By: Douglas Nash
Violence in games is nothing new whether it is Mario stopping on Gumbas, Master Chief murdering scores of grunts or the leader of the Saints burning Steel Port to the ground. Violence in video games is more or less expected and most games have some amount of violence in them. While the violent combat in many games can be is well done, the same cannot be said for its affect on the narrative. How many times have you played an Uncharted, watched Nathan Drake murder his 1000th man, make some jokey quip and think this guys a sociopath. The answer is likely never and that is because violence in video games has no impact on you or on the characters. There are exceptions of course; games where violence and conflict is used to make a point or further explore the characters committing it.
Far Cry 3 attempted this using its satisfying and deep combat and level up mechanics. As the player gets better at the combat and unlocks more skills it is juxtaposed with the protagonist slowing starting to enjoy the killing a little too much. This approach sounds interesting using the games on skill curve to show how the game’s protagonist is becoming desensitized to the violence; sadly Far Cry 3 fumbles the ball.
Far Cry's Jason Brody adjusts to the killing Pretty quick
Far Cry 3 fumbles the ball not because of the core idea but because the plot becomes muddied in some gross racial story tropes. The farther you get in the game the less it feels the game has to say about the affects of prolonged exposer to violence. Instead the game takes the route of casting the game's protagonist as a white saviour being corrupted by the savage land. It is once those themes come to the fore that Far Cry 3’s take on violence stops being interesting and starts getting gross and exploitive.
A game that is surprisingly successful at taking a similar approach to violence is Spec Ops: The Line. Spec Ops starts off as rout by the numbers third person military shooter; though its how it turns this on its head is what makes it special. You play as Cpt. Walker the leader of a three person squad sent into a version of Dubai that has been decimated by a sandstorm to make contact with any survivors. It’s not long into that you find the battalion sent by United States before the disaster to help evacuate has taken control of Dubai and is committing heinous war crimes to try to keep order.
Spec Ops at first just uses this as an excuse to have some standard military shooter action. Though after two hours, things get interesting as the characters start unraveling as they encounter worse and worse atrocities. It is at this point the game’s approach to the violence starts to change as the characters begin to unravel so do their mannerisms in combat. While at the start of the game the characters act like you except high level combat operatives to act by the end of the game they have become more brutal, clean executions start turning into brutal animations that would be at home in Gears of War.
It only gets worse from here
Sadly Spec Ops is not content with subtly and comes close to knee capping its self in its lead up to the grand finale by using its loading screen messages to constantly convey the message “this is pretty fucked up right?”. This one transgression at the end is not enough to ruin what up until then and what culminates in the finale as a great commentary on the toll that much violence plays on a persons mind.
Spec Ops and Far Cry 3 both escalate the level of violence in their combat in an effort to show the protagonists’ descent into butchery and their increasing disconnect from their humanity. Starting a game with a protagonist who already behaves with such brutality can also be a useful narrative tactic.
Bioshock Infinite opens with Booker Dewitt at the end of his rope. Having already descended into a life a alcoholism and gambling; after participating in war crimes at Wounded Knee and working as a Pinkerton agent. Where most games would be content to simply state this, in a cut scene Infinite shows this through Bookers actions. Nowhere in the game is this more evident the brutal executions Booker does with his Sky Hook these range from brutal neck snaps to deceptions. This shows the a split in Booker’s self-identity on one side is a man who claims to regret his actions, the other is man who is willing to brutally kill to save his one skin and in some cases use excessive force. It is not just Booker’s true self that is illuminated by the game’s excessive violence but Colombia as well.
Colombia is a city all about appearances on the surface and to its many citizens the city is a paradise, a refuge from the sodom below. Colombia however is far worse than the world below, the city is filled with prejudice, ultra-nationalism and is built on the subjection of the working class. It’s not until the violence starts that the people of Colombia show their true face. It is then that you see Colombia’s citizenry is more than happy to kill anyone they see as other be that racially, economically or religiously.
The Violence in Infinite always manages to cut through Colombia's cheery exterior
Infinite uses Violence as a way to tell parts of its narrative by showing rather than telling. Instead of just saying that Booker has a violent past he is excessively violent in combat; instead of just saying the citizens of Colombia are horrible racists they show them conducting a public stoning. In each case Violence is deftly used to show the darker elements of both the world and its characters in a way that has more of an impact than simply telling the player how to feel.
Violence is a tricky topic and few games are able to use it to further their narrative successfully. Some effectively use it to illustrate worlds and characters with dark hidden pasts; others use it to great effect in showing how in its mere presence men can be driven to the depths of madness. Though for every Bioshock Infinite and Spec Ops: The Line there is a Far Cry 3 a game with lofty goals that one way or another fumbles the ball.
Using violence to help tell a story is difficult; will the game’s plot turn out like Far Cry 3’s and be muddied in a jingoism, or will it be the next Infinite or Spec Ops with something interesting to say. Though it might just be easier to simply have Nathan Drake kill his 1000th man and make a quip.