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Violence in video games: Deux Ex: Human Revolution and Tomb Raider

Spoilers ahead! Description of physical violence and death.

Some time ago I wrote an article about the meaning of violence in recent video games, especially in The Last Of Us. In this post I will take a look at Deus Ex: Human Revolution Director’s Cut (2010) and Tomb Raider (2013). Since I am a scholar of literature and philosophy by trade, I will focus on the story and narration.

I bought Deus Ex and Tomb Raider in a bundle with other games from the publisher Square Enix. Thief and Hitman: Absolution were also part of the bundle. It is worth to compare these four games since they share similarities in the gameplay, but I will focus on Deus Ex and Tomb Raider for now.

In this post, I will not give an overview about the games, their gameplay and their story, but focus on aspects I find worth adding to the discussion. If you are not familiar with the games, I recommend reading the synopsis: Tomb Raider on Wikipedia, Deus Ex on Wikipedia.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex has a dense, multi-layer story. The background is a near-future society on the verge of dystopia, struck by corruption, police violence, militarization and armed conflicts. In this world, powerful multi-national tech companies develop medical implants to “augment” humans. The game explores the social implications of technology in a political and economic system that closely resembles the one we have today. There are clear analogies which makes the game a social commentary.

What I liked about the game is this background story. It plays in 2027, and indeed the events could happen 15 or 20 years from now. It feels frighteningly realistic since mechanical and electronic technology is getting closer and closer to our bodies. With wearables, virtual and augmented reality devices, we are taking steps to become cyborgs slowly but steadily.

The game takes a balanced stance: technology is able to advance humankind, but in the scenario it fails. Corporations, media, police, military and science contribute to the failure. By pointing this out, the game is mildly critical about “enhancing” the human body with implants.

Exploring the world

The subtleties can be found in the scenery. You can walk through the vast cities of Detroit and Hengsha to read people’s sentiment: By talking to them, overhearing their conversations, by reading newspapers and found PDAs, by hacking into their emails and chat protocols. A lot of information is trivial or even nonsense, little is practically useful.

Exploring this fictional world already tells so much. It builds up a great atmosphere. There are homeless and poor people, gangsters, there are social conflicts, inequality, protests and riots, violent police. There is a growing antipathy against “augmented” people. This is the strong narrative of Deus Ex, it has its own value, not just an instrumental value for the main plot.

I found the foreground story to be less interesting. It has good and bad parts but overall it is not plausible to me, more on this later.

Making choices

In my opinion, this game is about making choices and moral dilemmas. First of all, there are choices to be made in the gameplay which was critically acclaimed. There are at least three ways to achieve a goal in each level. The story is linear with optional objectives, but still there are many ways to play this game. This is a huge plus not only for the entertainment and replay value of the game.

For example, you can play the game without killing anyone (directly), by using stealth techniques like hiding, running, sneaking past enemies, by using non-lethal force – it is just really, really hard. Still, fighting and killing is an important part of the game. Lethal force is the easy and most effective way, and the gameplay is optimized for using deadly weapons. You get experience points for killing someone, but the challenge of the game is to not play it like a boring first-person shooter.

Male protagonist bingo

The largest drawback in my opinion is the annoying protagonist, named Adam Jensen. He scores high on the Male Protagonist Bingo sheet. In short, he is a self-righteous, self-entitled asshole. I always cringe when I hear him talking and watch his condescending gesture of crossing arms in dialogs. He is as empathetic as a brick, such an unpleasant person. If this game is any good, it is good despite the main character.

Personal aversion aside, he is also poorly designed character. There is no character arc, no development. The protagonist is the same boring person before and after the rough ride he is on. Only the augmentations are activated, so in the end he is a nearly immortal killing machine. There is just a tiny bit of self-reflection on this. Originally, he was “augmented” against his will, but finds it useful, and so does the player.

Endless journey

The game is about an endless journey without a clear goal. The male protagonist is trying to find his ex-girlfriend who is assumed to be dead, but he believes she was kidnapped and searches for her. Finally he finds the alleged “damsel in distress”, but disturbingly he only yells at her and accuses her of collaboration with the bad guys. (Did I mention he is a total dick?)

Since this is not a resolution for the conflict, the journey goes on. This may sound strange, but it is an interesting part of the narration. The story is not a line, it is a spiral. On his egoistic rampage, the protagonist reveals crimes and conspiracies of world-dominating powers. But he is not the hero who saves the world. He is just going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. No criminal case is solved, no justice is done. The case widens, the conspiracy gets more complex.

As the player, if you think you just learned something, it gets even weirder. This is a cheap narration technique in my opinion, an overuse of the surprise effect to keep up the suspense and move the plot forward. In the end you find out that the Illuminati pull the strings, and you’re just another puppet.

Pointless violence?

There is a vague and distant goal of rescuing an ex-girlfriend, but mostly the protagonist’s journey is absurd in a philosophical sense. This brings me to the meaning of violence in this game. The protagonist encounters a lot of people who are not enemies or villains per se, but he kills them nonetheless. There are no real villains in this game, every person with influence is morally ambiguous. They are pursuing noble goals but end up enslaving people. Then there are mercenaries who kill for their benefit – but that is what the protagonist does.

After all, the game does not justify the killing of hundreds to find and save one person. In the boss fight of the “The Missing Link” add-on – which is part of the main storyline in the Director’s Cut – the antagonist questions the protagonist’s moral superiority: “You’ve condemned me for my actions, Jensen, but look at the lengths you’ve gone to find ONE woman… Wasted potential. How far do you think Dr. Reed would go for her research? I think you’d be surprised, Jensen.”

So does this violent action game admit there is no point in violence? Surely violence is depicted as useful and effective in cases where human life is at stake. But the game admits that there are people who exploit others, that there is systemic injustice and it is not a solution to just kill them all. Similarly, there is excessive violence in the game world not committed by the player, but it is mostly embedded into a meaningful context, for example questionable scientific experiments the player is trying to stop.

Tomb Raider

»It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt... also a woman first.«

Leigh Alexander: What did they do to you? Our women heroes problem

The character of Lara Croft is basically the opposite of Adam Jensen of Deus Ex. Tomb Raider’s story is centered on her character development. Lara evolves from an inexperienced, vulnerable young woman to a self-confident “hardened” “survivor”. This character sketch almost sums up the whole game:

Lara before and after surviving the island: intact Lara on the left, dirty, scarred and bleeding Lara on the right

As a prequel to the other games in the franchise, the game tells how Lara became a badass tomb raider – in the final cutscene, she picks up the two pistols which are iconic since 1996.

Vulnerability and violence

In Deus Ex, the protagonist is physically superior and almost invulnerable, and has to deal with moral dilemmas. Tomb Raider in contrast is about physical and mental vulnerability. Lara is a human being. She is full of fear, doubt and despair, still she is smart, powerful and resilient. She is not an empty game avatar with super-human powers and lack of individual thoughts and emotions. We feel compassion with Lara. She is a social being, not a lone wolf. She cares and fights for her friends and wants to rescue them. So in this game, there is at least a protagonist the player identifies with, instead of a cynical and mostly indifferent cyborg.

As much as this game is centered on vulnerability, it is centered on violence. It has a clear role and meaning here. It is morally justified as it is framed as self-defense. Story-wise, violence is necessary because, once again, it is the tool that shapes our character. We grow by suffering pain and committing violence. Once again, the decision of building a story on inevitable violence has serious consequences I would like to describe.

Suffering and voyeurism

First, Lara’s life is under perpetual danger. Lara’s body is hurt so many times in so many ugly ways. Her body falls off cliffs, spins around, has bleeding wounds, is beaten, stabbed, shot. The pain she suffers in this game is enormous, and all perpetrators are exclusively men. In the end, Lara is scarred, her clothes are rags and she is marked for life. I habe not seen this happening to a male body in video games. As Anita Sarkeesian notes, the role of “perpetual victims of male violence” in games is reserved for female, sexualized bodies.

Apparently the game designers had great pleasures in animating this violence. For example, when Lara dies, there is always a nasty effect. Polygon describes this as “gruesome voyeurism”:

“But sometimes the game shows a disturbingly detailed vision of Lara’s demise. You can see the exact angle that she breaks her neck against a rock or hear the gurgle of blood as a spike stabs through her stomach. In a single-player campaign where every element feels carefully considered, this is the one thing that seems unnecessary — a split second of gruesome voyeurism in an otherwise empowering game. These deaths didn’t occur often enough to tear me away from the game, but if scenes of extreme, realistically rendered violence turn your stomach, be warned.”

Splatter and genocide

Second, the island Lara is stranded on is nothing but a mass grave. It is ruled by a group of men who kill for fun and to reinforce their power. It is the island of the dead. There are dead bodies everywhere. It is awful. Eurogamer:

“When Lara’s not screaming, shrieking, panting or squealing, she’s busy getting chased, groped and tied up. … All this takes place against a background of mutilated bodies and ritual sacrifice. No spoilers here, because this is the case right from the start - there’s no build-up to these elements, no hinting at horror about to be revealed. The gory imagery is so prevalent and overblown it soon loses any power to shock or scare. ‘Oh,’ Lara might say, if she were thinking out loud, ‘Another room full of flayed corpses and pools of blood. I wonder what’s in that crate?’ … This kind of excessive violence may be common in video games but it feels incongruous here, alongside a storyline that’s trying to be subtle and realistic.”

In some levels, there are heaps of mutilated corpses that remind of mass killing in the Holocaust. What is the matter with random genocide imagery in a game that tries to be historically sensitive and accurate in certain regards? As a shock effect to build up a scary atmosphere?

It is worth noting that the horror genre, both literature and film, makes use of fear, imagination and suspense. Not showing the horror makes horror fiction even scarier. Horror about what is happening in your head, and how individuals and social groups react.

Human life has little value in this fictional world. Consequently, mutilated corpses do not have a meaning. They are just 3D models for the level designers to fill empty rooms. Bodies are stacked on the ground, hang from on the ceiling etc. for level decoration. Why expose a female protagonist to such a hell? So she can “grow” from these horrors? Why expose video game players to such a hell? For me it is beyond question that this desensitizes the viewers to violence and suffering.

Violence and power

All in all, Tomb Raider reminds me of The Last of Us. The concept of “hardening” by suffering and committing violence is a concept of dominant masculinity. In Tomb Raider, there is a woman protecting herself and her friends instead of a man (over)protecting a woman, which makes it a little less sexist. Still it is the same problematic idea.

I am not against games exploring the role of violence, quite the contrary. A lot of good fiction shows how violence arises, how people change through violence and how they try to end violence. We do live in a violent world, so after all the topic is worth dealing with in fiction.

But Tomb Raider does not qualify as a critique of violence, it mainly reproduces and also justifies violence. First Lara feels guilty after having to kill a human being in self-defense. Later she is ruthless and seems to enjoy killing dozens in a row. She suddenly feels courageous and powerful. Yet another story about coming to terms with violence, about “growing up” through violence. We learn how to a “survive” in a hostile world.

The fusion of violence and power appears several times in the narration. The antagonist Mathias has formed a group of exclusively male followers, the Solarii. Under his rule, opposition means instant death. As an allusion to real militant groups and religious fanatics, this is plausible and a topic worth exploring. But Tomb Raider does not go into detail here.

Story-wise, there are many missed opportunities how the protagonist could “grow” apart from becoming ruthless and violent: Using non-lethal force and cleverness to trick or outrun opponents. Learning social skills like persuasion. Team play. Survival: Finding food and hunting not just for experience points. Finding and making clothes, tools, constructing camps. Studying cultures, finding artifacts, learning languages to solve puzzles. Archaeology beyond just raiding tombs.

Good parts

The fact that I emphasized the problematic parts does not mean I did not like the game. I enjoyed playing it despite the disturbing and disgusting parts. Fortunately, the gameplay is varied and there is more than killing enemies with maximum cruelty. The island of Yamatai and its nature are beautiful. It is a pleasure to just traverse and explore this world. Most levels are complex and well designed. The movement through space by walking, jumping, climbing, by using ropes etc. is clearly a strength of the game. Controlling the avatar feels easy and natural.

It was good idea to make bow & arrow a versatile tool and weapon. For me, the arrow is the most interesting weapon, supported with the pistol. The combat is challenging in the first two thirds of the game when you need to use bow & arrow strategically as well as stealth and defensive techniques. Later in the game, there are masses of enemies. You can try to be clever, but it is easier to just gun them down with the assault rifle and grenades. There is more than enough ammo even on difficulty level “hard”. That is a pity in my opinion. The heavy firearms and explosives should not play such an important role.

What did not work out for me is the melee combat. It seems the keyboard is not suitable for this type of combat. Unfortunately, the boss fights rely on dodge and melee techniques, so I found them to be tedious instead of challenging.

Story details as secrets

The story is linear and there are no choices to make, only optional secrets to find. Overall, I found this game to be rather short compared to Deus Ex. The main storyline about queen Himiko, whose fate is stopping Lara from leaving the island, is suspenseful, but rather short and shallow on its own.

There is a mix of themes: mysterious tombs, artifacts and treasures, ancient Japanese culture, World War 2 references, mythical and supernatural powers, shipwreck and survival, religious cults, secret societies, tyranny. None of them is explored in detail. I am not complaining, just stating that these topics were touched on briefly and there is narrative potential, which is probably a good sign.

There is some good narration in this game. For example the conflicts between the members of Endurance crew, Lara’s fellow castaways, and Lara’s relationship to her dead father and her stepfather Conrad Roth. These sub-plots are told in cutscenes and in documents the player discovers. Those short accounts back up the main story, they are well-written but secrets you need to find. To fully understand the story, you need to take the time to search all levels thoroughly.