The question of violence in video games is so closely knit to the current generation that it seems like you can’t discuss one without the other anymore. No matter what the game or the style, if there are guns and blood involved, the subject will ultimately be breeched in one way or the other.
Recently, there has been a slew of writers out there questioning BioShock Infinite. It seems as though they believe that it could be a “great” game—indicative of all of the cries gamers unleash when the topic of the game as art comes about. But yet, it remains merely “good” because of its uncharacteristic bouts of violence.
Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton, along with Cliff Blezinski (of Epic/Gears of War fame) and Chris Plante over at Polygon have all called the game out for what they see as its imbalance of blood and guts over depth and themes. Of course I won’t even touch the irony in Blezinski, who brought us the C.O.G. and their lancers, but seems to find objection in Infinite‘s violence. The rest, however, banded together in saying that Ken Levine’s brilliant idea is ultimately overshadowed in a cloud of blood, forced upon us by the nature of the FPS as a genre.
I seriously encourage that you read their impressions of the game. While I intend to counter their arguments to some degree, I think that every position is worth entertaining, especially when it deals with a game as evocative, provocative and deep as BioShock Infinite.
Focusing primarily on Hamilton’s argument, I think that while it’s important to ask the question, “Can’t a strong narrative exist in the interactive medium without needing to be told down the barrel of a gun?”, we are ultimately asking the wrong question.
If we want to tell the stories that people need to experience, the ones that stick with them for weeks after completing and the ones that leave message boards teeming with intelligent conversation, the question we need to ask is ,“How do we do this and pull away from the accessibility of the FPS at the same time?”
If Telltale’s The Walking Dead is any indication, deep, thought-provoking interactive storytelling is key to the future of gaming. While the game still builds in popularity with the mainstream gaming audience, it has already won countless awards amongst both the gaming press and public alike.
Despite the fact that the narrative itself exists in a violent world and that that violence is necessary to the development of characters throughout the storyline, the point-and-click style of gameplay places the game less in a position of enacting the violence and more in the position of experiencing it as it occurs around them.
While different than what we are used to, it is that same difference that keeps the game from being accepted by the mainstream gamer. This is likely because the current generation of gamer is less familiar with the genre than they are with the FPS behemoth created by games like Halo and Call of Duty.
Plain and simple, and this is not to say that I agree or particularly like it, if you have a story to tell in a video game and you want it told to as many people as possible, you’ll sell more copies if it’s an FPS. If you don’t believe me, just look back at the last few year’s reports from the ESA, and the facts will speak volumes about the purchasing habits of “the average gamer.”
While it may be hard to believe that the total number of “M-rated” games remains fairly consistent year-to-year, there is no denying that a game that appeals to the 17+ audience is much more likely to sell in droves than are its “T” and “E” rated competitors. This is partly because developers tend to fall back on niche genres for games rated for younger audiences with games like Scribblenauts, Cooking Mama and partly because the age of the average gamer in 2012 was in the early-to-mid 30s as the N64/PS2 generation of gamers is growing up with each new console generation.
Really, the first question we’re not asking as we focus incessantly on the question of the existence of violence in the media is, “How else do we reach out and appeal to the continuously aging core gaming generation?” The failure to truly address this question leaves us stuck in an awkward position—one where the narratives and themes evolve dynamically with the gamers as they grow older, but we find ourselves mired in a pit of identically executed games. We are like growing children, stuck in well taken care of, but ultimately missized, hand-me-downs from older siblings.
Unfortunately I don’t have an answer for this question, and even worse, I don’t really believe that the game designers of this generation, or the next, do either.
Levine, in an interview with Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo, recognizes the dilemma, at the very least, in his defense of BioShock Infinite‘s violence that Hamilton references in his article. His reasoning is as follows:
My problem is, I like games. I like challenge. I like having a skill component of it. And so what is that skill component? It is weird in some ways that all of a sudden you bust out a gun and start shooting…
“It’s a limitation of the medium…I can sit down and write a scene about just about anything. It’s really tough to make a game about any particular topic. You go see a movie like Margin Call, which is a fascinating exploration of how emotionally and the kind of pressures that led to the financial meltdown were on people. To turn that into a game would be a real head-scratcher. But to turn it into a movie is really a function of: can you write a good movie about it? Because you don’t need that skill component, and you don’t need to sort of train people on the systems and things like that [as you do] in games.
“So we tend to have fewer forms in the game space. One of the nice advantages of a form is that it’s a skill-set that people have acquired. And remember that if you hand a controller to somebody who has never played a first-person shooter, it’s not something you were born with. So, you know there are certain advantages it gives you.”
Ultimately, while a compelling narrative is nice, Levine recognizes that there are only so few ways to tell a story, and tell it accessibly in the video game realm. With nobody trying to break the mold, you have to use the most accessible, interactive mechanic—which in this, and so many other cases, is the FPS. Yes, he could have just made a movie or a book, but who knows if it would have sold nearly as well as Infinite has to date.
Moving on in Hamilton’s argument, I think there exists confusion in how we address violence and narrative in modern gaming. Too often, once the stark imbalance is noticed, we fixate on it and ask “Why? Why was the violence necessary at all? Why did you have to go that far?” I think that the question nobody is asking, is “If violence is going to exist in games, how do we effectively balance it with narrative so one doesn’t overtake the other?”
Until we figure out an answer to the first question, we need to answer this second question, and fast. Violence in video games isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and intelligent narrative is quickly coming to the forefront, so it’s time we look at how to balance it and less time soapboxing about its existence.
Odds are you aren’t hearing it for the first time when I say that violence has existed as artistic storytelling element since the dawn of storytelling itself. The Greek myths and epic poems, the paintings of the Italian Renaissance, and even the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare all use violence to convey certain points and themes in their stories. While the presence of said violence may stand out starkly against the more romantic, serene and peaceful elements of that complete the story as a whole, take away that violence and the meaning is ultimately changed as well.
Hamilton pulls a lot of images from Infinite to help support his point. Reading through his article, you see a lot of this…
All of which are used under the assumption that the reader pretends they’ve “never played a game before.” The goal being to take in this imagery in the most unbiased sense possible, be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all—that a game could possibly capture the untainted beauty of a moment like this…
…only to have it ultimately spoiled when you are suddenly confronted with the incredibly violent nature of BioShock Infinite as a game. Hamilton believes the moments above are almost completely stripped of value when forced to share the stage with moments like this…
To me, all this says is that Hamilton, and those utilizing similar arguments, clearly misunderstand the narrative Ken Levine created within BioShock Infinite. Part of the inherent beauty of Infinite relies on showing that the magnificence of uptoian societies such as Columbia exist primarily on the ability to hide the fact that they actually operate on much darker mechanics.
Yes, it’d be nice to see more dancing and frivolity in games, but focusing primarily on Infinite as its own story, the depth and evocative nature of the narrative would be utterly lost if you removed one in favor of the other.
Plus, at the core of his argument, “pretend you’ve never played a game before,” exists a major flaw: pretend you’ve never read a book before, now go read A Clockwork Orange. Pretend you’ve never watched a movie before, now go watch Saving Private Ryan. You can pretend all you want, but because some of the most iconic examples of other media are also inherently violent, and they lack the key factor of choice that interactive media provides; Hamilton’s argument falls on its face early on.
That’s not to say his approach is to be mocked, but it is an argument that has been used before, and wears continually thinner and thinner with each use.
Additionally, it completely ignores another major theme of Ken Levine’s BioShock universe: choice. Infinite uses choice as a major theme but Hamilton’s doesn’t seem to address the fact that skyhooking enemies faces to pieces exists solely as a choice, and not as a necessity to further the narrative.
I played the whole game without doing it more than the one time at the onset of the game—and while the event in question certainly stands out as awkward and unnecessary in the moment you are actually forced to do it, it also helps to set the tone that allows the more intelligent and thoughtful nature of Infinite as a narrative to shine through.
To even further cement the need to answer this new question of “How” over “Why” when it comes to video game violence, Hamilton himself says in the end he is cool with violence for now. “And in the meantime, hey, I’m actually okay with ripping digital heads off,” he says. “I’ve been playing video games for ages, after all. But I think I’ll hold off just a little while longer before I start calling my sister into the room.”
When I see an ending like that to an article like Hamilton’s, it really makes just how undecided we are about video game violence stand out like a sore thumb. Hamilton, and those writing similar opinions, seem to like to be that friend who loves a good joke until the butt of that joke starts getting pissed off. “Come on guys,” they say, trying to choke back a chortle, “that’s enough. We should probably stop.”
Add in the absolutely asinine argument of “what about my sister/wife/girlfriend/fiancee?” and we’ve come full circle, right back to confusion central, comfortable that we’ve asked the question, and sadly even more comfortable that it remains unanswered.
This is not to say I think it’s useless to discuss how there may be some women (and guess what folks, some guys too) who would love to fall into Columbia like you and I, but can’t get past the squeemishly violent bits, but whether the game was an RTS, an RPG or a point-and-click adventure, if the narrative were the same, the blood isn’t going anywhere, and that simply means it wasn’t for them in the first place.
So, how do we balance the violence in video games with the more intelligent narratives that have risen in the past two or three years? How do we find that special place where we can see thematic value for what it is and at the same time use violence to further that theme and not just sales?
Is it as simple as venturing away from the FPS genre? Would you have played BioShock Infinite were it a turn-based puzzler or sim of some sort?
Hell, even more importantly, if it weren’t an FPS, would we even have discovered how great it was in any other genre to merit having this conversation in the first place?
As you can see, there aren’t any easy answers, and I’m not asking them with any intention of pretending I have any. All I know is that constantly pointing out the violence in games is pointless. If you are going to argue that games are art, you stand your ground unless the game itself is crap, using violence to attract an audience. To do anything else is merely feeding the media frenzy fire that leads to interactive media being the immediate scapegoat when violent tragedies happen worldwide.
The ability to band together and recognize this is what separated A Clockwork Orange from50 Shades of Grey, Saving Private Ryan from Final Destination and games like BioShock Infinite from games like Dead Space 2.
This, of course, leaves our brains wide open to ask the most important question of them all when it comes to BioShock Infinite—what the hell just happened!?