Twice now I have failed to finish the 2011 film “Drive.” The first time I left the theater. The second time, encouraged by friends who love the movie, I tried to watch it at home. Soon after Ryan Gosling smashed a man to death in an elevator, I was out.
Bottom line: I avoid ultra-violent entertainment. Unless it’s a video game.
It’s not because I write about them for a living. It’s because the modern, big-budget game that doesn’t celebrate the art of shooting is as rare these days as an original Intellivision console.
In the wake of last year’s tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Vice President Joe Biden met with representatives from the video game industry. The conversation was about how to limit gun violence in games. Earlier, the National Rifle Association also tossed out the expected names — “Mortal Kombat,” “Grand Theft Auto” — in its own war on violent pop culture. After all, Newtown gunman Adam Lanza was reportedly addicted to the “Call of Duty” war games.
But like many who love to play video games and write critically about the field, I rolled my eyes when interactive entertainment was once again singled out for inciting real-life violence. But I wasn’t surprised. Video game publishers aren’t much for providing arguments to the contrary.
Instead of a story, 505 Games’ “Sniper Elite V2” boasts a “kill-cam,” which breaks from the game narrative to detail exactly how a bullet wreaks havoc on a victim’s innards. “Borderlands 2,” from Gearbox Software and 2K Games, is so efficient in its line-‘em-up, shoot-‘em-down formula that it makes a joke of it. Here’s an example: There’s a character named Face McShooty, a mohawked buffoon who hollers and yelps until you shoot him in the face.
And yes, Face McShooty made me laugh.
Why “Drive” — but not these games — has an effect on me is not easy to articulate, but it has to do with context and presentation. Violent images in most games come fast — too fast for them to linger in one’s mind. The next mission is always just seconds away, and the development of most characters stops at the name. Face McShooty isn’t anything resembling a real person; he’s a punch line.
Ultimately, the difference between “Drive” and “Call of Duty” is that the film is so emotionally involving that it forced me to look away from the screen. The game is simply a test of button-pushing endurance. That’s OK, as it’s probably what makes for an effective game. But that doesn’t mean it’s an interesting one.
There’s Cuban soldiers in the latest “Call of Duty,” but they’re obstacles — the military game equivalent of a barrel in “Donkey Kong.” Only here, you press a button to shoot instead of pressing a button to jump.
I’ve had fun playing some of these games and don’t deny they can be, well, a blast. Each year, shooters get a little more refined in their controls, and the settings become a little more expansive or outlandish (witness the island sex and savagery of “Far Cry 3”). Yet these are tweaks to a well-honed formula rather than creative advancements. It’s violence, with a different-style template.
Don’t just take my word for it. “The incredible success of the ‘Call of Duty’-type stuff drives games away from more constructive conflict. I think that’s one of the sad things and one of the things I don’t like about the game business…. Enough with the shooting. Figure out another type of productive conflict — building, creating.”
That’s Edmonton, Canada-based Greg Zeschuk, who last year resigned from BioWare, the company he co-founded about two decades ago. One of the most successful game operations in recent history, BioWare’s credits include the “Mass Effect” series and “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” the former of which was heavily lauded for its use of narrative elements.
“Call of Duty: Black Ops II,” the latest blockbuster in the Activision Blizzard series, was the top-selling game of 2012 and fastest-ever to $1 billion in sales, hitting the milestone in just 15 days. It boasts writing from David S. Goyer, who counts Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy among his credits, makes overtures to current events and the debate surrounding unmanned drones, and features digital interpretations of the likes of David Petraeus and Oliver North.
Yet “Zero Dark Thirty” it is not. Make no mistake, “Call of Duty” asks questions of the gamer. They are all variations on the following themes: How fast can you shoot, and can you sneak through this area undetected? It’s a test of reflexes.
It’s true, when 10 or 15 seconds of the game are flashed on the news, it does indeed look garish, and early in “Black Ops II” gamers even watch a character get incinerated. Yet blink and you’ll be behind in the action. I, for instance, had no idea my character was talking to a real-life figure such as North until I played the game a second time. The story is an accessory and not an examination of war or shooting.
“The industry saw what the reflex game mechanic could do and they invested heavily in it,” said Dan Connors, a former LucasArts employee who co-founded Telltale Games, the independent company responsible for last year’s wildly successful story-driven take on “The Walking Dead.” “They left behind this other form of entertainment, which is allowing people to interact with characters inside of a story.”
Like cinema and television, there’s a vast array of video game content to provide exceptions, and there’s even the occasional blockbuster such as “Halo 4” that’s able to push the shoot-’em-up genre into more emotional territory, which did so by taking a laser-sharp focus on its main character. Though not a shooter, another noteworthy title is the action-driven assassination game “Dishonored,” which is as damp and macabre as they come, but challenges gamers to constantly question how they move through the world.
Yet it would be nice if the video game industry used the current gun debate as an opportunity, a chance to openly discuss whether its use of violence is artistic or gratuitous. It’s the time for self-evaluation and to ask whether the industry’s biggest games — the so-called AAA titles — are pushing the industry forward or simply finding new places and new ways to kill things.
“This,” said Connors, can be “the moment in which games started to create characters you cared about and characters who felt real.” Independent developers like Telltale are taking risks and challenging the industry to tell better, deeper and more involving stories.
They’re not doing so by creating shooters. In fact, how to build a better shooter is not a question that should be asked. Even the bad ones today are fairly competent in their game mechanics. The question is how to make a more challenging game, and it’s not one some in the industry may be willing to ask.
“Seeing it from within a big company, the reality is you go where the money is,” said Zeschuk, now spearheading the Beer Diaries, an online destination for craft beer. “You can try to change the world, but if you can’t create shareholder value while doing it, you’re hosed.”
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