I was just trying to be a good person for once.
It was an overcast day in Los Santos. I was taking a stroll when some poor mugged woman screeched at me, "He took my purse!" I barrelled down the street, pistol in my hand, the thief just a few feet ahead. I was ready to be a hero; I didn't even bother aiming. I fired four, maybe five shots. Bullets chipped stone, shattered the window of a passing bus and, yes, tore through my target as well.
I didn't tag just him though. I turned to my right to find a man sitting on a bench, his head tilted back with a small red hole embedded in the temple. I stared at the body. He had long hair and wore tight jeans. For a moment his expression was one of shock – a suggestion of "Dear god, how could this happen to me?" – before, slowly, he closed his eyes and drifted away from consciousness.
Eventually I broke away and dashed down the sidewalk to grab the money from the other dead guy. I didn't return it to the woman like I had planned. Instead, I bought a pair of jeans and a soda and thought about the bystander I had killed and why his death mattered to me in a game where I had run over, stomped, bludgeoned and blown away literally thousands of people without a moment's pause or reflection.
He wasn't a real person, of course, this bundle of code and assets programed to be sitting there, waiting for something to happen. He didn't have a 9-to-5 or a home in the burbs. Yet for a brief moment, on some small emotional level, I bought into the illusion that I had killed something with a life of its own. The violence in Grand Theft Auto (V) had finally become shocking the moment it lurched out of my control and transformed into a chaotic, wriggling force. For the first time in years, I was horrified I had shot someone in a video game.
The vast majority of violence in games is fairly uninteresting. In most recent AAA games there's no shortage of ways to kill people – strangulation, shooting, stabbing, immolation, the list goes on – but murder is usually a banal tool, one that's almost always in your control, for you to use to progress through the game. I find nothing abhorrent about this fact on its own, except that game developers rarely commit to bringing out the truly nasty, gut-wrenching effects of such violence on both the body and the mind.
Bullets do horrendous things to people. They shatter bones, pop organs, rip through muscles. For survivors of gun violence, damages can have lifelong effects on physical and mental health. I've never been comfortable with the sanitisation of violence in first-person shooters. A direct hit on a person with an explosive should rend limbs from the body, but in Far Cry 4 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, enemies are launched across the landscape with rarely a mark on their body. Same for bullets: shooting an enemy with a gun should result in some sort of visible wound, but that's also surprisingly rare in games.
I know we're talking about fantasy here, but there's a point in certain games, especially those inclined in the direction of photorealism, where if the violence doesn't make even the most cursory attempt to appear realistic, it becomes distracting. The flip side of this is that explicit and nasty violence in a game is a way to show there are physical, immediate consequences for the actions that you commit, consequences that may delight, disturb, or both. The bloodiness of Wolfenstein: The New Order's exposed rib cages and exploding heads is significant because beyond helping make the gunplay satisfying, it also reflects the brutality of protagonist BJ Blazkowicz, a primal character who wouldn't be out of place in an epic poem like Beowulf or The Iliad.
Manhunt, the best game Rockstar put out on the PS2, also makes stellar use of grotesque violence (and voyeuristic camera angles) to instil the sense that we, as players, are prisoners to our own desires to consume violent media and to do what a game tells us to do simply because it tells us to do it (four years before BioShock, no less). In Manhunt, you step into the shoes of James Earl Cash, a man on death row who's been purchased from corrupt cops by film director Lionel Starkweather and cast as the protagonist in a snuff film. To survive the night, Cash must stealthily kill opponents with trash bags, aluminium bats and shards of glass in a variety of bone breaking, squirty ways.
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Manhunt, with its arterial sprays and gouged eyeballs, is a game that doesn't shy away from or try to clean up how disgusting violence is, which makes it a good sight more honest than most violent media. And if there's anything I want more of, it's games that bullshit us less. Death is not a clean affair and if we're going to play and create games mired in it, we should seek to reinforce that notion beyond inserting the occasional hypocritical cutscene that preaches about how War Is A Bad Thing before sending us off to shoot hundreds of enemy soldiers in a theme park version of war-ravaged lands.
Of course, "better" violence doesn't begin and end with gore, and it shouldn't. There's also context to consider. So, y'know, "What's the reason I am committing violence in this game?" and "Is the violence here consistent with the world of the game?" The Last of Us understood this quite well. It makes sense for a game about surviving in a brutal, post-apocalyptic setting to let you bash someone's head in with a brick, to make gunplay difficult and desperate where each shot counts because every resource is precious. On the opposite end of the thematic spectrum, the recently released Splatoon channels the fun, playful spirit of paintball into a game where violence is far from fatal but full of delightful colours and loads of goofy customisation, which makes it immediately more interesting than the slew of grey, mostly mediocre shooters about tough men who kill people for what they perceive to be the right reasons released every year.
The violence in these two games fits their respective worlds, which is something a lot of games just don't get right. The violence of the Uncharted series is far more gratuitous than any gore-strewn shooter because the amount of it is out of place. The portrayal of Nathan Drake as a charming, Indiana Jones-like character is undercut by just how often he's mowing down henchman, rather than solving puzzles and exploring crypts. Uncharted would be a far better, more interesting series if those sides of the game were swapped, and you were searching for treasure more than you were getting into gunfights.
I don't necessarily want violence in games to be profound or meaningful as much as I desire presentations of violence that are genuinely interesting. I want violence that is unpredictable, not always in my control, violence that's cute and colourful, or even a tedious chore. I'm not that picky. Just please, please, please give me something other than yet another by-the-numbers shooter where the dying fall down like uncanny ragdolls, pristine and unblemished by the ravages of senseless mayhem.