Spoiler Warning: Plot details for God of War III follow.
I have to say that I find this summary of a brief in Schwarzenegger v. EMA almost soulcrushingly depressing. It’s not so much that the case is before the Supreme Court—which, I suppose, it was bound to be sooner or later. It’s not so much that an array of people with a mean age of 64.4 is making a decision about the impact on minors of a medium that did not meaningfully exist when any of them were minors.1 It’s not that the name on the lawsuit is, unselfconsciously and with no apparent sense of irony, this guy.2, 3 These things irk me, to be sure, but what really bothers me is the degree of medium blindness at play in this conversation. In short, the mechanisms by which we evaluate the content of one medium don’t necessarily translate to another, and it’s hazardous to assume that they do.
Two things exist in videogames that do not exist in any other major storytelling medium: choice and consequence. My last ill-advised spat as a WoW player was more or less coterminous with my time as a commuter, and so I listened to a lot of WoW podcasts to ease the pain. One of my favorites among them was the now defunct How I Wow, a show where a priest and a Frenchman interviewed vaguely famous people about their WoW habits. My most distinct memory of the show comes from their interview with Brian Ibbott of Coverville. Ibbot was talking about playing with his son, and using the game to teach money management. As I remember, he warned the kid about spending gold early, and the kid went out and burned a bunch of gold on low-level blues.4 When he leveled out of them, he was broke. The decision had “real” in-game consequences for the younger Ibbott, and the elder said that afterward, he started saving up for things he would want in the future. If I remember right, he even said that once he had to go to his son for money (at which point, of course, he was rebuffed and told he should have made better choices).
This should be true with violence, too. Violence in games can, or could, be as valuable a vice as binge spending—if it’s used right. Violence is a part of our entertainment culture, no matter what the medium. It’s right and proper that violence should have a place in gaming, too. But in videogames, violence can become something else. We shouldn’t be worried about our kids experiencing violence in games. We should just be demanding it be done contemplatively. We should be asking how that violence interfaces with our choices and their consequences.
One of the gaming moments that most shook me was in Far Cry 2, which I played after having had some coaching about how the game worked. One of the unexpected, beautiful features of the game is its violence: if you shoot a buddy, they just die. Since I knew that, I was extra careful not to shoot my buddies, even just to see what happened, because I knew what it might cost.
I’d just finished a mission with Frank Bilders, the ex-IRA mercenary who was my acting best friend. We had just destroyed a generator powering a propagandist radio station, and he was under attack. As I was making my way to help him, my GPS started flashing, indicating the presence of a cache of uncut diamonds, the game’s currency. I turned around to hunt for the diamond, thinking that the worst that could happen was that Frank would be wounded. So I found the diamond, made my way to Frank, killed his attackers, and went to help him.
He was on the ground, wounded. Injured friends can be revived by giving them syrettes (the game’s healing MacGuffin), but I pumped syrette after syrette into Frank, and he just kept moaning. And then he died.
I let my friend die for one diamond.
It’s possible I will always remember this.
And so I think differently now about time and priorities, at least in games. The “go the wrong way first” mentality that has served me lo these 23 years of gaming is still there, but now my fear of missing out is offset by a sometimes greater fear of losing what I have—which is why, last night, I left Hades in God of War III without having tried to save Pandora. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to go back for her later—I strongly suspect I will; I feel like the God of War series isn’t complicated enough to force me to make choices like that—but I was worried enough that my priorities (i.e., vengeance) would be damaged if I waited around.
So far, in GoW3, I’ve killed three gods—Poseidon, Helios, and Hades. Hades is big and monstrous, and it pretty much feels like he deserves what he gets—though carving off hunks of flesh and hacking them to tiny pieces is mildly unsettling as a boss fight setpiece. It’s the sort of fight you expect in a game like this. Helios—isn’t really a fight. He’s already disabled when you get to him, unable to move, and you watch as Kratos—the character with whom you’re supposed to empathize—beats him against a rock, and then tears off his head. It’s very vivid. Long time violence aficionado or no, it seemed a little … precise. To me.
It’s Poseidon that sticks in my head, though. Phase 1 of the fight is deeply weird. Imagine a horse and a king crab had babies, and then those babies turned into giant water cocks and raped the earth mother. This is Phase 1. Unsettling in its own right. Phase 2, though, involves a series of quicktime events in which Kratos beats the life out of Poseidon, working his way up to the head. What makes the scene interesting is that it’s mostly seen from Poseidon’s perspective. I saw Kratos’s (my) hands on Poseidon’s (my) face, saw his (my) thumbs looming in front of Poseidon’s (my) eyes, and saw the game asking me to push L3+R3. The thought in the back of my mind: What am I going to do to me? I pushed the buttons, and I gouged out my own eyes.
This is what worries me about God of War. I can imagine that this scene will be shown to the Supreme Court, and Arnold will opine his thickly Austrian opinions about how horrifying it is. (Almost as horrifying as watching one man decapitate another with barbed wire?) The series has these moments of staged cruelty throughout—I’m thinking of the man in the Hydra’s maw in the early scenes of GoW, and the man whose screaming wreckage you use to stop a conveyor belt in GoW II—that showcase Kratos as horror, a terrible vengeance-bent monster of sociopathy.
Arnold will say that while we might accept that sort of thing in another medium,5 we can’t accept it in games, because the player is committing these acts. This is of course not true—and it’s very, very complicatedly not true in the case of Poseidon—but it’s close enough as to appear valid. It’s so easy to suggest that, if we let teenagers play GoWIII, that we want our teenagers to be Kratos.
The question I have, though, as I watch Kratos decapitate Helios under my command, is this: will this game make me regret this? Not just in terms of its consequences to gameplay—which will almost certainly be rewarded, in the short term—but as a person. Will I regret?
Despite the well-made critiques it drives, I always think of ludonarrative dissonance as a feature, not a bug. When a game presses me to do something I don’t want to—when I am trapped behind the straining tendons of Gaia’s left arm, and I have only my blades to clear my path, and Gaia is begging me not to, when I can feel the tug of Atropos6 on the end of the thread—that’s when the game can teach. By giving me a choice of violence, and by letting me live with it.
I wonder. Will Kratos regret?
I hit a woman, once. Long ago. I was thirteen, and the reasons for it are so egregiously stupid as to defy explanation. It was a moment of vindictive idiocy, and I still feel a thick ball of guilt resting on my diaphragm when I think about it. For years, I would see her at Save Mart, where she was a cashier, and I would blush and look down, or I would try to find another line to wait in.
I don’t think I’ve ever hit anyone in anger since, and I try to avoid even raising my voice. That moment remade me. The unthinking instant of that choice made me know the cost of violence.
If I could have had that moment, that regret, that fierce burn of guilt over a digital woman—if I could have saved Kim those trips to the orthodontist to fix her braces, and to the doctor to unstick her cheek from the barbs in her mouth, and to the new churches she felt she had to go to, or to the places she went instead of church—would there not have been grace in that? Digital violence can unmake real violence, if we can make it meaningful. We can.7
I’m just not sure that GoW3 can. I hope it does—I hope that Kratos somewhere finds a cost to all of this—but if it doesn’t, I don’t know that it’s worth much more than pretty graphics and trophies that count blood in buckets.8
2Which is not intended as a jab against Arnold. I mean only to suggest that, maybe, videogames are not the only medium containing violence, and if there’s anyone that should know that, he should.2a2aAlso, I have to assume that this is intended as satire, or else my irony receptors will explode.
3The best part of the second clip by far is the presence of what appears to be J. K. Simmons with hair. I forgot that he used to have some.
4As did we all; as did we all.
5Cf., though to a lesser extent, Taxi Driver.
6Except that I killed her, too.
7Easy for me to say, sitting here blogging. Armchair developer.
8<seinfeld>Not that there’s anything wrong with that.</seinfeld>