(Not Actually About) Video Game Violence

Okay, so I’m going to talk about violence in video games. Or am I?

Something occurred to me this morning that I felt I wanted to blog about.

I’ve spent a few days with Nintendo’s latest sales-driver, Splatoon. It’s one of those ridiculous games where I was forced to pause after a while and ponder the question of why this hasn’t been done before in any way. Turf wars are hardly unique in games. Splattering buckets of brightly-coloured gunge everywhere isn’t unique. Team-based games aren’t unique either. Yet here we are, with one of the results of Nintendo’s “Project Garage”, and it’s simultaneously inventive, original and, to use a term from the game itself, “Fresh!”

Of course, there’s another game firmly in the news this week too; that is Hatred, a game by Polish team Destructive Creations. And largely for all the wrong reasons, I fear.

I’m going to cut to the chase here – both games, in their own way, are “violent”. The presentation is different, but that’s neither here nor there when you look at it from a detached perspective. Splatoon is a bright, cartoon-like splatterfest where your Squid Kids, or Inklings, explode in a shower of brightly-coloured ink of which they are comprised of (technically making said ink their blood and indeed, fleshy gore bits). It is presented in that quintessential Nintendo manner where it seems almost child-like and innocent, but for me it’s not dramatically removed from the era I played Quake 2, where a well-timed rocket or well-aimed railgun shot would explode some poor s(c)hmuck into a red shower of pixellated blood and gore. That on the surface seems a facetious ploy to link it into Hatred, but I’d argue sensibly that if we’re talking about violence in video games, context is important. What exactly differentiates gleefully running someone down with a comical paint roller, showering your surroundings in high-gloss paint, and tossing a grenade in any number of games like, well, Hatred, and watching in glee as someone paints their surroundings red?

After all, the only real difference in the violence portrayed in these games is in how it is presented, isn’t it? Getting mad at one and letting another off because its direction and art style are perhaps less offensive to your individual sensitivities smacks a little of intellectual dishonesty. The effectual result isn’t that dissimilar, is it? You are still ‘killing’ something in a video game. They are still on the same side of the same coin; not two opposed sides, but just opposite each other on the same scale. And on that note, we really should note long-term studies show no link between video games and real world violence…

In the end, for most of us who are gamers, time and time again we are forced to manoeuvre around the hypocrisy, the moral grandstanding and the arbiters of social media justice and confront one simple question – is this game actually any good? It’s here where for me, Splatoon and Hatred are worlds apart. One is a oil-slick, highly-polished, well-constructed splatterfest. And the other is Hatred. Herein lies one of the issues rarely contended with by authoritarian contrarians; whether the game itself is WORTH getting your panties in a bunch over.

Some would expect me to bring up Manhunt/2; I’m not going to because Manhunt and Manhunt 2 were, at their core, well-constructed and relatively intelligent in their portrayal of violence, giving you enough NPC dialogue to make these characters at least somewhat interesting (even if it resorted to the “It’s my last day before retirement, can’t wait to spend more time with my wife and kids!” cliché). That’s the first and last time I rush to the defence of the Manhunt games. Ick. No, I’m going to use Mortal Kombat for this one – the grandfather of Video Game Controversy, indeed some argue one of the first widespread moral panics the video game industry suffered back in 1992.

Because, let’s be honest, Mortal Kombat was – and is – nothing to get worked up about. Strip away the novelty vats of pixel-blood that suggest each “kombatant” has about a hundred pints of blood in them, and the fatalities – which had all the detail you’d expect of something released in the early 90’s – and what you were left with was an actually pretty shallow and fiddly fighting game. Compared to the depth and artistry of Super Street Fighter 2, Mortal Kombat was a pretender to the throne, selling itself to a teenage audience by being as nasty as it could possibly get away with at the time. My grandfather loathed Mortal Kombat – he didn’t understand the point, and perhaps years before anyone else, realised that underneath the attraction of hyper-violence was something I’d toss aside in a week or two once the novelty had worn out. Instead, he got me a game called Zombies! Ate My Neighbours, which he’d tried in a store one time, and with the benefit of hindsight – he was 100% correct. My love for ZAMN! hasn’t diminished in the last twenty-two years. My love for Mortal Kombat, however, has been cyclical.

The same can be levied at a number of games over the years, using controversy and poor taste in order to work up the shrill authoritarians in the media to drum up interest in a game where, once you strip back the novelty, turn out to be effectively sheep in a wolf costume. Doing the same thing that others have been doing for a while, just not as well. And they know it. So how do we actually get people interested? TO THE CONTROVERSY-MOBILE!

Hatred is frankly exactly this to an almost ridiculously cookie-cutter degree; my complaints about Hatred are mostly that it isn’t a very well designed video game. It’s a fairly straight-forward twin-stick shooter dressed up in lashings of controversial ultra-violence, but only because it’s chosen to make the faceless hordes your character mows down civilians rather than aliens, or zombies, or any number of other strange creatures. Underneath that, there’s a relatively interesting game engine – but the game design itself is flawed, with punishing difficulty spikes, one-shot KO’s, no checkpointing system and minimal respawn tokens meaning many times you are forced to replay entire lengthy stages all over again. Hatred, in fact, is a pretty average game.

When stripped of its hyper-violence novelty shirt, what you’re left with is an okay-ish shooter built in an actually pretty solid game engine that punches somewhat above its weight when you consider the game as a whole. That’s the fundamental failing of Hatred; it’s relying on the controversy in order to sell it. Underneath all of that glossy red pixellated paint that masquerades itself as blood, there’s a dearth of inventiveness. Nothing there which hasn’t been done countless times before, and done so much better in so many instances.

Of course, you won’t hear anyone on the Moral Panic Gravy-Train say that, will you?

Splatoon, on the other hand, strips down the team-based arena shooter to its constituent bits and pieces, rearranging them when put back together to create something that – even in an industry swamped with first and third-person shooters with thousands of gimmicks and novelties and toys to play with – feels like an entirely new spin. It’s the creative design at the very core of a game like Splatoon which makes it so special; it’s ridiculously simple to pick up, fiendishly difficult to master and the matches are short enough and punchy enough that the game rarely outstays its welcome. Plus in an industry where we are so happy to explode our foes and paint the walls and floors and ceilings with their pixel-blood showers, to actually give us Inklings who actually have to paint the floors, walls and whatever else in order to win is almost devious in its flipped-logic!

So this isn’t – or shouldn’t be – about violence in games at all. After all, it’s all perception, right?

What ultimately matters to me, as a gamer, isn’t any of this garnish. Because ultimately, garnish is there to just pretty something up. It can’t turn a bland meal, or a horrible one, into something special on its own. It serves no useful function over and above cosmetic appeal; the logic that the first bite is with the eyes. Once you have brushed that aside, or eaten it, you’re then down to the main event. It is here where something lives or, indeed, dies on its own technical merits.

It would have been easy to sit here for a while and talk about the violence in Hatred, of course. But it frankly doesn’t really deserve that level of analysis. Because the game itself isn’t worth getting all that worked up over. If you’re the sort of person who wants to get all worked up over it; go ahead. It’s actually very easy with social media and the far-left press to get into quite the lather over this particular soapbox issue. But it’s harder still, one can argue, to actually point out that the game itself isn’t technically of much merit. That the game has design issues that render it an annoyance, rather than a smooth game experience.

But the harder route is one which holds far more weight with people like me. There is a time and a place to talk about violence in video games; especially if it involves pushing the boundaries of taste and breaking a few taboos along the way (see Grand Theft Auto V and its now infamous torture scene, for example). There’s room to talk about it; when it’s worth discussing, and when it’s tied to a game which is challenging the norm in some way. We shouldn’t be shy about it. For our medium to grow, we will have to address the same things movies, music and comic books did in their growing pains – we cannot and should not skip steps along the way to our medium maturing and blossoming.

But things like Hatred aren’t worth the time. These kinds of games are skipping steps; rather than challenge perception, they’re substituting good game mechanics and design with overt controversial themes. They are fuelled by the publicity they court; a self-powering media machine.

And in my world, it must be said, we obey the laws of thermodynamics, thank you very much.

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