The Poor Discussion and Exploration of Violence in Videogames

As a child in the mid to late 90’s I spent a lot of my time playing platformers, specifically games like Donkey Kong Country and Banjo Kazooie. Then at a specific point I played my first ‘adult’ game, Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Yes, one can see that Rare was my favorite studio growing up during the time. So, it only made sense at my growing age to transition into playing a game like Conker’s Bad Fur Day.
Mascot platformers were saturating the market according to word of mouth from many gamers who were tired of the genre, wanting something more adult. Why waste spending time collecting gold jigsaw pieces as a bear with yellow shorts and a blue backpack, when one could play as a hungover squirrel talking to a scarecrow with a drinking problem! While the intention was not to market the game for kids, the aesthetic did not change. It was still a Rare game on the surface; the talking animals/sentient objects had exaggerated voices, and the platforming was still there. The only catering that was made toward adults were characters drinking, swearing, and levels based around pop culture movie references (such as The Matrix or Aliens).
There was this weird sense of a middle ground that Rare wanted to cultivate. A middle ground bearing both the fans and older gamers who I guess thought a squirrel shooting Nazi teddy bears in a Saving Private Ryan parody level was funny. The depiction of violence in Conker’s Bad Fur Day was meant to be comical as well as outlandish. Blood is sprayed around the environment like color-dyed rain puddles and every cutely designed character had the same innards when they blew up. Sorry, they all were apparently made of giant shards of meat or something else I couldn’t identify. I guess that was to my benefit as a child since I had never seen such violent acts demonstrated in realistic ways yet.
So, it helped that even with different colors of blood, everyone seemed to combust in the same goofy way. The front of the box said, “Rated M for Mature”, but even as a child I felt that this game was too silly to be considered mature. Technically it was a game with ‘mature’ themes, so therefore it had to earn its rating by being harshly truthful about its genre. Also because the squirrel said naughty words while wielding submachine guns and shooting people.

The controversy behind Conker’s Bad Fur Day and how it goes against everyone’s expectation of a colorful platformer had altered my perception. The way adults reacted to the marketing of the game made me think they were snobbish and not willing to engage with the medium. Games could age just like me, and if part of the growing process meant lashing out at adults by showing them gore – then so be it. Yet what I did not know was the attribution of false life, gaming publications could grant so much trend power based on proving a point to these alienated audiences. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was a prime example back then of a game that embellished in its own mature themes.
Mainly speaking, this was a franchise that enabled the player to do whatever they wanted. There were repercussions for driving a tank down a populated boulevard and shooting random pedestrians. However, the reward for causing mayhem far outweighed having the cops or the United States Armed Forces try to exterminate the player. Through various methods these obstructions are nothing more than temporary bumps in the road for the player’s mayhem.

One can totally live out their fantasies in a world that, despite it not being named after any real-life locations, is ostensibly California. I am probably reading too deep into an open world sandbox game where the whole point is to shoot a rocket launcher at some dude walking down a sidewalk. Then immediately proceed to follow the story, in which the narrative negates the player’s actions to make the protagonist seem less like a psychotic murderer. At least I now recognize the subtext of why people enjoyed this game merely for the content it had to offer. However, it is important to acknowledge the dark underbelly of fan communities, especially fans who exhibit weird irrational behavior when the option of ‘violence’ is dangled in front of them, like a carrot to a rabbit.

This is something I never gave second thought to since these are just videogames, a form of entertainment that rarely punishes the player to quite the extreme length if they choose to hurt random characters. However, over time I saw more examples of this behavior in franchises like the further continuation of the Grand Theft Auto to the Elder Scrolls series. People really liked beating up NPC’s for certain and curious reasons. I personally did not understand, because in terms of what games can offer, mistreating random characters in an open world setting seemed mundane. Admittedly this is my personal outlook on the medium, so I may just be overreacting.
At the end of the day it is just a bunch of pixels, a toy for the player to lash out at if they choose to. However, where things get iffy is when these small moments of violent punishment from the player gets picked up by game developers. Mortal Kombat is a perfect example of this, a franchise known for its gruesome fatalities and eccentric depictions of violence. I never had that much of a problem with the fatalities in Mortal Kombat mainly because for the longest time they have always been over-the-top. Ridiculous in an Evil Dead sort of way, or like Peter Jackson during his Dead Alive and Meet the Feebles days.
However, with each installment comes a further push in realistic visuals and presentation. Mortal Kombat X was the biggest push the series had in terms of visual fidelity and introducing new young characters who bring freshness to the franchise. Characters like Jaqui Briggs and Cassie Cage bring this weird family element to the installment, as well as the attempt to make the player care about them through the story mode. Whether or not that part of the story mode worked for the player, there was clearly an attempt by NetherRealm Studios to make this fresh crop of characters feel down-to-earth, relatable even to a certain extent. These new faces were young women who are notably the most grounded individuals in the franchise.
Then here lies the question; one would assume that maybe brutally and violently ripping their intestines out in the most hyper-realistic way may prove to be a bit excessive? Before Mortal Kombat 11 was being shipped there were stories from NetherRealm Studios of harsh work crunching conditions and racial/gender discrimination. Employees were also being told to watch clips of people dying, becoming psychologically numb to the imagery. The horrific results of the employees being forced to crunch their work in the cinematics department essentially led to the most fully detailed fatalities in the series yet. While many fans would consider my point on this to be ridiculous, I do believe that the fatalities lost their charm in Mortal Kombat 11.
This is not me disregarding Mortal Kombat X, since the studio was constructing this ladder made of gory bits just to climb and reach a point in which the fatalities lacked any uncanny feel to them. However, with Mortal Kombat 11, the resolution to getting there meant having to lose the charm with those fatalities. More importantly ask one-self if it is worth sacrificing a worker’s mental health to satisfy a fanbase who always expects to see a cultural staple being implemented into a new installment of a franchise. Except the only difference is that the visuals become less uncanny over time.

Doom (2016) is an example of a game where the violence complemented the flow of gameplay and the art direction. Context and strong game direction are key, and a game like Doom (2016) hits it out of the park in that regard. In the game the player takes control of the ‘Doom Slayer’, a merciless killing machine who is bent on destroying demons as well as finishing them in the most brutal ways imaginable. Not to mention there are no good people in Doom (2016), just corrupt individuals or monsters who want to kill people. There is a strong sense of artistry with how Doom (2016) comes across with its depiction of violence, whereas all the characters in Mortal Kombat 11 are incredibly modeled to look as human as possible and not all of the cast are huge assholes/freaky monsters.

Speaking of games with unsubtle characterizations, in The Last of Us Part II one of the main characters, Ellie, is faced with a groundbreaking concept no game has touched before…’revenge’. Joking aside, the game’s central theme is based around ‘the cycle of violence’ and is always shoved in the player’s face. This would be one thing if the message had any sort of nuance or subtlety, but at the end of the day the script had as much delicate craft put into it as a pretentious film student in freshmen year of film school who had just seen Death Wish for the first time.
The game is told not by its characters, but through the lens of a writer who refuses to acknowledge that his craft is not flawless. Neil Druckmann is the writer/captain of a 5-star cruise ship with the shiniest exterior, but inside lies a labyrinth of weird corridors that do not interconnect as much as he thinks. It additionally does not help that at one point he didn’t want to refer to his game as ‘fun’. There is this exchange with Druckmann in an interview with GQ which goes into his mentality behind the harsh physical acts of violence committed in this game:

We can make you experience this thirst for revenge. This thirst for retribution and having you actually, like, commit the acts of finding it and then showing you the other side to make you regret it. To make you feel dirty for everything you’ve done in the game, making you realise ‘I’m actually the villain of the story.’

  • Sam White, June 2020, The Last of Us Part II: how Naughty Dog made a classic amidst catastrophe, GQ Magazine

Naughty Dog is also another studio known for its crunch, and even sexual harassment allegations to boot. Which makes matters in this circumstance even worse considering the tone of what they were going for with the game. The analysis of physical and psychological violence as told through videogames has been done several times, such as the case with the commentary in Spec Ops: The Line or Manhunt which was praised at the time for doing the same thing. Yet myself as the target audience is supposed to believe that violence affecting people like a common cold is this groundbreaking idea?

Critic review scores and Metacritic have created this sharp divide with the consumers when it comes to The Last of Us Part II. Now for the most part, I do not fully put all my stock into Metacritic review scores as I think the average person would. However, I cannot help but think that the plastering of 9’s and 10’s on its site does strike me as the overall consensus when it comes to review scores. Meaning a lot of people genuinely thought that what this game was trying to sell was unique enough to warrant these high scores. Opinions are what they are, but they do shed light into the psyche of how backwards we are when it comes to internalizing the maturation of violence within videogames media.
Then there is the other side of the spectrum of Metacritic user scores with the ignorance, sexism, and homophobia stemming from fans of the first game. These same people who got upset with the inclusion of a fictional muscular woman sent death threats to a voice actress. These people won’t blink an eye at these characters performing senselessly and distastefully violent acts against each other just for the sake of fulfilling some shallow story motif. But they will wag their finger when they see a hint of LGBT representation and claim gender diversity as a political discussion when it is not. On top of this pyramid of hypocrisy are people like Druckmann who are using their auteur privilege to disregard their mistakes in favor of showing proof of how many people love their creation.
I believe it is fine to adore something despite its flaws. However, when there is constructive criticism out there from the same races and sexualities being represented in the game then they should not be ignored. On one hand you have a group of people who believe the concept of violence was thoroughly explored and talked about in a divisive videogame. Then you have people who disregard the topic of violence because of their faux political concern over gender identity. Lastly there are people like Druckmann, a group comprised of auteurs who just figured out that doing bad things to people has societal ramifications.
What I passionately believe is that this industry has not changed when it comes to the discussion and portrayal of violence. Not since 1998, not since 2004, and especially not in 2020. This is a medium filled to the brim of immature mindsets gerrymandering their divisions and chest thumping their own ideals just to say, “Violence is terrible, go play this game to see my point proven.” When in reality some of these individuals are just children trying to prove to dad that their favorite toy has a bleeding feature. The child carelessly squeezing the toy in front of the father, watching it bleed, as the toy’s voice box says, “Hurting is bad.”