Tag Archives: violence

Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing “Through The Valley,” a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is hellbent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.

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Why The Last of Us Should and Shouldn’t Be a Movie

Big news broke on Thursday: The Last of Us is becoming a live action movie. Now, you have to understand, I love The Last of Us. I wrote a final paper on it (see notes here), I wrote about its characters and convictions, and I wrote on how it’s a grownup video game.

I’ve said before that The Last of Us is an incredible game that deserves to be seen in a more literary light. And now it is, it’s being made into a movie so more people can experience it.

At least that’s Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper’s idea. Honestly, I have to agree. The Last of Us is a phenomenal piece of storytelling period. Video games remain something of a niche market; one sometimes deemed inaccessible. For good reason too: movies don’t require viewers to buy a $300 piece of equipment to watch them and then force them to complete challenges to see what happens next. A cinematic adaptation of The Last of Us would nullify this and allow anyone to experience Joel and Ellie’s story.

Thing is, The Last of Us is an incredibly visceral story, due in no small part to the fact that you’re playing as Joel. The tension in battles with the Infected and other people and the relief of those long quiet moments in between are all heightened because it’s you fighting the Infected and you initiating conversations with Ellie about football mascots. This is what gaming does best; making you feel truly involved in the action. A film wouldn’t be able to capture the same kind of rush of the battle and emotional bond with the characters.

With that, casting presents another obstacle. Voice actors Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson are intrinsically inseparable from Joel and Ellie. Their performances are incredible, bringing life to fantastic characters. Whoever plays them in the movie would have to be wonderfully cast, else much of their dynamic — that blend of tension and affection — would be lost. And it’s the bond between Joel and Ellie —not the Infected or the American wastes— that makes The Last of Us.

But then, Neil Druckmann, writer and Creative Director of the game, is confirmed to be writing the film. Druckmann has more than proved himself a competent writer with The Last of Us and Left Behind. And who better to write a film adaptation than the original writer? He knows what’s at the heart of the game and how to keep it in a film.

I have hope for this, mostly because Druckmann is writing but also because Bruce Straley, The Last of Us’ Game Director, is producing the film with Naughty Dog’s co-presidents and Sam Raimi. The creative core of the game is on the film too.

There are things they’ll have to do for it to work One would be keeping the extreme violence and consistent swearing that built game’s tone (and thereby earning a hard R-rating). A second would be casting two leads who would be able to match Baker and Johnson’s nuance and chemistry. Most importantly, Druckmann and team will have to adapt The Last of Us not as a game but as a story. We don’t need scenes of Joel crouching down and listening or incessant crafting; what we need are those quiet moments of conversation between the two protagonists.

Do I think The Last of Us needed to be made into a movie? No. It’s one of the best video games of not just its generation but of all times. It used its medium to great effect, telling a story unlike any other.

But now that it is do I want it to be a good one? Of course. Stripped of the experience of the game it remains a phenomenal story one that, rightly, deserves a wider non-gaming audience.

One thing’s for sure, though, they need Gustavo Santaolalla’s score.

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Violence and Video Games

Violent video games are a hot topic, or at least they really were six months ago. Well, here’s the thing: video games aren’t violent. Angry bears are violent. Video games aren’t. That said, there is violence in video games. The thing is, the portrayal of violence in video games is as varied as in books of film.

Can video games glorify violence? Sure. Look at Army of Two: Devil’s Cartel. You play as two mercenary-commandos sent into a cartel-run town in Mexico to escort/rescue/defend a mayoral candidate. Like any action movie with a similar pitch, Devil’s Cartel is light on the thought and heavy on the guns and explosions as you blow limbs off cartel members. Is it violent? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Is it clearly fictional? Yes. Despite some tidbits in early loading screens, the game is completely detached from any semblance of real-life cartel warfare. It’s a video game; the characters even call out some of the more ridiculous aspects of the game. Like The Expendables or one of the GI: Joe movies: it’s over the top and meant purely for entertainment. Being unable to distinct differentiate a game like this from reality is a problem that lies not with the game itself.

But video games with violence aren’t all senseless and flashy with blood flying everywhere. There are games out there that attempt to address or at least justify the violence in the game. It could be Elizabeth calling Booker out on his ease of killing in BioShock Infinite or Snake forced to walk a ghostly river populated by everyone he’s/you’ve killed thus far in Metal Gear Solid 3. They’re often just in passing as the game’s focus lies elsewhere.

At first blush, Spec Ops: The Line seems like your standard military shooter. Captain Walker and his squad are sent into Dubai months after its been ravaged by a massive sandstorm in search of John Konrad and the 33rd Battalion. Then you realize it’s been called Heart of Darkness: The Video Game and it starts to set in. Sure, in early combat you’re shooting faceless middle-eastern men like many other shooters. Then you meet members of the 33rd. And you find out they’ve gone rogue. And now you’re shooting American soldiers.

It’d be a ballsy move in any form, but in a genre and medium where more often than not you’re Sergeant American gunning down terrorists, nazis, or soviets, seeing the familiar American ACU in your reticule is especially jarring. Spec Ops: The Line revels in this discomfort and uses it again and again. Sneaking around a building you see two soldiers at the foot of the stairs, one asking the other for a stick of gum. Not only are they not wearing balaclavas or any kind of face mask, they’re speaking English — with an American accent. You have to kill them. The game does not give you a choice.

The Line has a feature where any explosion causes the game to briefly switch into slow-motion. In most games it’d be a cool little gimmick where the player gets to delight in their destruction. The Line isn’t much different: you get to watch your target — more often than not a familiar American soldier — get blown apart or lose his legs by the grenade. Then suddenly you’re reminded of wounded veterans and any sense of empowerment quickly dissolves. At another point you might, out of reflex, shoot someone running towards you only to realize immediately after your target was an innocent woman running to safety. You will encounter soldiers and civilians burned alive by white phosphorus. You will become a monster. You’re not playing a hero here; you’re doing horrible, terrible things. The game doesn’t let you forget it either. There is little glory in the violence of this game.

Similarly, The Last of Us will never let you glibly take a life. Whether if its you as Joel sneaking up on a sobbing Infected — are you executing her or putting her out of her misery?— or Ellie swearing as you blow a man’s head off with a shotgun, The Last of Us will not let you forget the consequences of your actions. You will wound a man and fire the killing blow just as he begs for his life and exclaims he has a family. You see the effects of violence on the relatively naive Ellie and as it chips away what little that’s left of Joel’s soul. The Last of Us is the only action game I’ve played where I’ve wished I could continue the game without having to shoot anyone else.

Games like Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us force players to think about the violence they deal out. There is violence in video games, and the violence can be gruesome. But it’s not always mindless. There are games out there that give violence its due diligence and those that revel in it, just as there are movies or books that do. To write off video games as a whole because of their violence is a thoughtless disservice to the medium.

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