E3 2012: Breaking Dreams and Limbs

When the first day of E3 press conferences disappeared into the burning horizon of flashing lights and loud noises, I wandered around the aftermath’s rubble with a slightly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Although I was sitting comfortably at home through the magic of the internet, it managed to make a lasting impression all the same. Not really a “wow my mind has been blown because this is so radical” kind of impression so much as a “holy cow what kind of monsters have we become” sort of thing. The success of every neck snap and elephantine lobotomy was measured against audience cheers and cringes alike, both of which seemed to be the intended result.

If this was the usual spectacle associated with your Gears and Gods of War, it would simply be accepted as the average gore-fueled power trip or two we’ve come to expect. But nearly every series and every genre has spiraled its way down the shooter funnel: action-adventure Tomb Raider, survival horrors Dead Space and Resident Evil, espionage Splinter Cell, and more besides. They’ve all converged at a single, virtually identical point: killing things. Cinematically. Because otherwise it would be boring, right?

Even if you’re one to stare virtual death in the metaphorical eye and then spit in said metaphorical eye, this one-dimensional mindset can’t be appealing. In fact, almost every single game Microsoft demoed during their press conference involved shooting as a core gameplay mechanic– even goofy little Wreckateer. Although I’ve been heartened to hear others express the same frustrations, a common thread has been popping up that doesn’t quite satisfy:

“This is a problem,” someone might state, using dialogue tags to pause for dramatic effect, “because videogames are becoming repetitive. The violence is tiresome because it’s over-saturated, just like its genre of choice, the shooter.”

This is an easy answer to rest on, largely because… well, it’s true. Too much of a good thing will always turn bad, but we’re not talking about biscuits or Saturdays or Peggle; we’re talking about pretending to murder people. 

The man on the right is shot, punched, thrown into a wall, interrogated, and shot again. He’s giving Lara Croft a run for her money.

I don’t mean that as a condemnation of all conflict in videogames nor an excuse for their fictitious violence, but rather as a fact we tend to gloss over. At heart, games exist to let us overcome challenges, exercise our brains, and– what I find most important of all– discover whole new worlds. We’re given the absurdly cool privilege of becoming a different person and exploring whatever an artist can feasibly render on the screen, be it a funky obstacle course built out of music or a thick jungle teeming with mysterious aliens. Joyful bouts of escapism can be just as rewarding as adventures of darkness, but E3 reflects product demand whether we like it or not. What does it say about us as an industry (or sentient beings, for that matter) when our fondest wish is to shoot, stab, destroy, strangle, assassinate, dismember, and torture? Why are we determined to portray life’s cruelest, most unpleasant realities when we have enough talent and imagination to create just about anything?

“I don’t buy it,” says that one guy from before, returning to illustrate my point. “All that media buffoonery linking videogames to real life violence is drivel! Make-believe murder doesn’t hurt anyone, so why not run with it?”

But that’s missing the point. When it comes to this utter fixation on bleak, hard-hitting combat that usually ends in a generous splatter of blood, there’s a better question to ask:

“Why are we doing this in the first place?”

That’s exactly what this beautiful sunset was missing.

E3 2012 was broadcast to the world. Live on television and the internet, preserved in HD for generations to come, bursting out of every social media outlet and website remotely related to videogames. If you have a working pair of eyeballs, you were very intentionally meant to see the selected games on display. Company leaders touted them, publishers promoted them, and developers designed them, all working in tandem to create something marketable; something that will sell. This, of course, is perfectly reasonable in theory; but for whatever reason, that “something” is unfiltered action with a grimy edge.

Why is this? Is it a mistaken grasp at maturity? We all know (or so I fervently hope) that stabbing someone in the neck is not inherent to deep gameplay mechanics or sincere storytelling. That notion is a pretty adolescent one, but marketing point-blank shotguns to the face and merciless interrogation scenes to kids who would mistake it for being “cool” is straight up reprehensible. Maybe it boils down to the tried-and-true effect of someone snapping their fingers in front of your face: you can’t ignore it and trying not to flinch is a challenge of its own. Either the people in charge of these decision think their audience has the attention span of a bloodthirsty hamster or their audience really does have the attention span of a bloodthirsty hamster; I’m not sure which outcome is sadder. 

On that note, let’s not point our collective finger solely at the game-makers themselves; after all, we’re the ones buying their stuff with our own money. It could be you, it could be that pesky “general public,” or it could be Modern Warfare’s long shadow, but someone is encouraging these shenanigans. So what is it that we find so appealing about the grimmer side of gaming? It’s true that realism and grit can add texture to game worlds, and technology increases this every day without fail. Mimicking real life and the strife that comes with it might also engage and excite us; conflict is the core of great stories, after all. Yet so often games will shine a spotlight on the gory nature of the kill rather than characters and their struggles, negating any sensible reason for all those bone-splintering particle effects.

If it takes tearing mutant goat heads off by the horns to be entertained, our race is probably doomed.

The whole situation might just spawn from that innate primal rage we human beings seem to carry around deep down, having found that ripping out spines in Mortal Kombat is an acceptable alternative to throttling an elk with our bare hands. If that’s the best excuse we have, however, something’s wrong. Soaking in virtual violence for the sheer pleasure of it doesn’t make me any more comfortable with E3’s enthusiastic crowd, let alone last year’s QuakeCon mob.

Whether we play these games because it’s what the industry pumps out or the industry pumps out these games because it’s what we play, the worst thing we can do is passively accept it, waddling around like a clearly misinformed goomba. Violence has always had a place in videogames and it always will; everyone has his or her own standards and that’s the way it should be. We can love it or we can hate it, but the danger lies in accepting it wholesale, regardless of how gratuitous and senseless it becomes. Tweets, conversations, and articles that question this cavalcade of bullets have been bubbling to the surface like so many upset stomachs, and I’m glad to see fellow game-players take a step back and second guess what exactly it is we willingly consume.

As long as we keep asking ourselves “why?” this trend will hopefully die down and the industry we all know and love won’t spiral into a suicide of broken dreams and limbs. E3 2012 did nothing to remind me why I care about videogames in the first place, but it’s up to us– and smaller developers with more common decency than the big leagues– to do the caring. So keep caring! Keep the enthusiasm and creativity alive, regardless of how bleak the triple-A path may look. Don’t forget why you play videogames. Don’t be that goomba.

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Written by Stephen K

A lover of video games in general, Stephen will happily play just about any sort of game on just about any sort of system, especially if it's a platformer or an RPG. Except sports games. Sports games are boring.

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