Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Weapon Overload

Like it or not, guns are a significant part of the medium of videogames, as are other weapons like swords and hammers. As a result, fighting, combat and gunplay are also prevalent, allowing anyone and everyone the ability to enact violence and experience gore in the comfort of their own home. It has already been discussed at length as to whether this is a good thing or not, and whether such content in games has a strong impact on those who play them, but that’s not the issue I’m concerned with here. Instead, I’m concerned by the glorification and general “killing is cool” ideology that exists as a result of the oversaturated genre of first-person shooters, as well as brawlers and any other game that uses combat in any shape or form as a main mechanic. Allow me to explain.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while may remember that earlier in the year, I was playing through Yakuza on the PS2. I firmly intended to play it in its entirety, to see what kind of story the game would tell me, whether I’d be interested in the cultural elements it portrays, and the way it used Tokyo as its game space. At first, I found the game to be quite compelling, the story piquing my interest for a variety of reasons while exploring Tokyo was also great fun. I was even surprised by the accessibility and complexity of the combat, enjoying the fisticuff fighting a lot more than I expected. But that enjoyment didn’t last long and, once I realised that practically all I was doing in the game was fighting over and over again, I quickly found myself exhausted by the constant combat and disappointed each and every time a new fight began. The game is a brawler to be sure, but from what I had heard and saw it seemed like so much more than that. Of course, being a game focused on the Yakuza you expect violence to play an integral part, but I also expected a lot more given the emphasis on detail and atmosphere, not to mention the game’s generally positive reception both in Japan and abroad. The combat itself was fine -- as I said, I actually found it to be quite enjoyable -- but the repetition of each fight and the frequency with which they occurred -- it felt like every thirty seconds or so I was in a new one, the notion of simply walking down the street taking far longer than I believed it should -- grated, and the end result is an unfinished game that I am reluctant to return to because I know what awaits.

This combat fatigue isn’t Yakuza’s fault, necessarily; the fact that nearly every single game I play features combat of some sort -- be it by using weapons or shooting various guns -- has culminated in an exhaustion that I don’t think I can recover from any time soon. I mean, it’s obvious when you play a first-person shooter that you will be shooting things the majority of the time, but when it exists in my open-world games (Red Dead Redemption; GTA IV), my narrative focused games (Alan Wake; Heavy Rain) and even games centralized around Parkour (Mirror’s Edge; even Assassin’s Creed), you know there is something wrong. Why is the industry so obsessed with shooting, fighting and with violence? Why must games that have nothing to do with murder or melee contain weapons or the ability to inflict pain upon those you come across in your travels? Why does a game about Parkour even have useable guns in the first place?

It seems silly but really, it’s not surprising. Shooting things (particularly in the face) is fun, as is the ability to punch someone with a brute force that we just can’t imagine in the reality of our own lives. The violence we get to inflict upon our foes or even friends (in the case of multiplayer) -- sadistic or otherwise -- is extremely satisfying, and more importantly, it’s empowering. Part of the appeal of playing games is the fact that they can take us to places we can’t visit in real life, and allow us to do activities that are either impossible or unlikely. When faced against insurmountable odds, a few button pushes here and a well-timed reaction there can immediately give us the upper-hand, changing up the odds and pace of the gameplay and motivating us to keep on fighting back through adrenalin and intensity, not stopping until we are triumphant and subsequently rewarded with a new weapon, ability, item or just the fact that we defeated our enemies. This reliance on combat and the violence that stems from it is understandable, not just because of its ability to entertain us with fun situations but also because it’s a mechanic that is accessible, exciting and something the medium as a whole has experience with. From Wolfenstein 3D and Doom right up to the imminent Halo: Reach and Call Of Duty: Black Ops, we have been shooting things, and our ability to make the ideal headshot is something that has been refined and reformed with each and every game in between. Likewise, we’ve been punching and kicking our way through classics like Final Fight and Double Dragon up to modern titles like Tekken and Soul Calibur, perfecting our combos and maneuvers along the way.

Like it or not violence is here to stay in videogames and so it should, but while the aggressive and brutal actions may have their place, the glorification and endless justifications for it do not, as exemplified by GamePro’s recent “Shooter issue”, and Kotaku’s “gun week” currently taking place. The timing is poignant: the start of September means the start of the silly Christmas rush period the industry has each year and as a consequence of that, it means we also enter shooter season. It’s a time where all the big boys release their key franchise installments, and the aforementioned Halo and Call Of Duty titles are leading the charge. Each game will be vying to steal every consumer dollar possible, and somewhat ironically these titles will be fighting for the attention of the masses, hopefully at the expense of the competition. But I digress.

By centering a body of content -- in GamePro’s case an entire issue* and in Kotaku’s, a decently sized chunk of their posts this week -- around shooting games and the guns that we use within, the genre and thus the violence it revels in is emphasized, highlighted as something significant and more important than, say, the themes or morals trying to be explored. It implies that killing and the way in which we do it is to be celebrated, to be underlined as a crucial part of videogames, and that nothing else matters. It glorifies the act by suggesting that it’s worthy of our unabashed praise and reverence, and suggests to observers that the medium really is as juvenile as it is oft-claimed to be. And therein lies the problem: viewed from the outside, this lavish tribute and admiration is overwhelming and misleads the uninformed into believing that all we as gamers care about is our ability -- our right -- to shoot things in the face. It reflects on our medium by creating the perception that it’s juvenile, and it reflects on us by reinforcing the notion that people who play games are kids -- young, predominantly male teenagers who take immense pleasure in the violence, gore and absurdity -- when, in reality, this just isn’t true. Most unfortunate of all, it says to everyone who hasn’t played a videogame or doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about that we are immature, and that we are just not interested in spending our time with anything more meaningful than the amount of enemies we’ve killed, and the remaining bullets we have left in our guns.

While it’s true that gaming is only in its adolescence, the progress it has made over the years, particularly recently, has been amazing. We have gone beyond violence for the sake of violence, shooting for the sake of shooting, and we will continue to advance as we continue to explore not only the possibilities of the medium, but the potential that each game has to take us to unknown places and to do unforeseen things. It’s not about the perfect headshot or the sheer brutality of our kill anymore; it’s about the limitless freedom that can be gained from the fact that unlike other mediums, we’re not passive: we don’t just hear or see, we do, and that’s a power with force stronger than any violent punch or kick can achieve.

We wonder all the time why so many people don’t understand us and our favourite hobby, and we’re confused when we see yet another strange misconception about the medium, but really, when our own media decides to celebrate guns, shooters and combat instead of report on more important, more meaningful matters, we only have ourselves -- as a unified industry -- to blame. And so, as Kotaku’s gun week continues and gamers the world over mark the beginning of shooter season as they prepare for Halo: Reach’s imminent release, I sit back and wonder: is this just a gun club I forgot to sign up to, or are the bullets of progression yet to be fired?

*Note: I haven’t actually read the issue, living in Australia and all, so I’m unaware of what actually resides within.


Michelle said...

All true, and quite sad that it's something that we all actively partake without even really thinking about it much these days.

I would add that while the timing of these particular gun events are poor, this is something that gaming has always and will always be beleaguered with.

I'm sad that I have to partially accept the things the way things are just so I can "take the rough with the smooth" and focus on the games that I admire, but it's getting harder and harder to ignore I must say.

Steven O'Dell said...

Michelle -- Well I'd be a hypocrite if I were against combat and shooters completely given that the majority of my favourite games -- Metroid Prime, BioShock, etc. -- are shooters or at least have elements of shooting within, but I definitely think the mechanic is overused because it's easy to implement (as the industry is experienced) and because it's practically a guaranteed seller. The fact there's so many "me too" games out there is bad enough, we don't need our own media exacerbating the problem by celebrating all things headshots and perfect kills.

Either way they're here to stay, I just hope we do go beyond the pew pew and into the areas where gaming's potential is waiting to be explored. Then maybe maturity won't be a joke in this industry.