Video Game Violence: The Sad, Limiting Standard
What sells video games?
Conventional wisdom says if you want to sell a couple million copies of a game to the core set, you need to make an action game. But merely having action is not enough, judging by the vast majority of releases by major publishers in the last few years. Games need to be violent. Really, really violent.
That gaming is a mostly violence-oriented medium is not a new concept, but it’s gone from being mostly violent to almost entirely violent. Most AAA games are now shooters, and few of them have any sort of gameplay mechanic other than shooting. And when there are other mechanics, such as in the Tomb Raider reboot, they don’t play a big part. You will spend the majority of your time interacting with that game by shooting people. And if you’re not shooting people, you’re banging on them with a blade. That’s what sells, the money men think.
Triple-A gaming is a storytelling medium as well as a gameplay medium, but all we’re getting out of it is violent stories. Putting you, the consumer, inside a story as an active participant is a profound artistic idea, but our role in those stories doesn’t often go beyond killing hordes of bad guys. That’s starting to bore us, and it’s showing in a tangible way as so many recent big violent releases have underperformed, sales-wise.
And yet that’s still all we’re being fed by the major publishers, because it’s easier to keep making all these violent games than to try something new.
“I would like to see less violent games out there. Not because they’re bad or wrong, but because I think creatively they’re too easy.” -Walt Williams, writer on Spec Ops: The Line
Williams explains, in a sentence, why we have so many overly violent video game experiences. It is easier to wrap a story around a gameplay experience than it is to write a story and then build a gameplay experience tailored to it. Developers tend put the game first and the art second. They draw storyboards before they even know what the story is going to be.
To be fair, there are games that can justify endless combat. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, for example, is a game specifically about putting you into combat situations, and all of said combat is supported by the narrative. And that title is very good about not feeling repetitive. Treyarach was creative in their scenario designs, and the action never feels like busywork. They were telling a violent story, and they always give you reasons to be violent.
But usually what we end up with is violence for the sake of violence. It’s there because that’s what we do in video games. We have to fight because there is a place in front of us where the developers could put enemies. We’re just playing a prettier, souped up version of Galaga that has the pretense of a plot. The art is an afterthought.
But that’s how it goes in the modern game development process.
“Since games are driven so much by gameplay and level design, part of the challenge of being a game writer is making the story work even when the gameplay or levels change or if there is something that is added to the game which would be really fun to play but might not make total sense in the story.” -Haris Orkin, writer on Dead Island: Riptide
The AAA game design process is pretty convoluted. Writers are usually involved, but they tend to be at the mercy of everyone else involved in the development process. Jill Murray, the lead writer on Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, shared an anecdote at a Writers Guild of America panel in which she described how others on the dev team at Ubisoft decided during development that they wanted to have a mission at a fort, and so she had to write one into the game. Game plots are often not fully mapped out before design begins. (For more on the writing process, check out my feature on game writers at Kotaku.)
And so you end up with a game like BioShock Infinite — a game, I should note, that delivers only a single-player story experience — for which there was an entire world constructed before they had the final game’s plot written (see the 2010 Infinite gameplay demo for evidence of this). Irrational knew that game would take place on a cloud city and that it would be a shooter before they settled on the story. And so that we ended up with a story that doesn’t really jive with the gameplay they had already built is not so surprising.