Gameplay and Narrative - Do the Ultraviolent

Last week, I looked at the nature of gameplay needs against cohesive narrative.  Today I focus on graphic depictions of savage violence and all the wonderful things you can do with them!
 
Human beings in video games have strange anatomy; their bodies are either impervious to outside influence, or ready to come apart like a shoddily crafted wooden marionette. Our virtual worlds are ones where bullets cause a pretty red mist and sudden sleepiness, or cause skulls to vigorously explode on impact. This has something to do with technical limitations; every damage permutation requires the same amount of art generation as an entirely new model. But when aiming for graphic violence, developers seem happy to rely on the visceral rush of violence, but not the horrific realities.
 

We live in an age where the modern military shooter is the most popular genre, various other first and third person shooters are centered around combat with small arms (guns, not tiny limbs). And yet I've yet to see a bullet wound that even hinted at the horrifying realities that they can wreak on a human body. I've played a couple games recently that involved severe head trauma resulting in artistically extreme examples of ultraviolence; in Dead Space, the player can actually decapitate enemies, sending streams of blood shooting out with such enthusiasm it's as if the necromorphs had a blood pressure of 400 over 210. Resident Evil 4, accurate shooting causes heads to perform a disappearing trick, sometimes trading places with creepy plaga tentacles. And finally, everyone's favorite cop Kurtis Stryker's main fatality involves a close range pistol blast that causes a skull to blow apart like a grenade.
 

Apparently BB guns are serious business in the post-apocalypse.

I'm focusing on head trauma as an example, because none of these aesthetic representations of ultraviolence generate the same queasy feeling I felt the first time I witnessed the Budd Dwer suicide (absolutely will not link it here). Skulls didn't explode, blood didn't fly out to every corner of the room. Instead small, terrible fatal wounds occurred, and blood leaked out, pooling over his suddenly inert body. Everything that makes a person appear alive, every small subconscious muscle interaction fled in an instant. That violence could not be more real or brutal. In comparison, games with the most extreme gore seem downright hilarious. The only recent game I've seen come close to it are the exit wounds in Red Dead Redemption. And it served that game's narrative (John Marston insists a life of violence is a horrifying life, and any man with a conscience would walk away from it).


Limbs rocketing off in all directions and human bodies gibbing at the slightest touch completely hamper the sensation of impact that they aim for with ultraviolence. Ragdoll is a terrible offender, human bodies that should weigh over 200 pounds (more with equipment) bounce off of environment obstacles like they were filled with helium. Find something that weighs 200 pounds in your home and drop it from a five or six foot height. That's what a game needs to convey with every body. More than that, the horrors of war are not images of chunky salsa; it's the screaming of dying men at the point beyond desperation. The 'clean kill' is much more rare than a video game would like you to feel.
 

Upside down, it looks like he's waving.

Why this is important is the word 'desensitization', and I'm not referring to the kind media talking heads claim of video games. I'm talking about the desensitization that nullifies the work that developers go to. If everything lacks impact, it becomes easy to ignore. Games that feature intense and graphic expressions of violence are far too willing to throw it at you as soon as possible, and as often as possible. Dead Space 2 has a man's head implode in center screen within three minutes of hitting new game. The first time you encounter a zombie in Dead Island, you'll probably strip the flesh off its torso with nothing more than a wooden paddle. It's ultraviolence's form of premature ejaculation. If every body has the consistency of plasticine, weariness sets in quickly. I feel like a man in a suit needs to come into the office and place his hand on the art director or programmer's shoulder... “Pace yourself. You have 10 more hours to fill.”


I run a tabletop game set in a modern environment... in action sequences, the less common a dramatic element is, the more impact it has. In a bar brawl between three players and a half-dozen gang members, early impacts were light... descriptions were of punches connecting and incapacitated opponents crawling away when they had enough. Later in the fight, the players were ready to have more gruesome impacts; blood oozed out of mouths with broken teeth, and incapacitated opponents lay in heaps, panting and cursing the pain of dislocated knuckles. As the violence increased, the visceral thrill didn't change, but the queasy realities of violence creeped in. Furthermore, this was done with plans (delayed for future installments) of broken jaws causing hideous bruising and misshapen facial appearances... of extreme stomping on a pinned opponent causing a head to collapse like a crushed tomato. But that leaves you with nowhere to go beyond repeating yourself again and again. Warhammer 40k: Space Marine is a 6-8 hour game where you accomplish the most savage actions programmed into it within twenty minutes of hitting new game. For a setting almost based entirely upon the foundation of brutality, it loses impact far too soon.
 

Tell you what doesn't lose impact; green Cockney people shouting "SHPOYCE MUHREENS!"

Here's where narrative appears. In video games, combat is just a signifying phrase for gameplay patterns against a contentious force. In reality, combat is the basest form of human nature and expression. Natural violence is the physical struggle for survival. Fatal violence creates nothing but loss, it ends things (sometimes people) that will never be again. Gameplay is fun... primordial struggle is horrifying. What's the connection? Gameplay, or combat, is the basest form of what makes a video game. Properly written narrative attempts to relate to us, to give us the recognizable storytelling devices that allow the storytelling to touch us. Gameplay that benefits narrative should touch these same human functions. The scare (or jumpscare, if you prefer) touches our primordial fear of predators and the unknown. But violence should touch a sense of loss; the player should understand the necessity of their actions, yet be horrified by the fatal impact, both physical and consequential.


Developers who increase the impact and horror of their violence increase the humanity of the work, almost unbelievably so. Make the player disgusted by the horrible ends wreaked by their hands. Do it too early or often, and desensitize them. Do it to such unrealistic extremes, you break verisimilitude. Make the impact solid, make it heavy, and make it human.

4 Comments
5 Comments
Posted by Brodehouse

Last week, I looked at the nature of gameplay needs against cohesive narrative.  Today I focus on graphic depictions of savage violence and all the wonderful things you can do with them!
 
Human beings in video games have strange anatomy; their bodies are either impervious to outside influence, or ready to come apart like a shoddily crafted wooden marionette. Our virtual worlds are ones where bullets cause a pretty red mist and sudden sleepiness, or cause skulls to vigorously explode on impact. This has something to do with technical limitations; every damage permutation requires the same amount of art generation as an entirely new model. But when aiming for graphic violence, developers seem happy to rely on the visceral rush of violence, but not the horrific realities.
 

We live in an age where the modern military shooter is the most popular genre, various other first and third person shooters are centered around combat with small arms (guns, not tiny limbs). And yet I've yet to see a bullet wound that even hinted at the horrifying realities that they can wreak on a human body. I've played a couple games recently that involved severe head trauma resulting in artistically extreme examples of ultraviolence; in Dead Space, the player can actually decapitate enemies, sending streams of blood shooting out with such enthusiasm it's as if the necromorphs had a blood pressure of 400 over 210. Resident Evil 4, accurate shooting causes heads to perform a disappearing trick, sometimes trading places with creepy plaga tentacles. And finally, everyone's favorite cop Kurtis Stryker's main fatality involves a close range pistol blast that causes a skull to blow apart like a grenade.
 

Apparently BB guns are serious business in the post-apocalypse.

I'm focusing on head trauma as an example, because none of these aesthetic representations of ultraviolence generate the same queasy feeling I felt the first time I witnessed the Budd Dwer suicide (absolutely will not link it here). Skulls didn't explode, blood didn't fly out to every corner of the room. Instead small, terrible fatal wounds occurred, and blood leaked out, pooling over his suddenly inert body. Everything that makes a person appear alive, every small subconscious muscle interaction fled in an instant. That violence could not be more real or brutal. In comparison, games with the most extreme gore seem downright hilarious. The only recent game I've seen come close to it are the exit wounds in Red Dead Redemption. And it served that game's narrative (John Marston insists a life of violence is a horrifying life, and any man with a conscience would walk away from it).


Limbs rocketing off in all directions and human bodies gibbing at the slightest touch completely hamper the sensation of impact that they aim for with ultraviolence. Ragdoll is a terrible offender, human bodies that should weigh over 200 pounds (more with equipment) bounce off of environment obstacles like they were filled with helium. Find something that weighs 200 pounds in your home and drop it from a five or six foot height. That's what a game needs to convey with every body. More than that, the horrors of war are not images of chunky salsa; it's the screaming of dying men at the point beyond desperation. The 'clean kill' is much more rare than a video game would like you to feel.
 

Upside down, it looks like he's waving.

Why this is important is the word 'desensitization', and I'm not referring to the kind media talking heads claim of video games. I'm talking about the desensitization that nullifies the work that developers go to. If everything lacks impact, it becomes easy to ignore. Games that feature intense and graphic expressions of violence are far too willing to throw it at you as soon as possible, and as often as possible. Dead Space 2 has a man's head implode in center screen within three minutes of hitting new game. The first time you encounter a zombie in Dead Island, you'll probably strip the flesh off its torso with nothing more than a wooden paddle. It's ultraviolence's form of premature ejaculation. If every body has the consistency of plasticine, weariness sets in quickly. I feel like a man in a suit needs to come into the office and place his hand on the art director or programmer's shoulder... “Pace yourself. You have 10 more hours to fill.”


I run a tabletop game set in a modern environment... in action sequences, the less common a dramatic element is, the more impact it has. In a bar brawl between three players and a half-dozen gang members, early impacts were light... descriptions were of punches connecting and incapacitated opponents crawling away when they had enough. Later in the fight, the players were ready to have more gruesome impacts; blood oozed out of mouths with broken teeth, and incapacitated opponents lay in heaps, panting and cursing the pain of dislocated knuckles. As the violence increased, the visceral thrill didn't change, but the queasy realities of violence creeped in. Furthermore, this was done with plans (delayed for future installments) of broken jaws causing hideous bruising and misshapen facial appearances... of extreme stomping on a pinned opponent causing a head to collapse like a crushed tomato. But that leaves you with nowhere to go beyond repeating yourself again and again. Warhammer 40k: Space Marine is a 6-8 hour game where you accomplish the most savage actions programmed into it within twenty minutes of hitting new game. For a setting almost based entirely upon the foundation of brutality, it loses impact far too soon.
 

Tell you what doesn't lose impact; green Cockney people shouting "SHPOYCE MUHREENS!"

Here's where narrative appears. In video games, combat is just a signifying phrase for gameplay patterns against a contentious force. In reality, combat is the basest form of human nature and expression. Natural violence is the physical struggle for survival. Fatal violence creates nothing but loss, it ends things (sometimes people) that will never be again. Gameplay is fun... primordial struggle is horrifying. What's the connection? Gameplay, or combat, is the basest form of what makes a video game. Properly written narrative attempts to relate to us, to give us the recognizable storytelling devices that allow the storytelling to touch us. Gameplay that benefits narrative should touch these same human functions. The scare (or jumpscare, if you prefer) touches our primordial fear of predators and the unknown. But violence should touch a sense of loss; the player should understand the necessity of their actions, yet be horrified by the fatal impact, both physical and consequential.


Developers who increase the impact and horror of their violence increase the humanity of the work, almost unbelievably so. Make the player disgusted by the horrible ends wreaked by their hands. Do it too early or often, and desensitize them. Do it to such unrealistic extremes, you break verisimilitude. Make the impact solid, make it heavy, and make it human.

Posted by MikeGosot

Most people will laugh at my opinion but... The most solid represetation of violence i've ever saw in a videogame was in The Warriors videogame. You could clearly see that your character was getting FUCKED, and that added a little bit of despair. It was awesome.

Posted by hippocrit

That was a great read. I would point out that violence creates more than loss. It can, under the right circumstances and with the right personality, cause a sense of accomplishment and dominion. Being able to utterly dominate another is probably a heady feeling to those with little conscience. Video games tap into that by fantasizing violence. I it were all depicted with perfect realism, even when in support of narrative, games would be much more difficult to play.

Posted by upwarDBound

I think you're right when saying more game designers should focus on expertly timed realistic depictions of violence if they are going for a strong cohesive narrative. I think Heavy Rain did a very good job of this by making each major action you had to take have real impact.

However, I am not completely against the idea of cartoon ultra-violence. It can be fun watching bodies erupt into hundreds of pieces in Fallout and blasting off heads in games like dead space or gears of war. That's really a big part of the fun in those games and if you only had a few really impactful encounters they wouldn't be the same game. Fallout would not be as much fun to me if I couldn't vaporize, liquefy, incinerate, decapitate, or by any other extreme means annihilate my enemies.

Edited by Brodehouse
@upwarDBound: Heavy Rain was actually a game I was thinking of, the violence in that was extremely affective.  The 'finger scene' itself has basically no visible gore, and yet causes the player to feel the damage by Ethan's ragged, anguished screams.  Not a single scream, multiple panting desperate screams.  As I said, in real life there are rarely as many 'clean kills' as you see in games.  All would take to turn a Battlefield game from a glorification of war to a solemn tribute to the horrors of war is to have downed enemies scream for minutes at a time unless they're double tapped.  To affect the player on a human level, to amplify the grisly nature of war, in an instance where the player throws a grenade into a fortified position, don't have chunky salsa fly ten feet into the air, just have three out of five men inside lay in crumpled heaps, screaming and moaning for help.
 
I'm reminded the first time I noticed that some of the enemies I killed in GTA4 were not all the way dead, they were silently crawling away.  I found it very unsettling.  Furthermore, the first time I used a poison blade in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood was on an isolated guard.  I watched him flail around wildly at first, but it was when he collapsed on the ground and began convulsing that I suddenly felt an incredible sense of shame... I ran up and ended his suffering out of shame and mercy.  What if the regular blade caused the same kind of anguish every dozen times you used it or so?  The 'work in the dark to serve the light' would feel much more earned.