Too Much Violence in Gaming?
I think there is simply too much violence in video games.
Okay, okay...I should clarify that before you all lynch me. I think there is too much violence in certain kinds of games. Some of you may still be lathering at the bit against that phrase, but hear me out. I promise that statement is not as bad you as you initially think it might be.
I'd like to focus on three big title games that came out recently that serve as perfect examples of violence getting in the way of the plot: Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite.
No, no! I promise...just be patient, I'll explain everything.
Where I Explain Some, But Not All The Things
You may be asking yourself, what am I getting at? Video games have violence in them, who cares? They are video games. A valid question and a valid point. But, what I'm getting at is that video games can tell a story just as well as any book or movie. And there is something that stands in the way when you try to have a conversation with someone about the validity of gaming as an art form.
But even taking that aside, violence can be fun in games and I don't necessarily have an issue with games being super violent. However, when it becomes forced or "required due to genre" then it really loses a lot of the fun aspects and turns into a chore. Let's look at the games I mentioned. I would like to take this time to mention that because I am criticizing these games that in no way entails that I didn't like them. In fact, they are all easily my favorite games of the year so far (Tomb Raider is likely my #1 game for the year, but we shall see what else comes out).
Far Cry 3
Now, I can see that a certain amount of violence can be called for here. The game, though has a story to tell. Have you ever read the book, Heart of Darkness? Yes? Cool, you are awesome like me. If you haven't, don't feel bad, I'm a huge literature nerd. If you haven't read it, essentially a tale of a mans journey from light to darkness. He starts out a fairly pure individual, only to have his morals and world-views challenged and darkened from the experience. See also Apocalypse Now, it's essentially the Vietnam version of this book.
I feel that the writers of Far Cry 3 wanted to have the same feel to their story. You start out as a laid back slacker dude who just wants to thrill seek and have no responsibilities. The game takes great care to show how frightening and alien the thought and action of killing a person is to the main character. It shows his descent into the madness of the island and the mind-damaging violence he must perform again and again to save himself and his friends. It is a powerful story and it shows that we must take care when we look into the darkness, lest the monster we find peering at us from the gloom is simply a mirror.
If you can't tell, I really liked the story. I didn't like the ending, though mostly because I really wanted an ending where you took over as the leader of the pirates and fully became the monster you tried to destroy at the beginning of the game. But the point I'm getting at is that the game play is at odds with that story, initially. After a certain point, it actually makes a whole lot of sense that you'd be running around the island killing people all willy-nilly.
Initially, though, I expected there to be a certain amount of consistency with how your character reacts to death. It seems like there are two main characters, one that you control and one that the plot controls. When the plot is in control, you slowly escalate in your callousness towards murdering people. However, when the player is in control, you are a murderous rampaging serial killer and god help any who dare stand in the path of your bloody destruction.
Do you see the problem? When I played, I ruthless murdered my way across the island, completely wiping out the pirate presence before continuing with the main story (I get distracted easily and also didn't want to deal with pirates as I wandered about on story missions). I used stealth kills, I shot people in the face with guns and a bow and arrow. Then I do the next story mission and all of a sudden I'm back to “oh man, I can't do it! I can't kill a guy! Oh god, I just shot someone!”
Now, this was a good game. Not perfect, but damn close. The game play was solid, the story was amazing and it was about damn time we got a good female lead in a game. If I have any complaints about the game, it is that it is too violent.
Why? Well, I feel that the game did do a better job then Far Cry 3 in terms of scaling back your mass killing tendencies as the game progressed, but it still had the same inconsistency of character. Lara freaks out over shooting a deer, she shoots a guy in the face and freaks out...and that's it. After that, it's all “I want to bathe the world in its own blood!”.
The game at least addresses it in the end, unlike Far Cry 3, but it still doesn't sit right with me. And in Far Cry 3, at least it kind of made sense. In Tomb Raider, it's just wave after wave of these cultists at appointed spots. And I hate that because it is super obvious what happened there. The feeling of “oh, the game has slowed down a bit, people aren't going to like the game, quick throw something at them to shoot at!” becomes overwhelming at times in Tomb Raider.
The biggest problem I had with this game was the forced nature of the action scenes. You could easily tell as you went through the game exactly when enemies where going to start popping out of the wood-work and start attacking you. It was predictable and ultimately kind of boring after a point. It felt like it was just filler being put in to extend the games play time. And there are a lot of other games that use this. It always sticks out and it always feels out of place.
Okay, I'm going to say something that will blow your mind. I've said this to my friends and they all think I'm insane (which I am, but that is beside the point).
Bioshock Infinite did not need a single moment of violence throughout the entire game. Not one. Every single action and shooting moment is a wasted moment taking away from the point of the plot. I am not joking, I am serious. It was unnecessary. Every single plot point that happened could have happened without a single shot from me. The entire game could have easily been pulled off as a puzzle solving, platforming style of game. The action mechanic in this game could have been replaced with anything else and the game would have improved vastly from it I think. Personally, I think it would have done best as a Metal Gear Solid style sneaking puzzle type game, where you have to take Elizabeth from hiding spot to hiding spot, dodging guards and trying to stay out of sight. I think that some shoot-out style action in the game would have been fine. Maybe a few tense moments where you have to shoot your way to freedom or safety would have been nice little compliments to the game. But it wasn't. It was just wave after wave of faceless, mindless people shooting at me so I can shoot back at them.
The story itself was a deep, psychological one. It dealt with a lot of heady topics that are difficult to wrap your brain around.
But that all gets kind of hard to focus on when I'm shooting people and ripping their faces off with a giant metal hook. All the while the plot is trying to show Shepard as this reluctant killer. You hear him at one point giving the Yoda “wars do not make one great” speech, right before and after he murdered a bunch of cops just trying to do their job. Again, the action feels forced. These guys are here so that I can shoot them and that is it. I just can't help but notice that the times I was having the most fun playing Bioshock Infinite were the times I was not shooting people.
Where I Bring It All Together
Violence and action in video games has become a sort of filler to pad out a games running time. Much like action scenes in movies, really. What is sad is that this is either the result of game designers underestimating their audience, or knowing it all to well. The violence in our games serves no purpose to further the plot and sometimes even detract from the plot itself.
This is why gaming isn't taken seriously. Not ever game that comes out needs to be chockablock full of shooting and killing. Especially when it doesn't align with the story you want to tell. But designers keep putting it in their games and we keep buying them. We need more games like Portal. We need more games where the focus is the plot not the action. Mindless violence in gaming is fun and I am in no way saying to stop making those games. What I am saying is that it doesn't need to be in every video game that gets made.
Just because a game is a shooter doesn't mean it needs to be filled with non-stop shooting. Designers should never feel trapped in a genre or locked into a style simply because of prior game releases. Make diversity, or as Neil Gaiman said, "Make good art."