Posted June 12th 2012 by Jordan Mammo.
A couple of weeks ago, Square-Enix unveiled the latest Hitman: Absolution trailer to a whirlwind of controversy. The video featured the main character slaughtering a number of scantily clad female assassins in slow motion after they had (naturally, of course) undressed themselves. "Distasteful" would be a massive understatement. The game spurred a passionate and sometimes enlightening discussion on the internet, as well as enough outrage to compel its developers to clarify their intent. Speaking to IGN, Tore Blystad said, "We just wanted to make something cool, it wasn't the intention to stir up anything."
This is exactly the problem. Who thinks this shit is cool? Forget subtext or any other kind of deeper meaning, this was clearly imagined and engineered for one reason and one reason alone: spectacle.
No one could've predicted this, but Hitman was only the start of two weeks of gratuitous and repulsive violence. It segued into a new Tomb Raider trailer and peaked last week with the most disturbing E3 Expo I've witnessed yet.
Understand, I'm not about to make the leap and contend that playing violent games causes one to be violent in life, nor will I advocate censorship. At the same time, there is something disturbing about the kinds of experiences that publishers are not only funding, but also highlighting as the epitome of the medium during the industry's largest, most visible event of the year. For the first time, I find the public face of videogames unsettling.
Hitman is one example, but it's not alone. Seemingly every publisher outside of Nintendo dedicated their press conference to outdoing the previous one in the murder department, all in the name of "maturity." Resident Evil 6 lingered awkwardly on a scene in which two people are acting hysterically over the fear that one of them would be killed or used in some strange experiment. In the new Tomb Raider trailer, not only was Lara Croft sexually assaulted with the intent of rape, but also for four minutes she simply had the shit beaten out of her while she screamed and moaned every few moments. In both games, the characters are bloodied, battered, and bruised; in Tomb Raider, Croft is lathered in blood and mud to the point of ridiculousness.
And yet, nothing about the game ever becomes funny.
As Jared said in our E3 podcast, "So many of the gameplay videos I saw are dark, and dark in a weird way... These are uncomfortable feelings." It'd be one thing if all of these brutal, uncomfortable scenes were used in service of a unified artistic vision (and that's certainly what the developers would like you to believe), but does anyone truly think that is what's happening here?
Think about the succession of events featured in the Tomb Raider video. After Croft breaks free from her airborne shackles, she falls heavily to the ground, where a rotting bone pierces through her abdomen. A rabid dog attacks her. Her leg is caught in a bear trap. Then she is assaulted sexually. She is almost crushed by a plane; she tumbles violently down a mountain; she smashes limbs against tree branches while falling some more.
I already know Resident Evil 6 is going to be the equivalent of a dumb action movie (which is also why the tone of its kidnapping scene is so jarring), but Tomb Raider claims to be a realistic and mature retelling of the series' origins. There's nothing realistic about it. What is mature? Does Croft need to go through all of this torture for us to, as the developers put it, "see her as a human?" Seen as the string of increasingly dramatic events they are in the trailer, they are no better than the ups and downs of a Resident Evil roller coaster. They're simple entertainment. "Cool."
There's something amiss about the reality and maturity games like this proclaim to present. One of the most well received titles at the show, The Last of Us, involved a man and his daughter struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The demo featured the man coming across other people and initiating a battle on his own when he sneaks up from behind and chokes a man to death. The camera lingers on this choke job as the man's spirit leaves him. From here the main character is shot multiple times and beaten with an iron pipe, only to somehow soldier on and murder half a dozen men in increasingly brutal and merciless ways. The demo ends when an opponent the daughter has stabbed is begging not to be killed, but is nonetheless shot in the face point-blank with a shotgun.
What the hell is that?
These experiences purport realism only to offer severely twisted worlds full of sociopathic murderers that the audience is supposed to identify with. "They're just doing what it takes," some will say. "Croft is stranded on an island with men who haven't seen a woman in forever, dude, of course they're going to try and rape her," say others. I believe in the ability of videogames to explore serious issues, but these are excuses that all ring hollow when I consider that, in all likelihood, the consideration of any events these games portray will amount to nothing more than patting the player on the back for "doing what it takes." In a way, games like these that wave towards realism while portraying the polar opposite are worse than any blood-spewing title ignoring reality altogether.
In The Gameological Society's wrap-up of the Microsoft conference, John Teti noted the early potential of the Kinect by writing that "The premise [of the Kinect] was that an advance in technology is, by itself, enough to spur something truly new in the video-game art form." Kinect aside, this has also been the premise and promise of videogames for a long time now. Violence was such a basic part of the language of videogames partly because it was one of the easiest things to depict with early technology. With every leap forward, however, with every advance in interface control and artificial intelligence, we don't see something new spurred more than we see the same violent and uncritical power fantasies rendered in increasingly realistic and gory detail.
Videogames aren't all like this. A good number of them do beautiful, worthwhile things, which is why it's sad to see the mainstream console experience become homogenized in such an unsettling way. The thing is, games aren't created in a vacuum; they arise from culture as much as they do from the minds of their creators. This is what we've come to after years of incremental steps. This is what we've supported and oriented the industry around, and this is what we're being offered as the leading efforts in the field. I'd like to say it's time to take a look in the mirror and consider a step back, but I'm afraid our heads have already been smashed through the glass.
I somehow missed the Hitman video and the controversy. It is a very interesting topic, especially because gamers are stereotypically known as 'guns and b00bs hawt!'. It's a nice change to see that gamers aren't eating-up the spectacle but instead looking for a deeper more real experience. I am okay with the 'guns and breasts' approach, so long as there are a variety of games, some utilizing the Rambo action and others taking a more subtle approach.
Tuesday, June 12th 2012
Sex and violence sell. Yes, it's disappointing that this is such a focus, but when every damned Call of Duty game sells multiple millions of copies and the top-selling half dozen games are shooters, there's no reason for the industry to diversify. I blame consumers for the tone of this event as much as I blame the developers and publishers. I did like your point about how trying to make these games more realistic is actually making it worse. I grew up with cartoony violence in media and I think I turned out alright. Will be interesting to see what young adults in 10-20 years are like. Oh, and not to espouse the value of indie for the millionth time, but this is part of the reason I've pretty much stopped playing AAA titles. I don't play fighting games or shooters, and that's the real focus of the majority of the mainstream industry aside from perhaps Nintendo. And unfortunately Nintendo isn't doing enough right now to wow me into buying another console. So for me it's up to the lone programmers or small studios to give me something new and something different. Sure these games probably won't have amazing looking cutscenes or motion capture, but they'll often introduce something quirky or fun I've yet to see.
Wednesday, June 13th 2012
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