Video Game Violence and Narrative Dissonance
Skulls crunch beneath the treads of your sick Bone Tank as it rolls across a shattered landscape. The precipice of Blood Hill is so close you can taste it. You’ve killed thousands of men on the way up this hill and you’re ready for that sweet bloody dessert you know is waiting at the top. But what’s this? Two Flesh-Rakers have risen out of a pile of human corpses, their manifold jaws undulate in time with the clicks that issue forth from their stolen human vocal chords. You don’t have much time to react, but you’ve never really needed much.
Pulling your S-Class Brain Choker out of its stylish leather holster you take aim and deliver swift justice right between the eye analogues. The Flesh-Rakers burst in a cloud of blood and bone mist. Blood Hill will soon be yours! As you reach the top you find yourself face to face with general Norm and the Cheers army. Norm is the third of the seven generals in Guy Fieri’s Infinite Reich and the boss of Blood Hill. His army of all too human combatants must fall. This is no problem for you because you are Sadeyes Mchardpast AKA Gun Guy, the guy with the guns, the master of sick moves.
You pull out your secret weapon, a handheld sun. While pitching it into the center of Norm’s army you convert your Bone Tank into it’s gnarliest form, the Skull Cycle and ride down the vertical face of blood hill. The mushroom cloud somehow reflects in the lenses of your sunglasses even though it is actually behind you. Ten thousand people now lie dead by your hand. What do you care, nothing can stop you.
Except your tragic past, of course.
That will stop you in every cutscene of your stupid white-guy face bunching up with CG sadness over the loss of your beloved childhood dog, Chewber. Ever since that day, you swore that violence was never the answer, and that you would always find another way to solve your problems.
Seems a little off, right?
Such is the plight of the protagonist of the big-budget action game. While it seems that they can kill and kill and kill to the point of no return, put them in any scene that’s relevant to the story and suddenly they’re supposedly more than the psychopath they’ve been presented as. They’re given pasts full of hardship that supposedly make them relatable. Maybe they’ve lost someone they loved or were forced to make a choice that turned out badly for them. Often times they have an aversion to violence and are only taking up the fight because circumstances have forced them to.
This creates narrative dissonance. The stated actions and personality traits of the character are contradicted by what the player must do as that character in order to advance the story of the game. It doesn’t make sense for Sadeyes to annihilate Norm’s army just after the cutscene where he explained to another character how he could never fight again. Perhaps he fights anyway, even though he doesn’t want to, but after ripping a man’s skull out of his face for the fortieth time in a row, it gets a little hard to believe.
While many games in the indie scene move against this kind of representation of violence; The Walking Dead, Lovely Planet, and Papers, Please for example. But in the realm of triple-A development, this is definitely the norm. Advertisements for games such as Bioshock Infinite put forth the extremity of the content as a main selling point through the use of dynamic action and loud guitar solos, while the actual content of the game is supposed to take a more contemplative route.
Violent games tend to give emotional story points as rewards for completing non-emotional fight sequences. The player commit atrocities while controlling the character, but these are never referenced when control is taken away from the player. The character controlled by the player is seemingly abstracted away from their actions during fight scenes so they can be ignored by the character during story scenes. This results in it seeming as if there are two separate versions of the character. One appearing during story points, and the other being controlled by the player.
Booker from Bioshock Infinite is a veteran struggling with PTSD whose reason for going to Columbia is to save his beloved daughter. He then finds himself protecting a young woman because he feels that protecting someone is worth doing. Clearly he’s supposed to be sympathetic. More than that, he’s supposed to be a good person. But as soon as the player is given control over him, they are forced to ram his skyhook into the throat of a nearby police officer, turning his bones into silly putty.
How is the player supposed to think of Booker’s story when they are presented with two conflicting versions of the character? Clearly they aren’t supposed to see him as a psychopath incapable of human interaction, but he clearly has little regard for the lives of those who stand in the way of his goal. His goals are based entirely on empathy, but apparently the only way he can realize those goals is by acting without any.
The Last of Us is a game that manages to avoid a large amount of this dissonance. The Last of Us puts us in control of another character in charge of protecting a human being. Joel’s goal is to keep Ellie alive so she might help in creating a cure for the disease that turns people into the zombie-like clickers that populate the dark areas of The Last of Us.
Along the way, the two face many situations where violence seems to be the only way for them to progress from one area to the next. Either they confront hordes of clickers or groups of living people who wish to do them harm for one reason or another. When faced by the clickers, violence does not seem to be such an abstract option in relation to the goals of the characters.
The clickers are monsters, they no longer occupy a space where the characters or player would have to worry about the consequences of killing another human being. Even though these creatures were once humans, they have been so far removed from this state that they barely even resemble humans by the time you encounter them.
Where the dissonance may come into play is with the interactions with bandits and the like. But in these moments, the developers at Naughty Dog seem to have taken this into consideration. In The Last of Us there is rarely an encounter in which Joel must kill all the enemies he is faced with. While it is entirely possible to turn Joel into a mindless killing machine, it is not necessary.
The player has a choice of whether or not they want to sneak past their enemies, or fight them directly. The entire game without killing any of the human mobs. Players do not have to fight relentlessly in order to advance the emotional plot of the game.
This is another large issue that comes from games with such a heavy focus on violence. If they don’t create an extremely stylized world, such as the new Wolfenstein, while simultaneously not trying to impart a grand vision of morality, the violence is can still be seen as rather dissonant. How is the player supposed to believe that Joel is not only psychically prepared to kill hundreds of human beings, but physically prepared as well?
Violence creates issues when trying to deliver a story that is about something other than violence. When it is the main kind of verb that player is presented with, it tends to overshadow other parts of a game, maybe even parts that the developers though of as more important. This is because what a player takes away from a game will be what they interacted with the most. Video games are about interaction, and it is through those interactions that a game’s strongest messages will be found. So by making your main interaction violence, the main take away will be the violence as well. Bioshock Infinite is no longer a story of race, religion, and love; but instead one about a cool guy who shot a lot of magic out of his arms.
Games have an extra degree of characterization that isn’t present in other forms of media, like books or movies. Games have the extra dimension of player control over the character. Most other art forms develop characters by showing us what they do.The added control a player has allows for the them to act in a way that adds or detracts from that development.
Some of these detractors are out of the developers control. You can have a character who is supposed to be smart, but the player can choose to have them walk into a wall over and over again for an hour. The developer can’t stop the player from doing this, so this is dissonance that cannot be avoided. The bad form of dissonance comes from the tools the developer has given to the player. Like the extreme violence in Bioshock Infinite.
Characters are more defined by their actions than their words. Spider-Man is virtuous because he acts virtuously towards others. He is against killing. This is known because Spider-Man never kills anyone. He is funny. This is because Spider-Man makes jokes. Spider-Man doesn’t claim to be against killing, then kill a man, and if he were to do so, the other characters wouldn’t ignore it, and Spider-Man himself definitely wouldn’t ignore it! However, this seems to often be the case with how characters in video games behave.
The thing is, this kind of dissonance isn’t unavoidable. There are a few ways that developers might add a little more realism to characters that are supposed to embody something that resembles a real person.
Give the player more to do than murder
While adding a “hug” button into games isn’t necessary, it would be nice if players were given a way of interacting with the world in these games that wasn’t just killing enemies. Take our hypothetical protagonist Sadeyes for example. What if instead of forcing the player to reduce Norm’s army to nuclear ash, he could has out a peace treaty with them, gaining new allies. Or just avoid the battle altogether. Let Norm keep Blood Hill. Sadeyes has more important business to attend to, like writing soliloquies in honor of the passed Chewber. Whatever else he could do, at least it could be something that made more sense with who the character is supposed to be.
If a character is smart, make the player solve puzzles. If a character is charismatic, let the player talk their way out of fights. If the character actively claims to be against killing, don’t make the character kill literally everyone. Don’t just say that the character is these things because of how they interact with other characters in cutscenes, make the player feel as if they are able to contribute to these traits within the character.
If the aim of your game is an endless stream of killing, make your characters people who might do that. While Gears of War games don’t necessarily have well-rounded characters, it is it believable that they exist in their world. Who better to destroy endless streams of Locusts than a group of hearty space-bros, their chests full of so much muscle that it is nothing less than a miracle that they can even keep their shirts on.
The experience of the player should reflect the experience of the character within the game. You shouldn’t feel as if there are two separate versions of the character, the one controlled by the player, and the one saying the dialogue. The best way to do this is by making the player and the character seem more unified. If one of the goals of the story of your game is empathy, then you have to somehow include that empathy in the basic loop of the game.
Make killing matter
Make the player find justification for killing so many enemies. If the character starts out with notions of the sanctity of life, make sure the character knows they have broken them. In Heavy Rain, there is a moment in which one of the characters can kill someone who it turns out, shouldn’t be killed. If they kill this person, the character is deeply effected by this act for the rest of the game.
So Sadeyes’ game isn’t set in a sandbox world, the player has to move down rails, and receive a set story a la Half-Life. There’s nothing wrong with making a game like this, many games benefit from this kind of narrative. If Sadeyes is against killing, making him kill people should bother him. Not just in the cutscenes. Not only when it’s convenient to the story. Not only when you need him to look sensitive for the camera. It should always bother him. It should bother him when he knows he’s going to have to do it, it should bother him when he’s doing it, and it should bother him after he’s done it. Having the character flip back and forth between two modes of being makes the character’s convictions comical.
By making the character care about the fact they have killed someone, the player cares as well. Why? Because it affects the experience of playing the game. A way that this could be implemented into more mainstream games is through the introduction of some sort of stress system. The more violence committed by the character in the game, the more stress they accumulate. This could effect the player’s experience in many ways. It may make their aim slightly shakier, but it may also increase the speed at which they could use their weapon. It could give the character some sort of adrenaline boost that makes them less susceptible to damage, but makes it harder for the player to see the battlefield. If it at least effected how the character behaved in story situations, it would clear that the player’s actions have consequences.
Papers, Please is a game in which any act of violence will lie heavily on the player’s conscience. For those who don’t know, Papers, Please is a game in which the player takes control of a border checkpoint in a fiction version of the USSR called Arstotzka. It is the player’s job to make sure that everyone entering the country has the right papers in order to cross the border.
Within the game there is a moment in which one of the border guards approaches the player and tells them that they will give them extra money for every person that have detained, no matter the reason. A common reason to have someone detained is if they are carrying contraband on their person. Many of the people you catch carrying said contraband will tell you that it is medicine that they need in order to live. While the player never sees what happens to those they have detained, because of the nature of Arstotzka’s government, you can assume that it isn’t very kind. The moment the player chooses to have someone taken away, they immediately feel the weight of their violent act.
A similar moment can be found in the first act of violence committed by the player in Bioshock Infinite. The player has spent the first hour or so wandering around an idyllic city floating in the clouds. They’ve participated in a carnival and listened to a barbershop quartet sing an out of time rendition of the Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows.” You almost forget that the game’s central mechanics will be combat-based. Then everything turns. The people of the city recognize Booker as an outsider and attempt to arrest him. The only response he has is to plunge a Sky-Hook into his assailants face, spraying viscera onto the screen in a so-far unprecedented scene of gore and terror.
Give the player a choice and make the choice matter
What if Sadeyes didn’t kill Norm on Blood Hill? What if he didn’t kill anyone on Blood Hill? What if he didn’t even go to Blood Hill because the player thought it would be more fun to do something else during that time period. This would surely have some consequences. Alright, so Norm now sits on his throne of bones, a bone-throne if you will, atop Blood Hill. Blood Hill happens to have a great view of Unprotected Valley, where a group of people have set up town. Norm uses his advantageous position to dominate the town and now has the people living there enslaved in his salt mine. Which sucks for Sadeyes because there was a really good armor shop in that town. While Sadeyes is against violent onslaught, he is also against slavery, and the player is for cheap armor. Now because of the choice the player made, they must either find a way to free the town, be it through assassination or clever political manipulation. Either way, they made a choice in the game, and the choice actually behaved the way a choice does in real life. It had consequences.
The game Deus Ex: Human Revolution puts the player in a world riddled with social and political issues (even if it doesn’t do the best job of addressing of them). One of the main selling points in this game was the wide variety of choices presented to the player in how they wanted to play the game. You could talk your way around many of the fights, or just simply sneak past them. Only if you wanted to, would you kill the enemies the game presented you with. And not only did the game give you the option to choose, your choice actually meant something. Killing all the enemies in one level would result in the cops not liking you after the fight was over. Why? Because they felt that the people you killed didn’t deserve to die.
When implemented poorly, you end up with Infamous. In Infamous you are given choices at choke points whose options are equivalent to “make a sandwich for a child while fondly remembering your mother” and “tear down this hospital and build a parking garage on the land.” Then, no matter what you chose, you end up progressing to the same cutscene, the only difference being if your lightning bolts are red or blue.
The choice didn’t matter, being good or evil is a superficial option because it doesn’t actually make a difference in how you end up playing the game. Even though the two paths give you different abilities it doesn’t matter which one you choose. Both increase the size of your explosions. Both make you shoot more lightning out of your dumb hands. Both are boring and not worth doing.
Narratives, games, violence, and why it matters
In life, violence is a powerful action, often a final one. We are taught that we shouldn’t “resort” to such modes of behavior when interacting with other beings in the world. Violence is met with consequences, it is brought to our attention, it is punished, and at the very least it is something that we are taught to avoid. When a person is violent, they have something wrong with them.
In making stories, there is a hope that they will in some way reflect facets of the real world. At the end of the day, even the most fantastic tales are meant to convey something that can be applied to real life. Harry Potter teaches us that good should triumph over evil. The exploits of Superman teach us that everyone is worth protecting. This is done by having the characters act in accordance with the values of their ultimate lessons.
Bioshock wants to teach us that it is wrong to judge others by qualities they can’t control, that no one person should hold ultimate power because it will only lead to their corruption. But how can it do so if it conveys this message to the player by having them kill ten thousand human characters with the powers of a demigod?
In all other artistic mediums, such contradiction would be seen as fatal flaws within the telling of a story, so why are they forgiven when they are present in a video game? If people want games to be able to move forward into the realms of greater art, they must be held to the same standards as those other forms of art. If there is going to be growth in the way games are made, ways in which they aren’t growing need to be brought to light.
The specter of violence hangs over video games. It is seen as necessary in order to make something playable, or fun. It is reasoned as being a standard part of video game vocabulary, something that video games have to hold onto or else they somehow lose a sense of maturity or progress. This is not the case. Games are like any other form of art, in that they are capable of myriad forms of expression. If the medium is pigeonholed, it loses it’s ability to grow. If it loses the ability to grow, it loses relevancy. If it loses relevancy, then it is lost altogether.
Bioshock Infinite. Novato, CA: 2K Games, 2013. Computer Software.
The Last of Us. Foster City, CA: Sony Computer Entertainment, 2013. Computer Software
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