Violence as a Tool of Tone

[Originally posted July 21, 2016]

Gore is great – I’m sure many out there will agree. There’s so much glee in it, largely because it’s so indulgent. Recent haunted-house homage film We Are Still Here has a fantastically bloody climax, capping off the movie on a surprisingly upbeat note. The comedic elements of DOOM – ‘hell waves,’ etc. – work so well because they mirror the game’s hilarious levels of gore and violence. The new Mortal Kombattitles are some of the most enjoyable in the series because they take the carnage to a whole new level of over-the-top.

But Gore isn’t always Good.

It’s why the Gears of War series – Two, in particular – has one of the most dissonant narratives I’ve played in recent memory. To clarify, I’m not talking about ludonarrative dissonance (drink) – I’m talking about tone. Games are chock-full – brow-to-bunion – with slaughter, and that’s fine. Video game protagonists are, often, mass murderers, and that’s just something we have to make peace with. The realtrouble brews when a self-serious narrative juxtaposes itself with some balls-to-the-wall gore. Titles like Gears beg to be taken seriously. Euthanasia. Torture. Suicide. Yeesh. Some pretty heady stuff you put in your game, Clifford. That in and of itself is fine, but it feels hollow when its couched in between dudes shouting ‘Suck it!’ and making jokes about beating wives for rent money. It’s a story almost completely devoid of fun and mirth, and the constant gore clashes with the tone it’s trying to set. As a result, Maria’s death is one of the most unintentional laugh-out-loud moments in gaming for the second time in a decade.

I understand why gore is so prevalent in our medium – there lots of reasons. Sex sells, but violence sells better. Gore is a great way to Strut Your Stuff as a developer. Street artists paint skulls because they’re complex shapes, with lots of angles and shadows. When it comes to games, Chunky Bits have moisture, complex form, physics, etc. It used to be a display of technical dominance. But we’ve entered a new era where impressive visual effects have become relegated to the realm of redundancy. The same thing has happened with movies. While there are still certain visual bulletins that games need to hit, the desire for ‘Kool Graphix’ is no longer a dominating part of gaming’s cultural zeitgeist. Hopefully, we’ll start to see games think a little more carefully about their violence as a result.

There’s a lot of media out there – thanks to the hardworking journalists of the games industry – about the creative decisions that go into crafting a game, and it seems to have revealed that games often don’t seem to take gore into the same considerations as, say, filmmakers. Sam Raimi knew how to use gore to great effect, elevating his campy B-movies to legendary status among cinematic canon. Most of the games right now that utilize gore well – Mortal Kombat, DOOM – are very lucky in that their legacy demands that level of violence. They’ve rode – albeit, quite well – on the laurels of 90s ‘edgy counter-culture,’ and can – therefore – excel via a ‘nothing is ever too much’ attitude. Other games don’t have this luxury. Some are this gory – seemingly for no reason – and suffer for it. Either that, or their narratives fail to understand the thrill of the violence – fail to see the fun – and attempt to ignore it, creating tonally dissonant scenes of unintentional comedy. Sometimes, though, the opposite happens. Sometimes a game is goofy, and funny, and silly, but doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t separate its world from ours, and provides moments of accidental gratuity.

I would like to tell you a story.

I grew up in D.C. Many years ago, when I was in 2nd grade, a sniper – two, actually, working in tandem – drove around the area, indiscriminately gunning down their victims. I remember this event because

  1. We had no recess,
  1. Every window of every classroom was coated and covered, and
  1. We had to run – behind a wall the schools had set up – to get to our parents’ vehicles for carpool.

The police apprehended the men behind these shootings, but not before 10 people were killed and 3 more were critically injured.

Smash Cut. 10 Years Later.

My friend Jake is in town visiting, and – as we are wont to do – we play some GTAV. This series has pursued the fidelity of its simulation with increasing success over the past decades. Gone are the cartoony, sardonic homages to gangster movies. Now we have realistic worlds bloated with clumsy satire. Jake goes on a rampage – because this is GTA and that’s what he does – and climbs up high on a rooftop, and begins to snipe passers below. I see their bodies ragdoll, reacting to the bullets realistically. GTAV thinks itself very funny, with its shitty puns and crass characters.

But – in these moments – I’m not laughing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s