Glass Houses and Tortured Points.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is coming in for criticism over its depictions and ability for players to engage in torture. Gears of War: Judgment co-writer Tom Bissell argues it is “a blithe, shrugging presentation of the very definition of human evil, all in the name of ‘entertainment.'” But let’s tread softly on this delicate subject…

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Tom Bissell, co-writer on the new Gears of War game – Redemption, Judgment, the name we get matters little – wrote a good article on the state of games today. I will say this right now – whilst I agree with many of his points and think it is very well written, I also believe he is in no real position to call anyone out right now. He may be new to the Gears of War team, but the game already has many crimes under its belt – from racism, sexism and xenophobia to torture and blatant, unashamed killshots. He must know this and must be aware at how much of a hypocrite he looks, being attached to the series as it stands. Until the next game is out there for us to play, I think this is a case of ‘Glass Houses’.

But the reaction to the torture scene in Splinter Cell: Blacklist has resurfaced with more footage and exposure. Sure, it’s frankly distasteful and morally repugnant. Torture is a heinous, unreliable and unethical crime against humanity and making it somehow fit into an espionage thriller of this nature is, perhaps, going a little on the side of shock value. However, I fear as gamers and as an industry, we’re all in those ‘Glass Houses’ and we should be very careful how we tread.

Violence and torture in gaming is nothing new. From as far back as Clock Tower on the SNES, we’ve seen some visceral and sometimes shocking depictions of some of the most heinous crimes in the world trotted out in the name of ‘entertainment’. Clock Tower was not shy about showing blood – or getting you a nice view of the morbid scene that Jennifer is witnessing. Ably hunted by “Scissorman” (a ‘midget’ with a huge pair of scissors, and I know that word isn’t politically correct so please don’t bother calling me out on it!), she is a young teenage girl left to fend for herself in a horrid house filled with traps, dangers and secrets. The scene where she pulls a shower curtain back to find her eviscerated friend is played totally for shock value. This was in 1995. There is a reason we didn’t get it here in the West. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together in this situation.

But as graphics have become more real, and as time has progressed, we have become somewhat accustomed to the horrors of war, the darkness in our hearts and the madness that consumes many minds. Movies, music, TV and games have constantly assaulted us over the years and now we have become more and more tolerant of some truly horrid things. We know there are two sides to every war, and yet often we’re asked to play a side with often the least moral and ethical reason to be fighting at all (Gears of War, take a bow!). We know killing people is wrong, and yet we glorify it and revel in taking life in Assassin’s Creed 2. We applaud and cheer at the hyper-real but at the same time, totally unreal fatalities in the recent Mortal Kombat, where Noob Saibot effectively disembowels his foe by pulling them apart from the groin up very, very slowly. We sit down and hope no-one notices that in many fighting games, we’re not really playing for the fighting – we’re playing because we’re guys obsessed with boobies, of which fighting games are making more and more of a deal of.

We’re not a meek little society anymore, and this is often reflected in the news and therefore, in the media we consume. We bay for blood, we want to raise celebrities high only to pull them down once more because we’re bored of them now, we want and demand more and more and yet we still have some moral boundaries that we can’t cross. Rape, as we’ve already seen this year, is a massive taboo and always should be. Torture is now becoming an issue – but it is cheapened by the notion we’ve always enjoyed and reveled in it in our games and indeed, our movies.

Clock Tower showed a slow, menacing torture. But since then, torture has been a big part of many games – implied or demonstrated. Metal Gear Solid had a torture scene where our hero, Snake, is being mistreated stark naked. Compared to what we have now, it seems oddly naive and antiquated that we’d be so shocked at it. And we were. And we got over it. You had Manhunt, a game that was effectively railroaded out of the market due to the visceral and deliberate torturous murder scenes, and yet we can look back and sort of think THAT was a bit naive as well. Then you have the movies and games of Saw, a franchise basically built on the concept of torture as entertainment. Many people reacted in horror. But it still got released, and became a hit. Saw is something I never really understood, if I’m being brutally honest here. I know there was a plot in it, but I never really could sit through the nastiness of the scenes. I’m a wuss. I’ll admit it.

That said, you have to admit that the constant scenes we are given of the new Tomb Raider imply torture but on a more subtle, more menacing level. Lara gets battered, beaten and bruised. Bones snap, cuts bleed and she tries to go on. To put this in context, this is Lara yes – but it’s a reboot, and this is a teenage Lara. She is a young girl approaching womanhood and she’s being subjected to a horrendous, torturous and unimaginable battering throughout every trailer we have seen for this game so far. Okay, so they’re not including a ‘rape’ scene, but what is left and what they’re reveling in demonstrating is just as morally and ethically repugnant. Why are we not up in arms about that? Why is this acceptable, and yet a shadow espionage operative who a country can disavow in an instant in a spy thriller isn’t allowed to get intelligence “by any means necessary”? Surely a licence to kill suggests that morally, nothing for such a character is out of bounds?

I think the real problem we’re scared to talk about is that old friendly word again. “Realism”.

Saw was very visceral and real. They went to town making sure it was all anatomically correct, and that unsettled me a little. I know it’s all fake, but the attention to detail that was put into it still even now sends a shiver down my spine. And I feel this is the real nub of the issue when we’re talking about torture in games – something that has always existed in the gaming industry in varying degrees, but never has it seemed so raw, so powerful, so detailed, so real. It’s the attention to detail, the want and desire to make sure that bones dislocate, wounds bleed and guts and gore are sent off in directions according to the mass, weight and directionality of the blade, saw or object severing them that is starting to become a little uncomfortable. We know that it is possible, but it’s the amount of time and effort that a team spends making sure it all plays out exactly right, and that everything works and comes off as it should if it were a real person that we are finding repulsive. Gears of War is no different in this, indeed it has had its own depictions of torture on both sides in the past – the Tai scene was shocking and at that moment, without much context. The Maria scene felt really overdone and what should have been a touching and heartbreaking moment was cheapened by overegging the pudding, so to speak. The COGs slice and shoot their way through a mutant/alien army who have every right to be thoroughly pissed off at the humans of the surface – not only by being exiled underground and forgotten for so many years, but that the Immulsion – the miracle, physics-defying fuel the Human world uses – is now leaking into the home they built for themselves, not only destroying the architecture and structural integrity of their homeland but also infecting them, possessing them and turning those exposed to the fluid into mindless monsters. In every way, I felt more and more in Gears as though the characters and side we were playing were actually the bad guys, the real villains of the piece. They had screwed the Locust over twice, if not three times if you count the infection, and that is more than ample justification for war in the context of things. And the COGs are just sexist, xenophobic, rather racist individuals with a blind American sense of loyalty, regardless of the moral and ethical implications of their situation. It’s us vs. them. Dog eat dog. And then, at the end of Gears of War, the most contrived Deus Ex Machina ensures that the Locust are wiped out – so we can add genocide to the list of crimes that Gears of War perpetrates.

“But Kami!”, I hear you cry. “Kami, good sir, fair point but Gears of War is a sci-fi fantasy shooter. The likes of Splinter Cell: Blacklist are meant to be reflective of the current state of the world! How can you compare the two?”.

I compare the two because the line is paper-thin, and we can’t be seen to be hypocritical. That would be counter-productive to the very argument that the torture scenes in games (like Blacklist) are ethically and morally disgraceful. The fact that Gears of War is set in a fantasy future is neither here nor there; this is still the year 2012, we’re still playing a fictional narrative in a video game and they are still made by people who live in our world, the real world. We, the players, are still in the modern world. We are still experiencing these things as entertainment. The setting that they choose to tell their tale is irrelevant to the greater scheme of the debate in hand; you can’t pick and choose your battles to suit your argument. If you want to talk about morality and ethics in video game stories and experiences, you will have to accept that this covers a wide range of video games and all of them carry as much weight and validity to the debate in hand as Splinter Cell: Blacklist does.

I compare because the comparisons are fair and valid; why is it acceptable for one game and not for another? Why is context important for such things? Why is it people disregard the worst points of a game and its narrative and yet feel somehow like they have a solid foundation to kick other games with similar problems down for those same issues? All these questions and more should be raised. This is not a trifling little debate about one scene in one video game. If we’re going to tackle that one scene in that one game, we must be aware that we can and will be challenged to justify our expenditure and enjoyment of games with similarly dubious narratives, in order for developers and writers to get to the bottom of why it is in this one instance, it isn’t acceptable under any circumstances and the market would be much better off without its inclusion. If the answers are just the setting it is held in, you’ll just encourage them to do the same things in other settings – or, worse still, ignore us because the setting doesn’t matter, it’s the act and notion that creates controversy and therefore guarantees column inches and press coverage.

We may have to acknowledge that in the past, we have kind of enjoyed torture and violence in all its shades and forms.  But then we could say there is still a line in the sand, there is still a threshold that cannot be exceeded, and perhaps Blacklist is somehow in a sense just going too far right now. We must put it to them why people can buy Gears of War in their millions and yet still be turned off by Splinter Cell: Blacklist. And to be honest with you, I’ve struggled with that. Because I’m not entirely sure I could make a convincing enough argument against Blacklist, aside from Tom Bissell perhaps not being in the best position to criticise. But that would be arguing FOR the violence in Blacklist, and that’s not what people want to hear.

But hear it they must, for there are at least two sides to every argument, and they must also be reminded of games in the past which have similarly pushed the boundaries of taste and decency for the sake of what we now call entertainment. Mortal Kombat, Manhunt, MadWorld, Silent Hill, Carmageddon, Grand Theft Auto, Saw, Bully, Parasite Eve, Rule of Rose, Haunting Ground, Night Trap, Doom, DOA: Extreme Beach Volleyball. All of these games caused controversy and many ethical and moral arguments on their releases, and some were even either heavily censored or banned because of their content. From child exploitation to scenes of torture, from gore to see-through wet bikinis, video games have always had moments where it seems that they are just perhaps going a little too far, pushing the limits a little too much. And a year or two down the line, we just shrug it off. The hyper-reality of the graphics coupled with the repetitive dialogue and the often pretty analogous AI routines just ensures we just let it slide because it’s not real, we distance ourselves from it and it just sets another low benchmark for someone a year or two down the line to try and smash right into. We hit that Uncanny Valley, and we move on. It’s not real.

It’s not really right though, I’ll grant people that one. But we’ve tolerated so much already that consumers and industry execs, writers and developers calling others out on pushing the limits now just looks cheap, tacky and a waste of good media attention. Games are more violent, more morally and ethically unsound, more sexual and deviant. But the reality is we buy these games – often by the truckload – and it encourages others to try and go that one step further. If you set a bar, someone at some stage is going to want to best it. We’re human, and that’s our competitive spirit for you after this fine Olympic year. And we plumb the darkest and most depraved depths of the human psyche and soul to come up with new, ever more devastating lows and horrors to shock and repulse us. And a lot of people LIKE that sort of thing as well. And pay good money for it.

I can’t really say I like what I’ve seen of Splinter Cell: Blacklist so far. But then, I’m not its target audience and likely never will be. We must all start to realise that the drive for more graphical grunt, the expectation to do better and the tolerating of previous genre low points will all meld together in the end and what we get will sometimes be morally, ethically and humanly repulsive. You can’t expect everything to come out smelling of roses when you’ve already put a half-ton of blood, guts and manure into the mixture. If we REALLY mean that Splinter Cell: Blacklist has gone too far, then write to UbiSoft. Or your local classification board. Or politician. Or better still everyone, here’s a thought; don’t buy it!

Yes, that old chestnut again. But it holds true, if a game sells very low units and is unsuccessful, then for a company as big as UbiSoft, it presses home the point that they went too far and we were not willing to tolerate it. And it sets a precedent that the industry cannot escape from – the consumers have spoken and they’ve said in one loud universal voice; “F**K NO!” If something about a game turns you off, don’t buy it to have an excuse to talk about it (that’s my job, so sod off! *sly wink*). Just don’t buy it. Your opinion will be voiced much louder by you not buying it because you don’t like the scenes of torture than it would be if you bought it to see if they were really that bad, only to find wow – they are that bad! Whodathunkit?! If they aren’t making money and profit on a game, then they’ll come to the conclusion that they did something wrong and likely pay attention to reviews and critics as to why people may have been unwilling to part with their cash.

We all live in glass houses on this subject (so to speak), because all enjoy games today. I love slicing through undead in Dark Souls and kicking backside in Champions Online right now. Others enjoy ruthless MMO PvP or the morally dubious warfare of many FPS titles today. Others enjoy fighting games with females with overly exposed bosoms, some enjoy assassination via Assassin’s Creed 2, and others enjoy racers in which people are no more than a minor nuisance on the way to the finish line. Every which way you look, the games we play and enjoy these days often include some morally and ethically dubious material. Developers and writers are giving us more and more of this, and we’re buying it, enjoying it and in some cases even applauding it. We cannot have our cake and eat it; we can’t just be whipped up into a frenzy every so often by the media and some industry insiders every time they think someone is going too far. Because this doesn’t help and doesn’t actually benefit anyone, and will never change things for the betterment of the gaming market.

Mr. Bissell makes a good case but let’s not forget that he is the one in, arguably, the best position imaginable to actually do something about this. He can write great articles on the subject, but he must ultimately and will ultimately be judged on his success – or failure – to contain, move on or expand on the Gears of War franchise from its current rather sorry narrative and technical state. Words are weapons, but they can cause self-inflicted wounds if you’re not careful. I know this very, very well. I won’t say I’m above this criticism. That’s the nature of the beast, the nature of writing and being a blogger. If Mr. Bissell can’t practice what he preaches in this case, he will forever be tainted by it – branded as a hypocrite.

If we all really mean to change, and mean to change the industry, then let’s be clear on this; don’t buy Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Tell others not to. Spread the word that there’s a movement against this game. (Oddly, I’d suggest that will get more people to buy it but you can but try to get people to make a stand, even if it falls on deaf ears.) Make your point, and leave it alone. Your not buying it makes more sense than the alternatives.

But if you buy it to complain about it, you are inevitably perpetuating the cycle that can only lead to those limits being pushed more and more. We do, oddly in this case, have the power. And that power is in our wallets. But let’s stop being surprised that games are pushing the moral and ethical limits of what is acceptable.

In the words of the great Manic Street Preachers; “If you tolerate this, then your children will be next…”

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