Of last year's top ten selling video games, seven featured violence as a core mechanic. The other three were sports games.
Even when we put aside the ongoing arguments about the direct psychological effects of violence in video games, the omnipresence of violence as the key mechanic in big-budget game releases should remain a concern. It reinforces a reward system for players that says the only solution to their problems—whether those problems are family conflicts, lover's quarrels, or troubling foreign relations—is violence. It's not that these games cause people to be violent; it's that the constant violence is monotonous. There's little to no room for empathy or cooperative problem solving (unless the thing you're cooperating on is murdering someone else).
Cue Garage 227 Studios (and a host of other indie devs) that are looking to transform how we look at violence as an essential mechanic in games.
"The game is just a medium. It could be a book. It could be a movie. It could be a song. It doesn't matter. The important thing is that you focus on your message."
Before Daniel Monastero—one of the founding members of Garage 227 Studios and the studio's primary 3D modeler and texture artist—became a game developer, he was a member of Brazil's military police, cracking down on drug trafficking and other violent crimes in the favelas of São Paulo.
The average gamer might recognize favelas from their prominent role in the 2012 action game, Max Payne 3, or the Academy Award–nominated film City of God, but for those unfamiliar with the term, a favela is a Brazilian slum that's similar to an American housing project, but with a degree of violence and poverty that is nearly unheard of in the States. More than 12 million Brazilians live in favelas, and they're at the center of the nation's drug-trafficking problem. Much of the favela population consists of remnants of Brazil's slave trade, creating tension between the nation's black, indigenous, and European populations.
The tension between police and civilians weighed heavy on Monastero. Police action is so prevalent, he says, that the residents of São Paulo have become increasingly desensitized. Even as dozens of armed police storm through the favelas of São Paulo, children keep playing. "It doesn't even matter to them anymore. It's just another freaking day."
Although we face increasing concerns about the militarization of the police here in the States, Brazil's uniformed police are in fact a reserve unit of their armed forces. If you're being arrested for drug possession or drug trafficking, you're dealing with a wing of the army. The divide between police and citizens is stark enough when cops are simply civilian law enforcers, let alone part of the military itself.
In describing the cause of this widening gap, Monastero shared a Brazilian saying: "'If you go looking for a horse's head, you'll find one if you put it there.' So if you're in the military, and you go chasing these fires... We were always looking for the 'bad guy' and doing nothing for the people."
The best memories Monastero has of his time as a cop were the days he was still walking a beat, saying good morning to folks and actually helping. But those days were overshadowed by the tactics he had to use to get arrests: "The biggest regrets I have were when I was just harassing people. I was like, 'What are you doing? Where are you going? Are you smoking dope? Who do you think you are?' And that's not what people want from cops." This dehumanizing effect was one of the many reasons that he left the police to pursue a different career.
After tours as a beat cop and as a member of an investigative unit in the São Paulo District Attorney's office, Monastero was disillusioned with his role in the Brazilian justice system. He was busting drug dealers who were supposedly making tens of thousands of dollars a week, but when he would arrive at their homes, he would find they lived in shacks with no bathroom or beds, surrounded by ailing grandparents and hordes of children. He didn't have it in him anymore to be the one arresting people who were providing for deeply impoverished families, even if that money was coming from drug trafficking.
But throughout this dark time, Monastero kept up a running mantra about the need to "save lives," and that's a key reason that Shiny—the first game to be produced by the São Paulo–based Garage 227 Studios—includes no violence at all.
A 2D platformer, Shiny follows the adventures of Kramer, a robot left behind on Earth after humanity abandons the planet in the wake of utter environmental devastation. With a limited timer of "energy," Kramer sets out on an adventure to rescue the rest of the robots who have been forgotten by their former masters.
Although the phrase "2D platformer" might evoke memories of the SNES Mario games or the Genesis Sonic games, Shiny's approach is more akin to PS1 cult classic, Abe's Oddysee, as players explore the ruins of factories, rescuing their robotic friends. The key difference is that whereas the Oddworld games had antagonists that could kill the player (and that you could kill through indirect means), Shiny has no violence whatsoever. It was part of the game's design principles from the very first pitch. Monastero's reply to the question of why violence wouldn't be part of the game was as direct as it could be.
"The humans abandoned the robots. What would be the point of going after the humans and trying to fucking murder them? What would that solve? 'Alright, let's get out here and just kill people! Because they abandoned us, and we're just crazy about vengeance!' And then more people will die and more people will be abandoned and children will be orphans."
That's a far cry from a game like this year's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, where a genuinely impactful meditation on family, responsibility, and growing older was paired with almost comically un-self-aware mass murder.
It's also no coincidence that Shiny draws inspiration from the Oddworld gaming franchise. The head of Oddworld Studios, Lorne Lanning, served as a bit of a mentor for the emerging Garage 227. There was a particular piece of advice from Lanning that stuck with Monastero throughout the development process, which was to "forget about the game. The game is just a medium. It could be a book. It could be a movie. It could be a song. It doesn't matter. The important thing is that you focus on your message." To Monastero, this message was sharing one's personal energy and saving lives.
Whether Shiny can deliver as a functional platformer, or if its message resonates with the audience remains to be seen, Monastero brought up "saving lives" and "sharing energy" more times than I could count in our conversation. Whatever the artistic intention of Garage 227, it's clear that Monastero's experiences have shaped his artistic goals.
A story like Monastero's is rarely heard in game development. In a highly competitive field dominated by computer-science majors from top schools, game development in the States and Europe is overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white and disproportionately from comfortable economic backgrounds, according to the International Game Developers Association. But game developers like Monastero or Cameroon's Kiro'o Games live in nations where that privilege and comfort aren't as omnipresent, and it permeates the images, mechanics, and themes of the games and worlds they create.
Monastero believes it is the obligation of studios from parts of the world that don't traditionally gain the attention of the mainstream gaming press to forcibly grab it. There are so many games these days, Monastero argues, that if devs don't put themselves in a position to be noticed, their work will just disappear. But it's also a responsibility of the press to actively look for games that challenge our notions of what our medium can and should be. For Monastero, witnessing the violence of the favelas on a daily basis made it important for him to create a game where there was none.
I have to wonder if developers in America will begin to do the same. As of July 26, there have been 259 mass shootings in America this year. That's more than one mass shooting a day. There was a mass shooting on July 25 where two people were killed and 18 were injured. If our fetishization of violence in AAA games arose from a position of privilege in a nation where brutal, ugly violence isn't a visible, everyday occurrence of our lives, might years like this one challenge that privilege? Could the violence we've faced as a country this year encourage US developers to make nonviolent games too?
It's clear today that our culture of violence is tearing America apart. It's time to embrace games that believe we can be more than a toxic reflection of our worst influences. It's a lesson the team making Shiny has already learned.
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