Whenever a critic of the gaming industry starts to decry the level of violence in games, the response is generally the same. It’s standard to point out that violence in games pales when compared to the more explicit violence and gore in movies. While that may be true when comparing a game like GTA IV (the mass media’s favorite whipping boy) to a movie like Hostel, it doesn’t hold up for games versus movies in general. If we go by gallons of blood spilt, games are more violent and gory than movies by a longshot. But what’s the real effect of all this violence? A little blood is realistic, lots of blood is scary, but the geysers that often fly from enemies in games is cartoonish. The more blood there is in a game, the more unrealistic it becomes; it ceases to have any real meaning and becomes a joke. Any message or deeper meaning the game might have is lost because no one takes it seriously.
Gears of War 2 is a prime example of this sideshow gore. It embraces violence as one of its selling points but also tries to be serious at times. When we chainsaw a Locust in half, the camera rotates slightly giving us a better view of the chainsaw cutting into our enemy; blood spews out and splashes all over the camera to emphasize the very bloody nature of this kill. A lot of care and attention to detail went into this short scene because it’s important, it’s our reward for getting in close for a kill. We could have shot at the alien from the relative safety of distance, but instead we chose to get in close where we could have been easily flanked or killed by a single well-placed shotgun blast or been punched and cut in half ourselves. The violence has been embellished to the point of ridiculousness, and that’s why it works as an entertaining reward.
It’s interesting that the most emotional scene in the game is completely bloodless. When Dom finally finds Maria, his missing wife, she steps out of a tiny cell looking normal and healthy. They embrace, and when the camera pulls back, we realize that we’re seeing her through Dom’s eyes, and in reality, she’s nothing more than an emaciated skeleton that is mentally dead. But there’s no blood. There are scars on her face, we can see her bones through her skin, but no blood is presented in the secne. Gears of War 2 embraces bloody mayhem as it’s chief attraction, but the lack of it here suggests that this scene is not supposed to be enjoyed, this scene is meant to be taken seriously. But it doesn’t work.
Gamers make fun of the Maria subplot in Gears of War 2 because that single moment of seriousness is out of place in the game. It really is a powerful moment, but when surrounded by ultraviolent fun, it alone can’t grab the player’s attention and make him care.
Where ultraviolence helps make a message clearer is in parodies. Madworld and No More Heroes are two of the most violent games on consoles, let alone on the Wii, and both have embraced their cartoonish ultraviolence by becoming cartoons. They parody other violent games by exaggerating other aspects of the game, the art style, boss fights, and characters to the same extent as the violence. In this context, the ultraviolence seems normal, but being normal in these kinds of over-the-top worlds serves to showcase how out of place it is in purportedly realistic games.
Games must learn restraint before they can be taken seriously, however, “restraint” doesn’t just mean less violence. Bloodless violence is common in games rated anything but M, and this kind of violence is often seen as childish, as the removal of something graphic in order to make it more appealing to a younger audience. So to avoid this unwanted label and to make themselves immediately stand out, M rated games tend to go to the opposite extreme but end up looking just as juvenile. It’s then up to that player to actively try and get over his immediate preconceived notion that these games are just over-the-top mindless fun. There’s nothing wrong with a little ultraviolence, but not every M game has to embrace it to the degree that’s currently popular. Everything in moderation.