Let’s Kill! Video Games & Cinematic Violence

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It’s been a long time since the first PlayStation console came out in 1994 and a whole lifetime since home game consoles became popular in the 80s. What started out as pixelated shapes moving on a screen has now developed into full-blown narratives and extensive worlds beyond our wildest dreams. Gone are the days of eating little colourful dots – although we all still love a game of Pac Man – as the shift has focused onto more ambitious storytelling and genre gaming. Survival horror and action games are among the most popular ones with titles such as The Evil Within, Tomb Raider and Silent Hill garnering rave reviews from critics and gamers alike.

Many of today’s games utilise inventive and rather breath-taking visuals as well as well-rounded and emotionally charged narratives to explore challenging and fascinating themes. Several well-known Hollywood actors have lent their voices and resemblance to video game characters, including Ellen Page, Willem Dafoe and Hayden Panettiere. What was once regarded as “just a game” has grown into a multi-million-dollar business and a serious contender in entertainment in an era where streaming giants, movie studios and game companies all battle for the throne.

While films, whether that’d be horror flicks, thrillers or action movies, use violence as entertainment and spectacle, video games treat it differently. Even the most brutal torture-porn films use violence as a way to entertain through the shock factor and use of excessive gore, but by nature, films are passive as we sit in a dark auditorium or the comfort of our living room and consume whatever we are presented with on screen. It’s possible to actively engage with a film and its messages, but the act itself is almost always passive. Video games on the other hand have us actively not only engaging in the action, but also the shaping of the very narrative itself as we wonder through the streets of whatever world we are currently a citizen in.

Heavy Rain and Until Dawn, released in 2010 and 2015 respectively, allow the player to play as several different characters and the gameplay is based on making choices rather than relying on straightforward combat in an open world. Both also include mysteries which unfold in violent manners, especially Until Dawn which purposely resembles a horror movie than a video game with its typical slasher narrative and use of Hollywood actors, such as recent Oscar-winner Rami Malek.

While most games feature the player inflicting violence to others in order to survive, both Heavy Rain and Until Dawn mostly feature violence being inflicted on the playable characters and the question becomes how many characters survive until the end with everyone expendable. You’re also directly responsible for the deaths; fail a Quick Time Event and the character falls to their death, is stabbed or has their head torn off. Like the best horror films, the games make the deaths gruesome and bloody in order to satisfy our gore tooth and gives us the satisfaction we so crave from these games.

A lot of games offer different approaches to many of the situations the player is thrown into and no game can be played identically by two people. One player might be interested in looting every single hidden item in order to have as many advantages as possible as well as engaging with all available side quests while another might just skim through areas and head straight into battle and bash their way through zombies, dragons or other humans rather than stealthily make their way forward. Games allow you to project your own personality onto the playable character through the choices you make throughout the game, but this also complicates the violent aspect of video games.

The very nature of most video games is violent. Most games are built on the action and thrill of violence, even the joyfully colorful ones aimed at children. After all, Spyro The Dragon breathes fire to kill his cutesy enemies and to release his fellow dragons who have been turned to stone by an evil wizard and Crash Bandicoot must jump on the wild creatures habituating the strange worlds he visits in order to survive. In other words, it’s kill or be killed in the world of video games.

The argument that video games cause violence in real-life has been around for as long as violent games have been in fashion, which is almost always. There is no real, scientific evidence that games make people violent and most gamers are in it for the thrills in a safe, virtual environment; the rush you get when you narrowly escape an explosive situation or the sigh of relief as you finally defeat a large enemy with your last bullet. Games often use a highly stylized type of violence, which works to separate it from real-life. In Doom, the player shoots various demons escaping from hell, but the fantastical nature of the game, the structure and the lack of narrative make it easy to remember we are just playing a game.

It’s one thing to bounce on an animated goat to make it disappear and another to bash a character’s skull in or stab them in the neck and listen as they drown in their own blood. The Last of Us Part II arrived on PlayStation 4 on June 19th, 2020 after a long 7-year-wait since its very successful and emotionally draining predecessor, which introduced us to Joel and Ellie as well as a post-apocalyptic United States ravaged by a mutated fungus, turning people into violent zombies. The first The Last Of Us has since become a cult classic in contemporary gaming; a survival horror game which placed as much emphasis on the character arcs as it did on the zombies and more importantly, the kills.

The Last Of Us Part II forces us to see the consequences of violence first hand, utilizing brutal hand-to-hand combat between humans as well as slaughtering hordes of zombies. This new, bold direction in video games begs us to ask how we consume the violence on-screen, especially as we’re the ones committing it. It also asks us, the players and due to the lengthy cut scenes, audiences, why we need to see violence and how much violence do we need to see in order to feel fulfilled, satisfied? It begs us to consider why we play these games and willingly inflict so much violence, even if it’s fake. Freud would probably have a field day with all of this, but it’s worth asking, are video games a gateway to our most primal, violent self?

The first The Last Of Us made us question the lengths we are going to inflict violence and harm others. Its somewhat controversial, but endlessly emotional ending left us wondering if Joel had made the right choice and the what the right choice in a zombie-ridden world might even be. Similarly, Part II utilizes beautiful world-building and character development to further question our own morality and ethics. Both games have the feel of a film and it’s almost as emotional watching someone else play the narrative as it is to put yourself in Joel and/or Ellie’s shoes and do some zombie-killing yourself. You bet HBO has already got a The Last Of Us TV series in the works and who can blame them? You could almost have someone play the game and show it on TV at prime time and call it a day.

The reason both The Last Of Us -games work as well as they do, is because they make us care, which in turn complicates the violence. We care not just because these characters are well played by the actors, but because we actively spend several hours with them; we become them. Whereas the violence committed by John Wick is entertaining in all its gruesomeness, the violence committed by Joel or Ellie is morally much more questionable because it’s really us aiming at someone’s head with a gun.

If anything, games like this are more likely to turn us away from violence. They force us to commit it in the name of survival, but they also force us to experience the heavy consequences of the bloodshed. Making the games more cinematic adds to the whole gaming experience, but it specifically challenges the way we consume and digest violence on screen.

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