby Doo and Tron. I'm best known for writing an all-ages reinterpretation of the classic DC Comics character Supergirl entitled Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures in the 8th Grade, and am currently writing comic book versions of Batman: The Brave and the Bold and The Incredibles. Also: Gamertag = Kid Gravity

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25 Comments

  1. zkylon
    zkylon
    December 14, 2009

    Uh, i think you could’ve made your point without acting aggressive, self-promoting and annoying. And it was actually a good point, applicable to things far more interesting than violence. But meh.

    • LanQWalker
      December 14, 2009

      I think violence is a worthwhile enough topic, as we’ve seen some games evolve from slow paced survival to in your face actions over the last decade. But you’re absolutely right of course. Exaggeration or extremism of any storytelling device can lead to something that should be outrageous instead feeling somewhat mundane. That was the real point. That sometimes more can be alot less, depending on structure and approach.

      And sure… I could have made my point without the exaggerated attitude and nod at self promotion. But it was more fun to write it this way and the point is still made.

      • zkylon
        zkylon
        December 14, 2009

        I don’t think it has to be extremist, sometimes when you go all the way into making something “too realistic”, it alienates the audience. Life’s random, unpredictable and pretty much senseless and i think it’s in there where you can strike the emotional blows if you find the way to mix it up into the gameplay. It’s a fine line between good frustration and bad frustration, i guess, and it’s a matter of trying until we nail it. I for one love the fact that in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you just walk around and some random anomaly blows the hell outta you.

        Videogames have to step up in how they deal everything. Violence may be one of the things that needs the most rethinking because of how vital it is to the industry. Like you say, there’s only so many blood you can throw at the screen before it gets meaningless.

  2. Eliot Hagen
    Eliot Hagen
    December 14, 2009

    This is why I liked InFamous and Prototype–completely unrealistic, but insanely fun. I can’t think of a game that wouldn’t be better if you could jump off a building with nary a scratch.

    • LanQWalker
      December 14, 2009

      The reality is that my opinion is far less extreme then how I present things in the article. I love unrealistic video game violence. I love playing a game where I can pick up a tank and hurl it into a crowded street. I love climbing to the top of the highest building and jumping off while firing a bazooka. Sounds like I need to pick up both those games.

  3. Korne
    Korne
    December 14, 2009

    Yeah, the best part of Batman AA was mix of the slow methodical stealth sections with the action packed hand to hand combat scenes.

    As for the realistic violence… it works in a few games, but it not that fun to have destroyed 87 members of the Crazy Eighty-Eights, only to slip up on the last guy and fail because of it. Also, having unrealistic health damage makes the game approachable to people that are not good at them.

    But if you want games that are punishing with the damage, Play Arma 2 or Demon Souls.

    • Korne
      Korne
      December 14, 2009

      Or, you could raise the difficulty =D

      • LanQWalker
        December 14, 2009

        Point. Good difficult settings can go a long way to tailoring any game to specific tastes.

  4. Randy Yasenchak
    December 14, 2009

    Cool feature! Definitely made me chuckle in your you and “Rob” interaction. I’ve been “you” in that situation a few times.

    Can’t wait to read more!

  5. December 14, 2009

    Good article.
    A few responses:
    Me/Rob – We’ve all been in that situation where someone is playing the game “wrong”, and something in your heart is yearning for you to snatch that controller back and bring your game back to sensible playing. The way it was supposed to be. These days it’s a speedrun gamer society so the idea of BEING batman might get lost on a few.

    Realism vs Fantasy – I loved it. Classic example in re-training an audience.
    If you are playing a game and 1 bullet can end your gamer’s life, you will be MUCH more deliberate with your movements. Violence is universal, but over-utilizing violence to get a reaction from the gamer stagnates the imagery and you will lose the effect & the gamer’s interest (GTA). If you wait and then unleash violent imagery upon the gamer after they have stalked their victim for an extended period of time, the thrill is that much more rewarding.
    Think of it like this, a girl who gives it up on the first date leaves you wanting nothing else, there is no reason to come back because she’s given you everything. A girl who makes you wait date after date, when you finally get it will be that much better.
    -Will

  6. Briz9
    December 14, 2009

    On a related note: Did the video from God of War 3 of Kratos ripping some guy’s head off make anyone else want to puke? That was a little too realistic for me.

    • Randy Yasenchak
      December 14, 2009

      I could easily see that happening. For me it was one of those “ewww…. gross!!……. AWESOME!!!” moments.

    • Eliot Hagen
      Eliot Hagen
      December 14, 2009

      Actually I did cringe a bit when I first saw that.

      • Gavin Greene
        December 15, 2009

        …I wanted him to rip off more limbs ^_^ Make him just a Helios torso.

  7. Nate Yungkans
    December 14, 2009

    I tend to not want “realistic” games. I like it when games have a real world feel, but give you fantastic abilities. I used to really like games that have consequences, like having to sit out until the end of a round that could be 10 minutes long(America’s Army) if you get killed. When you’re the last one alive, it really adds stress. My heart would often be beating a mile a minute. I had a similar experience in gears of war.

  8. HJ
    December 30, 2009

    Excellent point you’ve made on the softpedia article. (I’m the author) I’ll mend things as soon as possible, and update the article as much as I can, but I’ll apologize in advance, as in now, about the lack of accuracy of the article. Honestly, I’d rewrite the whole thing, but there’s only so much I can cut out of it.

    • Landry Walker
      December 30, 2009

      Thanks. I really appreciate that.

      • HJ
        December 30, 2009

        Done. Hope this make my screw up fall at least a little bit short of a complete f*ck up.

        • Landry Walker
          December 30, 2009

          Just read it and I think it’s fine now. Thanks much for taking the time to clarify the relevant points. It means alot to me.

  9. slazare
    March 30, 2010

    i got batman yesterday and am at the part fighting bane and henchmen im so glad to fianlly be playing a game thats so far at least free from gorey gun ridden wounds and actually focusing on a story wich is really good.the suicide and gun references are really getting on my nerves i mean it says everything when final fantasy has it like come on put more effort into the game like batman its funny and keeps you interested not just ooh look what i can put in the game its like there making games for kids or something if its got lots of gun references and explosions its a hit there not even trying anymore.