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.
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.
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."
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.
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?
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?
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.