Blog / Radical Plaything

Radical Plaything: The Narrative Constraints of a Violent Medium


     Videogames arguably contain more violence than any other entertainment medium, not only in the percentage of stories that contain violence, but in the amount of violence contained in each story. While there is nothing inherently violent about games in general, the medium is, in our current culture, defined by violence. Of course, exposure to in-game violence has practically no correlation to instances of real-world violence, and any politician who argues otherwise is full of rubbish, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine game violence critically, especially since the nature and context of the violence in games is different today than it was twenty years ago. Games are becoming an increasingly popular medium with each successive generation and are becoming an increasingly central part of our culture. Now is as good a time as any to ask ourselves what the content of our culture will become, what the implications of the cultural shift would be, and whether the shift would at all be desirable.

     For some reason or another, the violence in certain games has started to bother me over the past year. Up until that point, combat in games was only ever fun (good mechanic and level design provided of course), but for some reason, the violence in Borderlands 2SkyrimBioshock: Infinite, after a short period of time, grew tiresome, depressing, repulsive, repetitive, and unenjoyable. What used to be the main appeal of the gaming experience for me had instead become the ugliest part. This isn’t solely because of a change in personal taste towards game violence in general, however. The violence in games like Bleed, Super Crate BoxDoom, and many of the older games I had enjoyed as a child and teenager still don’t irk me at all. A lot of my repulsion, I think, stems from the nature of the violence in most modern games themselves, not merely in its existence. To uncover what it is about the violence in games of the former group that repulses me and why the violence in the latter group does not, I’ll be comparing Bioshsock: Infinite and Bleed.

     Before I go any further, it’s important to understand that gameplay and narrative in games are not separate from each other. It might seem that way, since many games often alternate between play-heavy interactive bits and narrative-heavy non-interactive cutscenes (even modern games that have more seamless transitions, like Infinite, basically alternate between gunplay and narrative). However, this distinction is really an illusion: all gameplay tells a story. Whether you’ve just kicked a Jigglypuff so hard that it saw the curvature of the Earth or you shoot and kill a hapless soldier who apparently doesn’t get paid enough for his job, you’re receiving a story – maybe not a very good one, but it’s a story nonetheless. Some game developers understand that they tell stories through play and use it to their advantage – others do not and their stories fall victim to it.

     I think that Infinite  is an example of a game whose well-crafted story falls victim to its well-crafted, but dissonant, gameplay.  Infinite  tries to tell a story about a man and a young woman who uncover the truth about themselves as they attempt to escape Columbia, a city corrupted by extreme nationalism and American exceptionalism. Most of the time, however, the actual story being told is that of a man who, when he isn’t casually walking downtown with his gun always drawn and aimed at pedestrians (who oddly don’t seem to be alarmed by it all that much,) mows down thousands of soldiers and revolutionaries while his sidekick keeps him supplied with ammo. While there certainly a lot of overlap between these two stories,  I think that the narrative contribution of the gameplay really diminished and discredited the intended narrative. Leigh Alexander explains the ludonarrative dissonance in Infinite better than I can (if you played the game, just stop, read her thoughts, and come back). She writes that Infinite did not have the strong the connection between the narrative themes and gameplay that the original had, in which, for example, “We saw what the Plasmids did to others, thought about what they might do to us.” What Infinite essentially did was take the original’s gameplay but attach irrelevant narrative themes to it, expecting the same result, but as Alexander writes, “This limited understanding of ‘gameplay’ can’t support Infinite‘s (admirably higher) aims.” The end result is a game in which “all of the things that are supposed to remind me of how horrible Columbia is only makes me think of how horrible games are.” While it is perfectly acceptable for a game’s violence to be repulsive for the sake of story, the problem with Infinite is that its violence isn’t meant to be repulsive – it’s supposed to be fun, and for many of us it failed.

     In a game like Bleed, for example, there is perfect synthesis between the game’s simplistic story (a young woman hunts down and defeats fallen heroes in an attempt to become the greatest hero of all time) and its gameplay (hunting down and defeating said fallen heroes). However, unlike in the original Bioshock, the violence in Bleed doesn’t cause us to reflect upon the setting or the story – the story really just exists to give some semblance of meaning for the violence. Most of the violence in Bleed isn’t against humans, but some of it is – shouldn’t such gratuitous violence by itself therefore have been just as repulsive?

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Since most of you haven’t heard of it, this is what Bleed looks like, by the way, just so you have some idea of what I’m talking about.

     The real reason that Infinite repulses me and Bleed does not is because Infinite, unlike Bleed, takes itself seriously. Because Infinite takes its story seriously, I take the story that it tells through its gameplay seriously. I take the fact that Booker DeWitt slaughtered thousands of men and women seriously, and while those men and women were not by any means innocent I take that fact that they were human beings seriously, with all of the implications of being human. If I take Booker DeWitt’s actions seriously, I can only be repulsed. On the other hand, because Bleed does not take itself seriously, because its hero Wryn operates in a world very different from ours with different morals and less serous implications of violence, the bloodshed, for good or for ill, does not interfere with my enjoyment of the game. This lack of seriousness, however, comes at the cost of narrative depth.

     The reason I’m writing all of this is because, although there certainly is a place for violence in the medium, violence really confines the type of experiences you can create in games. In games like Bleed it can be enjoyable, in games like Bioshock it can tell a story, and in games like Infinite it can get in the way, but even though there are cases in which violent gameplay can tell a good story, those cases are limited and are of limited relevance to the human condition – there are honestly so few good stories you can tell through excessive violence. Although there will always be exceptions, games generally cannot remain as violent as they are and be culturally relevant, in a reflective sense. If they do reflect upon the human condition meaningfully, it will not be because of the violence, but in spite of it.

     When it comes down to it, if we’re going to try to tell half-decent stories through games, we have to put the gun down and try something different.

P.S. There are some of you who read my personal blog/follow me on Facebook who might be asking, “Alex, why are you advocating for people to tell serious stories through games without violence when you just made a short first person shooter game yourself, you hypocritical oaf?”  What I have to say is that the game in question was an attempt to explore what sort of stories could be told through violence, using as little violence as possible (there’s only one optional gunfight in the whole thing). But you’re probably right and I’m probably a hypocrite.

P.S.S. Here’s another great piece on ludonarrative dissonance in Infinite that’s worth reading.

Alex Higgins is a junior blah blah blah. He has a blog here. He makes games. It’s alright I guess. His roommate just told him that the name of this article makes him seem like an old person. He just reread this article and feels like a curmudgeon. He’s probably just going to lay down on his mattress and cry now. 

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2 thoughts on “Radical Plaything: The Narrative Constraints of a Violent Medium

  1. Pingback: Echidna Awards: PC Games of the Year 2013 | Beta Fish Mag

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