Back in 2010, while working on Irrational’s Bioshock series, Steve Gaynor, posited a simple metric for how violence in videogames should be represented. “Violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual,” he wrote. The future Gone Home co-creator supposed that violence in games should continue to exist so long as it wasn’t “lightweight, pedestrian [and] meaningless”—if games stopped featuring “faceless masses of enemies.”
I agree with the basic ground-rule that Gaynor laid out and think that, if adopted unwaveringly, it would foster a much higher quality of writing in games. But there are also games where violence is abstract and/or committed against faceless opponents en masse, but remains meaningful. The violence in the games included on this list is legitimate, even if it isn’t always suffered by legitimate characters.
The central conceit in Receiver is that your virtual handgun essentially operates on the same principles as a real one. You don’t just press one button to reload it—you press several, first to eject the clip, then refill it with loose rounds, then re-insert it into the gun, then pull pack the slide. It’s complex and time-consuming, and by extent dulls the mystique that games have built around firearms. Your gun in Receiver isn’t a magic wand that kills with the press of a button. It’s a fallible, mechanical object, and if you want to use it, you have to take the time to learn and practice. Receiver isn’t an overt polemic against videogame violence, but it undermines the idea that killing, at least with guns, can be performed blithely and without thought.
Recalling the story of Silent Hill 2 (James Sunderland, your character, killed his wife when she became too ill to have sex with him) you can interpret the game as a kind of coming-to-terms drama, as James bludgeons and shoots his way through various sexualised monsters. There are the mannequins, two pairs of plastic, womanly legs balanced end-on-end. They represent stereotypical female sexual objectivity—they’re composed entirely of traditionally attractive, though artificially rendered body parts. Then there’s Pyramid Head, a hulking, masculine figure complete with an enormous, phallic sword. James kills these monsters, plus many others, including fetishised hospital nurses, but the violence is never mere spectacle. Considering what James did to his wife, Mary, the violence in Silent Hill 2 can be viewed as him wrestling both with his sexual frustration and his dangerous, priapic masculinity. Throughout the game he brutalises various feminine creatures, repeating what he did to Mary ad nauseum. At the climax, however, he kills off Pyramid Head, perhaps putting to rest the more aggressive side of his sexuality.
LA Noire is more stomach-churning than anything in the ostensible canon of controversial videogames. Rather than idly committing violent acts and then moving on, your time is spent examining blunt force traumas, lacerations and gunshot wounds in detail, getting close to dead bodies to inspect the consequences of violence. That alone is enough to make LA Noire stand out—with the exception of firmly tongue-in-cheek simulator Viscera Clean Up Detail, there are no other games focused on inspecting the aftermath of violence, rather than partaking in it first-hand. But LA Noire goes further. Since you play as a detective, once you’ve inspected a victim, you then have to go and question his relatives. You learn about his work, his family, his personal life—he becomes more than just a part of a “faceless mass.” LA Noire is still a violent game, but it excels in showing just what violence leads to.
Before buying Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I read an article in Discover Magazine called “When Will We Be Transhuman?” Kyle Munkittrick, a program director with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, outlined seven conditions for a tranhuman society, i.e. a society where the accepted idea of “a person” has changed to encapsulate intravenous technology, and exclude any notions of sexism, racism or ageism. One of the three “key indicators” of transhumanism, as outlined by Munkittrick, went as follows: “Our social understanding of ageing [will] lose the ‘virtue of necessity’ aspect and society [will] treat ageing as a disease.” By extension, you can take that to mean that in a transhuman society, like the one present in Human Revolution, death will become optional, or at least, impermanent. Human Revolution’s Adam Jensen is in fact killed at the start of the game then brought back to life using technology. With that as firm indication that the society of Human Revolution is, indeed, transhumanist, every act of violence I committed felt like a great transgression, like I was singularly repealing the progressive standards of the world I was inhabiting and behaving primordially—like some kind of savage. Munkittrick’s article, combined with Human Revolution’s regular reminders that killing was optional and stealth was preferable, exposed the violence for what it was—ugly, backward and base.
The more I kill, the more excitement I get from the game. The more my character kills, the more complicated the game’s fictional war becomes, and the more money he makes as a gun-for-hire. That’s the greatest thing about Far Cry 2. Through violence, it aligns you with your character—you both end up killing for some kind of personal gain, be it your own enjoyment as a player, or your pay check as a mercenary. This game is about violence, the selfishness and venality of it. In The Last of Us, even Spec Ops, you and your character kill because you think it will somehow, eventually, help. In Far Cry 2, you both kill just because you want to. You kill because that’s why you came here—why you bought the game in the first place. Uncomplicated by philosophy or moral judgement, Far Cry 2 confronts you with an unsettling truth: “this is what you want.” Accepting another mission, you can’t help but feel dirty.
The first three people you kill in Call of Duty 4 are helpless: one is completely drunk, the other two are sleeping. From there on, the game is laced with irony. One level, you play the deposed president of a Middle-Eastern country, en route to his own execution. You see close-up how violence begets more violence—despite his speeches about revolution and a better future, the new leader is busy rounding up civilians, and baiting the West into an invasion. Later, you’re the gunner on an American Flying Fortress, annihilating white-dot enemies from 20,000 feet. Call of Duty 4 segues from one bittersweet action scene to another. For every loud moment of spectacle, there’s a low hum of unpleasantness. You make it to the bad guys’ stronghold, then cut the power, throw on some night-vision goggles and murder them all in the dark. You capture one of the villains, and Captain Price unceremoniously shoots him in the head. And at the end, during your showdown with the central protagonist, everyone is killed. Even Gaz, who you’ve developed a particular bond with, thanks to Craig Fairbrass’s warm London accent, is idly bumped off—he doesn’t even get any cool last words. Call of Duty 4 would be a lot better if it didn’t have a sequel, if everyone actually did die, and Price and Soap weren’t brought back for the second one. Nevertheless, for a mainstream game about war, it’s nuanced. You feel for Price. You feel for Gaz. Even the generic AIs that pad out your squad are given names. And though it’s not perfect, certainly compared to the other Call of Duty games, Modern Warfare takes the time to think on its sins.
Even more than Far Cry 2, Hotline Miami confronts the player with what he truly wants. The narrative is choppy, your character’s motives for killing are unclear and, although there are rewards for what you do, they’re usually mocking and unkind—the game gives you millions of meaningless points, as a kind of sarcastic “well done,” and new rubber masks to wear, implying you feel ashamed and want to disguise yourself. The violence in Hotline Miami is disorientating, quixotic, primal. It overwhelms the senses, inducing an unthinking approach to play. The game directly tells you “recklessness is rewarded,” and as much as you could categorise Hotline Miami as a puzzle or strategy game, ultimately it comes down to luck and brutality—your ability to get in, kill everyone as quickly as you can, and get out. Violence isn’t a drug in Hotline Miami, it’s more like a medicine, a relief from the humdrum of your character’s life. His apartment is empty—the music there is heavy and slow. After the killing, everything goes quiet, and he trudges to some lazy pizza place or video store, searching for some junk to kill time with. It’s only during the violence that the game comes alive, that your character’s ostensible boredom is remedied. Far Cry 2 makes you feel like violence is what you want. Hotline Miami makes you feel like it’s what you need.
Each level of Max Payne 3 more or less structured the same way. Max begins with an objective, be it rescue Fabiana, protect Rodrigo or capture Becker. He shoots and shoots and shoots, kills and kills and kills, and ultimately fails at what he was supposed to do. The nightclub level ends with Fabiana being kidnapped. The hijackers at the stadium get away with the ransom money. Rodrigo is killed during the assault on his office. Fabiana is shot when Max goes to rescue her at the favela. In Max Payne 3, despite the massive amounts of violence you commit, you rarely succeed. It’s the antithesis of the common videogame dynamic, whereby killing, or at least, some euphemistic approximation, equals winning—equals progression. In Max Payne 3, violence is punctuated with tragedy. Yet, the game never draws your attention to that fact—it keeps feeding you more and more guys to kill, in spectacular slow-motion. And so you go on, exacting more and more violence, like Max, unaware that you’re making things worse.
Out of all the games on this list, Condemned most clearly defines its attitude towards violence. Your first major interaction in the game is investigating a murder scene. A young woman has been beaten, cut, strangled to death, and using a range of (admittedly far-fetched) forensic tools, you have to analyze her wounds and report back your findings. Cut to ten minutes later, and you’re beating on enemies with planks and pipes, kicking them down and smashing them in the head. Condemned opens by showing you the effects of violence and physical force, and then invites you to recreate them. It opens you up to the idea that hitting someone in the ribs doesn’t just knock down some invisible HP bar—it breaks bones, causes bruising and draws blood. Spec Ops has its infamous white phosphorous scene, but it’s always felt slightly cheap, like the game forces you into doing something, then spins round and goes “ha ha! Fooled you!” Condemned, on the other hand, shows you the effects of violence first. You don’t feel like you’ve been duped, or judged. You just feel like you’ve gained a greater knowledge of what you’re going to be doing—a better appreciation for the severity of the violence you’ll commit.
Kane and Lynch 2 is vulgar, nihilistic, noxious. It presents violence, and violent characters, without a hint of irony or morality. The handheld, captured-on-the-scene video aesthetic is appropriate. It’s all Kane and Lynch 2 is—pure, unabashed filth, a representation of the grotesque curiosity that makes you watch car crashes on YouTube. It works only because it’s played so straight. If the violence was anything but po-faced, Kane and Lynch 2 would feel like some awful exploitation movie, like The Human Centipede, where torture is played for bullshit laughs. But because it’s so direct, and so unburdened by what people might think of it, Kane and Lynch 2 is a portrait of videogaming’s worst excesses—the whole rotten mess of violence as spectacle and marketing, laid out flat. The game’s greatest trick was pissing off critics. “It’s Kane and Lynch: Dead Men without the great characterisation, the gritty storyline and the sheer promise that made the first one enjoyable,” said Jim Sterling, during his round-up of the worst games of 2010. “It just ends,” said Ben Croshaw “[and] the characters have learned nothing and achieved nothing.” All these remarks were meant as criticism, but for me, they intone precisely what’s great about Kane and Lynch 2. By removing any pretenses of character or optimism—by subverting the videogaming narrative model, where repeat violence leads to a comfortable pay-off—Kane and Lynch 2 exposes violent games for what they essentially are: bleak and unfulfilling. That’s not to say it’s “bad on purpose,” or something stupid like that. Kane and Lynch 2 is a great game. It simply requires you to accept that violence, by its nature, isn’t pleasurable.
Ed Smith is a freelance critic who has written for Eurogamer, New Statesman and The Escapist. Find him on Twitter @mostsincerelyed.