Editor's note: My wife always asks me the same question: "Can we play a game that's not about killing?" I look through my collection and find it difficult to accommodate her request. Perhaps this is because violence is a universal language that transcends the boundaries of culture and time, but I'd like to see the medium take a different approach. Bruno suggests that more games explore the concept of permanence — I think he'd enjoy playing a Roguelike. -Rob
When you look at the games announced during this year’s E3, you can see how much each developer and publisher tries to push their next big franchise. A good number of those new and returning series's are first-person shooters. Onto our consoles and personal computers will come Halo: Reach, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Killzone 3, and Crysis 2 with their big guns, big (space) boots, and big wars. Those damn commies/aliens/Talibans better watch out!
I see nothing wrong with violent entertainment, but why does it seem that the industry is only capable of tackling shooters? Could a video game shock me with its onslaught not by its amount of gruesomeness (see Manhunt 2) but by its impact on the characters and the world? Let’s look at another medium for inspiration.
Gus Van Sant’s movie Elephant is shocking not because the violence is plentiful — quite the opposite. Those sequences are short and brutal. One second you're alive and enjoying life (or not), and the next you're bleeding to death in a corridor.
Van Sant lets his characters live their life on-screen for a short period of time. He gives the viewer time to get to know these people — their dreams, hopes, strengths, and weaknesses. He does not discriminate between victims and killers: They both get time to live before they are pulled out of their world in a brutal way. Each death affects you because Van Sant never lets you forget that those killed are not anonymous and faceless — they are individuals.
What about games?
You kill so many people and die so many times in first-person shooters that violence and death start to loose their meaning. Your enemies are plentiful and anonymous; you are often a one-man army blessed by the power of spawning. Violence is the currency and death (yours or theirs) is what’s being traded. You never feel like the game takes something from you. At worst, death is about as annoying as traffic is in real life.
Permanence is one effective way video games make death matter. Sadly, few examples of such consequence exist, and they are often removed from gameplay and placed within the embedded narrative.
Many games will kill someone permanently for you but won’t let you kill others or die yourself in the same fashion. Aeris died not because you ran out of potions; she died because the game decided to remove her for dramatic tension.
Far Cry 2 is an example of a first-person shooter that made death and violence matter more than your average war simulator. Not so much because of the unlimited number of mercenaries waiting to be shot, set on fire, or rolled over, but because of your “buddies." You meet them, converse with them, and — even though Ubisoft Montreal could have developed them a bit more as characters — learn about them.
With the exception of one or two sequences, their lives are entirely in your hands. Play with fire by accepting their little offer, and you will put their life in danger. If you fail to save them, they will die in your arms, and sometimes by your hands. Once they're dead, they’re not coming back.
Another good look at permanent death in Far Cry 2 was the self-imposed “permadeath” challenge Ben Abraham took last December. The constant threat of death makes you appreciate the little details of the world and question the use of violence as an effective approach to every situation.
What do I want? I’m not even sure. It's not about "banning violent games" like some overreacting sensationalist might say. It's just about having a balance between pure entertainment and meaningful violence.
Maybe I just want more developers to think about violence in other terms than the number of enemies on-screen or cooler explosions. Maybe I just don't want 14 first-person shooters with 14 different ways of showing us how cool their fictional (or non-fictional) war is. Maybe I just want people to be able to talk about violence, games, and what is between them without being called an alarmist, or worse, being told it’s “just a game.”
It won't cause gamers to go into the streets and shoot people up, but maybe it explains why they're strangely apathetic to such stories. Violence, war, and death are not only about sick graphics and kill streaks; they're about the human experience.