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A note on violence in video games like “The Last of Us”

I don’t play video games a lot since I don’t own a computer or game console that is able to run recent 3D titles. I like strategy and simulation games like The Settlers and the Anno series. I play StarCraft 2 quite a lot and I’ve been a fan of Command & Conquer and StarCraft since the 1990s. I also enjoy various smaller games from the Humble Indie Bundle, like Trine. Apart from that, take this as a disclaimer, I have no clue about recent games.

Most top games nowadays seem to be brutal action or even war games, which isn’t my genre. I’ve been playing Quake Live in the Capture the Flag mode and enjoyed it, but stopped because it’s physically exhausting. My heart is beating fast, I’m sweating and my head is exploding because of the tension. When I’m carrying the flag and running away from the rockets and Railgun shots, every millisecond counts and there’s a lot of luck involved. After 20 minutes, I need to stop so my heart slows down.

CTF is a strategy and physics game for me, I just see the 3D space my avatar is traversing to avoid the projectiles. Graphics settings are set to low, gore effects are disabled. The same goes for StarCraft 2. After thousands of multiplayer games, you just see the strategic value of units, not graphical effects. Like in chess, the pieces are merely symbols, not realistic depictions. For example, the knight is typically represented by a stylized horse head. This reduction even helps to focus on the important aspects.

I’m fascinated and at the same time shocked about the violence in recent video games. I won’t argue that violence in video games is inherently immoral. To some extent, I even agree that there’s a “technical” reason for violence in games. But in terms of moving through and manipulating 3D space, I don’t see a substantial progress since early shooters and 3D platformers. Also games like MineCraft show that traversing and manipulating space doesn’t necessarily mean violence.

A decade ago, there were broad discussions about violence in early shooters like Doom, Quake and Half Life which I found mostly pointless. There are a lot of things to criticize about these games, of course. It was clearly visible that they originated from violent, militarist, sexist, fearful etc. societies. But I don’t think they were glorifications of violence. Early shooters had an awkward story, they featured pixel Nazis or monsters from outer space. Nonetheless, these games were full of suspense and had a frightening atmosphere. For me they were obvious artifical and fantastic virtual realities that could not be taken for granted. The violence was ridiculously motivated, often ironical and hyperbolic.

In contrast, recent action games are technically able to depict the world in strikingly realistic way. The environment isn’t a obvious fantasy world. It may look like the real world, or it gives a realistic impression of a historical setting or alternative history. Game characters look, move, speak more humanly. Thanks to motion capture, they have rich facial expressions and body language. We perceive them as individuals with emotions.

In the same realistic way, violence is depicted. Every possible way of harming a human body is shown in a nasty natural way. War games are so realistic that military even train their soldiers with them. While I considered violence in older video games to be rather meaningless, insignificant or even funny, I started being opposed to it in recent games.

During the last week I’ve watched a full walkthrough of The Last of Us (2013) on YouTube and was astonished in several ways. As I said, I cannot play it due to the lack of a game console. Actually I’m fine with watching other people playing this stealth-survival-zombie-horror game since it would scare the shit out of me.

First I was surprised that it’s possible to watch someone playing a game as if it was a movie. It reminded me in several ways of recent Hollywood blockbusters. The development studio must have spent millions of dollars to create such a vast game world yet with such a level of detail. Even a 15-20 hours walkthrough feels like watching a movie because of the numerous cutscenes which are interrupted mostly by combat or simple puzzles.

The linear narration is very close to mainstream movies. As far as I can see, there are no choices to make, no quests to solve. The player isn’t acting, just performing the predetermined actions (mostly killing people on the way forward). Like a passive viewer of a movie, the player is at the mercy of the script writer.

Kotaku’s review is mildly critical about the game’s violence, but mostly defends it and even praises the idea of justifying brutal violence with a thought-out storyline:

The game represents a deliberate, cohesive attempt to fuse violent gameplay with a character-driven story, and it often succeeds. …

For a variety of reasons, the video game industry does not appear ready to make a non-violent, character-driven big-budget game, and so game developers must find a way to embrace character amid the shooting and the zombies.

Quite the contrary. I think backing up violence with this particular story is the biggest problem of the game.

I contemplated quite a while about the meaning of violence and today I found an article which nails the problem: The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and why all video game dystopias work the same way

… But of course, in games, the hero never makes it, the girl can never help him escape violence, because in games, violence is often the core feedback loop, the defining mechanism. Everything gets swallowed up into this dysfunctional vortex. This is all fine; violent games are fun. And naturally, you don't have to think about them in this way. But what you do have to think about … is how all of these titles represent highly masculinised visions of the dystopian concept. … And anyway, video games do not need to be bound by our sense of reality; game designers have the freedom to present entirely different natural, cultural and social laws. …

The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite and The Walking Dead … all tell the same story of men coming to terms with violence and the responsibilities of fatherhood – and they all do it in such a way as to confirm the masculine status quo. Self-sacrifice in combat, ruthless violence, the sanguine acceptance that there is no other way.

The article states that especially in post-apocalyptic scenarios the ‘male action hero’ cliché evolved into ‘father protects his girl’, but “exaggerated into psychosis”. The story remains exclusively male-centered. On his way, the protagonist basically goes insane, becomes a ruthless murderer and gets in a vicious circle of violence – a typical ‘masculine’ way to look upon the world and solve problems.

A game could depict this “psychotic” behavior in a critical way. Admittedly, The Last Of Us does this to some extent. Several less violent alternatives are presented in the story line. It could have been different while still being consistent. But the player cannot chose between the alternatives, just slides deeper into violence. I doubt that “in terms of identification… we’re with Joel [the male protagonist] all the way”. He’s depicted as a cruel murderer. Every sensitive being must be horrified of this brutality, if you take this fiction for granted.

The crucial point is: the gameplay is almost exclusively about mass killing. Shooting, stabbing, slaying, strangling, exploding, mutilating. Well, the player can try to outrun or sneak around the opponents, and sometimes there are simple puzzles. But that’s it. Since other games are much more complex and this is a multi-million dollar game, I don’t accept technical reasons (‘we have this great combat system, so let’s base the entire gameplay on it’).

So I think the harsh criticism is appropriate. The story writers chose one particular path and are forcing the player to obey. I found this game to be entertaining and also touching. It has an authentic, sometimes subtle and ambiguous story I haven’t seen in video games so far. But without question, there is a broken relationship between two damaged, sociopathic people, and the game teaches that there’s no other way in dystopia. The gameplay is dominated by violence, which isn’t new for zombie games and shooters, but the story is driven by and centered on violence, too. Both go hand in hand, which seems highly problematic to me.

Read the follow-up post: More links and thoughts on “The Last of Us”