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A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

Josh Clark
Ancel, Controversy, Features, GTA, Modern Warfare, Violence

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

Back in 1997, a small British-based developer named DMA Design created Grand Theft Auto, and in doing so kick-started a golden age in sandbox gaming. It also drew a hell of a lot of attention from tabloid newspapers at the time, thanks mostly to its controversial ability to let players mow down pedestrians in carjacked vehicles. It wasn't the first of its kind to do so, with the bloodthirsty Carmageddon pulling off a similar feat some months earlier.

By the time Grand Theft Auto 3 hit store shelves in 2001, DMA (now working under their new 'Rockstar' monicker) knew exactly what to expect from the world's journalists, and had included everything from drug deals to prostitution in an effort to ramp up the controversy factor. It was a watershed moment, not just in terms of gameplay, but also that of media reaction to violence in video games.

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

Welp, needs must...

Skip forward a decade, and games court controversy as much as they ever have, with Grand Theft Auto 4 facing as much tabloid flak as expected, and Rockstar's own Manhunt 2 being outright banned, at least before a few gameplay changes and a successful appeal saw it reclassified.  With Gearbox's Furious 4 - a nazi-torturing World War 2 killathon - and two modern military shooters (one ultra-realistic, one not so much) looming on the horizon, we've got plenty of blood-spatter and dismemberment to look forward to in the years ahead.

But is this apparent fixation with guns and guts becoming harmful to the industry we treasure?  Michel Ancel certainly thinks so.  Speaking at this year's E3, Ubisoft's renowned game designer remarked upon his disdain for the industry's inability to tell a story through the use of violence, opting instead to include it for the sake of appealing to an adult audience.  He even went so far as to say that we should be looking to Hollywood for tips on combining sex and violence with meaningful storytelling.

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

"Artistic Merit" THIS!

Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that the gaming industry relies on violence to appeal to its audience.  After all, we as gamers want to feel something when we play.  Elation, dejection, empathy; these are complex emotions, and ones that are difficult to conjure.  Gore serves as a reminder that the player is having an (albeit messy) influence on the world in which they are immersed, and it's much easier to mindlessly detach a character's head from his body than it is to make you feel bad for doing so.  They're Nazis.  They're cruel, and they're every bit deserving of the pain you're dishing out, right?

According to Ancel: Wrong.  "If you kill Nazis with the same methods as the Nazis themselves then you are Nazis too."  A bold statement, to be sure, but one that carries some weight, coming as it does from the mouth of one of the industry's most popular game designers.  "I really don't understand the message behind those games. With Beyond Good & Evil we wanted to push it in new directions. You know, Jade is a journalist – her weapon is a camera."

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

Also, farting pigs!

The conspiratorial plot that runs throughout Beyond Good & Evil is a good example of the kind of message Ancel thinks the industry should be asking of its participants.  Who are the bad guys?  The Alpha Sections.  Why?  Because (Spoiler Alert:) they're promising to protect the populace while at the same time being controlled by the threat they're supposed to eliminate.  Jade sets about uncovering the conspiracy, harming no innocents in the process, and Beyond Good & Evil soars to the top of many gamers' top ten lists.  The man knows what he's talking about.

That's not to say however, that there's never any call to include violence in a title.  After all, video games serve as portals to worlds we want to interact with in a way that would be frowned upon in our own.  I love popping a few melons with a Barrett .50 cal in Modern Warfare, just as I love the masterful exposition of Portal and its successor.  These games can coexist harmoniously to the detriment of neither.

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

GLaDOS: Not nearly as smug when faced with anti-tank weaponry.

In much the same way, we might look for our mid-week fix of existentialism in the arms of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but come Saturday night be slamming that haggard copy of Die Hard in the DVD player for another dose of one-man-tank John McClane.  We crave diversity, and in gaming we find our needs catered to in most respects.  It does seem as though 'Violence vs Virtue' in gaming is somewhat skewed in the former's favour however.

Last week, we touched upon a title set to hit the PSN Store come 2012 called Papo & Yo, which depicts the story of a young boy and his imaginary friend, whose enormous appetite seeks to destroy everything in its path, including Quico himself.  A confessed allegory of the lead designer's childhood, its cartoon-like visuals disguise sinister undertones, and the violence plays a part in that exposition.

Conversely, a game like Bulletstorm, which rewards players for maiming NPCs in creative ways, has you watch a freshly castrated enemy scream and plead before finishing him off with a kick to the face.  What message does Bulletstorm bring to the table?

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

"Never, under any circumstances, get shot in the spuds." I think.

Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Half Life 2.  Three of my favourite games of all time, and only one of those features blood.  Granted, the other two have you punching bears and 'sprouting' skeletons, but the stories and motivations that sit within the three game worlds are engaging, and in no way unnecessarily violent.  So why do developers insist on basing so many of their games around mutilation?

Well, with the exception of the last entry in my less-than-comprehensive list of all time greats, none of those games sold well.  At all.  So badly did Grim Fandango do in fact, that it forced Lucasarts into terminating their adventure game development full-stop and almost ended the genre (which is only just seeing a resurgence thanks to Telltale and games like L.A. Noire) for good.

Ancel almost certainly has a point, and his desire for the industry to show a little more responsibility is without doubt a noble one, but the fact remains that it is much harder to market a slow-paced, though deep and rewarding game like Ico, than it is to show three minutes of guns, explosions, and rivers of blood and watch the money come flying in.

But it would be cynical of me to chalk this obsession with violence up to commercial success wouldn't it?

A History of Violence | Is Gaming Obsessed With Gore?

All I'm saying...

Want to weigh-in on the argument?  Is our risk-averse industry relying on violence and controversy to sell, or is violence an inescapable part of gaming?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Add a comment4 comments
Yasutsuna  Jun. 18, 2011 at 21:43

Obsessed? maybe you are.

There's no blood in Racing, Puzzle, Sports, Sims and a few other genres.

Daniel Johnson  Jun. 18, 2011 at 22:37

Many game companies know that a flash of guns and violence within their games will ensure that their product will sell. But at the same time as Yasutsuna said there are other genres of games that thrive without the necessity of violence. A balance needs to be placed to ensure that the industry doesnt become overun with games involving violence. I love playing violents games but I also love the non violent side of games all well.

Matt Gardner  Jun. 19, 2011 at 00:07

We need other modes of interaction, but they don't sell. Violence is primal, it's universal and it's easy...that's why it shifts units. But even with violence, we've only really scratched the surface. Gaming's treatment of it is still really quite flippant. 'No Russian' was a valiant attempt, but it was blown out of all proportion before the game even hit the shelves. Moreover, I'm not convinced you can get much of an emotional impact out of a game like Modern Warfare 2. It's hard to send a two minute message about violence when the 10 hours of campaign around it are spent glorifying it.

There's a large concern with violence in games being cool. Combat systems have to be tight. Combos have to look good. This is empowerment fantasy: there's a need to be a badass. empowerment appeals to the masses.

There are other areas being explored, but we need to make more of them. Choice is something that really needs exploring - and I'm not talking binary good vs evil. But conversation trees, masses of multiple possibilities, dynamic character personalities. We're getting there...slowly. Bethesda have really been flying the flag for just giving you the tools to play as you see fit in the Elder Scrolls series and I'd love to see more games aim for that too. And investigation too. As Josh mentioned, LA Noire proved that if you really nail an adventure game's mechanics, violence can take a backseat.

And let's bring back the god game while we're at it. Black and White 3, Peter? With Kinect support? Please?

DJM  Jun. 19, 2011 at 12:10

Is our risk-averse industry relying on violence and controversy to sell?
Not relying no. It’s an aspect that that can be used in any medium, whether that be games, films, music and even magazine and papers. That’s just plain business really, if you create a product that even just touches upon something that’s ultra-violent or ultra-controversial for a brief moment, that’s the moment that will be reported on. That’s when everyone comes out and says “ban this now… its gone too far”, this then generates a ridiculous buzz and… its bound to attract a certain audience that bought the product purely because people suggested they shouldn’t.
Is violence an inescapable part of gaming?
No. Like mentioned above, there are plenty of other genres for people to look at. But is it inescapable in regards to it always existing? That’s a yes. Again, throughout movies, games and music, violence will always be there and violence will always sell. As you touched upon above, it could be something primitive. If movies allow us to see perspectives and situations we can’t ourselves and if music allows us to hear stories and feelings we can’t express ourselves… Then games are in a far more dangerous territory, as they allow us to act in the perspectives, situations and stories and the audience is no longer just a spectator (or at least we are given that impression).
One main problem that surrounds violence in gaming (or anything else for that matter) is the press and, to be blunt, the idiots. Again, this can be seen in any form of entertainment. Use Scarface or Reservoir Dogs for example, some people regard these as great films. Good scripts, good acting, good direction, great music (in the latter specifically). But then there’s the “fans” that love these films because they show someone getting chain sawed, or they show endless amount of cocaine, or they show someone’s ear getting cut off.
Red Dead Redemption. Brilliant game, really showed off some superb possibilities. But… you had an achievement for hog-tying a woman and leaving her on the train tracks. Me, I thought this was hilarious purely on the basis it was an achievement, it was Rockstar doing something they know would create controversy. After all… you didn’t HAVE to do it did you?
The problem is with people, not the games. If you played Grand Theft Auto and then felt the urge to mow-down pedestrians in real life, then there’s something seriously wrong in your head.
The decision aspect in games is something that will change everything for the fans, but I think once this is perfected and people have the outright decision whether or not their character is good or evil…then this will kick up even more of a shit storm from the press, as the gamer ‘had the decision’.

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