Video Game Violence: The Sad, Limiting Standard
“The fact of the matter is if you’re going to make a shooter, you better make sure that those 30 seconds that you do over and over again are more fun than anything else in the game.” -Cliff Bleszinski
This wisdom from the Michael Bay of video games (that’s a term of endearment from me) is pretty upsetting. The idea that to play a major game release is to repeat one set of actions repeatedly for eight or 10 or however many hours is one that should be decried. That Cliffy B is probably the most visible character within the games industry means his words have weight, however.
The repeatable action of which he speaks is the combat process. It’s gotta be loads of fun to kill that guy and that guy, and let’s not forget that guy, too. But why must we kill forever? Even shooters have stories, and not every story demands that many people die.
Narratively speaking, it’s quite unusual that any game should require you to deal as much death as they do. Try to think of any story in any other media that has a character that is specifically responsible for personally killing, within the active text of the story, as many human beings as Booker shoots or whacks with the hook in BioShock Infinite. That’s a search that, most likely, will end with you never finding one. In terms of quantity and frequency of violence, video games are unmatched and unprecedented.
So why, within the context of a story, do we need to do so much killing?
Because that’s what sells, and that’s what developers know.
And because industry royalty like Cliffy B and Ken Levine push it.
“I like challenge. I like having a skill component of it. And so what is that skill component? It is weird in some ways that all of a sudden you bust out a gun and start shooting…. It’s a limitation of the medium. I can sit down and write a scene about just about anything. It’s really tough to make a game about any particular topic. You go see a movie like Margin Call, which is a fascinating exploration of how emotionally and the kind of pressures that led to the financial meltdown were on people. To turn that into a game would be a real head-scratcher. But to turn it into a movie is really a function of: can you write a good movie about it? Because you don’t need that skill component, and you don’t need to sort of train people on the systems and things like that [as you do] in games.” -Bioshock creator Ken Levine
Heavy Rain is decidedly not a shooter, nor is it an action experience at all. It has no gameplay process that repeats itself over and over again. It doesn’t even have a skill component, really. Rather, it has a reflex component, with gameplay taking the form of complex versions of what we call quick-time events. Heavy Rain contains some violence, yes, but it only comes when the story dictates.
It is also a game that sold nearly two million copies in its first year of release and boasts, if director David Cage is to be believed, a 74 percent completion rate, which is far above the norm. For comparison’s sake, we can look at Steam data: 56 percent of BioShock Infinite players have completed that game; 52 percent got through Tomb Raider; 48 percent had their revenge in Dishonored; 43 percent made it through Aliens: Colonial Marines; 36 percent completed Rage; just over a quarter escaped the first Dead Island.
In general, publishers and developers do not disclose budget figures, and we can only guess what sort of percentages they pull in on copies sold. But there are a few things we can figure out about Heavy Rain from the data we have on that game and others.
Tomb Raider, we know, sold over three million retail copies in its first three weeks of release. Square Enix viewed those numbers as a major disappointment, as they expected a couple million more than that. Those results took a big chunk out of their yearly revenue. Heavy Rain, on the other hand, sold one million in a bit over a month, and David Cage was proud of that. It has, to date, grossed $100 million.
Heavy Rain developer Quantic Dream is producing another, similar title this year, Beyond: Two Souls, which features bigger names in its voice cast. This indicates a couple things: that Heavy Rain was a financial success, and that publisher Sony was happy with its take.
We can also assume that Tomb Raider cost more to make and market than Heavy Rain did. Why is that? Because Tomb Raider is full of big set pieces, and Heavy Rain is not.