The violent scenes in movies that I find the most agonising are those that feel somehow precarious. Think of the corridor fight sequence in Oldboy and how the goons stumble over one another, and instead of landing perfect punches, abortively flail and injure themselves. Those rickety, 19th century revolvers, inaccurate and seeming as if they might backfire and explode at any second, make the climactic shootout of McCabe and Mrs Miller excruciating to watch. And when Dwight slips and cuts his hand on his own knife in Blue Ruin, it starts to feel like – once people get their backs up and their weapons drawn – anything can and will go wrong.
On-screen violence, at least on-screen violence possessing any meaning or truth, should look unpleasant. Good video game violence, meaning violence that evokes from players feelings greater and more complex than mere boyish excitement, should look similarly inelegant. The accepted standards of video game design – games must be fair, games must be rule-based, games must be easy to comprehend and predict – belie the representation of violence as gross and unruly.
Without it seeming cheap, it's hard to make a game wherein throwing a punch or pulling a trigger may possibly damage the player as much as their opponent; when games by their nature imply progression and the overcoming of challenge, using cultivated tactics, it becomes hard to wrong-foot a player, even emotionally. But as long as it is simplistic and emotionally unburdening, violence in games will be worthless. With that in mind, I admire any game that can make violence seem shambolic, or basically anything other than blithe.
At its – admittedly sporadic – best, 2014's first (about to receive a sequel) Watch Dogs, by Ubisoft, is such a game. People scream. Car alarms wail. Guns report at discomforting volume. I'm loathed to continue to qualify praise for Watch Dogs using comparisons to films, because doing so reminds me even the most impressive video games are often derivative. But Watch Dogs' shootouts, on the precious occasions when they crescendo, sound terrifyingly like the bank heist sequence from Heat.
Running and taking cover is unintuitive and clumsy, and even lone enemies are potentially lethal. Compared to so many third-person action games, especially set within open-worlds, like those in the Just Cause, Assassin's Creed and Grand Theft Auto series, which aspire to provide uninhibiting virtual playgrounds, Watch Dogs at its most admirable dares to make its player feel overwhelmed, almost weak.
And it does so using small, incidental means. The game's central pretence – you are a vigilante, clean up the streets – is power fantasy hokum, the type of tone-deaf ludicrousness which video games, given what seems to be their mission from God, to massage the egos of benighted men, love to indulge. But moment to moment, Watch Dogs is crowded and clumsy. Particularly if you have the good sense not to use player character Aiden Pearce's magic, enemy exploding smartphone (when the gunfights are so fantastically choreographed, I begrudge how much attention is given to such an overwhelming conceit), fighting through Watch Dogs is a disorganised, scrappy ordeal.
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So many open-world games isolate their big gunfights into designated areas, places like warehouse complexes, dockyards or other specifically tailored interiors. Oftentimes, in Watch Dogs, it feels as if the violence, rather than contained, is spilling over, crashing out of those created video game arenas and into the Chicago streets. Battles often climax with Aiden either chasing or being chased by one of his targets, thus dragging the gunfight into a densely populated public space. And where open-worlds often either disregard pedestrians (in Just Cause 3 they feel like toys for you to play with) or provide convenient narrative pretences or player characters who are morally unassailable (in Grand Theft Auto V you're a nihilistic criminal, and so it doesn't matter who you kill) Watch Dogs tries to make the people around you, no matter how incidentally they appear, seem as if they matter.
When your loud, clunky shootout inevitably winds up in one of Chicago's roads, it's amidst a group of people with whom – to a much greater extent than so many open-world games – you sympathise. The profile function on Aiden's smartphone, which displays the name, age and occupation of anyone he walks by, as well as a concise description of their personal life, is what makes Watch Dogs' violence palpably tense – it's unfortunate that such preposterous, insubstantial characterisation is notable in video games, but when the people we kill, either on purpose or accidentally, or almost uniformly nameless and faceless, it's notable how Watch Dogs attempts to personalise each and every in-game death.
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Steve Gaynor, co-creator of Gone Home, once proposed a simple metric for better representations of violence in games: "Violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual." You may not check the smartphone during every shootout. You may not – nor should you be expected to, considering how brief and reductive they are – make a decision about whether to kill an enemy based on his profile. But simply walking through Watch Dogs creates a vicarious sense of being surround by characters rather than mere aspects, or elements, of a game world. Its mechanics – aim, shoot, climb, drive – are all familiar and rehashed, but by virtue of one aesthetic flourish, imbued with greater vitality than in Watch Dogs' contemporaries.
On the contrary, the gunfights in Watch Dogs are too regular to be meaningful. The profiler, as much as ingratiating enemies, summarily justifies and excuses their murder – when it provides such clear pieces of information, "KNOWN GANG MEMBER," it instils in players an even less questioning mentality than other violent games, both encouraging and exonerating their violence with one dehumanisingly simple Fox News headline. Watch Dogs is a game wherein a wealthy white man, armed with surveillance technology, enters black and urban neighbourhoods to try, sentence and execute citizens with the literal push of a button. It reduces the justice system to its most primitive form – hunt criminals, profile criminals, destroy criminals – and doesn't go to anywhere near the same lengths to question such a process as it does to facilitate and make it enjoyable.
Somewhere amongst Watch Dogs' innumerable, practically overwhelming shortcomings is a game both trying to take a more sophisticated approach to violence and achieving greater spectacle, better action sequences, than all of its peers. If the creators of Watch Dogs 2 have any sense at all, they build upon these achievements specifically, whilst deconstructing, or perhaps outright trying to ignore and forget, Watch Dogs' odious politics.
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