Destructive Creations isn't the first game developer to realise it's better to be widely reviled than ignored, but it's surely among the most shameless. "Bring it everywhere and let the haters hate!" reads the announcement post for charming shooter Hatred, in which a hulking hairy man guns down cops and civilians.
The game's website blurb is also calculated to provoke. Promising players the "pure gaming thrill" that apparently only protracted face-stabbing can provide, it picks on the "politeness" and "political correctness" of other indie developers, in what seems a brazen attempt to profit from the culture war between liberal critics and the games community's dug-in reactionaries. If that was indeed the plan, it's been a spectacular success. Hatred was yanked from the digital store Steam Greenlight over Christmas following a press backlash and gossip about far-right affiliations, only to resurface a day later and zoom through the approval process in a perfectly managed feedback loop of fear and loathing.
I'm no fan of Hatred – going by the gruesome trailer, at least – but I can't say I'm a "hater" (and I certainly don't want it pulled from sale, as some fans have alleged of certain critics). Its brutality seems an obvious ploy for attention, but I do think the game deserves some interrogation – less for what it is and does; more for what it says about comparable scenes of carnage in celebrated mainstream titles like Grand Theft Auto V. The latter claims to be a satire and offers narrative justifications for its slaughter, but how much of that is window dressing? Is Hatred an exception, or simply more upfront about its bloodlust than most?
Here's an extended chat on the subject with Destructive Creations business developer Przemysław Szczepaniak. (I've made a few cosmetic edits to clear up Szczepaniak's English, but for transparency's sake, the original transcript can be read here.)
The gameplay trailer for Hatred
VICE: Hi Przemyslaw. Did you create Hatred expecting it to be controversial? And did that expectation ever influence your design decisions?
Przemysław Szczepaniak: From the start, the idea of Hatred was supposed to be like it is now. I mean, we somehow knew that the media and some people would find it disturbing and shocking, but we also felt that gamers need something like Hatred, because the market is filled with too many sterile and far too polite games. A little bit of dirt and murky atmosphere never hurt anyone. As you have seen lately, gamers have rushed into support this project, with amazing numbers of Greenlight votes. So if there is a need for such games, we feel that we did the game concept well.
Does your lead character have a backstory? Why is he so angry?
No, he doesn't have any story – he is out of his mind and he hates the world. Just like any other psychopath, he only wants to watch the world burn.
Who does your protagonist kill in Hatred? How did you decide who to use as the game's non-playable characters (NPCs)?
We've used as [many] generic clothes, faces and hairstyles as possible. There are no real-life references for those NPCs. Who does he kill? If we would even reference a computer-generated character as "who", I would say, "He kills everyone."
You say on your website that "a lot of games are heading to be polite, colourful, politically correct and trying to be some kind of higher art". Which particular games are you thinking of?
It's not that hard to interpret this statement in a proper way, looking especially at the present indie game development scene.
I realise that you don't want to single anybody out, but it's difficult to make sense of this claim if you don't give specific examples. Can you at least talk about the types of game that you think are too politically correct? Do you think your statement applies to all game genres equally?
There are no particular games. I'm speaking of all genres equally. But, of course, there are modern titles we respect. We were tired of the style of gameplay where every protagonist's actions need to be justified, where everything needs to be explained. It makes the gamer feel stupid sometimes.
We were tired of games that always lead you by the hand, where the game becomes so ridiculously simple that you are lacking the fun and participation in game action. I mean, most games nowadays are not like those from the past. In the past, you had a lot of fun from gaming itself – from exploring, thinking, combining, searching. Nowadays, it is only about being a great graphical creation without the immersive and entertaining game elements.
Do you think it's a bad thing that game developers are trying to create art, then?
First of all, I think that game developers are creating an art, not trying to do so. Games are a great alternative to movies, TV and music. Many of them give you the goosebumps because of the beauty of graphics, the story or the mechanics of gameplay.
Do you think other video games have been held back by a fear of controversy?
It is possible. I mean, take a look at our case – after the trailer release, we've been attacked, hated, banned, pulled off Steam… but finally we went to the top. If we had been afraid to create Hatred and held it back, we would never have known what would happen to the project.
You've said that a player of Hatred will have to ask himself, "What can push any human being to mass murder?" and that you will "provoke this question" using the game's physics and visuals. How exactly will you make this happen? Are there any other ways in which you're trying to raise the question, such as in the writing and story?
Hatred shows a disturbing atmosphere and murky gameplay. By playing it, you will expose your mind to a totally different experience. You will go into the mind of a maniac and you will play him. If you are a healthy and balanced person, you will know that Hatred is a game with fictional characters, and you will know that it will not harm you or anyone around you. It will be your choice to play it, and it will be up to you what conclusion you will get out of the game.
Wouldn't Hatred work just as well as a shooter where you kill evil Martians or demons or something? Why does it need to be about killing innocent people?
From the gameplay mechanics point of view, we could easily use evil Martians or zombies or anything. But hey, find me a twin-stick shooter where you are fighting against people. Zombies and demons are in most titles nowadays, and we see people are kinda bored with them. And besides, killing virtual "people" who are pretending to be something more than a pile of meat (like a zombie) [always makes more of an impression]. And it's more interesting, because innocent zombies wouldn't run away from you.
So the game stands out because innocent human beings, unlike zombies, behave in an interesting way when they're shot at?
Yes, you get something more interesting than current games [have got us] used to. But it is not said that those virtual people will act predictably – they can surprise you in gameplay. Would a zombie surprise you? Not really; they just run towards you and moan, growl… nothing more.
Are you worried that Hatred will be used by people who already dislike games as evidence that they're all about senseless violence?
No, we are not worried, because there is no evidence that games are the cause of violence. Electronic games have existed on the market only for around 30 years in a commercial form. A huge amount of violence has already been shown in TV, movies and books, and I don't think that games with a proper parental control can cause any harm. Violence has been present in human history since the beginning, and it has always had social, psychological, political or religious roots. It never came from computer games.
Your creative director has said that your game is more "honest" than other action games because it doesn't pretend that it isn't about killing. But isn't the real difference that your game is built around indiscriminate slaughter, while other action games at least try to discourage it? You can kill civilians in Assassin's Creed, for example, but you're penalised for doing so.
Any killing game is about violence. It doesn't matter if you try to justify it by a twist in the storyline, because you are still killing to reach a certain goal. Killing is always wrong. We show with Hatred how killing can be cruel; we did not justify anything about [it] – this is our honesty.
Why do you think Valve took your game off Steam, and why do you think they brought it back?
Frankly, we have no idea why it was pulled down. The message we've got was kind of, "No because no." But it seems that almighty Gabe Newell reminded everyone what Steam is about – it is about creating tools for content creators and customers. It directly means that he didn't accept the previous decision of Valve representatives. Hatred, like any game, has a right to exist, and it is up to customers if they will buy it or not.
Do you see being reinstated on Steam as a victory for creativity?
Yes, but it is not only a victory of creativity or freedom of speech; it is also a great victory for our fans and supporters. As you have seen [from] the number of votes, gamers demand games such as Hatred, and they proved that by making it possible to be released on Steam.
What would you have done if Valve had refused to allow you back on Steam?
For sure it would be harder without Steam support, but we had a back-up plan. We would distribute the game through other channels; we would have found another partnership for distribution, so it wouldn't be the end of the world for us.
Has your relationship with Epic Games changed after they asked you to remove their Unreal Engine logo from the Hatred reveal trailer?
We purchased the engine license just like any developer, and they only asked us – in a polite manner – to remove the logo from the trailer. Nothing more has happened. We've gained a lot of respect for them, because they acted in this case like normal people, not some kind of huge corporation.
Was there anything you cut from Hatred because you thought it would be too offensive?
We didn't cut anything, because we planned and designed the game in a form that you have seen in trailers and descriptions. No compromise!
Will you now make the game more violent, given how much attention the violence in the trailer has attracted?
Not really. As I said, we are not changing the main concept of the game. And to be honest, it's not as badly violent as people think. There are more violent titles, even those mainstream ones.
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Thanks to Jon Hicks for his insights on a few of my questions.