Of the many previews that emerged from this year’s E3 to generate hype, one that didn’t inspire much outrage or concern was the one for the upcoming Farcry 3.
In just under two minutes, this (decidedly NSFW) trailer promises an adventure that will play out as Apocalypse Now if it were directed by Rob Zombie. A harrowing, but thrilling escapade through the island jungles of the South Pacific that will sate your blood lust, your wanderlust, and perhaps just your lust; a woman riding our male protagonist in vicious ecstasy from his perspective is one of the first images in its scant running time.
It’s a glorious incitement to mayhem, madness and murder. Almost (but not quite) subliminal commands of “EAT”, “KILL”, “HUNT”, and “F&CK”, flash across the screen. The woman who our hero has been sleeping with insists that “. . . every man you fight deserves to have his life taken from him” and a deranged loon with a mohawk yells at you to shoot him in the heart.
You know, just another violent video game. Just another ad for one. Nothing special.
Of the many comments to be uttered by industry insiders during this year’s E3, Warren Spector’s seem to be the most appropriate when addressing the particular brand of gladiatorial spectacle the Farcry 3 trailer advocates.
The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don’t believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it’s in bad taste. Ultimately I think it will cause us trouble.
Spector said a lot of other wise things (read ’em here) but on the point of violence, I couldn’t agree more.
As I pontificated at length the other day, gaming revels in the obvious and the blunt. The “Ultra-violence” Spector’s alluding to is simply the primary expression of this bluntness. He eloquently nails the point better than I could have – gaming is in love with far too much violence, and it’s becoming sickening.
It would be simple enough to leave the issue at that. But merely stating that there is problem without an attempt at providing a possible solution seems a bit pointless, so let’s delve!
How has gaming come to this point? How is it that no one sees a problem other than a minority of folks like Spector? More importantly, how do you reverse the trend?
Calibrating the Scales
In the real world, violent acts have a weight. When a soldier, police officer, or even gang member is killed, it causes others to react. We mourn, we weep, we rage. Revenge is taken; sometimes justly, and all too often wrongfully.
Violence in our day to day reality is heavy. It has mass. Gravity. It leaves a lasting impression on all it touches and is one of the great human ills that we bemoan as much as we adhere to it. Yet it is also core to our understanding of reality; it defines us as much as romance, creativity, and achievement, and holds our interest hostage when it occurs around us as much as anything.
There was never an epic written that wasn’t filled with the atrocities of war and deftly courageous strikes against the monstrous.
While real-world rage is impactful, the weight given to fictitious portrayals of violence spans quite a wide spectrum. Often it is as weighty as it is in reality; when Oedipus pulls out his eyes it is a major moment that changes not only himself, but everyone in the play with him. Other times it is as light as a feather; when Arnold and company mow down fifty men at the start of Predator, the violence is over the top and filled with jest.
Unlike all other media though, video game violence has mostly stuck to this latter measure. Video game violence, as a whole, is consistently light. Svelte even.
The reason this has come to pass is actually pretty easy to identify. It has to do with the process of games themselves.
Even the most placid video games are about action. From a literary sense, they are about verbs – the doing of things – and they enable and empower players to commit verb actions great and small. You run, you jump, you fly, you shoot, you talk, you die.
Naturally, these actions lead to outcomes – reactions. Standard cause and effect, really. It’s simply thanks to our morbid curiosity that the violent verbs and their similar outcomes are continually the most compelling and gratifying, and it’s quite natural that game developers give their audience what they want.
It’s for this reason I think, that most don’t see a problem at all. Gamers want to play at war and death, and so the developers provide them war and death; there’s a demand, the developers supply it. The issue here isn’t that developers are providing a bunch of bloodletting verbs to gamers. I’m certainly not advocating that we need to stop them.
No, the issue is that the weight given the violence is simply too light, too often. That when you make violence too unsubstantial in a medium that uses it almost exclusively, the medium itself begins to lack substance.
The Weight of Violence in Gaming only makes sense on the Moon.
Playing through the recent Max Payne 3, I was struck at just how ludicrously high the kill count was. Over the course of the game you kill roughly a thousand foes – a number so high that Max would be considered a war criminal by any reasonable legal definition – and it doesn’t seem unnatural at all except upon reflection. Actually, the game itself comments on this a few times; Max points out more than once that he expected only to find a couple dozen thugs in a given situation, not armies.
Slaying so many people doesn’t feel weird in the moment though, primarily because Max uses modern weapons (various firearms) and killing any individual with our current weaponry is unnervingly efficient. If any single thug could absorb a thousand bullets without enough body armor to stop a tank shell, it would feel unrealistic in a completely different direction. Since the game is constantly trying to present a challenge to the player, the primary method to accomplish this is to increase the number of opponents, and thus the weight of any individual act of violence is quite light.
Such airy acts of aggression are problematic only because the rest of the story is trying to be taken seriously. Max’s world is supposed to be realistic depiction of our own, yet the incredible number of kills creates something those who like fancy five-dollar words call a ludonarrative dissonance, or essentially, the gap between our reality and a game’s reality that we must jump to stay immersed in the game. Again, this is mitigated somewhat in Max Payne 3 by the fact that at least the world reacts as you’d think it would – both the world and Max himself think him a monster, and it’s a key point of the game that is explored, though perhaps not explored enough.
When the player character isn’t a murder-machine like Payne or Kratos, but is supposedly non-violent or a more humane “everyman” type, this dissonance gap can get wide enough to break immersion like a rabbit in the hands of Lenny Small. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves famously starts with it’s charming protagonist monologuing about how he doesn’t want to kill anybody on his quest to find treasure. Then the rest of the game consists of him killing six hundred mercs, some of whom were probably decent enough folks, and our “everyman” Nathan Drake comes off not only as a sociopath, but a hypocritical one.
Of course, many games increase the gravity of their grave-making by using less lethal arms or featuring more resilient foes. Fighting games and brawlers like my beloved Final Fight feature much heavier violence than a modern shooter primarily because most of your attacks aren’t lethal. You simply beat people up to remove them as a threat, in what I like to call “The Fight Club Effect”.
When someone is killed while death is at a premium as high as gasoline, it can then be made a major plot point rather than just one more body hitting the floor. The first-person brawler Xenoclash runs with this, and the recent Batman: Arkham [Insert Location Subtype] games get a lot of mileage out of it as well. When someone dies in these games, it means something; the violence is weighty.
On the other end of the spectrum are the enemies that are just damned difficult to kill, usually bosses. When you finally topple a mountain of a monster after a two hour ordeal, narrowly avoiding being swatted like a fly all the while, it’s not simply one moment surrounded by a multitude but an achievement worth taking time to consider. Shadow of the Colossus was based entirely on this premise; the only creatures you must kill are the 16 colossi (gargantuan beasts worthy of their name), and every single time you slay one of them it’s important, potent, and building towards an increasing doom as massive as the titular beasts.
While at first it might seem the simple division lies in the arms given to the player – that light violence would be unavoidable given the context of modern weaponry and the need to keep a game’s action challenging, and heavy violence occurs only by decreasing the player’s strength or increasing their foe’s girth – that really isn’t the case. There’s another factor, far more important than the other two. One that can be used more often than it is: choice.
In the linked interview above, Spector cites himself, pointing out that his often violent Deus Ex (which used modern and futuristic weaponry) managed to keep the sensation that killing someone was a hefty act. He insists this was accomplished by making sure the result was bloody and lingering. Certainly, making sure bodies stick around to remind players of what they’ve done helps increase the sensation that the tussle and tumult was effectual, it gives an act of murder continuity if nothing else.
But that isn’t actually as important as the real reason Desus Ex‘s violence had weight. The primary reason the game was so remarkable at the time was that violence wasn’t necessary to get through the adventure. The player almost always had a way to get through the game without hurting a single living soul, at least not permanently.
Primarily this was accomplished with the use of stealth (and its cousin, the tranquilizer dart). In 1998, game developers seemed to realize what they learned playing “hide and seek” as children: that sometimes avoiding enemies could be just as exciting as conquering them. Thief: The Dark Project, Metal Gear Solid, and Tenchu: Silent Assassins all came out that year, and all had different takes on how or why your characters were choosing not to slay, but to skulk.
So is that the answer? That in order to increase the weight of violence in any game that allows it, in order to increase it’s importance, that these games must also include stealth, tougher enemies, and limited means to kill those set against the player? Each technique certainly adds a little bit of weight overall, so it stands to reason that all of them together would work like gangbusters!
All these factors are apparent in this gameplay trailer for Naughty Dog’s forthcoming and highly anticipated The Last of Us. The men that confront Joel and Ellie are dangerous, they use sneaky tactics to avoid and surprise them, and the very limited amount of ammunition prevents an endless slaughter from occurring. The violence seen is also quite disconcerting indeed.
The Last of Us is championing blended gameplay to give the player more choices in general, but it seems to be effective at making “heavy violence” as well. However, watching one sequence seems a bit misleading if you’re considering the overall sense of the game. The Last of Us is listed as “Survival/Action-Adventure” not Stealth, and my guess is that by the end we’ll have brutally killed rather than simply avoided so many enemy survivors and fungal zombies that it will fall into Max Payne territory again.
This reminder, that too much repetitive violence can undo the potential impact of all the individual weight gaining elements, makes the combination strategy seem impotent by itself. It’s missing something. A real “third option” that increases the potential impact of every single slaying in a game.
Perhaps I’m going about this all wrong. Violence in games is actually an effect, a result of player actions. Maybe if we look at the cause of this effect, a true third option will appear.
For that, we have to get to the root of it all: conflict.
New Year’s Conflict Resolutions
Fiction is about conflict, and most stories are about how the characters resolve conflict in one manner or another. In video games the how, the choice, is left up to the player. If you look at gaming verbs and subsequently, violence, as a result of conflict resolution strategy choices, a distinct dichotomy begins to reveal itself.
As I see it, there are two primary factors on how to resolve conflict. You either engage with it or you disengage from it, and you do so either openly and directly – you confront it – or you try to find a non-confrontational means of resolving the situation – you don’t confront it. Engagement and confrontation are the two axes that seem the most pertinent, and so I’m going to go with them for now.
Killing foes is an aggressive, confrontational, and engaging way to resolve conflict. If you slay those who stand against you, they aren’t going to be causing anymore conflict now are they? It is also the primary method seen in video games, and is what leads to a maximum of violence. We’re going to use Kratos as our avatar of confrontational engagement as a means to resolve conflict.
Stealth, likewise, is a way to resolve conflict. It is a non-confrontational method – you actively avoid those who would stop you – but it is also an engaging method – usually you work towards ends to resolve the conflict overall. Solid Snake will be our avatar here, mostly because I already have him pictured up above.
The other two means are far less apparent, especially in gaming, but they do exist.
The first is non-confrontational disengagement, or essentially a denial of the the conflict entirely. In actual gameplay terms this is the result that occurs when you say no to a quest offered, or more visibly, when you run away from enemies. Since that’s the case, I think we’ll use Edward the “Spoony” Bard from Final Fantasy IV, as he actually had the ability to hide from enemies in battle.
Now, just because non-confrontational disengagement seems like the coward’s way out (and it often is), doesn’t mean interesting gameplay can’t stem from it. Survival horror existed on this as a means of conflict resolution back when it emphasized the “survival” and wasn’t just another excuse to shoot scary monsters. Every time you ran away from zombies or hunters in Resident Evil, you were disengaging from conflict, and it’s a major part of what made the monsters and the situation you found yourself in so dang scary.
Likewise, in RPGs that emphasize a lot of player choice, like Skyrim, the ability to say “no” is often important in of itself. It’s a major part of what can really make a game excellent from a player empowerment perspective. Sequence breaking in games like Super Metroid is a perfect example of a powerful denial of given options, for example.
Of course, for denial to work the developers have to design a system that doesn’t require the player to always make a specific choice, either by offering other options themselves or by ensuring that the the game won’t break should this occur. In other words, it’s more work from their end. There are tons of examples of player denial simply being refused by the game developers, and making this choice non-existent.
Also, running away isn’t exactly heroic. It’s rare that denial is something the player wants to do, and is something that generally only exists as something they need to do in order to survive and bide time until they confront the problems facing them. I’ve heard similar complaints about stealth games too, as it seems like sneaking around is a not only slow and boring but non-confrontational.
So is it confrontation that makes the first option of engagement, the violent one, so darn appealing?
Perhaps not, as the last of the four options, confrontational disengagement – or convincing the other parties to stand down – isn’t used nearly so often. Mediation is much rarer than premeditated murder.
Aside from the general verb of “Speech”, “Mediation” seems a good descriptor of any time you can convince an NPC to stop aggression or to assist in an endeavor. In fact, for the purposes of illustration, that’s exactly what I’m going to use, the Final Fantasy Tactics Mediator class.
This is the realm of diplomacy, persuasion, and conversation. Where the goal is to be present and confront the the problem directly (without stealth or cowardice) but also to try and find a peaceful means to end the tumult (without violent engagement). The Gandhi approach, essentially. It’s at least as capable of increasing the weight of violence in a game as sneaking is for exactly the same reason – it offers the choice to not be violent!
That’s really the heart of the matter. For violence to truly have weight, the option for it not to exist needs to be present, quite similarly to how the Fight Club Effect works actually. In fact I’d say on a certain level, it’s more powerful; in Metal Gear and Splinter Cell games, I find that not killing my opponents when I know I can provides a distinct assurance of my mastery of the situation.
However, while stealth (the method to allow for the nonviolence in those games) is seen as a fun, active way of accomplishing this goal, mediation and negotiation aren’t. As already mentioned, they are the least used methods of conflict resolution in gaming.
Why? Well, there are a few primary reasons. First, it’s really hard to pull off properly, requiring a lot of extra effort and a design that allows for it, just like the to denial option. Mediation and speech don’t just exist as a natural opposite reaction to a choice as denial often is though, they need to be intentionally inserted at the outset of a game’s development. Hence more planning, more time, and more budget.
Secondly, I think it’s because the concept ends up with often less than spectacular reactions. Developers know that gamers want to see active results for the actions they use in games. Enemies backing off or standing down is a sort of a huge anti-result in some people’s minds, basically.
But that’s really a problem with presentation. A hostage negotiator gets a big result when they’re successful; they’re congratulated on saving a whole bunch of lives along with the rest of the cops. Likewise, Gandhi toppled an empire without ever firing a bullet or sneaking into Britain’s secret military installations and blowing them up from the inside, and he’s been heralded as a hero and an inspiration throughout history for it. It’s totally possible to give the player positive feedback for this strategy with a little effort, and one easy example is to get enemies to join your cause, as seen in many “Tactics” games such as La Pucelle (though that can lead to other silliness).
Oh, and before I forget, here’s a handy dandy chart I’ve made to illustrate the whole “Square of Conflict” idea:
The other primary reason I think mediation and negotiation aren’t used as often in video games is both simpler to explain and harder to fix: I don’t think developers know how to make it fun, or more specifically, they see it as a passive choice when an active one would be preferable. Combat is active. Stealth is active. Even fleeing is active. Talking? Well, that’s just not as sexy as the alternatives on an activity scale, right?
This gets back to what I was saying in my last article, if developers knew how to make a game about talking to folks as fun as one where you shoot them instead, they would do it a lot more often than they do currently. However, solving this problem would go a long way to adding to the variance of nuance gaming often lacks, so I see it as completely worthy challenge to attempt.
While I have some ideas on how to make speech systems better, it will require another article at least as long as this one to get into. So that will be tabled for another day. Besides, there’s another problem, another hurdle to jump over before I could even get there: how do you get foes to listen to the player?
I mean, the types of foes in a game predicate your options when dealing with them, and to even begin to talk one down, you’d have to be able to get them to listen first. That’s pretty tough to do when their first response to spotting the player is to start firing bullets isn’t it?
Well, for that, I also have a possible solution, and it comes from all that time I spent in Skyrim (and all the recent time I’ve been spending with Fallout: New Vegas).
Yielding to the Power of The open palm
There’s a moment in Max Payne 3, where after you slaughter about thirty enemies, one of the smarter foes towards the rear simply gives up. He puts up his hands and says, “Yeah, OK, you win guy. Please don’t shoot me.” This single moment ended up being a LOT more memorable what I had been doing just seconds prior – killing all his mates.
Similarly, in my review for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I mentioned as a minor grievance that enemies would often yield to the player when their health was low, but then if the player gave them mercy (and I often tried), would get up and attack you yet again in a suicidal exhibition of absolutely zero common sense. This was later patched so that they would flee, thankfully, but the concept of yielding still left an indelible impression on me. One that Max Payne 3 brought back to the forefront of my mind.
Because in Skyrim, the player could do it too.
In both the Elder Scrolls and Fallout games put out by Bethesda, the player has the ability to simply put their weapon away and try to yield to foes. That’s great! Why, it’s exactly the kind of opening you would need to engage in conversation with hostile forces and attempt a confrontational, yet non-violent approach, right?
Wrong. It’s a really terrible choice for the player to take in either game. Mostly due to the fact that enemies either won’t attempt it at all unless you’re specifically dealing with city guards, and they won’t stop attacking to enter the speech mode until they just kill you, while you stand there, hoping that the Markarth guards would please stop stabbing me! I didn’t mean to steal that apple! I swear!
The problem arises in the game not being able to determine the player’s intent. Sure, you could have put away your sword or your gun in order to yield to authority, or maybe you just accidentally hit the sheathe button in your haste to bring up the inventory screen. The game doesn’t know in that single moment, so it seems Bethesda’s solution was to put you on a timer: you have to both sheathe your weapon and stand absolutely still for about twenty to thirty seconds before the guards recognize what you’re trying to do.
In that time, you’re likely dead. This issue might be the problem I think other developers have with this possibility. The only thing they’re seeing is a player being inactive, in a neutral state, and NPCs are already predisposed to act one way or another to this state (attack, talk to, ignore, etc.)
What’s needed is an active ability. Something the player has to choose to do that conveys the intent of non-aggression. Thankfully, there is one quite obvious technique, and it’s appeared in a game I missed and only recently started playing.
In Ubisoft’s I AM Alive, a post-apocalyptic survival/climbing game very much inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (and which will probably be the only comparative game to The Last of Us as a result), the unnamed protagonist (well so far, I’m not finished so maybe his name comes up later) encounters many different types of other survivors of “The Event” which wiped out civilization. When these survivors are threatening him and you don’t draw your weapon, he automatically puts his hands up and utters phrases where he tries to reason with them.
Now, the “Open Palm Peace Technique”, as I’m calling it, doesn’t really work well for my purposes in I AM Alive. First, it’s an automatic thing, still a default neutral as opposed to an active ability. Secondly, it’s rather functionally useless. Enemies that don’t want to fight won’t do it regardless, and enemies that do, well, they’re still going to kill you unless you act violently to dissuade them. It’s just a really a nice animation polish from a functional perspective.
However, in combination with the “sheath” action functionality exhibited in the Bethesda games, I think we might have something here.
Imagine for a moment, a new open world Action-RPG. One where you build your character to be a diplomatic type. Since Fallout established this as a viable character option way back when, we’ll say it’s the next in that series.
You come across a roving gang. According to your reputation meter, they’re pissed off at you, but not so much that they should attack you on sight. You have business with their leader though, and they have quests you read about on the internet that you think are interesting. So you simply walk up to them, and you press and hold the “sheathe” button.
Your character’s hands go up, and they draw, but don’t fire. They walk toward you, suspicious, questioning. This lets you tell them your purpose, and they disarm you, but let you in. Eventually, thanks to being able to simply get in the door, you’ll do those quests, you’ll rule the gang. Currently, you’d have had to reload a save, snuck in, or simply ignored the possibility.
In the gaming world I see, this technique is used in dozens of different ways. Perhaps you’ve ventured into dangerous territory unknowingly, and the enemies are simply too tough, so you yield and they let you live sans some of your cash. Perhaps you’ve got to deal with a hostage situation and you need to approach the thug pointing a gun at a girl’s head, so palms raised, you get near him just enough for his guard to drop, and you tackle him, saving her life where other actions would have failed. Perhaps you can do it with a weapon drawn and it acts as a warning, letting fearful enemies know they have a chance at living through the encounter, and their resolve breaks as they run away.
In the world I see, this “Active Yield” technique is used in different types of games, not just RPGS. It allows developers an obvious non-violent option on a very basic level. It allows for characters like Nathan Drake to actually be the decent guy he says he is.
In the world I see, the player always has a choice, for choice is always gaming’s greatest asset and a player’s greatest tool. This choice, it gives violence weight, and games can begin to try for more meaningful experiences with this weight. They can tell more nuanced tales, where a front might be false, and death need not be so ever-present all the time.
In the world I s- OK, wait. Now I’m starting to sound like Tyler Durden aren’t I?
That’s the Fight Club effect for you. It always makes you ramble on about dreams of glory.
Anyway, it’s an idea. One that I’m open and willing to negotiate on. After all, I should probably practice what I preach, right?