Our Games Are Not Depressing Enough [Feedback Loop]
An excess of violence has become a point of criticism for video games. The real problem isn’t the violence, but how games want us to feel about our stylized murder sprees.
In recent interviews David Cage and Warren Spector both addressed the need for games to be more emotive and less violent. However, it shouldn’t be an binary situation. Violent games could be a path to better art, if we deal with violence in the correct way.
In Edge magazine, Cage’s interview centered around the recent E3 demo Kara. The demo by Quantic Dream showed a game character presenting subtleties of emotion only approcahable by the last Quantic Dream tech demo, ‘The Casting’.
While next-generation technology is not required for good games, Quantic’s demo shows the potential to create characters with greater emotional depth, a characteristic that does more to make them realistic than all the pixel resolution in the world.
However Quantic Dream’s execution has traditionally been outside of games’ popular norms. While Heavy Rain’s interactive cinema is fascinating, it misses a larger audience that could reap significant benefits.
“I mean, there are spreading blood pools under innocent dogs when you kill them in Deus Ex, and I wanted you to feel disturbed if you actually pulled the trigger. [...] [At E3, the industry] went too far with the hyper-real celebration of blood and sex and violence.”
While the shooter may be on its way out, it won’t just disappear. Here we can find a middle ground by combining the narrative depth for which Spector is famous with Cage’s emotionally charged approach. Imagine a game where every enemy you could shoot had the emotional reality of Kara and an underpinning narrative that made them real people with real, instead of cartoonishly evil, goals.
What we want in our video games then is not just emotion, but negative emotion. We must take games beyond the generation of fiero. Spector talked about building emotional depth in his most recent game.
“I pushed the team very hard to make sure it was a game of contrasts, where there was really, really dark stuff so there could be really light stuff, and really sad stuff so there could be really happy stuff.”
This isn’t new behaviour for Spector, nor for storytelling in the world of other media. While good stories need not have terrible things happen to their protagonists, when done properly it can build quality works. In AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, at least: two involve close family of the protagonist brutally murdered; two center around the events of the holocaust; six center around anti-heros; four involve their main characters slowly going insane before our eyes; one is entirely focused on domestic abuse; and another involves implied sexual assault on the male main character.
Watchmen is a prime example of this in comics, one of the most lauded works in medium. Recently 1Q84, a novel containing a main character who murders men who have perpetrated assault in order to come to terms with tragedy in her life, gained significant critical acclaim. The more commercially successful The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. All dealt with negative themes in ways true to their characters.
However, it is something video games seem to significantly lack. Chris Bateman’s 2008 survey of video game players found that none of the top 10 emotions experienced were negative. In fact, the primary negative emotions, sadness, guilt and embarrassment, sat at the bottom. Very few games attempt to generate a negative emotion in the player and this is holding back video games from growing as a medium.
I recently argued that games’ potential to allow players to embody alien experiences is one of its greatest potential tools for the future. By being other people we can better understand and sympathize with them. This is just as important for negative experiences as it is positive ones.
To be successful as an art form, games will do terrible things to characters we like. This doesn’t mean that doing terrible things to the player characters somehow makes games better. No, it has to be thought out, presented in a correct context, and dealt with in terms of real emotional consequences. It shouldn’t be always, or even often, but it does need to happen.
Which brings us to the recent Tomb Raider trailer.
While it is unlikely that
EA Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics will present the issues brought up by the trailer in a mature and significant manner, that doesn’t mean that the topics should never be brought up within a game.
We need games that make us feel uncomfortable, that make us want to crawl out of our own skin, put down the controller, and walk away, but also drive us to stay in front of the screen. For games to succeed as an art form doesn’t just mean less mindless violence. It means that when there is violence we, as players, need to feel every bullet.