By fraser 1 Comments
I feel like starting these blogs with "Hey guys, it's been a while" might become a little redundant as I only seem to write here in 12-18 month intervals; but it's that time of year when we're all compelled to write lists and retrospectives and there's been something on my mind toward the end of 2012 that I want to get down - this is probably more personal than the title may imply, so I understand if no-one wants to read it! So here is sort of a retrospective of my 2012, tied together by pretentious thoughts about stuff. Yey!
Basically, I kinda want to stop killing things.
Hardly an original thought to have at the moment, I know, but it's been on my mind since the end of Summer. I'm cutting meat out of my diet, letting the spiders in my house just do their thing, and I'm finder it harder and harder to justify the amount of killing we are asked to take part in (and enjoy) in video games. This won't be about the wider implications of violence in games as I have no authority on that subject, nor will it approach recent events in America for similar reasons - it's entirely personal but I hope it's interesting to someone.
I'm not really a competitive person in day-to-day life, I kind of abhor competitiveness, and if I ever suspect those feelings mustering up inside me I do what I can to get rid of them. It's a feeling/emotion I think that we should work to reject, despite the disastrous effect if would have on the marketplace. It's also probably going to result in an inability to find work if I ever leave academia because the idea of having to present yourself as better than others, or aiming to be so, just makes me a bit sad. Let's all just get along, yeh? (Commie bastard!) So this year I've been kind of struggling to reconcile this aim to stop killing things, the understanding of myself as not-competitive, and my love of video games - here goes!
Despite my self-proclaimed anti-competitiveness I devote most of my free time to a medium in which brutally erasing competitors and becoming the best are ubiquitous goals - and I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. But it has become only a specific type of game in which I still enjoy this kind of violence, in which competitive feelings aren't necessary, in which killing is either avoidable or totally justified and meaningful. These are games which present a situation where these actions are necessary for completing wider goals not associated with killing. These don't need to be narrative heavy games, just games in which violent acts are appropriate responses within the overarching context.
I'm going to be rather predictable here and say that games like Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Army of Two/Gears of War, and Uncharted are the antithesis to this because while the killing in these situations is justified - here's a gun, here are the bad guys you need to shoot, shoot them - the killing is the be-all-and-end-all of the narrative, everything else is superfluous, or at least, appears to me to be a secondary consideration. For the most part, the physical action employed by the player in these games doesn't inherently relate to killing, it's all about reflexes, agility and precision - the same skill sets needed to play, say, a virtual Coconut Shy set on an unstable ship. Obviously there has to be a other considerations taken into account, otherwise Fraser's Coconut Shy 2012 would have beaten Telltale to all those GOTY awards, but it needn't be the focus of all our actions.
The games which have meant most to me this year have been those in which killing, though available, is not required and is justified by narrative or situational context. The easiest example of this I can think of is one of my favourite games of all time, which appears in this blog because I bought the HD collection in November; Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Which, it turns out guys, is pretty great. In simplified terms, Snake Eater puts the player on the outer limits of a hostile, dangerous, and unknown jungle. They must get to the heart of this jungle to complete their mission. If you choose to kill enemy soldiers, it feels justified because of the sheer hostility of the environment - you are on your own and you must do all you can to survive, if that means killing, it's something you'll have to deal with.
But it's not necessary.
Nor does it feel like you are competing to "be the best" in Snake Eater, any sense of competition is one linked to simply surviving, and if you're encouraged to "become" anything it's...the jungle. But, more to the point, perhaps the greatest joy I got from gaming in 2012 was from completing this beloved game from my teenage years without killing anyone. It made me feel like a better player than I had before, it proved a far more exciting playthrough than any of my previous attempts and it felt like a much healthier experience (and made The Sorrow's fight much easier!). I had a similar response to Mark of the Ninja on a no kills playthrough and I'm hopeful for a similar experience with Hitman when I get round to buying it. One of my greatest disappointments this year came from Far Cry 3 which began with all the promise of a Snake Eater style survival story but devolved into indulgent violence despite what the lead writer may contest.
A couple of years ago Demon's Souls made me more patient when playing games and reignited my faith in the potential to put weight on the act of murder. Dark Souls continued this trend for me in 2012 by managing to contain all the justification for violence found in Snake Eater without the dependence on narrative. Dark Souls takes place in such a scary world, populated by such powerful and terrifying enemies, that killing feels like the only appropriate response. It would be illogical to attempt survival in its world as a pacifist. And, because of its nature as necessary violence in response to a hostile world, it feels more justifiable than the glorified murder in other contemporary action games. The Souls franchise never affords you the luxury of gratuitous killing: if you get complacent, you will die. It strikes me as an extension of the core of Minecraft and its emphasis on survival, over prowess.
I returned to Minecraft earlier this year with the release of their Hardcore mode which creates a world on the hardest difficulty setting and borrows the Roguelike concept of perma-death. Despite being fairly played out by this point, some of my most memorable experiences this year came from cowering in a hut on my "Omicron Persei 9" hardcore map. Violence would have been the solution, had I the balls to leave my shelter.
2012 was a year, then, in which I tried to delve into those games which discourage the pursuit to "be the best", wrapped up in all its violent glory. I suppose I followed the general trend in the industry that was happening anyway, exemplified by the popularity of The Walking Dead games in all of this Game of the Year business. (I'm only halfway through episode 4 so no spoilers please!!) The main thing I've taken from the game so far, aside from the immense weight placed upon death and the decisions leading up to it, is that there is no way to "be the best" - no way to beat the competition and get everything right. Killing someone in The Walking Dead creates as many problems as it solves, if not more, and it's something that more developers should follow up on.
Death need not be the centrepiece on the video games table, yet it often seems to be. And I would be lying if I said my time with violent shooters/action games was over - I'll be buying GTA5 for sure, and I spent a not insignificant amount of time on the multiplayer in Max Payne 3 and Uncharted 3 this year - but it's telling that those games I remember most fondly are those which discouraged pulling the trigger, brandishing a sword, or dropping a salt lick, unless absolutely necessary. To The Moon, a game based completely around an extended period of death and dying and all the emotional implications therein, hit me hardest. I went in expecting a generic, twee indie game, and came out a little teary eyed, reminded of the richness, variety, and potential for death in video games.
I look forward to 2013, when I hope more games will discard death as a means to beat competitors and embrace it as a meaningful and diverse centre point for emotional, intellectual, and perhaps enjoyable interactions.