Discordant Tones

Examining contrary themes in games, and the facade of mechanics.

By: Daniel Starkey

Filed Under: Editorial Mechanics Reflections Shooters


Love and war. Violence and empowerment. More and more these seem like vestiges of our medium’s adolescence. We work to shed tired tropes and clichés. The boss battle. The escort mission. The token love interest. The illusion of narrative complexity. The reassuring feeling of absolute dominance. Violence.

I keep coming back to it.

Chances are pretty good that if I asked you what the more violent games available right now were, you’d list the holy trinity of shooters – Gears of War, Halo, Call of Duty. The strange thing is that only one of them is really unusually violent, and even then, its victims aren’t ever sympathetic. They aren’t really people. It goes without saying but in none of these games are you ever meant to really care about much beyond yourself. Glorifying war, conflict and the “Us v. Them” narrative, action-flick analogues trumpet bravado and masculinity.

Contrast that with something like the Walking Dead. The intro of Episode 2 asked me to choose between letting a man die and brutally removing his leg with a blunt axe. In Heavy Rain, I’m required to remove a section of my character’s finger. The scene is excruciating.

The endless sea of gore so typical in today’s AAA games isn’t really what we think it is. Guns are a means to an end, not the end itself. The weapons as we know them could be replaced with anything; the models could shoot sprinkles of fairy dust that make flowers appear and while the tone would change, the game wouldn’t be intrinsically better – or worse. Halo isn’t really about killing tons of dudes. It’s about empowerment.

What makes the distinction so fascinating is the degree to which the more academic game critics and consumers have swung around and begun to comment on the strange way that these games feed into the Western gun culture. And maybe that’s true, but the fact that I feel nothing when I play Guns and Balls 3: Testosterone Edition doesn’t bother me. I don’t think it should either.

Much as I love games that do make feel something, watching characters with whom I can empathize suffer at my own hand changes me. In the few instances I care, I am made to commit an act of violence. I cause someone else pain, and I don’t have to face the consequences.

I can’t help but think that if I cared the same way about everyone I’ve digitally killed as I’m told I should, I would be an emotionally dead husk in just a few days.

Empowerment and vulnerability are powerful narrative tools, perhaps never more so than in experiential media like games. It can help us pull away from our typically static perspectives, and it can be used to play with a more direct empathy.

Most “violence” in games is little more than a layer of abstraction, however. For the most part, there are very, very few differences between Half-Life 2 and Portal, and I’m far from convinced that the graphical distinctions are enough to constitute an intrinsically different thing. Through characterization and dialogue, I’d say that I feel much worse about the things I do in Portal than those Half-Life 2, though the latter would almost universally considered to be the more “violent” of the two.

None of this, of course, changes the context for anything. Halo and Gears still attempt to present themselves in a less-than-enlightened way, and however inconsequential the relationship between their mechanics and their subject matter may be, they come wrapped in a juvenile layer of blood-soaked cellophane. I do hope, however, that in time we will all understand the discordant tones they often play together and treat their material with greater respect.

Filed Under: Editorial Mechanics Reflections Shooters

About the Author:
Daniel Starkey is a freelancer at Destructoid, Gamespot, Extra Credits, Tom's Hardware and many others. Find him on twitter @dcstarkey.

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