This past week I had the great pleasure of staying up late to read Brendan Keogh’s “Killing is Harmless: A Critical Reading of Spec Ops: The Line.”. Keogh’s book, which was released last November, is a meditation on the questions raised by Spec Ops, primarily with a concern towards player responsibility for the violent media they consume. While this question usually gets bandied about in moralistic terms by politicians in most developed countries, Spec Ops (and Keogh in his analysis) deftly avoid critiquing this consumption in such a simplistic way. As Keogh himself states, “It’s not wrong to enjoy playing military shooters, but just what that ‘enjoyment’ entails is a hard truth we often avoid.” Published a month before the Sandy Hook shootings in the United States, Keogh’s book is rather prescient with its reflections upon the violence that we enjoy and consume.
Obviously there is a lot to unpack with Keogh’s argument, but for now I am primarily concerned with addressing one of the criticisms against accepting responsibility for our enjoyment of the violence in video games: that Gamers are only doing what the developers allow them to do. Even the most sandbox of sandbox games have rules set in place by developers to ensure progress along certain lines. For example, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas I could sit around and play a mock-up Sega Genesis all day, but I would progress nowhere in the narrative of the game. The world would remain static, nothing changing. Even the Grove Street Families, who seem to require my assistance in ever other matter, would continue on, holding their own until I decided to rejoin the life of crime and progress the story further. The more common example is Spec Ops itself, as the biggest act of violence in the game is forced upon the player with no choice within the game to opt out.
Keogh addresses this criticism in detail within his book, pointing out that our consumption of the media and our willingness to perform the acts in our pursuit of that media make us, in the very least, complicit with the developers. Personally, however, I think that another element of this discussion is how developers often rely upon violence to give their games a conflict for players. In a recent Cracked Article about video game adaptations of famous films, every single one of them added violent solutions as the sole method of plot advancement. Luke is supposed to be beaten by Vader physically and emotionally at the end of Empire? Screw that noise, let us have Luke beat the shit out of Vader. The Beast accepts Gaston’s attacks as punishment for his own monstrosity, thus completing a character arc that borders on the most important element of the film? Naw, that is too deep for players- they need to beat the shit out of Gaston to win. It borders on insulting to the players, as well as incredibly limiting for developers, to use violent solutions as the only method of advancement.
This is why I am incredibly heartened to see video games and developers exploring other methods of maintaining a tense and scary atmosphere without using violence as a crutch. Amnesia: The Dark Descent provides a decent example, with the player being required to run from any foes for a lengthy duration of the game. The Cat and the Coup, a game about the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has the player take the role of a cat and solve puzzles in order to advance the plot. Even games which include some level of violence can get in on the fun. Bastion had been about smacking things with a hammer for 95% of the game, yet lays its most emotionally invested scene at the feet of an act in which almost nothing gets smacked. Roleplaying games such as Mass Effect and Planescape: Torment had final bosses who could be defeated via dialogue options, rather than murder, death, or kill. Even simply taking violence out of the hands of the player could lead to some inventive gameplay, such as when James Portnow once ruminated on a game in the “second person.” According to his idea, the player could control a survivor attempting to escape a war torn city but play from the perspective of a sniper hunting the survivor.
The most interesting example comes from a Steam Greenlight project entitled Huntsman: The Orphanage. Set on a dark night in an abandoned orphanage, the player assumes the role of a man attempting to solve the mystery of several missing children using only their wits and a cell phone. In a Penny Arcade interview I heartily recommend to all interested readers (after reading every single Lusipurr article first, naturally), the developer behind the game explains that Huntsman is an explicit attempt to avoid using violence as a means, remarking that “There seems to be basically one way: gore, violence, ultra-violence, and shooting. Surely there must be alternatives.” Yet all these examples come from indie games. In my opinion, there seems to have been startlingly light experimentation done in exploring non-violent methods of gameplay, at least within the context of the AAA studios who make our mainstream games.
This is, of course, not to say that violent video games are bad or that less of them ought to be made, only that violence is too often used as a crutch for luring in our attentions. If Ken Levine took one lesson from the release of Bioshock, it was that the players were often more captivated by the narrative, emotion, and intellectual weight of the game than by the shooting mechanics. Players enjoy being treated as adults capable of adult thought, and while violence can often be a means of transmitting those adult thoughts (both Bioshock and Spec Ops are clear examples of these cases), it is not the sole method of doing so and nor should it be. And so, I once again turn it off to all the readers out there: are there any scenes, gameplay, or entire games that eschew the standard kill-all mentality that impressed you, invigorated you, or made you want to play more?