…When All You Have is a Hammer

Continuing from my previous thoughts, Spec-Ops and Hotline Miami, perhaps the two most visible “violent games about violent games,” have player-characters who only use violence to interact in the world. While Spec-Ops is far more on-the-nose about how destructive that attitude is, both put the player in a scenario where violence is the only language they have to communicate with the game’s systems and aesthetics. That’s the point, but violence is still communicated as something fun; it’s still empowering. Yes, the games condemn the player for abusing that power but the player and their protagonist still wield violence, it’s still theirs to enjoy. Violence an assumed tool for those in power and it’s closely tied to control.

Gradually, the romantic hero of popular fiction has mutated into a lone figure trusted with violent authority (Wong, David. “The 5 Ugly Lessons Hiding in Every Superhero Movie.” Cracked. May 20 2013.). The lesson at the end of Spec-Ops and Bioshock Infinite is that these people misused their violent power. However, at no point do either game suggest that they were undeserving of that kind of power, or that such power shouldn’t even exist. It’s just assumed that structurally privileging these men with violent authority is just, the injustice is in how it is used. This becomes especially sickening in Bioshock Infinite given its race dynamics. (Kunzler, Jeff. “THE ALLEGIANCE OF WHITENESS: The Games Village of Childish Understandings of Racism and Satire.” Design is Law. Dec 17 2013.).

Tangentially, this is what frustrated me about The Last Story. If it were two or three hours shorter it would have made the argument that violent political structures are doomed to destroy themselves and must be dismantled before the people trapped in them are hurt (Filipowich, Mark. “The Incomplete Revolution of The Last Story.” Bigtallwords. May 5 2014.). However, in its last moments, The Last Story becomes the story of a very special man who must learn from his abusive predecessors and use his violent authority for good. As if such a thing is possible.

The Last Story talk

What if violence is not tantamount to power though? What if violence is only futile and destructive? Would we recognize that argument in a videogame? There are games that attempt to make the argument, but like The Last Story they fail to substantiate it.

The third act of Final Fantasy VII batters the cast’s morality. In Tifa’s first moments in the lifestream she drowns in the sounds of gunfire and bombs, she clearly suffers guilt over all the deaths she’s seen and participated in through the course of AVALANCHE’s revolution. Likewise, Cait Sith insists Barret answer for the unseen civilian casualties of the player’s first mission. Before she does battle with the party, Scarlet demands penance for all of the soldiers the party has killed. To save the planet the party even wonders whether they’ll necessarily have to eliminate human beings entirely: hell, it’s totally valid to read that that’s exactly what happens (Ligman, Kris. “In which Squaresoft wrote a Bioware game.” Dire Critic. Mar 20 2012.).

Yet none of that guilt or regret is expressed in any interaction. As often as characters seem to regret that so much violence is necessary, none of that destruction reads back into the game’s bones. Materia is crystallized knowledge of a utopian, pre-industrial species but that knowledge is only ever used to turn monsters into frogs and set them on fire. The Shinra represent the threat of military-industrial corporatocracy but they’re still defeated by guns and bombs. Outside of exploration, the player’s agency is expressed in fights to the death abstracted by layers of menus.

Final Fantasy VII guilt

Likewise, the plot of Fire Emblem: Awakening deals with violence in a rather unusual way. When the player wins the first of the game’s three wars, enemy troops lay down their weapons and the defeated country’s previous borders are restored. The player’s country is forced into war, it ends it diplomatically and it respects their former enemy’s sovereignty. That first war was even ignited as a reaction against Chrom’s father, a dictator loathed even by his own people. The plot treats the player as a peacekeeper and portrays the war as an understandable result of a violent history. Yet the player never sees these enemies throw down arms nor do they see what the world looks like in peacetime.

The second war in the game is a campaign against a global conqueror and this conflict even more directly speaks to how violence cannot be controlled. The villain of the second act aims to unite disparate nations by force as a way of ending conflict (the plot of Hero, basically). He uses fear and strength to control which prompt rebel factions to unite with the player’s army against him. It’s an anti-violence sentiment that frames war as a unilaterally harmful activity. Forced unity begets forceful resistance. But, again, the only way the player can act in the systems is through violence. When enemy reinforcements are en route the player can harvest more exp from ambushing and annihilating them than from barring their path to the field. There is no way to parley with enemies or even accept their surrender. There are dictators in the world, and Chrom stops them, but the player can never assert themselves in the world in any way other than combat. Violence is the player’s instrument to be used against those that would use it improperly. There are narrative nods at pacifism, but they aren’t enough.

Fire Emblem Awakening fight

Final Fantasy VII and Fire Emblem just fail to mechanically reinforce their themes but they don’t directly establish violence as stabilizing influence. Telltale Games have invited several criticisms of S2 ep.4 of The Walking Dead for the way it portrays the death of Sarah, a neuroatypical teenager (Marissa. “On Telltale’s Ableist Treatment of Sarah.” Toxic Female Drama Maker. Aug 12 2014.). In an interview, representatives from Telltale indicate that the decision to kill Sarah was made to satisfy fans of the series who thought she did not deserve to be included in the story. Their interviewers emphasize her being “not normal” and “a liability” while nearly frothing at the mouth when they described how they felt after finally being allowed to let a child to die.

The implication with this move is that the player-character (really, the player) deserves sovereignty over others’ lives because they believe they are implicitly the most responsible with them. Despite having a diverse cast and focusing on human drama, The Walking Dead succumbs to the ideology that one leader’s interpretation of strength will mean survival and anything else will not: it’s an ideology endemic to zombie fiction. Two tweets best sum up what I mean: “a certain kind of person loves zombie stories because it not only lets them murder “the masses” but also decide who is worthy of being elite” (Joffe, Mike. (Joffeorama). Aug 11 2014); “Zombie fiction is kind of fascinating in its use as a narrative of privilege reinforcement, that able straight men will be best survivors” (Bee, Aevee. MammonMachine. Aug 12 2014.). Zombie fiction—at least zombie fiction of today—is about deciding who lives and who doesn’t. It creates a context that justifies white supremacy and male dominance.

The Walking Dead Sarah

Power in zombie fiction means survival and the best survivors get to judge who lives and dies. By giving into their fans’ demands, Telltale accepted their view that a neuroatypical girl (and anybody who can relate to her) is unworthy of power and therefore unworthy of governing their own survival. They’re “a liability” to the stout, white masculine leaders who are the default arbitrators of survival. That is structural violence.

Throughout the series, the player’s morality is judged by who they decide to kill or not, their ability to distribute survival is the basis of their moral strength. Of course, there is nuance in this early in the series, but the decision to kill Sarah so brutally betrays the true face of the genre and The Walking Dead‘s complacency with it. Sarah is not only judged as unworthy by zombie fiction standards but the fact that it is impossible for her to survive—and that this outcome was designed with a fanbase in mind—indicates that Sarah’s mental health makes her useless, even unworthy of life. Violence culls the meek from the herd.

The Walking Dead sarah profile

The troubling thing about this view of violence is that it reaches a culture that clearly accepts that violence belongs to the powerful to judge others. This view of culture influences popular opinion and policy and it’s seldom even questioned anymore. The message that violence is a tool reaches a culture that responds to war crimes with “Should We Bomb It?” (The National Post. Aug 30 2013.) or should we pretend it doesn’t exist? As if there are no alternatives. Pop culture indicates and influences people’s real-world thinking: one of the writers in that National Post article uses a quote from fucking Spider-Man (you know the one). Violence is a tool in Israel’s occupation of Hamas (Beauchamp, Zack. “Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine.” Vox. Aug 6 2014.) and it’s a tool in the Ferguson Police department’s occupation of Ferguson, Missouri (Lind, Dara. “Ferguson grapples with police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.” Vox. Aug 12 2014.). This attitude is being practised right now.

Videogames are replete with violence. As artifacts of popular culture it’s important to recognize how violence is portrayed in the text and understood by the audience. Unfortunately, violence has increasingly taken the facade of a useful technique or tool.

I wonder what violence would look like in a game if it weren’t treated like an asset for the player. Would Desperados feel less squicky if the cast were rogues as intended, not psychopaths? How smarter would Spec-Ops, Bioshock Infinite and Hotline Miami be if they treated violence as the sin, not the player’s mishandling of it? Could Final Fantasy VII and Fire Emblem abstract their humanism into their structures instead of superficially mentioning it? Is it necessary for The Walking Dead to treat Sarah like a utensil to be used or discarded by “normals” rather than a human being deserving of life and dignity? Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places, but games have a toxic understanding of violence. More discouraging is that players have seem to have developed an entitlement to it.

This article was supported in part by community patronage. If you would like to support my future writing please consider becoming a patron.

Further reading: Wink, Walter. “Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Ekklesia. May 21 2012.

Wheeldon, Jeff. “The Myth of Redemptive Violence.” Push Select. Aug 28 2012.

Sildra, Zavian. “The Abyss Stares Back.” Unwinnable. Sep 10 2013.

Jensen, Marjorie. “The Videogame Criticism You Don’t See.” Unwinnable. Sep 13 2012.

3 responses to “…When All You Have is a Hammer

  1. I’ve been playing Fire Emblem: Awakening recently and I’ve been wondering if there would be a way to keep the fun tactical number-crunchy elements but not in a way that kills people. But I don’t think there’s an easy way to do it. Maybe instead of fighting others, the same animations could be used to show them teaching others how to fight and gain self-confidence? I also think there might be some interesting strategy in making numbers go up instead of down. It would also be possible to keep the same mechanics, but frame it as something completely different, like killing souls in hell so they can leave. I’d be curious if you ever find a game that handles violence better on a gameplay level.

    • I wrote about Binary Domain on this blog, it deals with violence in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in another shooter. My thing with Fire Emblem is that there are greater rewards for killing enemies than not. If blocking enemies from fielding yielded an exp & relationship reward, or if wounding/scaring enemies off the field still netted enough number rewards that would do a lot to mirror the anti-war theme of the rest of the game. I’m just spit-balling but I feel like there’s a lot the game could have done to wash away that nasty “kill-or-be-killed” mechanic that haunts way too many videogames.

  2. I think Hotline Miami treats your violent nature as a flaw. However it is sort of like the “24” treatment. By the end, you’re a broken man, have lost anyone/thing that mattered to you, but you killed them all and are still standing.
    However it would be a more satisfying game if that could matter somehow to how the game plays. But how would you work that into a freakily fast slash n bash? Idk, an evasion process so you could avoid conflict?
    Anyway, great posts. A pleasure to read.

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