Abusing the World

An Aesthetics of Demolition

by G. Christopher Williams

14 July 2010

The only way to set things right in a world is to subtract something in it.

As I understand it, in Persia pots can be extremely aggravating.  I was reminded of this “fact” when playing through the Prince of Persia reboot, The Forgotten Sands, several weeks ago.

Forgotten Sands include that old gaming chestnut, break stuff on a level in order to get other stuff that will benefit you.  It really is a strange concept, the notion that abusing the world around you is obviously a way of helping yourself out.  I mean, okay, the idea of getting some sort of “life energy” out of a random pot in a palace is a weird enough concept.  But do you really have to break a container in order to get at the weird stuff inside?  Could the Prince be bothered to maybe reach inside first before resorting to vandalism?
Of course, part of this mechanic is related to the limited ways that a lot of games provide the player with interacting with the world.  Additional button assignments for complex actions on a console controller need to be limited to the sorts of things that the player will be doing a lot.  Obviously, in an action game doing things like shooting, slashing, and jumping are pretty important.  One generic “interact with environment in a context sensitive way” button can be useful, but the strange thing is that despite the fact that such buttons are not uncommon in games, I have been so trained by games of the last twenty years to demolish things that, when in doubt, I most commonly default to “shoot” or “slash” prior to any other decision.

Door that won’t open?  Try shooting it.  Mysterious machine that seems to not operate?  Blast it, toss a grenade and see what happens, maybe shoot an RPG at it?

Thinking about this notion of demolition as a solution to a problem though, has also gotten me thinking about how demolition is integrated into both the plots and mechanics of so many recent titles.  There is almost a politics of demolition or erasure at the heart of titles like Red Faction: Guerilla, The Saboteur, and Assassin’s Creed.  In Red Faction: Guerilla and The Saboteur this kind of politics is very literal.  As a freedom fighter (or insurgent) on the planet Mars, the protagonist of Red Faction: Guerilla finds that strategically demolishing the facilities of the fascistic EDF is a way of liberating Mars, both in terms of cutting down on the presence of EDF forces but also in raising the morale of the oppressed workers on Mars.  In The Saboteur blowing up watch towers, flood lights, propaganda towers, and the like is a way of reducing the Nazi presence in an occupied France.  It also succeeds in literally “adding color back to the world” as portions of the city are freed from the Reich’s influence and life becomes apparently more pleasurable as a result.

There seems an unavoidable truth to the idea that reducing the property of a political opponent will also reduce its presence and power, but it is very often the only option available in most games, as if the only way to set things right in a world is to subtract something in it.  Assassin’s Creed more obviously gets to the heart of this idea.  If someone stands in opposition to you, remove them to make things better.

From the standpoint of gaming, this does make some sense.  Reducing opponents or their power is a great way to win a game.  If Red Faction: Guerilla evokes any kind of emotive response well, it is a satisfaction derived from the game’s incredible model of destructibility.  From early on in the game, the player is trained in how to demolish whole buildings with a sledge hammer or carefully placed explosives.  It feels kind of amazing to bring a large structure crashing down with a few well placed blows or charges. 

Even games without obvious opponents frequently depend on the idea that erasure is the solution to the problems that games pose and that some measure of satisfaction is derived from such erasure.  Indeed, a similar pleasure is evoked in a seemingly less destructive game like Tetris.  “Solving” Tetris and feeling satisfaction as a result seems largely derived from a kind of principle of organizing in order to disintegrate.  Moving blocks efficiently and effectively around the board in order that they ultimately dissolve at the bottom of the screen due to careful planning (and possible forethought) is the chief way of “cleaning up” the world of Tetris.  Erasure is the ultimate goal.

It isn’t as if games are solely designed with erasure and demolition in mind.  Building occurs in some games, especially in economic simulators (the various Tycoon games for example) and other types of sims.  Indeed, The Sims series may head wholeheartedly in the opposite direction of the idea of breaking things as a means of provoking a sense of pleasure or that subtraction is the way to make things right.  The Sims seems to suggest (with its focus on the acquisition of objects to improve your life and make it more efficient) that acquiring stuff will (necessarily) make your life better.

Interestingly, action games of the sort that I discussed earlier (as well as sims that include warfare as a part of developing an economy or culture) even manage to sublimate creative acts like building to the dominant solution of demolition as the ultimate methodology to achieve results.  In Red Faction: Guerilla, scrap is produced and can be collected as buildings come down.  Scrap is the currency of the game, and ironically, its only real use is to build new weapons and upgrade old ones, allowing the player to break future targets even better.  The game suggests an endless cycle predicated on a demolition that exists to build better engines of demolition.  Demolition leads to building only because greater erasures are made possible by such building.  Again, simply put, the solution to making the world a better place is predicated on removing the elements that make that world “wrong”. 

See a fascist?  Break it.

I am somewhat reminded of Red Faction’s commitment to demolition when thinking about the old Nintendo Entertainment System game Wrecking Crew, in which Mario uses a hammer to destroy doors, ladders, and walls.  This puzzle-based game requires that the player strategize the best ways to demolish the interior of a building, leaving nothing standing.  Destroying a ladder too quickly may leave Mario stranded and unable to complete a level.  It is in Mario’s best interests to figure out a way to destroy a level completely, through painstaking analysis of how it can all be accomplished in as few swings of a hammer as possible and at the proper time.  Successful demolition is done carefully, one floor at a time.

In video games, sometimes total victory is best measured by the blankness of the screen at games end.  Total erasure becoming the most elegant solution possible.


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