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.
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.
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.
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…
*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.