A man in a tuxedo is dropped into former Soviet Russia to destroy a chemical weapons plant. After infiltrating the plant through the ventilation system, he finds a grate leading into a stall in a public bathroom. Beneath him is a guard sitting on the toilet in a forest green trench coat. The man pokes his trademark PP7 through the grate and fires a hushed shot into the guard. A brownish red splotch appears over the bullet’s entry point, and the guard collapses instantly and silently to his death. In a moment he disappears. He does this a thousand more times.
Cool story, huh? Here’s another:
A young captain is assigned to investigate the disappearance of his mentor’s battalion in the ruined city of Dubai. The captain is not more than a dozen steps from the city’s outskirts when he’s spotted by a handful of armed rebels. Without hesitation, the rebels fire on the captain and his small squad. The captain takes aim with his rifle and fires a bullet into the unprotected chest of an attacker. He does this a thousand more times. When the captain shoots someone, his target does not disappear in clean, bloodless silence. Instead, there’s a “squishiness” to his targets. They gurgle and scream, slime oozes from their wounds when they crawl, writhe, and grasp blindly in visible agony.
The first story was lifted from Rare’s 1997 killer app, Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64. The second story was from Yager Development’s 2012 game-changer Spec-Ops: The Line. These games are violent, yet they can’t quite be placed in the same category. The violence in Goldeneye and in The Line are different aesthetically and ethically. It’s obvious that the violence in these games is different because both maintain a consistent form and tone in how they portray violence. More recent games, however, have felt disconnected because they’ve tried to make violence gruesome and fun at the same time.
For many, The Line appeared to be the first time that violence in a video game was intentionally unsettling and conversations about violence in games seem to have changed since. Much of the discussion generated by recent AAA releases like Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Far Cry 3 has been focused on the dissonance they create as hyper-violent games exploring the evils of violence. Where The Line sets out to horrify players with every kill, these more recent games get lost in trying to treat murder as the apogee of sin at the same time that it treats it as a mundane solution to a game’s problems.
In Tomb Raider, the first time Lara must kill someone, it’s for her survival. She’s bound and panicking. She scrambles desperately to get to a gun, and she has to wrestle with her attacker to keep the barrel pointed in the right direction. When she fires, blobs of hair and brains splatter over her and her assailant twitches and groans for several seconds before he dies. Then she gets up and — assuming the rest of the Tomb Raider series is still canonical — does this a thousand more times. Every gunfight that comes afterward is distant, stylized, and fun by design, and each is haunted by that first profound and gruesome murder. It can’t be fun and terrible at the same time.
The game completely undermines the weight of Lara’s first kill by making everything after it so pedestrian by comparison. If we look at another violent series of video games, The Legend of Zelda, one directed at children, we see a completely different kind of violence. Oktoroks, for instance, don’t bleed, they don’t even think, they just spit stones at adventurers. They are a video game monster: not a person, not an animal, not a representative of any competing ideology. They are just there to stand in the way of heroes. When they’re killed, they disappear in a puff of dust and leave behind a prize. When the hero returns to that area, the same monsters are guaranteed to respawn. The violence in Zelda is distant and neutral enough that it’s not even really violence anymore:
We can’t blame Zelda for the excesses of real-world colonialism, because Zelda presents us with a world in which the colonialist fantasy is verifiably and objectively true. The Oktoroks really are hostile, they really don’t have human agency. (“Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil.” Overthinkingit. 3 March 2011)
Link’s primary tool in any of his adventures is his sword, but it isn’t used as a weapon to kill things. It’s used to remove grass, pots, and monsters from his path and turn them into money. The handful of sentient creatures that do attack Link end up dizzied but unharmed, and often, they sell him stuff by way of apology. Every generation of Hyrule suffers a new apocalypse burning across the land, but almost nobody is killed. People are put in crystals, cursed with sleep, or locked in other dimensions, but it is seldom that anyone is actually harmed. Violence is abstract and far away.
This is, oddly, why Cliff Blezinski, formerly of Epic Games and the creative mind behind the Gears of War franchise, is entirely justified in criticizing the violence in Bioshock Infinite. Because the violence in Gears is consistently distant, the locust in the game aren’t much different than Oktoroks. Sure, they bleed, but there’s a setting for that and turning off the gore doesn’t change the scene the way it would change the first on-screen kill in Tomb Raider or Far Cry 3. The locust aren’t people, they barely grasp language, and they aren’t individuals forming thoughtful communities. The only locust that seems to have any human qualities is the queen and she lacks locust qualities.
Bioshock Infinite is problematic because, unlike the battle for Hyrule or Jacinto, the massacre at Wounded Knee actually happened, as did violence against interracial couples. So it becomes extraordinarily uncomfortable for a game to treat enemies as obstacles to be removed with a gun in the context of actual, still relevant wars. Violence is never psychologically or politically neutral, even when it’s fictional, but it’s especially disconcerting when it flits between harsh and abstract depictions.
Violence is nearly omnipresent in creative work. That may be a problem all its own but there is a difference between Bond slapping down blocky Russians, Link slingshotting nuts at oktoroks, Marcus Fenix chainsawing locusts, and Martin Walker shooting members of the 33rd. It’s disconcerting when the first murder feels like Spec-Ops, but every subsequent kill feels like Gears of War. Violence can mean many things in different contexts, but games lose respect for the subject when the context isn’t consistent.