Video games are brutal. I’m not talking at all about the violence or gore present today in most AAA titles, because that’s pretty old hat as far as I’m concerned. Isaac Clarke’s death sequences? Bloody but not frightening. Gears of War’s chainsaw attack? Certainly not child’s play but I’m hardly quaking in my boots here. Incinerating foes to death with my bare (plasmid-enhanced) hand in BioShock? Yeah the corpses are quite gross but please, I’ve seen the underbelly of Reddit. There’s nothing in terms of violence that video games are going to scare me with. I’ve got my own imagination on hand to do that.
What makes video games brutal is often their most basic premise. If you think too long and too hard about exactly what it is you’re doing, a creeping sensation starts to prickle the back of your mind. If you put yourself in the shoes of your avatar, would you be so gung-ho, would you even be capable of walking out of the front door? I considered for a while some of my favourite games, and realised that even though none of them are horror games they still strike a chord of fear deep inside of me. More to the point, they don’t seem to faze their main protagonists, who just carry on their daily lives of turmoil without as much as a peep.
This is a pretty admirable perspective given that in the modern Western world most of us have therapists and even more are on some sort of medication simply due to the fact that we are miserable and dissatisfied with our mediocre lives. Here we are, griping over deadlines and worrying about the environment every time we start our car when all the while our heroes and idols blitz through their respective universes leaving nothing but a trail of corpses laced with hope behind them.
Naturally, spoilers follow below for the games concerned. This week, it’s Kingdom Hearts and Minecraft.
Kingdom Hearts is the ultimate kids’ game, right? It’s Disney meets Final Fantasy meets My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (okay, one of those came ten years later but the message is still essentially the same). It’s bright, it’s bouncy, and the enemies are cute, cartoony creatures who look just as likely to hug you as to kill you. People make and sell plushie toys of Kingdom Hearts’ main antagonists – the Heartless – so really, how scary could this game be?
I’m honestly not kidding with that caption. This game has an ESRB rating of E for Everyone. That means that someone played this game and missed the fact that the Heartless kill people and eat their hearts. That’s not suitable for anyone. But they look pretty cute I guess so perhaps we can let that slide – younger kids aren’t going to be having nightmares about these little guys, not unless they’re like me and lie awake at night thinking away too hard about just about everything except things that matter. Okay, so the idea behind the main enemies is pretty grim, but it’s handled quite delicately – you only ever see one person killed by a Heartless, and the rest are dealt with off camera.
Let’s take a look instead at our protagonist. His name is Sora, he’s fourteen years old and his hair is huge. This is a Final Fantasy game too, remember? Sora lives a pretty idyllic life on the Destiny Islands, a small beach getaway just a short boat trip from his hometown. He spends his days playing Blitzball, having sword fights and racing his best friend Riku down the beach. Normal kid stuff. He has a crush on his friend Kairi and is entering that awkward teenage phase where his knees are too knobbly and he can’t grow a decent mustache. He’s idealistic and naïve, and perhaps that’s why things in Kingdom Hearts go down the way they do: he simply can’t comprehend the magnitude of how terrible things get.
It’s important to note that the Destiny Island isn’t just a game hub or a tutorial level. It’s an entire world in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. People live, grow and die there. You even meet Sora’s mother, so this isn’t a sturdy orphan boy we’re talking about here. He grew up like you and I did. He has a home, and he has people who he loves. And once you’ve finished up your day on the beach, his home is destroyed and its inhabitants murdered by those cute, fluffy creatures I mentioned just a few paragraphs ago. Sora, Riku and Kairi are the sole survivors and are scattered across an apparently infinite universe of segregated “worlds” which don’t have much of a relation to our real understanding of the universe. Sora wakes up in a place called Traverse Town, a world for the lost and the homeless.
Think for a few moments about what your response would be to such a scenario. Not just your friends and family but your entire home planet is gone. You wake up on a world that until now you didn’t even know existed. It’s a world specifically for people who have nowhere else to go. You probably aren’t even in your own universe anymore. What would you honestly do?
That’s right. You’d curl up and you’d cry like a baby. You’d mourn, and sob, and wouldn’t eat for at least a week. You’d go into shock, denial, and suffer a grief like no other. The human mind isn’t really designed to cope with such suffering, not on this scale. Sure, some people have actually managed it – history is just a long story of suffering, right? – but the magnitude of tragedy and loss Kingdom Hearts portrays not three hours into the story is just monumental.
So Sora is a little bit bummed about it. He knows Kairi and Riku are still out there somewhere and immediately sets about trying to find them. He doesn’t stop to think about his parents, or the other kids who he played with on the beach – Selphie, Tidus and Wakka – and how they’re not only dead but they had their hearts wrenched from their bodies and devoured by Cutesy McCuddles. Perhaps he doesn’t want to think about it, that’s a pretty legitimate response. He begins to make a few questionable life choices, like joining up with an oversized talking duck and dog duo who ask him to fly away in their space ship with them.
Sora’s resolve throughout the game is nothing short of its own form of insanity. He is betrayed by his best friend Riku despite the fact they ultimately have the same goal (locating Kairi) and he shrugs this frustration off even after the two battle near enough to the death, multiple times. You begin to wonder, as Sora jets between Disney Worlds with no abandon, whether the inside of his ship is wallpapered with Keep Calm and Carry On posters. Okay, if he collapsed on the floor into a twitching puddle of heartbroken limbs the game would end on an even bigger downer note than it already does, but if I had had his level of resolve at the age of fourteen high school wouldn’t have been even half as traumatizing.
Somehow, Sora’s naivety, his selflessness and his capacity to trust and love without a second thought (traits which would get you flattened in the real world) keep him totally grounded throughout the most devastating experience of his life. Okay, I’m a cynic and I find his relentless optimism pretty grating, but I bet he’s never even considered ringing the Samaritans.
Minecraft is a game upon which I have made many solid friendships. Building and inhabiting a community from scratch together, gathering materials and food and fending off enemies is just something that builds camaraderie. Minecraft in multiplayer is about a team effort to survive, to create, and to share. Or, if you like the Hunger Games, to build arenas in which you battle to the death. No matter the scenario though, Minecraft multiplayer is a very social experience. It only gets traumatic when you decide to go it alone… as Steve.
When you start a new Minecraft game you are dropped into an auto-generated world formed of thousands upon thousands of blocks. No two Minecraft maps are the same; that’s what makes the game so appealing. You destroy blocks to create items, for example destroying and collecting wood allows you to build a crafting table, upon which you can place items to make spades, swords and pick axes. Once you’re kitted out (an experienced player will be ready to rumble in two minutes flat) you find the nearest mountain or quarry and get mining. As well as the many, many pieces of cobblestone you will collect, rarer items like coal and iron can be discovered and used to provide head and metal instruments. This goes on all the way up to the rarest ore of all, diamond, which is coveted amongst players on multiplayer servers.
But this isn’t multiplayer, this is single player, and you are Steve and you are alone. Forever. Okay, there’s some sheep and pigs around which provide wool and meat for you. Some cows to milk, some chickens to give you eggs. There are also villages, full of mute, mindless people with honking huge noses and giant iron golems stationed at every gate to protect them from the hostile mobs. Oh, didn’t I mention that? You’d better build yourself a house quickly because the minute the sun comes down, out come the zombies, the skeletons, the spiders… and the Creepers.
These creatures will shoots, bite and explode you without mercy. So you get building – after all, survival is the name of the game (really, it’s called Survival Mode) and you hole up inside a house made of 12 planks of wood and a flimsy wooden door and you huddle in there all night, starving all the while. If you survive your first night, your odds are looking pretty good. You have a long, long future ahead of you, toiling away in the mines all day, growing your own wheat and capturing animals to farm them before slaughter. It’s like the Swiss Family Robinson except you are alone, forever, and ever.
So you toil away because the only other option is death; you sink hours into building yourself a paradise. Perhaps you’re the giving sort, and you build the local villagers a few more houses, not that you’ll get any thanks for it. As time goes by you accumulate some petty riches that aren’t worth much except as tools and armour, your house gets bigger and you might even start making bookshelves, maps and enchanting tables. Yeah, so long as you keep making new stuff, the haunting loneliness is kept at bay. You build a bed and sleep the nights away; soon even the hostile mobs are a rare sight.
Then one day you see an Enderman.
Hey. Hey he’s kind of like you. He’s wandering the world picking up blocks and putting them down again with a distinct sense of melancholy permeating his every step. Perhaps if you just go over and say hello, at last, this mysterious creature will be the companion you’ve desired all along.
Oh. Did I forget to mention that if you look straight into the eyes of an Enderman he will instantly try to kill you? My bad. Did you really think this game was about to become victorious and uplifting?
Minecraft in single player quickly turns into the grimmest perspective of the universe you can fathom. All Steve really does is survive – eat, sleep, defend himself. Sure, there’s some art and self-expression when it comes to the building, but Sherlock Holmes has this one down: genius needs an audience. The player might take a screenshot or two to show off to their friends but Steve is still stuck in his little beach hut by the sea, or in his tree house miles above an Amazon forest. Eventually he will take a nasty fall and break his neck, or he’ll eat some bad meat and poison himself. One day he’ll get cocky just before an unfortunate run in with an errant Creeper. Minecraft is nothing but the cold inevitability of Steve’s untimely and probably extremely painful death.
But that isn’t all! Oh no. Minecraft, much like Silent Hill, has a couple of Otherworlds. You can access these by building Obsidian portals (Obsidian being a rare block formed when lava and water sources meet) and sacrificing Enderpearls (which are dropped by slain Endermen). You have a choice of places to visit: Hell, or the Nether, which any old Obsidian portal can take you to, and The End… the home of the Endermen, and the Enderdragon. No, you can’t go anywhere that’s actually nice. This is Minecraft, not a package holiday.
Steve is a silent protagonist, so we never really hear how he takes all of this. Mostly he’s an avatar for you, the player, and I hope you’re suitably unnerved by the meaningless of your in-game existence and the inevitability of your death. Just try not to transfer this perspective to real life. It’s not like this fruitless struggle for survival is incredibly applicable to reality, or anything…
Next time, I’ll be continuing in this vein with Commander Shepard, Red, and Mario.
I am currently studying for a BSc in Computer Games Production at Lincoln University, UK, before progressing onto a Masters in Computing. My key interests are serious games and game philosophy.