Hey, everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve posted a blog (year and few days, actually). I’ve had a weird year since my last post filled with both positive and negative experiences. But I’m not really here to talk about them. Instead, I’m here to talk about mass murder. Or, rather, simulated mass murder.
So I’m sure that many of you have seen the release of the trailer for a game known only as Hatred. It features graphic violence, the murder of innocents and all around chaos, all rendered in the (pretty) Unreal Engine 4. Reaction to it has been pretty mixed, but the headlines are calling the game “brutally violent” and many feel that the gam isn’t fit to be made (there are, of course, people on the other side, which is something I’m going to be talking about). I’m not going to bother linking the trailer for a few reasons, chief among them being that I’m lazy as hell.
Anyways, my initial reaction was similar to the headlines. “This game’s awful, totally unnecessary, needlessly brutal, (fill in with any other negative adjective).” After all, in the wake of such tragedies as Sandy Hook, does the world need a game that puts players in the shoes of a man who wants nothing more than to wipe out every human he comes in contact with (thankfully, there were no children in the trailer, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not the finished product will include such a heinous act)? And, to be sure, the game is shockingly realistic in its depiction of the killings.
But that got me thinking about some of my favorite media. One of my favorite and most played game series of the last generation was Borderlands, a game that was all about killing your enemies in a non-serious atmosphere. One of my favorite movies of 2013 was You’re Next, a slasher that depicted the massacre of a family (and a seriously badass chick fighting back). My favorite book of last year was This Book is Full of Spiders, a comedy horror novel that features exploding bodies, physically deformed zombies and a high number of gory deaths described in detail. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend these to people, though. Borderlands is a fun, funny shooter that is insanely addicting. You’re Next is an almost perfectly executed (no pun intended) slasher movie that flips genre conventions on their head and makes you want to cheer while you watch. This Book is Full of Spiders is the incredibly well written sequel to John Dies at the End (another really terrific read) that is both hilarious and horrific, and sports a cast of truly well written and interesting characters.
Then, this past summer, I played one game almost obsessively for a good while. That game is Hotline Miami. For those that don’t know, Hotline Miami is something of a top down Contra. You play as a masked man and are charged with going to different places to kill a group of mobsters in some pretty brutal ways. The game’s graphics are 8 bit, but you still see things like decapitations, eye gouging, immolations and eviscerations in pretty explicit detail (and those are just the scripted death scenes- the non-scripted ones in play are arguably worse). And I think that most people who have played it will agree when I say that it’s just awesome (and goddamn, when’s that sequel coming?).
Now, the enemies in Hotline Miami aren’t necessarily innocent. They are Russian Mobsters, and while the player doesn’t see them do too much, it can be safely assumed that each one you kill has more than a little blood on their hands. Still, you don’t know who these people are, and yet you kill them in ludicrously violent ways (there’s even a mask that increases the amount of gore). I love the game because of its twitchy, reflex based gameplay, its awesome electronic soundtrack, the stylish graphics and, yes, the gore. However, the game’s story is actually quite contemplative. Without getting into too much, the events of the story can make a person sit back and think “huh” when it comes to the matter of violence. The nature of violence, the brutality of violence and, as evidenced when one character tells the protagonist that “Nothing you will do from here on out will have any meaning,” the total futility of violence. It’s thought provoking while also being fun to play. And I’ve played it a lot.
Now, I think it’s safe to say I like violent media. Granted, most of the media I like has more than just violence going for it, as in there’s substance of some kind behind it. Still, there’s a rush I get from playing something like The Darkness 2 and completely annihilating my enemies in gruesome fashion. But I don’t think I’m a violent person. I’m mortified by things like the journalist decapitations in the Middle East. I die a little inside whenever I hear about a mass shooting. The last time I got in a “fight,” I still had daily recess.
But the fact remains that a lot of the games I like feature violent murder of some kind. And this game, Hatred, features it in spades. Now, the question I’ve been pondering is this: how shocking should this game really be? I’ve killed armies upon armies of enemies during my gaming career, and some of this killing happened in more kid friendly games (one of my favorite games as a kid, Wind Waker, features the villain getting a sword through the head- albeit in a totally bloodless fashion, but still). But I think about a game like Grand Theft Auto V, where the world is yours, essentially. The series is sometimes jokingly referred to as a hooker murder sim. While the games do, in fact, have clear cut objectives and storylines, you can still commit acts of wanton genocide if the feeling should arise. Now, I know, there’s a major difference between Hatred and GTAV in that in GTAV, you aren’t encouraged to murder civilians. But what’s the penalty for doing so? You sometimes get the cops on your tail and more often than not you can outrun them in a matter of minutes before everything is reset. But in the game, you still kill a huge amount of people. Hell, there’s even the infamous torture sequence where you actively participate in acts like waterboarding to get information. And there’s never any kind of repercussion for this beyond Trevor, the torturer, saying “Torture’s bad, kids.”
So, no, GTAV doesn’t actively encourage you to kill innocent civilians, but it doesn’t exactly discourage it either. And, yes, the game is presented in a much more humorous, satirical way than Hatred is, but the fact remains that both games allow you to murder innocents for no other reason than the fact that you feel like it. The difference is that Hatred is brutally honest about the fact that it’s asking the player to commit horrible acts.
Now, I’m in no way defending an act like a mass shooting. I think they’re heinous, insane, and if I had my druthers, no such act would ever happen again to anyone in the world. But it’s so easy to forget in video games that you are actively murdering other members of the human race. Most of the time it’s because it happens so much, and the enemies are so often faceless, that you stop viewing it as a reprehensible act. Plus, the story often gives context to what you’re doing. Take, for instance, Far Cry 3, a game I thoroughly enjoyed. You murder humans in a multitude of ways in that game, but it’s done to liberate the island that they’ve taken over. But the fact remains- your main objective is to fight brutal violence with brutal violence.
In Hatred, your main objective seems to be to fight the general populace with brutal violence. And this is seemingly done in a totally straight way, without any elements of satire or farce. You are actively executing people who really haven’t done anything wrong besides exist. And this leads me to my question of why this shocks people. How many games are there where the enemies you’re fighting have done something to personally hurt the protagonist? There are a lot, but more often than not the one committing the act against the protagonist isn’t a group, but a single person leading a group. This is getting muddled, so let me get straight to my point- how many virtual people are just following the orders they’ve been given?
Take Call of Duty. A lot of the games pit you against a terrorist threat, but sometimes you have to infiltrate a heavily guarded compound of some sort. How many of the guards are just working joes who are trying to earn a buck by being a guard? And yet, the player murders them while barely blinking an eye. There’s a tangible sense of “other” ness that occurs here. The same can be said about those characters to yours, but the question I want to ask is exactly how many people in those games deserved the fate they got?
Basically, games always try to justify murder and, while we’re playing, they more often than not succeed. When I’m playing something like Max Payne 3, I don’t bother to think about the gangster that I just shot. Instead, I prefer to think about getting to the goal and cutting down anyone who gets in my way. Games are so good at making us dehumanize our enemies, that when Hatred was released, people were mortified. The guy the protagonist just shot in the trailer wasn’t Faceless Goon number 4416, it was a man who presumably has a wife, house, and probably a kid. The woman the protagonist just stabbed could have been in the early term of her first pregnancy. You get my point. The game is being brutally honest about the fact that it is a game about murder. It’s not saying it’s a nice thing, it’s not saying that people should behave this way. It’s saying that this is a game about killing fellow humans, and it wants you to know that fact and nothing else.
By taking away this sense of other- ness that so many games have, Hatred has certainly pushed a lot of buttons. I can only imagine what will happen once a main stream news source gets wind that a game about shooting anyone and everyone is being released. It’ll be like the controversy surrounding GTAIII on steroids.
Here’s something else to consider, too: How many games are there where you can be a straight up bad guy? I love the two Knights of the Old Republic games and have played on both the Light Side and the Dark Side. And I won’t lie, I love messing around with Dark Side powers. But I’ve only just now remembered some of the things you can do in the game. There’s a moment in KOTOR2, when you first arrive on Nar Shadda. A beggar runs up to you and asks for just a few credits to feed his family. You have the option of killing this man, and I have in fact done this before. I want to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but a very secret part of me relished being the bad guy for once. As sick as that might sound, exploring what it’s like to be evil is something that a lot of people enjoy, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many games like KOTOR2, where you can be a total sociopath.
The above example isn’t really different from some of the things you can do in Hatred. It’s just presented in a less bloody, T rated way. Hatred is unapologetic about allowing the player be the bad guy. It’s almost a paradox, much like in the game Hotline Miami. Someone who would pick up and play Hatred will likely enjoy it, even though they know they shouldn’t simply because the acts that are happening onscreen are truly horrendous.
Now, I’m not saying Hatred looks great. Hell, I think it honestly looks like a generic as hell top down shooter, just with some shock value thrown into the mix and because of that and my large backlog I have no interest in playing it. And I’m also not saying that the developers are intending to stimulate discussions about video game violence (judging by how one of the devs responded, it sounds like they’re going for nothing more than shock value). But I do think that any work of art (and I hold video games to be an art form, no matter how reprehensible some of the content might be) is smarter than the artist, and that meaning can be pulled from somewhere that the artist didn’t expect. Hatred may portray some of the worst acts a human can be capable of, but, really, how many other games do the exact same thing? The context is totally different, but the fact remains that, while Hatred probably won’t ever see the light of day and honestly doesn’t look that good to begin with, it can stimulate thought about the medium that we all love and partake in daily. So before you jump on the Hatred Hate Train, consider the idea that all this is stuff you’ve probably seen dozens of times before. And I’m not condemning violent games, either. I’ll probably play Hotline Miami at least two more times until the sequel arrives (and in that case you can bet I’ll be playing the hell out of that game). But I am saying that, despite the subject matter, Hatred has some worth and that worth lies in its ability to get people thinking about the entertainment medium they might not always think critically about.