So I was checking out videos of the upcoming next-gen video game, Watch Dogs, recently and I came across this one briefly explaining the game’s visuals via Nvidia Technology. I’m not super excited for the game and anticipating its release so I can rush out and buy it or anything, but I am always interested in how games’ graphics are always getting better. The new game features a near-future version of Chicago that, judging from the video, is breathtakingly authentic. I was awed by this display of craftsmanship in Watch Dogs’ environment design and became more interested in the game just at the thought of perhaps walking around and exploring this digital version of Chicago – seeing the trees blowing in the wind, and the cars moving about on the streets… Wanting to see more, I checked out another video of Watch Dogs gameplay excerpts comprising almost completely of gunfights, explosions, and acts of hardcore brutality much like the Grand Theft Auto series. This led me to a question, and I don’t think I should sidelining this thought any more…
Why do video games have to be so violent?
With as beautiful a level design as Watch Dogs has, am I the only one to think that the addition of violence would sully it? The promise of putting a shotgun to a character’s face and blasting their brains everywhere would certainly dominate the player’s energy leaving appreciation for the level far behind in the list of priorities. Violence, it seems, is a pitfall which many games have fallen into. Or maybe it’s more like a crutch to give their game good sales. Making it the focus of the game is such an easy tactic these days. But while it’s not revolutionary to be able to shoot someone in a videogame, it does sell. So are all gamers so pigheaded?
No. I’m a gamer (somewhat – when I’m not doing one of my other hobbies), and violence is never something that attracts me to a game. I’ll admit many of my favorite games of all time involve killing, but it’s not the killing that draws me in. It’s other things that do that. I love Metal Gear Solid for its story, characters, writing, directing… I love Silent Hill for its ambiance, obscurity, and subtlety… I love Mass Effect for its decision making implementation and sci-fi vision… All of these games involve killing stuff, but for me, it’s always just been something I have to get through so I can enjoy the things I like about the game. But I would like to see violence not be the center of all games.
Everything needs something to tie it all together. Like, when you go out to a restaurant for a steak, there’s usually some sort of starch (mashed potatoes, french fries, etc.) and maybe some greens to make it feel like more of a meal. Most video games works the same way: any addition of story, ambiance, character, and creative visuals are only there to make it seem like you are getting more than just a big hunk of meat – in this case, the violence. Violence is like a steak. People order a steak because they want the steak – not the fries and greens. But, still speaking metaphorically, I’m more of a fries and greens person. So much so that there needn’t be a steak at all.
For another example, take action films. People generally come for the action and find that a pleasant plot has been laid out for that action to have context. Action movies may have interesting stories sometimes, but it’s all just to further enhance that main selling point – the action. After all is said and done, the ambiance and characters were second-tier importance, and that’s what has sadly happened to the art of video games these days. The concept art and level and charcater design is all just second-tier.
Not all games do things that way though. Only a vast majority of them. Myst, back in the day, focused completely on environment, sounds, and visuals to enhance a mystery-solving adventure. In that case, mystery could be described as the “meat” of the game in the same way that violence is to most others. In the case of violent games, no matter how adept and artistic the game’s production and design, the game play experience results in the monotonous and repetitive act of getting your cross-hair to overlap with the thing you want to destroy. But that’s okay, because everything needs a meat. Cross-hairs and enemies’ blood is that meat, but what is more okay about mystery being the “meat” is good old-fashioned decency. Violent games promote violence. It doesn’t matter what anybody says about the matter – violent games portray violence in a glorifying manor. It has not been a huge problem, because people are not idiots – we recognize that there is a gigantic separation between portrayed violence in a fictional world, and violence taking place not on screen. Seeing violent acts in video games (even seeing your “good guy” character get away with such things) does not lead to any overwhelming change in the aggressive tendencies of real people. This is because we as a population are generally not that dumb. But, I might still criticize the decency and character of a society who revels in these extremely violent games. Is this really what we need? We need to fake-kill people? Apparently there is some sort of societal need for this kind of thing, because so many games allow us to kill. There are so many like this that it is now an expectation of game developers. Always developing new ways to kill – rarely developing new ways to learn or explore or practice a particular skill… Suppose we were invaded by some threatening faction and we simple Americans were forced to take up arms; I guarantee that most males in their twenties would have suspicious knack for urban warfare (what with the ducking in and out of cover and all the practice aiming). Yet still so few of us know how to craft a wood table.
Imagine for a second if a new project from EA games was said to not involve any kind of violence or sports; what would it be? It would be Poker. Or Chess. Or some kind of children’s math game, but without a doubt it wouldn’t get the kind of graphic attention that games from either the violence or sports genres do. That’s unfortunate. Why is that when we see screenshots from a game like Watch Dogs of the character standing in an immaculately designed cityscape do we immediately know crime and violence is involved? It’s because no game developer would ever make a game with that kind of environment then have your character going to work and paying taxes. It just wouldn’t happen.
I guess the answer is this: in an environment as real as Chicago, the only thing making it a fantasy experience is what you can do in that space. If the objective of the video game was to get a good graphic design job and work your way up the corporate ladder taking time to stroll through the park every so often, then that begs the question why not just do that in real life? Because you can, and it is allowed. But exploding a car in the middle of a pedestrian-crowded sidewalk is not. Video Games have to be a fantasy experience in order to be interesting. And violence is the only thing that is a fantasy experience these days. Great graphics and ambiance aren’t enough to do make a game something special.
But the bulk of my argument comes down to this: There are other fantasy experiences that could be amazingly translated to a video game that don’t involve killing. For years now, I’ve envisioned a game that takes the player on an incredible journey across the universe opening up the potential of cosmic mysteries and allowing us to explore alienic, uncharted worlds. This idea has the potential to greatly implement some of the most advanced strategies of level design, graphics, sound, and ambiance, and more importantly can represent a turning point in the way people see games. It would be an art piece, but not just shmancy creative stuff – it might also be incredibly exciting if given good story and characters. And it could do all this without a single act of violence.
I think that is the future of games. I think we will inevitably reach a point where we want more out of these things than just a new way to shoot. Quantic Dream is on their way to that now – the “modern-day Myst”, Heavy Rain, proved that a good story can be just as compelling as action. Films have already proven that. Along with action movies, there have been these things called “dramas”. They’ve been around for a long time and have been quite successful. Video Games have not been around nearly as long as film but will eventually catch up. They will realize there’s more to fantasy that killing. Fantasy is our dreams – the things that incite wonder and become a driving force in our lives. And I don’t know about most people, but I’m not killing in most of my fantasies.
If any readers have thoughts on this topic, I want to know what you have to say!