Last year, I wrote that Id like to see more games embrace the concept of specific, personal violence. So many games dehumanize enemies, letting us cleave through hordes of bandits and aliens while feeling nothing for any of them. The moment we put a name and a face to a character, violence against him or her becomes specific and personal.
This year, Ive found myself more interested in how video games are violent than why they are. What makes the violence in one game more meaningful than it is in another? BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us, two of the most talked-about action games of 2013, tell stories of a man and a young woman fighting through dangerous territory, killing dozens of nameless bad guys. So why am I bored by combat in BioShock Infinite but exhilarated by The Last of Us?
In The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic zombie survival game, the violence was grisly and direct — but more important, it served a purpose. The grueling encounters with bandits and reanimated corpses were a crucible that the protagonists Joel and Ellie barely survived, and the awful acts perpetrated by and upon them left them emotionally deformed at the end.
Instead of feeling transformative or powerful, however, violence in BioShock Infinite felt gratuitous. Why, I wondered toward the end, am I endlessly pumping rockets into the screaming, magically levitating ghost of my sidekicks mother? Why must every room fill with fleets of replicant bad guys I am forced to kill with a spinning hookblade? Am I supposed to find this horrifying, or cool? I felt inundated with so much ridiculous, anonymous shooting that it was difficult for me to care about any of it.Its hard to imagine a more personal and specific form of violence than torture, and thats where almost every mainstream action game this year fell right on its face. Torture is unpleasant, we are often told by video games, but it works, delivering accurate, actionable information. Yet the realities of torture are far murkier than most fictional narratives, game or otherwise, suggest.
Plenty of games feature depictions of so-called enhanced interrogation, but too few are willing to interrogate the act itself. To this end, game developers seem hesitant to use gamings greatest strength — interactivity — to their advantage. Unsurprisingly, the few games this year that did say something worthwhile about torture did so by making players complicit in the act.
Grand Theft Auto V, a vacuous, self-satisfied game that on the whole had very little to say about anything, unexpectedly had a surprising amount to say about torture. By making players endure an extended sequence in which the playable character Trevor tortures a screaming, innocent man for questionable-at-best intelligence, the games British developers were unequivocally — if clumsily — implicating the player in the real-world counterterrorism operations of the United States.
One of the most interesting explorations of torture came in the form of a simple text-only game called Consensual Torture Simulator. As the title would suggest, the game investigates the notion of consensual S&M in a loving relationship. Its provocative and a bit kinky, but its also resolutely human and emotionally honest.
“The most dangerous thing about games is not that they provide us ultrarealistic depictions of violence,” the games designer, Merritt Kopas, proposed late last year, “but that they lie to us about what violence is.” Violence comes in all shapes and sizes; it is not simply a means with which to clear the virtual chess board and vanquish foes. Violence can be cathartic or traumatic, and it can be deeply personal. It can bring two people closer together or sunder them forever. It can also be systemic, bigger than any of us may comprehend.
In 2013, I was happy to see more video games exploring violence with focus and honesty. For all the nonsensical BioShock Infinites, there were games like The Last of Us, gritting their teeth through the worst of it and refusing to look away. For all the boorish action games that thoughtlessly treated torture as narrative garnish, there w