Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media
It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it's there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.
I've finally gotten around to playing Hotline Miami 2, so I've been thinking a lot about blood lately.
For those unfamiliar, Hotline Miami and its more recent sequel Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number are horrific games full of carnage... and, well, more carnage. In the first game, you play as a psychopath who receives messages on his answering machine that provide locations for him to commit mass murder in. In Hotline Miami 2, you play as a series of psychopaths doing much the same.
As far as it goes, this is a bit of an oversimplification. While the games are base, visceral, and in some ways banal, the plots of each are more complicated than that and generally American and European critics have treated the games favorably due in part to the game's punishing difficulty, but interesting and addictive gameplay. Additionally, critics have found (myself included, see, for instance my article “More Masks, More Deviants: Understanding Our Role in Hotline Miami”) that the games are surprisingly thoughtful given their subject matter because both interrogate violence in interesting ways, violence both virtual and real.
Given a cursory glance, it is easy to see why one might want to condemn Hotline Miami as offensive and salacious drivel. It could be seen merely as some sort of “murder simulator” in which doing terrible things is treated casually and without purpose. Controversy arose around Hotline Miami 2 before the game's full release when a demo was shown that included a rape scene (well, sort of a rape scene, more on that in a moment). With some critics condemning it outright and leading to the game being refused a classification (which would lead to its banning) in Australia. The reason given for the refusal of classification of Hotline Miami 2 in Australia is described as the following:
The computer game is classified RC in accordance with the National Classification Code, Computer Games Table, 1. (a) as computer games that 'depict, express or otherwise deal with matters of sex, drug misuse or addiction, crime, cruelty, violence or revolting or abhorrent phenomena in such a way that they offend against the standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults to the extent that they should not be classified.' (”Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number”, Australian Classification web site)
I recently heard the story of a little boy whose teacher had called his parents because she was concerned about some of the drawings that he had produced in class. Both parents arrived for a conference with the teacher and were shown the drawings, which depicted pirates battling aboard a ship. Both parents viewed the pictures with confusion, wondering why these pictures were of concern. The father asked, “What's the problem?” The teacher pointed out the severed limbs and heads lopped off by the crayon drawn pirates. The father responded, “Yes, he really likes pirates. Again, what's the problem?” With a look of consternation the teacher said “I am very disappointed that you aren't seeing how these drawings may represent a concern about your son's sense of morality and what he values.” In response, the father said, “I am disappointed that my son has a teacher that cannot sympathize with his imagination.”
My immediate thought on the story was that the teacher must be fairly new to her job and had watched far too many movies. My wife has been a kindergarten aide and substitute teacher in elementary schools for more than a decade, and she was of the same opinion. On me retelling her this story, she said, “Boys draw monsters destroying cities, boys draw superheroes punching each other, boys draw pirates lopping off each others body parts” and shrugged. “When they do, I ask them who these guys are, and they explain who is fighting who and why. They're totally fun to talk to.” Needless to say, she also thought the father's statement was right on the money.
I started thinking a bit about when I was a kid and what I drew. Monsters were never really my thing. I don't recall ever drawing one wrecking a city, but I feel confident that some of my peers did. I can't recall drawing anyone lopping off someone else's arms or head, but I wouldn't be especially surprised that I did. I liked ninjas. What I do know for sure, though, is that what I did try to draw was comic books.
I created a super hero, The Rose. and planned a four issue limited series. In the concluding issue, this hero would face the worst villain ever possible, evil made flesh, The Enforcer. My plans for the preceding issues was that The Rose would fight one of the enforcer's henchmen each issue, three in all, each more increasingly powerful then the next. I then basically sat down and wrote and illustrated three issues, the first was basically an issue long fistfight, the second was essentially an issue long fistfight, and the third was more or less an issue long fistfight.
I was 10. I wasn't the most sophisticated storyteller.
However, it was the third issue that I really remembered when thinking about the aforementioned context of little boy's drawing violent pictures. In that issue, The Rose fought the dastardly Nightwolf, and Nightwolf just kicked the holy living crap out of my hero. The Rose's costume was shredded by Nightwolf's steel claws, and I made The Rose bleed. A lot. In the final panels of the second to last page with his last remaining strength, The Rose managed to put Nightwolf down. The final panel was a full page with The Rose lying broken, exhausted, and bleeding, as The Enforcer finally entered the fray, looming above him, and, then, of course, the words: “To Be Continued.”
I never wrote the fourth issue, but I know what would have happened. The Rose, terribly injured and at a clear disadvantage, would somehow manage to defeat his nemesis. However, that third issue was so important to me leading up to this final showdown. I needed The Rose to bleed before rising victorious at the end of the limited series. Because blood is drama.
The Rose getting the crap kicked out of him by Nightwolf and still taking down Nightwolf's boss. John McClaine in Die Hard digging glass out of his feet after running across broken glass and still managing, in the end, to save his estranged wife and the Nakatomi building. Blood tells a story. In these cases, of endurance being a heroic quality.
To the uninitiated, the viewer watching Hitchcock's Psycho for the first time with no knowledge of Norman Bates or shower scenes comes to that movie expecting what all movie goers expect. We're going to be introduced to a protagonist (in this case, Marion Crane played by Janet Leigh), who is going to have a problem (we're sympathetic, of course, she's just gotten screwed over by her boyfriend, a married man that had promised he was getting a divorce, and feeling lost and the need to start fresh, Marion steals some money from work and is on the lam), and, of course, by the conclusion of the film, that protagonist's problem will be resolved in some way. Except our heroine is murdered in a shower at an off-road motel for a reason that is entirely unconnected to the plot so far. Oh, and what one assumes is the main character, well, she's been killed halfway through the movie.
Hitchcock throws out the expectations of an audience that “knows” that a film is supposed to introduce a sympathetic hero or heroine, introduce a problem for that character, and, then, because the universe is so very well ordered and meaningful, plot resolution will occur. All will be well for the main character. That character should not die long before the movie is over in an act of seemingly random violence. But she does, and infamously after she does, the camera pans down to the shower's drain as water darkening with blood whirls about and then runs down the drain. Because blood is drama.
This vortex of blood and its downward spiral speaks to the emptiness of the moment. We thought that Marion Crane, and what she was doing, would matter. We thought her life was important enough and her problems sufficiently interesting enough to be resolved on a gigantic screen in front of us. However, the world of Psycho is not so ordered, and Crane's blood simply whirls away into darkness.
What I'm getting at here is that blood speaks, violence speaks, quite clearly and especially compellingly in the visual arts. It's easy to dismiss it as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it represents.
It's easy to call extreme moments in video games, comic books, and films salacious and meaningless, and indeed, sometimes they are. But video games, comic books, and films tell their stories through more than words. Bodies speak, of course, and blood tells us things about who characters are and who they are supposed to be. It can signal justice being enacted (as the blood splattered walls of a plantation do in Django Unchained, see ”A Celebration of Carnage: Django Unchained and Hotline Miami" for more thoughts on this) or of the possible meaninglessness and chaos of narrative and maybe of life itself in Psycho.
Which returns me to the violence, the carnage, and even the rape scene of Hotline Miami 2.
The game begins with a tutorial in which a disembodied voice instructs the player-character on how to play, or in other words, how to kill. The protagonist kind of resembles the lead character of Hotline Miami. He wears a big jacket (not a Letterman's jacket, though), and he is wearing a pig mask.
We are to pick up a baseball bat with one button. We are to smash someone's face in with another. We are to throw that weapon at the head of another man with another button. We are to crawl on top of the now downed man with another button and smash his head in by clicking it repeatedly. We are to advance to the next floor.
Following instructions was the what the player-character in Hotline Miami did, following instructions from a disembodied voice on a phone.
We are to kill all of the men on this floor before entering a room where a man and a blonde woman embrace. We are to kill them. He dies. She crawls across the floor. That same disembodied voice demands, “Finish Her!” We drop our pants and crawl on top of her. The screen goes black.
When the lights go up a director, the man in the pig mask, and the blonde woman who was just raped chat as a cameraman begins breaking down his equipment for the day. The conceit here is that we have just “acted out” a scene of a film being made about the events of the first game.
Only this never happened in the first game. There was a psycho killer who wore animal masks and a big jacket. There was a blonde woman who was brutalized and probably raped before that man did the one redeeming thing that he does do in that game, which is to rescue her from a brutal gang. But this is a movie based on “real events” in the fictional world of Hotline Miami. Movies take license with the truth for the sake of drama. The player-character just raped someone, except they didn't. Actors in films are always doing things, except they aren't really. In video games, we are always doing things, except we aren't really.
And Hotline Miami 2 has just revealed one of the themes of this game (and one which was initially taken up as well in the first game), it wants to ask questions about representations of violence and our complicity in producing them. Should we concern ourselves about doing so? Should we feel guilt?
Like the first game, which interrogated both the protagonist and the player with the question: “Do you like hurting people?” Its sequel wants to ask questions about our relationship to representations of violence and violence itself. Sure, you aren't “really” killing people, but why are you enjoying it so much? Do you like hurting people? Do you like hurting representations of people? Why? All of these are questions that both Hotline Miami games want to taunt us with, making us question ourselves and how we play.
Because blood is drama.