When director Hidetaka Miyazaki changed the focus from souls to blood in From Software’s Bloodborne (i.e., Dark Souls III) he made, not a creative shift in theme, but a good business decision. One item description in Bloodborne reads “blood defines an organism.” To construct a more honest truism, blood defines a pornography—as illustrated when the shiny protagonist of Miyazaki’s pseudo-horror drivel gets drenched in red.
Since the early 1990s, blood has been videogames’ most reliable cheap thrill. Growing up I felt some of the initial excitement with this trend in 1994 when Mortal Kombat II arrived on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis. Although Mortal Kombat II wasn’t the first game with blood and gore, it was the biggest arcade game to date that featured such imaginative destruction of digitized human bodies. And unlike the SNES and Genesis translations of the original Mortal Kombat, the console versions of Mortal Kombat II were uncensored. My mother wasn’t thrilled about the game’s content, so playing it at a friend’s house was akin to finding smutty magazines in a basement.
The popularity of the Mortal Kombat series kickstarted a period of righteous juvenile expression. U.S. politicians like Joe Lieberman publicly decried videogame violence partly because of Mortal Kombat’s success, but there were many other offenders, like Time Killers, as well as obvious imitators like Way of the Warrior. This adolescent defiance reached its creative height in 1995’s Eternal Champions: Challenge from the Dark Side, which featured the possibility of a Lieberman-like character being impaled on the Washington Monument. As Eternal Champions producer Michael Latham told Retro Gamer, “I like the fact he [Lieberman] was not amused.”
Finding anything as politically resonant in the blood and gore of 21st-century pop videogames has been difficult. With few exceptions, the bloodiness of games often nods to or tries to top the brutality of the 1990s aesthetic, as shown in garbage such as Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number. Like its predecessor, this arcade-game wannabe evokes the gloss and Cold-War hatred of the 1980s to distract from its indie facelift of 1995’s Loaded, which remains one of the most insensitive games ever made. Hotline Miami’s boneheaded surrealism also takes a page from Mortal Kombat with liberal squirting of blood no matter how you attack someone, though even the campy Kombat drew the line at certain moves like sweeps and punches to the chest.
Those who interpret Hotline Miami’s escape sequences as meaningful reflections on violence have failed to interrogate why various audiences line up for still more ridiculous depictions of obliterated anatomy in Mortal Kombat X. Mortal Kombat X’s story mode (an old fighting game gimmick) and pet characters don’t dispute that the game rivals Jason X in terms of artistic significance. The pornography of Mortal Kombat has moved from political incorrectness to a creative bankruptcy that is generally approved by players, developers and critics. Rather than noting the goofy mythology of Mortal Kombat X’s pandering, criticism should instead raise skeptical questions about the aesthetic/historical value of yet another rerun of the fatality show. The desperation of multi-angle body annihilation—like Street Fighter IV with gore—makes Dead or Alive 5’s sweaty and dirty skin fetishes seem comparatively progressive.
At this point, a Mortal Kombat entry would appear radical if it removed all or most of the blood while emphasizing the spectacle of death. Of all games, The Last of Us incorporates this very idea with its multiplayer executions, including a standout magnum-handgun display where the killer spins the cylinder of the gun before finishing the victim. Unfortunately, The Last of Us forgets that context matters, as these executions must be purchased as downloadable content. The requisite of extra transactions exposes these restrained fatalities as markers of spender-status rather than representing any worthwhile deviation from bloody videogame norms—not to mention that the melodrama of The Last of Us runs the risk of not being taken seriously anymore.
Of course, foregoing the red stuff isn’t a requirement for fresh artistry. Developers would do well to remember the example of SNK’s Samurai Shodown in 1993. While Samurai Shodown was released a year after the original Mortal Kombat, it didn’t succumb to the amateur’s temptation of copying or outdoing the latter’s splatter. Samurai Shodown’s weapons action is punctuated by subtle and logical releases of blood, and the occasional climax of an arterial spray provides an awe-inspiring contrast to the other fatal possibility, a bloodless splitting of the body (itself an allusion to the introductory cutscene, in which hero Haohmaru slices a large tree in two). Samurai Shodown’s sophistication is absent in Bloodborne’s ego-stroking blood showers.
Doom, also released in 1993, is another classic where blood and gore have more purpose than pubescent fulfillment. Well distanced from the almost lighthearted Mortal Kombat, Doom’s colorful violence was not a main point but a complement to the space/Hell theme; meanwhile, ingenious level design creates unexpected alternations between methodical pacing and panicky action. Doom is one of the most influential games in history precisely because of its holistic (and frightening) vision, and its copycats to this day illustrate that blood is small part of the appeal.
One could go further and say that all of the previous examples, positive or negative, confirm videogames’ preoccupation with violent and/or criminal activity. From this perspective, you might argue blood and gore should serve a story, setting, thought or emotion removed from the long-held expectation of kill or be killed. One of the most impressive uses of blood and gore comes in 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons when the protagonists have to navigate through a path blocked by dead giants. Director Josef Fares uses blood in this instance to elicit a complex reaction of wonder, fear, disgust and sadness: The scene is majestic, tragic and grotesque. Even more unusual, you have to butcher some of the giants’ limbs in order to clear the way. This inspired combination of storytelling and puzzle shows that videogames have a long way to go before exhausting our dark curiosities.
Depending on context, the sight of blood can activate different parts of the human condition or imagination. On the one hand, blood can bring us to real grips with our mortality. On the other, it can be feed a bloodlust or, more condescendingly, meet the lowest common denominator in emotional and visceral manipulation (see the torture porn of Hideo Kojima’s Ground Zeroes or Telltale’s The Walking Dead). Many people want exposure to both forms—the high and the low.
This year’s hit The Witcher 3 sums up these conflicting desires. The Witcher 3 concentrates on the beauty, scariness and expansiveness of nature, inviting a rambling, wandering sort of exploration. Seeing mutilated bodies as you scour the wilderness adds to a sense of investigation and danger, but the game’s multiple directors and producers fumble the mood with the allowance of slow-motion finishers. When protagonist Geralt carves a body in half, the wonder is killed, the porn too familiar.
More recently, two pop videogames have tried to move away from this predictable thrill. The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain use blood to recall Cold War anxiety and weariness (provided you can excuse The Phantom Pain’s clichéd, stupidly violent intro).
Although these games are more nuanced than Hotline Miami 2 and Mortal Kombat X, the emotional and political potential of their expression is just as non-threatening. You could interpret the liquid on Big Boss’s face as safely rooted in the concerns of previous generations, or as the ejaculation of a so-called auteur. Despite all the possibilities, the blood and gore of pop videogames, more often than not, only matches the significance of cutting one’s finger open while dicing vegetables.
Jed Pressgrove is a game critic from Mississippi. You can read more of his work at Slant Magazine and at his blog, Game Bias. He’s working on a book titled Indie Game Hype. Chat with him on Twitter at @jedpressfate.