A great write-up by a good friend of mine!
originally posted at: http://www.knowngriefers.com/2012/03/trials-by-fire-that-muddy-middle.html
Trials by Fire is a column from D. Bethel whereby two game demos are arbitrarily judged and one is declared the victor. In actuality, it's a veiled rant. This edition discusses video game violence as perceived through the demos for Warp and I Am Alive.
As much as players, developers, and critics might involuntarily twitch at the statement, the importance of violence in video games is undeniable. To a certain degree, violence is an assumption for video games, but it’s often rolled into sterile terms such as “gameplay” and viewed as a mechanical response to button-pressing. Video game violence is rarely celebrated with the exception of a few safe zones (speaking specifically to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series or Sony’s God of War six game trilogy) where spectators regard its excess as more expressionistic than horrifying, but is still a non-issue because, in the end, it's "violence in video games" and we don't like to talk about that. Therein lies the inherent problem with video game violence; because it has been condemned and misunderstood by gaggles of pundits, lawyers, and ignorant parents (among others), the community imagines that hushed acceptance is more livable than investigating why it's a part of the medium in the first place. Violence in this digital format does not exist as a binary (pun intended)––games aren't merely “violent” or “not violent”; instead, as with any entertainment-based format, violence strides a gradient––tent poles on either end hold aloft an infinite variety between them. The most interesting games reside within that muddy middle, from which two incredible new examples arise: Trapdoor’s Warp and Ubisoft’s I Am Alive.
The most notable aspect about these two games is their inverse relation to their expected violence, when based on a quick and superficial judgement. Looking at Warp, an action-puzzle game which uses its teleportation mechanic in a similar fashion as ‘Splosion Man’s explosions, the game seems harmless enough at the outset with its adorable protagonist teleporting its way through a slickly rendered underwater laboratory. However, the demo begins with a surprising amount of pathos despite the slick, appealing visuals (the latter of which, again, echo ‘Splosion Man).
|This is how I imagine Jawas look naked.|
The captured alien Zero (as the protagonist is called) awakens groggy and defeated, meandering its way through a patronizing obstacle course. While this tone is off-putting against the timbre established by the playful visuals, the game comes into its own the moment Zero regains its ability to teleport and becomes as fast and fun as the demo originally sold itself to be. Whereas ’Splosion Man wore its cartoonish nature proudly, Warp’s seemingly benign aesthetics misleads more than it pacifies because teleporting quickly becomes nasty business. As the only tool at Zero’s disposal, teleportation is much more than a mode of transportation; it can also be used to short out electrical devices (by teleporting inside of them), allow for cover inside barrels and boxes (by teleporting inside them), control enemies in order to get through a crowded room unnoticed (by teleporting inside them), and, lastly, explode enemies as a mode of attack (after you teleport inside them). This last mechanic is a shocking revelation when it first happens, and betrays the rules established by the lively animation and stylized design.
|Welcome to Happy Murder-Time Theater.|
The action in Warp is immediate and frenetic until these moments of violence––the game halts as the player must pound a button and watch as the scientist or security officer inflates and struggles against the burgeoning destruction inside him; in fact, the entire demo plays this way––masturbatory button mashes perforated by occasional character movement. Blood of the unknowing victims soaks the ground in the aftermath of the attack, from which Zero bounces on as if stepping to a jaunty alien tune only it hears. Though the extent of this unexpected mode of attack may seem egregious the first time, its prominence and strategic necessity allow it to quickly fade into being just another tool of gameplay instead of what it is: murder. But Warp is ultimately very fun. It's smart and engaging amid this shaky balance between the cute and the horrible.
Violence seems like a natural tool to the nameless protagonist in the post-apocalyptic survival adventure, I Am Alive, if only because it looks like it should be. The demo consists of the protagonist arriving at the outskirts of a destroyed metropolis after walking across the country in the wake of a cataclysmic event. The player must help him accomplish a seemingly simple goal in the demo: to get back to the protagonist’s apartment mere blocks away. Rendered in a more realistic manner––its protagonist is grubby and weathered; the city is in jagged ruin through some unknown natural violence; the people encountered are desperate and aggressive––it brings to mind such survival-horror games as the latter Resident Evil entries or even action-adventure games like those of Uncharted fame. With those associations comes assumptions of staggered waves of violent encounters, the bullets flying in both directions as throngs of equally nameless opponents fall much easier under the player’s ordnance than the player does to theirs. The assumed rules going into I Am Alive are as broken, however, as the world it portrays.
|I Am Alive...because I'm not acrophobic|
Challenging those assumptions of the genre is where I Am Alive revels, much like Warp, but approaching those goals in the opposite way. Combat is clunky and weary and difficult, something the player regrets entering into after the first few encounters because it's a trying feat. In a sense, the awkward violence helps the game stay in character and lends to the overwhelming sense of defeat that lingers and watches from the desaturated grays that blanket the scenery. It is only in the running, jumping, and climbing––the feats of true, fear-based survival––that the demo feels its most fluid and graceful.
|One of the few games where "Fuck Off" is a viable strategy.|
The violence in I Am Alive effectively creates a sense of dread since its most effective form is not in the action but in the threat of action. Instances arise where players can choose to fire their only bullet or command an enemy to yield only to murder them with a machete or kick them off a ledge or into a fire. Every violent action evokes a duality of success: of joy for succeeding at surviving the sortie, and despair for knowing what success means having done. This conjures a sensation not really felt since Sony’s masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus. The resemblances don’t end with the metaphysical and moral questions raised by the player’s violent acts, but also in the reliance on a fixed amount of “stamina” that is used like personal currency for survival. Putting aside story-based logic, the gameplay of I Am Alive succeeds in crafting an honest connection between the player and the character, creating a visceral sense of the decisions and fatigue that are a part of a world in which both are now straining to survive.
Warp and I Am Alive are only two points along this infinite scale that every video game can be placed upon. Violence isn’t inherently a shameful subject––it’s a natural survival response––and its presence in video games should not be surprising, and it should definitely not be maligned or praised. While civilized society may feel that it has outgrown the need for violence, it must remember that violence helped history create what exists today––a realm predicated on work and leisure––and while persistent violence may not be a first world concern, it survives in the games people play.
The Victor: Violence has no winners. : (
D. Bethel never has time, but when he does, he makes
comics at www.eben07.com.
Follow him on Twitter @DBethel