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The Dialogue Tree

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Seeking Absolution Solutions

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July 6th, 2012 at 11:03 pm

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It’s raining.

Outside the Waikiki Motel the palm trees sway with the showers under a sky filled with dread. Inside, a man takes off his shirt. He’s washing the blood off his face and cleaning the bullet hole in his arm. The scars on his back are visible during the procedure. They reveal a history of violence longer than most will ever know.

One wound however, is too precise to be anything other than self-inflicted. The fresher, still healing cut on the back of his bald head. The one covered by a simple band-aid, which makes this man appear to be the most dedicated Marcellus Wallace cosplayer in the world.

As he redresses in a smart business suit and crimson tie, a superfluity of nuns slowly walks from a school bus in the storm, their habits blowing wildly like the trees. But their high-heeled boots with far too much leather and far too many laces betray their facade. As do their prison tattoos, and the high ordinance weaponry they draw from seemingly nowhere. Suddenly, the “nuns” throw away the habits to reveal leather miniskirts, lace, and catsuits you can only wish your wife would be daring enough wear on your birthday.

A heavy metal guitar riff growls in the background as the nuns open fire, launching an RPG at the 2nd floor of the motel and ruining some poor clerk’s day. Our bald business attired gentleman, Agent 47, has snuck behind his attackers though, and silently eliminates one after another. Then, for no apparent reason, he draws his two silver plated heavy caliber pistols and opens fire.

Half a melee and a half a gunfight is the result. 47 is stabbed with butterfly knives. Women are used as human shields. Hands are stomped. Faces are punched. Noses are broken.

Broken Nose Nun

And she just signed a contract with Revlon too!

All of this is depicted in loving, caring, perfect action cinematography with fits of slow motion to highlight the blood spray or silhouette the characters in cool poses. In the end, only one is left standing.

47 leaves this scene of burning wreckage and death. He closes the trunk to his car, which is now filled with enough weaponry to be the prop department for a Commando remake, and drives off. Even while that angry electric guitar groans yet again.

________________________________________________________________________

These events are what make up the now infamous Hitman: Absolution trailer.

Whether reading through it above or watching it again, it’s in many ways just your average “gritty” action scene. Nuns walk in, Hitman walks out, lots of bullets fly, etc. Everything in it is well animated and well choreographed and well done from a production standpoint. It’s slicker than an oil spill on an iceberg in that regard.

So why the hell did people get so pissed off about it? Hell, why did it trigger such a despondency in myself that I wrote that whole thing the other day? What was the big deal?

Hitman Cover

I mean, it’s part of the Hitman franchise after all. What were you expecting? Hugs and chocolate covered puppies?

It’s really easy to say the problem is due to the violence portrayed. Or the fact that women are shown getting beaten to a pulp even while the camera angles to be as focused on their no-no zones as time allows. Or that showing religious figures both giving and receiving such cold furor is a bit sacrilegious and disrespectful.

Those are all the reasons most were huffing and puffing at this.

But all of them ring hollow to me. There’s something else at play here, and it’s a much bigger problem than all that noise. So let’s delve, shall we?

Sex, Guns & Lack of Soul.

First off, it’s not the violence. Neither I, nor any gamer of any duration can find fault with a violent video game. If we did, we wouldn’t play them. I loved the recent Max Payne 3 for example, and it had more gruesome head shots than a New Jersey modeling agency. Violence in video games is the norm, and every gamer accepts that, or isn’t one.

Likewise, unrepentant pubescent ideations of women and how their naughty bits are used in gaming’s bytes isn’t new either, nor the complaints about this state of affairs. Plenty of ink has been spilled talking about Lara Croft’s unrealistic proportions, the skimpy costumes of fighting femme fatales, and how Princess Peach is the face of the distressed damsel cliche and the worst woman in gaming – at least as far as role models go.

Peach's Vast Emotional Range

It’s the eyes. Those vacant, dead eyes, that haunt me.

While this trailer certainly doesn’t do anything to push gaming into a more progressive path, I can’t honestly say it’s any worse than many of the countless acts of horror I’ve experienced in the digital space. Targeting this trailer and IO Interactive (the Danish developers who made the game) seems capricious at best. What makes this particular moment of stripper-attired women getting punched in the face and murdered any worse than say, all the times gamers have actually done that exact thing in Mortal Kombat?

Has no one seen Mileena’s latest dress?

(Besides, I’m going to address both violence and sex specifically as I go on with this series, as there are far better candidates to highlight both.)

So is it the religious depiction then? Is it that this trailer shows nuns choking out a man dressed in his Sunday best with their rosaries?

Well, that doesn’t work either. Not really. Games have more than once put religion to task (see the plots of Final Fantasy Tactics, the Assassin’s Creed series, The Order in Silent Hill and many, many, more), and the Hitman series in particular has used religious themes pretty constantly since the first sequel, when Agent 47 lived in a monastery and waxed pathetic about whether or not he had a soul to damn.

Medieval: Papal War

I seem to recall using sexually deviant Bishops as weapons of influence in Medieval: Total War too. Hell, that game let you call crusades against even your Catholic enemies if you corrupted the church enough and yet, no controversy.

Nope, that really doesn’t seem too likely either. Dang. I really thought we had something there too.

Actually, I think the issue isn’t that the trailer is showing religion poorly, but that it simply lacks soul, fittingly enough.

It’s violent, sure, but not in an appealing way. The acts themselves are staid, practiced, almost mechanical. It shows women in skimpy outfits, yeah, but any lust gained dies as quickly as they do.

In fact, the segment runs a gamut of emotions within its scant span and it’s hard to tell what, if anything, its point is on an emotional level. Neither 47 or these women are good people. They’re all cold blooded assassins and this isn’t a personal fight at all; given the situation this is sort of like watching two different buskers compete for the same passerby’s dime. Yet there’s a moment where 47 seems to absolve one of the dead nuns of her sins because . . . why exactly? Does that even mean anything?

This trailer is as much defined by what it doesn’t contain as what it does. There’s no joy in it, no purpose, no message other than “our game will let you kill these people.” It’s soulless to the point of nihilism and as confused as most who promote such a philosophy.

Lebowski Nihilists

The Hitman trailer beleefs in nothink, Lebowski!

If there’s something to be bothered by, it’s probably this lack of heart. Not what’s actually depicted in the trailer, but what was in the minds of those that made it. Because whoever made this seems to think shoving a bunch of semi-sexualized violence drowning in incoherence at gamers is not only fine, but that we’re actually going to get excited by it.

It’s really not the violence or the weirdly fetishistic way it’s portrayed that’s the problem, it’s the incoherence. The mentality behind such presumptuous laziness reeks of deep cynicism. But then perhaps that’s to be expected.

This is video game marketing we’re talking about, after all.

The same types of marketers that have consistently painted gaming poorly through insane plans that everyone shakes their heads at, those of the Acclaim brood, are the types that made this nonsense. And while I understand the adman’s plight – it’s got to be tough to be the guy trying to sell Explosionfest 2013: Revenge of the Nipple Baring Harlot these days when gamers have been ripping out spines out for a couple decades – there is a point in the race to the lowest common denominator these folks are always running where the spectators have just had enough.

Maybe that’s what we’re really angry at then? Maybe we just don’t like exploitative, misleading ads in our gaming anymore?

But being angry at someone in marketing for focusing only on the sleaze or misrepresenting a product in their favor is useless. That would be like yelling at fire for being hot. They’re pretty much the cross breed of scorpions and politicians; you know they’re going to lie to you, but it’s just their nature.

Plus, this trailer isn’t really lying about anything. While the games are focused more on sneaking around than blood ballets, the Hitman franchise is about coldly murdering people for money, it does feature women wearing “slutty version of X” Halloween costumes, and as already mentioned, isn’t exactly respectful when handling religious themes. That’s pretty much the series in a nutshell, actually.

Agent 47 In Murderplicity!

Well that, and the whole “cloned killing machine who occasionally runs into copies of himself” thing. But you know, minor details.

No, it’s not that the trailer is lying to us.

If anything, it’s telling far too much truth.

The truth is, we gamers, while certainly being okay with actually playing a bunch of violent video games, don’t want to be seen as the type who want to play them. On a certain level, we know we should be ashamed for enjoying our murder-simulators that do nothing but empower our collective, rampaging id. But that’s just it, they empower our rampaging id! A very compelling form of pleasure is derived from this.

But any activity that consistently lets you get away with mass murder, even fictional mass murder, can’t be seen as socially acceptable. All gamers know this at heart, and yet games are tolerated just fine. Perhaps we just don’t want the nastier parts of our pastime so bluntly shoved back in our faces because it releases angst that our toys are going to be seen for what they often are – monstrous.

Hmm. Now we’re onto something! This feels nearly correct.

From this context, the problem is that this trailer doesn’t lie enough. It’s not justifying the headshots with heroism like Halo, it’s not pretending that these women are dressed in revealing leather for any reason other than provocation, like say, Samus’ Zero-suit. It’s ignoring all the usual fibs, handing us our darkest desires publicly and without any reassuring deceit, like a singing telegram courier delivering porno to your office.

And just like the telegram girl from Clue, gamers cried foul and shot the messenger.

Shooting the messenger

“Video games still like to indulge our basest fantasiesss- BANG!”

This seems as valid a reason as any for most to truly be outraged. The response felt a little too big, a little too defensive, for it to merely be another cry of sexist representations (especially with that Tomb Raider trailer taking that thunder). But then, why was I disturbed?

I certainly have no problem freely admitting to liking violent video games. I did it just a moment ago, and am doing it again now! And after the supreme court took the gamer’s side last year and protected gaming under the 1st Amendment, I’m certainly not afraid of another threat that games are going to get banned or anything.

No, for me it’s something else entirely.

For me, what this trailer and the others like it makes impossible to ignore is that publishers think gamers are fine with a very limited subject matter – that of adolescent spectacle – and that we’ll be perfectly fine receiving that forever (since we seem to like it so much) in an eternal feedback loop.

In part, this situation is quite accurate. Again, we do like these types of games.

As I see it though, if gamers remain gamers for a long enough time (and the stats prove that they are), they often mature in their tastes and want different things. But if that feedback loop stays constant and is the only thing publishers regard, those who want new content that explores different ideas get ignored. For myself, it’s not how this is presented, but what is getting lost in the process.

The primary reason I fear this is because I’m familiar with a similar situation, one that occurred in another medium entirely. A time when circumstances forced the artists in the field to drastically limit the spectrum of material they could present, and now the medium itself is stuck with the limited scope they’ve been caught in for a century.

I’m speaking of course, about comic books.

Next they let loose the mud.

Because comparing one medium that often caters to the adolescent desires to another one has never been done before!

In the Ghetto . . . the Cultural Ghetto

Let’s make a brief stop in the land of American comic book history!

Specifically how the American comic book fell into a very narrow mode of expression, superhero power fantasies, and how once it fell in it hasn’t been able to get out. I’ll try not to get too sidetracked here so I’m not going to get too deeply into this, but the gist of it is as follows:

Way back when, comics (and subsequently, comic books) were about everything. Sure, there were spandex wearing steroid abusing superheroes for young boys, but there were also romance comics for girls, true-life detective stories for grown ups, horror comics for teenagers, and well, pretty much a wide array of comics for a wide range of readers.

But then, mostly due to the Red Scare, a quack’s book called Seduction of the Innocent, and the original Columbine-level fear mongering over “teenage delinquency”, a vast movement was enacted.

Comic books were banned and even burned (pretty horrifying considering this occurred right after World War 2), and there was a major threat that the entire medium was about to be legislated into oblivion. So the comic book makers took their only way out: submitting to a Draconian code of censored blandness that allowed very little expression other than a few staples like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (the latter pair only after heavy revision).

The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju

All of this was chronicled in The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hadju. If you’re interested, it’s a highly engaging read that I heartily recommend. Or, if you’re pressed for time, here’s Zach Weiner covering basically the same stuff.

Since then comic books, which used to be read by millions of Americans a year, have lived in a comparatively niche market where if a book gets a tenth of that readership, it’s a success. Thankfully the recent superhero movie explosion and the internet have given the medium much more exposure, but it’s had little effect on the demographics of comic book readers, at least for hard copies (web comics are doing pretty well). If you go into a comic book store today, who do you find there? Mostly older men who liked the tights and laser vision explosions as much now as they did when they were ten (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

When superheroes became the only acceptable norm they’re the only thing that got published; the only fans that were cultivated were those that liked said superheroes, and now the industry is drowning in them. While there certainly are comics that don’t focus on capes, cowls or exaggerated physiques – in fact, there are MANY phenomenal stories, like Sandman, Love & Rockets and anything by Brian K. Vaughn – casual readers only get introduced to these works through a chain of folks that begins with someone who loves superhero fare. The other genres that used to get published (romance, horror, crime), only exist in tiny amounts and reach limited audiences.

Worst Image Ever

If you ever read Alan Moore or Ed Brubaker and liked it, you have guys like this to thank.

When a medium, any medium, gets caught in a limited space that it can’t break out of and exists only to supplicate those that have already bought into it, for all intents and purposes it’s in a cultural ghetto. While thankfully video games aren’t going down this path due to legal restriction, the far nastier reality that this trailer and E3 in general were reinforcing is that they could end up falling into the same situation anyway, but willingly.

Video games, at least the big name games (and thus the majority of the audience), that focus on only the guns and the explosions and the breasts are reaching for the low hanging fruits of subject matter. The fear I have, and what I’m suspecting is the underlying cause of some of the angst here, is that this will never change. Primarily because these games have been proven to make money in the past, and for the big companies that make them it’s considered too great a financial risk to try anything different, which if you’re going for Call of Duty numbers, seems unfortunately true.

Often, it feels like that video games are already stuck in this exact situation, or something akin to it. The scope of subject matter that dominates the majority of “serious” gaming is broader than just one thing like superheroes, but not by much, and the demographics are almost as limited: teenage boys get “gritty” shooters featuring soldiers and gangsters, children receive shiny happy family friendly fun (mostly provided by Nintendo), competitive gamers have fighters and Starcraft. Many of the genres that targeted other demographics, as with the comic book industry, are either tiny and all but dead, or are constantly being forced to fit within the mold of more popular action game audiences; stealth, survival horror, and RPGs all come to mind on that last point.

Subtlety in Resident Evil 4

Resident Evil 4 – shooting the fear found in horror games right in the face!

But then, I like superheroes just fine, and I like my gory action games and my bouncy Mario games just fine too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with blood and guts and boobs, and if it sells, well, it sells. Even if the majority of games are set in the limited purview of endless permutations on murder, they’re usually still fun.

If gaming is falling in, or already is in, the same limited scope as comic books, it doesn’t seem like it matters much if we enjoy it right?

Besides, potentially interesting subject material for adults or women that aren’t just interested in farming on Facebook isn’t ignored entirely. The Sims, Civilization, and simulations in general, are focused on these populations (for at least one example). While there may not be a plethora of genres that target an older set, and neither the quantity nor hype of the existing contributions here match the levels of action games, a few do exist for the folks who want alternatives.

So what’s the big problem? Why am I harshing the vibe? And how did we get here when I was talking about the Hitman trailer?

If Youth is wasted on the Young then perhaps its time to grow up?

I worry about potential, really.

Individually, a game like Hitman: Absolution isn’t a problem. Nor are it’s bizarre BDSM Nun punching ads. I’ve certainly enjoyed the Hitman games in the past, and assuming Absolution matches the quality of the last one, will probably enjoy it as well.

There’s definitely a space for games about such material in the broad spectrum of the medium, just as there’s a space for John Ringo’s PALADIN OF SHADOWS in literature.

Kildar cover

Damn, he even looks like your average video game protagonist.

If collectively, the entire gaming industry was to focus solely on stuff like Hitman – if the spectrum were totally narrowed – there would be a problem. But that’s just a paranoid fear that occasionally likes to creep up in the back of my mind. It’s not the reality.

And yet the main defense I constantly see whenever people get riled up over events such as this one is that “gaming is still in it’s infancy”. That while such and such action – in this case, Square-Enix’s marketing team’s poor foresight and cynicism – is deplorable, all we gamers need to do is wait a bit longer and we’ll see that in a few years, we’ll look back on this moment and laugh. Just like we did at early 3D gaming’s hilarious attempts to make “sexy” women with only six polygons and a blow up doll for reference.

Sarah Bryant mid 90's

Gahhh! Maybe we should be worried that someone is getting turned on by those dead nuns after all. For a moment, this was someone’s idea of a beautiful woman.

My concerns over gaming ghettoization flare up whenever I hear this argument these days, because I’m only left with one thought: How long do we keep waiting?

Popular gaming has been around since the late seventies if you count Pong and Pac-Man – that’s almost forty years! “Gaming is still in its infancy” at this point, seems an apologist’s line. One robbed of power due to the sheer amount of time the medium’s been around.

I’ve grown up with video games, but often, it seems they refuse to grow up with me. This ridiculous trailer has been yet another reminder of this fact, and it’s about the five hundredth time I’ve been reminded. I, and I assume others like me, always hoped that games were going to diversify into more thoughtful territories than where they were when I was a kid . . . but they simply aren’t doing that.

The Room Tearing me apart lisa

You are tearing me apart . . . video game industry?

Wait. Despite this article going on far too long, I don’t want to end this on a down note like that! Besides, I’m still looking for solution. Now if only I could find the question . . .

First, I’ll admit that hope can easily be found when you look around a bit. The medium is broader than the gross generalizations from before.

Being able to fund “oddball” demands like “humor” and “nuanced characterization” are partly behind the big Kickstarter Craze that’s been going on lately (even if most of the benefit is going toward reboots). Indie gaming is continuing unabated, and adventure games have seen a resurgence thanks to Telltale. These are definitely good things.

Then there’s Sony, the one big name publisher that seems to get why focusing on a limited scope is bad. Maybe it’s because they also make movies – the film industry, despite having treacle like Battleship, also produces many interesting films across a wide swath of concepts – but Sony has been funding all sorts of diverse game projects that obviously attempt to reach different audiences.

Quantic Dream’s explorations into “Interactive drama” wouldn’t work without Sony’s coffers, and thatgamecompany has been able to put out some really unique content like Flower and Journey thanks to them. Lest I forget, they also fund Team Ico, and proud we are of all their achievements. So it’s not like there aren’t some real attempts at diversification being made.

Even if there’s a glaring problem.

Namely that such attempts at differentiation are usually met chilly receptions on the sales floor. Even success stories like Heavy Rain, which pushed 2 million copies, don’t compare to action shooters like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves at 5 million, and most go the way of Psychonauts – critically loved but totally forgotten by the public at large. Certainly, none approach Call of Duty‘s numbers, which to quote the Sagan, get into “billions and billions” of dollars.

And to quote the Kotick, “Papa like those numbers! You hear that Radical! Papa like THOSE numbers! Not your mere millions.”

Hmmm.

Solving this problem – figuring out how to make gamers want to buy Psychonauts over Battlefield – well that’s a billion dollar conundrum in of itself, isn’t it?

But it’s perhaps the solution I’m seeking as well. The fear that gaming will narrow its scope, the angst that we’re ashamed of playing morally bankrupt games, the lack of diversified growth; all can be abated if more well crafted, non exploitative games are produced!

Solutions may lie in the Slight and the Subtle.

However, there’s at least one Catch-22. Interesting alternative games are often made by smaller devs, but they usually can’t measure up to the production quality of the AAA action games; not everyone has the dedication or time to make Fez after all. But it’s also difficult to convince gamers who want the most out of their hardware to settle for something that looks like it was made by a first year art student, especially if the rest of the content is going to try for the unfamiliar.

And if Activision knew how to make, say, a romance game that captured the hearts of teen girls and moms everywhere, even if it was still basically as dumb as most of their games – if they could make Fifty Shades of Grey essentially – they would, wouldn’t they? The stats certainly prove that women play more games than ever before, and from a business standpoint, it sounds reasonable to pursue them. There’s lots of money to be made by appealing to demographics other than simply teenage boys, Nintendo proved that with the Wii, so why don’t they do it (or even something better)?

The obvious conclusion is that the major developers and publishers, in addition to being afraid of risking low sales in more nuanced genres like drama or romance rather than big, obvious, sure thing shooters, don’t know how to make such games. At least not in ways that remain as engaging throughout as a Modern Warfare or an Assassin’s Creed. Heck, maybe no one knows how to do this, because my bet is that if they could, they would.

No really. How?

Any game about romance, politics, comedy or any alternative focus needs to be at least as fun as the games about capping Nazi skulls if it’s going to compete, obviously.

Less obvious is the sheer how of that. It’s a bit tough to imagine the EXCITING GAMEPLAY of The Importance of Being Earnest: The Play: The Game that’s going to get Johhny Halo to pick it up at the store over Master Chief. That’s the challenge here – to make wordplay as fun as gunplay, manipulation as enthralling as strangulation, love more exciting than war.

Like a two year old smashing pots together because they’re bored, most major game developers are content to stick to the obvious ways of garnering attention – death, sex, spectacle – but maybe I’ve misjudged it as intentional when it’s simply due to inadequacy? Perhaps it’s because that’s all they know how to do. Maybe gaming really is in it’s infancy, at least in a “language development” sense.

For as I said once before in a review, “Most games are written with violence as a book is with words, and the thesaurus is getting quite thick indeed.” The corollary seems true to me now as well. Subtlety is a language games simply lack.

In order for gaming to grow up, to reach it’s full potential, it’s a language worth learning.

As Tycho of Penny Arcade said about this very same nonsense I’m covering now, “the answer is always more art”. If there’s an actionable response to the inanities brought up with this year’s E3, it will lie in making more, not less, and I suspect that the art is going to lie in the realm of the understated, the inferred, and the nuanced.

The way to prevent more Hitman Absolution debacles isn’t to decry them, to fear them or shout at them, it’s to give the alternatives just as much power and weight. The way to do that, is to make the indistinct verbs of life, the ones games don’t usually focus on, as fun as the blatant ones.

Comedy. Drama. Romance. These are the realms that get ignored in games when we focus on killsplosions, and these are the realms where a mastery of the subtle is paramount.

Because you’re never going to make the rampaging Hulk that is the gaming industry to pour vast resources at these “alternative” game genres as they are – there’s simply not enough profit in it. But if you can make them better? If you can make them more fun? Most importantly, more profitable than the latest shooter?

Well, then you find that the Hulk will stop his rampage.

He might even show up for tea.

  • http://twitter.com/DukeKataron Nate Morse

    it’s a good thing that, as you mention, we have things like Kickstarter to let the gamers put money into making the games they want, instead of relying on the dudes in suits who are afraid of trying new things. Mind you, I’d be scared of new things if I was in a suit. What if I got it messy?

    I guess all we can really do is cross our fingers and hope that we’ll get more than just guns and explosions and attempt to dabble in some other things. I’d probably secretly love a romance game. Especially if I saw some boob action. Boob action is so much better when you earn it.

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