It’s almost ridiculous how often I write a blog post to-be in a normal text file (to be revised and posted later), save it under a random name because I’m in a hurry and/or uncreative … and then never find it again. So, somewhere on my harddrive, there is a post with thoughts and musings on this video and the broader topic of “violence in videogames” and the ways in which the medium can be used to comment on its own use of violence. And the topic of “choice”, namely the choice to commit (virtual) violence.
“Choice” is a key concept for videogames. While novels and movies tell audiences a story, videogames make their players feel that it is their own story, a personal experience that is created by their own actions. Usually, this is pretty much an illusion: most games have a linear story and leave the player few big choices. And even if it’s a game with a lot of options, most of it is pre-determined anyway and planned meticulously, still controlled by the creators and not the player. If you have the choice between saving a character’s life or letting him die, both paths are still stories written by someone else. Gameplay also limits your options. You often have only one type of action you can use to solve any problem: shooting, driving karts, flying a spaceship etc. (You know these comical moments when you don’t pull a lever, but slash at it with your sword? You only have that B button!)
Videogames with violence-oriented gameplay have a hard time leaving players a choice in whether or not they want to solve their problems in a violent way. And how do you make a point about the excess violence if violence is the only option the game gives people? It’s like giving someone an apple only to then criticize them for having an apple in their hand.
One great commentary on the violence inherent in the genre of jump’n runs is The Visit by Marius Fietzek. You think you can just jump on animals simply because it’s this particular genre of videogame? No!
It reminds me of the first time I played Chrono Trigger. I was left stunned when I was on trial and an NPC accused me of having stolen and eaten his lunch. Yes, I had eaten his lunch. But this being a JRPG, I had naturally assumed that I could take everything, enter everywhere and never worry about an NPC’s opinion. To be put on trial and judged for normal RPG behaviour was bizarre … and pretty cool.
As a side note to be explored later: There’s something special about a violent act committed in a videogame whose gameplay is usually about solving problems peacefully through dialogues or riddles. Some of the worst things I ever did (as a videogamer), I did in adventure games. Of course they were predetermined paths and there actually were no other options. But they were still my ideas. I came up with the idea to saw off Brink’s hand in The Dig with a sharp jawbone! That was an idea that formed in my head, it was something I thought of. It hadn’t been my first idea, but eventually, that’s the solution that came to mind and that I decided to try. That was scary in a psychological way.
When it comes to making players feel a sense of responsibility, guilt (or pride), the illusion of choice can work just as well as actual choice. At least until you replay the game, try to do things differently and discover that it’s all predetermined. Like the trial in Chrono Trigger. It does not matter in the big picture whether you are found guilty or innocent, but I remember my initial confusion very fondly. <3