[13 November 2009]
Many movies have tried to explore why we as a people are so attracted to violence. Usually this exploration involves a violent crime that’s watched by many, and a main character that acts as the moral center of the film by denouncing those who watched and did nothing. But often the message of these movies ends up feeling hypocritical because while the character denounces our attraction to violence, the movie itself exploits that very attraction in order to gain an audience. The mixed messages contradict each other and the movie ends up saying nothing at all.
This is a problem for any story that wants to explore this subject. How do you examine our attraction to violence without descending into a glorification of it? Surprisingly, MadWorld succeeds where so many others have failed.
MadWorld revolves around a game within the game. An island city is cut off from the rest of the world, and transformed into one giant set for the game show Death Watch. It’s explained that Death Watch was created to “quench mankind’s thirst for blood and violence in the absence of war,” but this current incarnation of the games was driven by a pharmaceutical company to recoup profits after a major loss. The player controls Jack, a three-time Death Watch champion, now on a mission to rescue the mayor’s daughter from the island.
MadWorld is a gloriously violent game, there’s no disputing that fact, but the game itself only passively encourages the sideshow of violence. If players never pick up a signpost, they’ll never see the gratuitous cut scene of Jack stabbing it through someone’s skull. If players never pick up an enemy, then they’ll never see the cut scene of Jack repeatedly ramming him into a spike. While the game allows for these acts of violence, it is ultimately the player who performs them. Therefore when MadWorld begins to moralize and condemn the Death Watch games, it blames those who participate in such games for continuing the trends of violence. It’s interactivity gives it an excuse to avoid any blame.
It’s telling that Jack is an ex-champion of the games, a professional killer. People bet money on contestants like Jack, they’re the lifeblood of the games, and it’s no surprise that his counterparts, the bosses we must kill to progress, are all psychotic. This is who we’re playing as. We’re one of the bad guys.
But what makes MadWorld so interesting is that it gives us players a scapegoat of our own. Jack is on a mission to rescue the mayor’s daughter, his (and by association, our) goal is a noble one. We may fight and kill, but it’s done in self-defense. We’re forced into the games, and the only way to reach the mayor’s daughter is by progressing. The end is supposed to justify the means. It helps that Jack isn’t portrayed as a psycho like the other contestants. In fact, he’s shockingly restrained in the cut scenes, so we see him as a good guy forced to do bad, and the real villains are the ones forcing us to kill.
There are no redeeming qualities to the pharmaceutical company that sponsors Death Watch. They’re using the games to earn money fast, implying that they’re entirely driven by greed. The members of this company, as well as other upper class elites, watch the games unfold from atop a huge tower. They watch for fun, they have no noble goal, for them the violence of Death Watch is just an avenue for entertainment and profit. Compared to them, the player and Jack and the other contestants are just pawns in a larger conspiracy. They’re the real villains; they’re the ones to blame for the cycle of violence.
But what exactly do they do to encourage this cycle? They create the violence for profit, and they watch the violence because they find it entertaining. With those traits in mind they’re no different from the developer and the player. MadWorld is unabashedly pointing the finger at itself, acknowledging its own role in the promotion of violence.
The game exposes our hypocrisy towards violent media by feeding it to us, then giving us a justification for our actions. In a brilliant twist the people we use as scapegoats, the voyeurs and profiteers, are not different from ourselves. We come to think that Death Watch is a horrible game, even as we enjoy MadWorld. The final message of MadWorld isn’t so much a condemnation of violent media, but rather our rationalizations for enjoying violent media. The game knows you love violence, that you’re attracted to the over-the-top black and white gore, that’s really the only reason to play it. In the end that’s all the justification you need, it tells us. You find violence fun. Admit it, and enjoy it.