Something became pretty clear a few minutes into a demonstration of the upcoming zombie action game Dead Rising 3 at Microsoft’s E3 press conference: videogame violence is becoming increasingly disturbing. The game, a sequel to two titles in which the player uses makeshift weapons to fight through hordes of the walking dead, was used as a showcase of Microsoft’s next generation console, Xbox One, and its enhanced graphical capabilities. The new console (and its counterpart, Sony’s PlayStation 4) will be able to render environments and characters in high fidelity, offering players a greater level of realism than ever before.
The next generation of consoles will also, of course, be able to render the blood and guts common to many mainstream games in incredible detail. This, if my lurching stomach during the Dead Rising 3 demonstration is any indication, may not be such a great thing.
Dead Rising 3 looks to continue in the vein of its predecessors by giving players an open world to explore, jerry-rigged weapons to craft and waves of zombies to contend with. Just like the first two games of the Dead Rising series, the third entry is extremely fond of gore. Baseball bats, wrenches and chainsaws were all employed in the title’s E3 unveiling, the game’s main character slicing through the undead so that they exploded in startlingly detailed streams of organs and blood.
This kind of violent gameplay is obviously nothing new, but the clarity of detail afforded by the power of the next generation of consoles is. Increased texture resolution and fluid effects don’t just allow developers to create games with more realistic rainfall and skin tones, they also make gore more detailed and believable. The sickening ramifications of this became obvious during the Dead Rising 3 demo, but were truly reinforced in the show casings of military shooters like EA/DICE’s Battlefield 4 (check those exploding heads) and the classically themed hack and slash of Crytek’s Ryse: Son of Rome. Videogame violence is about to become truly disturbing. The abstraction that less sophisticated console graphics meant that, in the past, even the most grotesque game was limited in its ability to capture the horrible aftermath of a tossed grenade or pitched melee battle. Basically, a pixelated splash of blood on the PlayStation 3 has far less impact than a lovingly detailed decapitation on the Xbox One. The games industry should, perhaps, be a bit concerned about this instead of entering the next generation with the same apathy toward violence that it has shown in the past.
Videogames have a well established relationship with violence. This isn’t surprising when considering that most forms of human play, whether digital or not, deal in abstractions of physical conflict. The American football field is not unlike a battleground where each inch of ground gained is a slow push toward victory over an opposing force. Even the outwardly pacific games of chess and go symbolize the large scale strategies of warfare, buttons and carved pieces replacing human and animal troops. It only follows that digital games would look to conflict for inspiration when crafting exciting modes of play. Humans are animals like any other. It is thrilling for us to chase and flee — to attack and defend — from within the safe, consequence-free cocoon of gameplay. The issue, though, comes back to abstraction. The combative instincts channeled through basketball, Risk and Pac-Man don’t cause offense because the violence at the heart of their gameplay does not, unless things have gone very very wrong, involve blood and guts. It’s when the abstract is replaced with the concrete — when the boxing gloves are replaced with bare fists and Commando‘s top-down pellet shooting turns into Modern Warfare‘s first-person headshotting — that game designers and enthusiasts need to step back and re-evaluate the evolution of play.
But violent videogames sell very well and there’s little chance that those who create (and fund) them will decide to start making non-violent titles in their place. It could be, then, that the only advice worth giving should be centred on how violence is portrayed in an era of high fidelity videogames.
The cartoon violence of something like Grasshopper Manufacture/Suda51’s No More Heroes offers one path forward. Heroes, very much a critique of hyper-violent action games if I’m reading it right, is full of nasty fights. The game’s protagonist rips through waves of thugs with a lightsabre-style laser sword in an incredibly graphic fashion. Rather than embrace realism, Heroes portrays its vivisections and beheadings in a purposefully absurd fashion, rendering its horribly violent scenes with sprays of pixel blood and coins. This choice is obviously meant to be a comment on videogame violence (dead enemies are actually made-up of “power-ups” and collectable items) that wouldn’t fit the purposes of every title, but it does demonstrate how to introduce abstraction in games where developer’s want to make physical conflict their central mechanic without actively engaging with the responsibility of doing so+.
A game that seeks to disturb the player — to make her/him actually consider the effect of violence — should depict brutality in as viscerally uncomfortable a format as they wish. The message in titles like Spec Ops: The Line, The Last of Us or Hotline Miami would likely have been diminished if their use of gore had been unnaturally lessened. There is a place for these type of experiences in all types of art. The horror of properly depicted violence doesn’t make light of conflict. Instead, it shows that hurting someone has real consequences. Games that feature this type of realism can only be excused if there is purpose behind its inclusion. Multiplayer matches of Call of Duty and Battlefield are troublesome in this sense because the repetitive nature of score-driven online shooting games, with their respawns and XP pop-ups, means that killing is trivial. There is no authored content providing context for murder in these games. No designer is making a statement about death when they render violence in gruesome detail while also removing real impact from the taking of lives. What are you saying about the moral responsibility of shooting someone with a gun when your game offers points and level-ups for doing so? When being killed yourself is only a minor annoyance?
If a videogame wants to have a lighthearted tone, whether by being funny or just by refusing to engage in a debate about violence, it cannot feature extremely realistic violence as a matter of course without causing offense. There’s no single way to deal with this problem, but it’s one that game developers are responsible for considering. Technological progress means that the type of conflict-focused games that have always been popular are becoming increasingly difficult to write off as simple diversions. The uncanny valley is narrowing and that means that our games are beginning to more closely resemble aspects of our real lives. It’s incredibly important that we don’t regard violence as insignificant; that we see the pain of a lifelike human being as something that makes us uncomfortable rather than complacent.
+ Whether or not it should be acceptable to praise games that unquestionably centre on violence is an entire discussion in itself. I’m mainly concerned with looking into how increased graphical realism can coexist with the type of mainstream videogames we already have in this article.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He maintains literature and music blog, Sasquatch Radio, and, more importantly, founded, writes and is editor-in-extremis for videogame site Digital Love Child. His Tweet-fu is strong @reidmccarter.