Games Made Violence Meaningful in 2016
The solution isn't to sanitize games, but give incidents of violence the appropriate weight. Several games got that balance right this year.
Header illustration by Cara McGee
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars , and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
In December 2015, I presented a talk on why video games not only need to portray violence, but portray it more, and with more ferocity. I gave a few examples of games that used violence to smart, sharp effect (Kane and Lynch 2, Far Cry 2, the original Grand Theft Auto), yet nevertheless I felt I was on shaky ground. The meaningful, dramatic, and narrative-led violence I espoused, in an industry so afraid of creative risk, would never come to pass. The notion of "Good violence," meaning the violence committed by and against identifiable characters, with dramatic or thematic resonance, seemed like it would always be superseded by sheer quantity.
A year later, video game violence seems to have undergone an assuring and validating maturation. As well as using violence as a means to convey character, or as the centre of intriguing, ambiguous stories, games in 2016 seemed to grow comfortable with bloodshed and killing. Disinteresting and base violence progressed into intelligent, crafted spectacle. Nebbish hand wringing, over whether or not we should be doing this stuff in the first place, concluded with a definitive and energetic "Yes, so long as we do it well."
Foolish and charitable it would be, to a culture that is already dumb and cosseted enough, to say that violent games are and will be better from now on. But the past twelve months have shown that the longest standing video game behaviors—shoot and kill—are at last being more fully considered and charted.
While SUPERHOT traces familiar thematic ground to Inside, and poses the now boring and redundant question of whether players are truly in control of a video game (no, but it doesn't matter) it nevertheless encouraged us to dwell on violence and regard it as something more than a blasé "mechanic." Since time only moved when we moved, every pull of a trigger or lunge toward an enemy brought his bullets closer to us. That also meant that we were made to consider, whenever we committed violence, our most minor actions.
Hitman left a similar impression. Our targets had names and implied inner lives. In order to kill them, we had to stage intricate infiltrations and elaborate death traps—posing as a mark's psychiatrist, listening to his issues with his deceased mother, and then smothering him with a pillow was the epitome of Hitman's contextualization of victims and dedication to making us trade sweat for blood. Our kills in Hitman were devoutly designed and animated—it was not coy about violence. But as crescendos, at the end of each level, they represented a reserved respect. Unlike so many other video games, violence in Hitman was neither commonplace nor cheap.
By contrast, with its chainsaw, splatter effects and high scores, Doom was the violent video game nonpareil. Nonetheless, it demonstrated that absolute gore needn't come at the cost of intelligence and neat writing. A simple story, cleanly told, and a player character who tersely defined with just a few small animations (smashing up the Mars base computers, when he is told to simply turn them off, encapsulates the Doom Marine perfectly) demonstrably increase one's enjoyment of a bloody shooter. I often use "spectacle" as a pejorative when referring to games—it implies style and fleeting pleasures trumping substance.
But Doom illustrated that impressive action and smart writing complement one another. Games commonly commit either to uproarious violence or competent plotting. Where the soporifically bloodless Uncharted 4 showed game-makers have become prissy, and started to consider themselves sophisticates, above, what they regard, mere action, Doom showed that the toss up between quality characters and raw spectacle need not happen—you can have both.
Related, from Waypoint: Doom also won our senior superlative for School Spirit!
Layers of Fear isn't an action game, nor is it on its surface very violent. But its ending particularly, wherein you explored your character's Victorian town house, to find he had smashed every piece of furniture into sticks, was a stark illustration of inner rage. Your character's family had been driven out. In an insane bid to complete a masterpiece, he had hacked off his own leg. Clearly, he is a violent man, but for once the violence in a game was not committed by players, directly against other characters. "Psychological horror" is an overused term, but Layers of Fear truly was a game haunted by violence. Its effects may not have been as immediately tragic—there was no on-screen death—but they were much more harrowing.
Not every violent game in 2016 exemplified something successors should work toward; if Spec Ops: The Line, in 2012, was too self-deprecating and judgmental toward players, this year's The Division showed that attention and consideration must nevertheless still be given when putting violence on-screen. A simple description of its material—as a well-armed government agent, who answers to no higher echelon, you police a riot-torn New York City by shooting its citizens on sight, and receive prizes in return—summarizes the game's ugly bluntness. Releasing in the same year as the Charlotte, Milwaukee and Dallas protests, all of which responded to police shootings, The Division represented game-makers' all too common disconnect from contemporary politics.
Not only for the sake of taste, but better, more interesting work, engagement with real world topics is not something violent games should resist. On the contrary, Watch Dogs 2 was a tentative, sporadically successful step toward video games being entertaining not in spite but because of their social conscience.
As Marcus Holloway, a young black man living in the moneyed, overwhelming white world of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, the game encouraged you to wage war against corrupt police and unscrupulous CEOs; platforms like Twitter and people like Jack Dorsey (both of whom were recently, rightfully criticized in the the Financial Times), were thrown expertly under the bus by Watch Dogs 2, proving that even Ubisoft has lowered its ear, in 2016, closer to the ground.
Watch Dogs 2 screen courtesy of Ubisoft
Undoubtedly, though, the year's most appropriate violence belonged to Mafia 3. Not only was it deliciously bloody (death animations look so much better than ragdoll physics) it featured a protagonist as Hell-bent on killing as the player, and in a sandbox game, particularly in the wake of baggy archetypes like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, that kind of cohesion is a rare commodity. With infectious brio, and fueled by a narrative that was simple, direct and—at its best—morally unambiguous, Mafia 3 propelled you from one gratifying gunfight to another. It understood that interiors, with their tighter spaces, awkwardly placed cover and implicit character, make for better staging grounds for set-pieces than the outdoors.
Violence was not just a tertiary action, performed in the name of something ostensibly greater but, as in a game like Dark Souls 3, beguiling vague—it was what you and your character, Lincoln Clay, set out precisely to achieve. And it was executed in the name of something anyone in the right mind could enjoy watching and doing: destroying the white, racist system.
Mafia 3 was not only an open-world with a coherent story. It was a brave, timely story, the kind one would have previously thought impossible from a AAA, boxed release. Every shot fired was a step toward the game's conclusion. Every kill invited us to think about why we were doing what we were doing, and then provided us a concrete and agreeable answer. If violence is often throwaway in games, it was consistently contextualized and justified in Mafia 3. And if games worry too much at the moment about adhering to their old, looked down upon stereotypes, Mafia 3 demonstrated that even the basest video game behavior could be thoughtfully performed, by both player and game-maker.
Whether any of these trends will continue into 2017, or beyond, will remain to be seen. It was eight and five years respectively until the ideas in Far Cry 2 and Kane and Lynch 2 were more fully exercised—if violent games go back to their dawdling, it will just be business as usual. But I sincerely hope the changes marked by 2016 will continue and be built upon. If violent games can read up and grow up, any can.