Nothing's Shocking

When so many games of E3 2012 are selling themselves based on exceptional levels of violence, it's the more restrained titles that stand out.

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Let me preface this by saying that I've loved plenty of violent video games. I played the original arcade Mortal Kombat so much I still remember the commands for every fatality. I cackled with glee when Kratos slammed Perseus' head in a concrete door in God of War II. I actually played through Splatterhouse on the TurboGrafx-16 numerous times though it was a shabby excuse for a mediocre game.

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Not pictured: The arrowhead currently lodged in this dude's throat.

But what I saw Monday at the E3-opening press conferences was just chaotic indulgence in violence with no context and no appeal. Between the Sony, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Ubisoft briefings, I sat through a virtually nonstop array of knives to the throat, arrows to the neck, and people on fire. I didn't realize that there were limits to my tolerance for people on fire (I've been known to watch the climactic scene from Westworld on a loop), but after a seemingly ceaseless parade of ultraviolence, I found myself utterly numb, and more than a little put off.

Ubisoft gleefully touted Splinter Cell: Blacklist's "killing in motion," with Sam Fisher kneeing a man in the face, shooting him in the chest as he staggered, and then firing a second shot directly into his face. Square Enix showed off gameplay of Tomb Raider, in which Lara Croft shoots an unsuspecting guard through the head with a bow and arrow, stabs another guy in the throat with an arrow, and sets a group of people on fire. And when she's not slaughtering her foes, she's the victim of no end of blunt trauma herself. Resident Evil 6 and Call of Duty II: Black Ops were up next, offering a surprisingly similar mix of crashing aircraft and stuff blowing up. While neither had quite the same brutality as the previous demos, they more than made up for it in chaos, with collapsing buildings and explosions that can somehow be outrun.

As I sat watching Kratos deal with an elephant man by plunging his blades into the were-Babar's forehead until it split open, revealing the beast's brain, I couldn't help but yawn.

And that was just Microsoft's conference. Ubisoft and Electronic Arts made their own attempts to distinguish games like Dead Space 3 and Far Cry 3 with violence, profanity, and chaos, but it was Sony's conference cappers that provided a fitting end to the day. The PlayStation maker offered a brief (but at the same time interminably long) respite with its Wonderbooks J.K. Rowling announcement, but finished the show with a one-two punch of God of War: Ascension and Last of Us.

As I sat watching Kratos deal with an elephant man by plunging his blades into the were-Babar's forehead until it split open, revealing the beast's brain, I couldn't help but yawn. This is exactly the sort of brutality that the series was built on, but what used to seem shocking and bold came off as routine yesterday. Kratos' ferocious sadism was unique in gaming in 2005; today it's downright repetitive.

Just look at the Last of Us demo that followed. In that clip, our hero breaks a scavenger's neck after a lengthy struggle, caves another foe's face in on the edge of a desk, and shotguns a man's face to oblivion as he tries to beg for his life. There were plenty of cheers from the audience, but I'd had my fill for the day.

The escalating violence bothers me because it speaks to the increasing homogenization of the industry.

The escalating violence on display bothers me most not because I'm suddenly adopting puritanical views or imploring someone to think of the children; it bothers me because it speaks to the increasing homogenization of the industry. For years, the most successful publishers in the industry have been focusing on making fewer games, and pouring more resources into each one. We've been a hit-driven industry for years, but the bar a game needs to clear in order to be a hit seems to be escalating rapidly. (Just look at Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which sold 1.2 million but was deemed a failure that would have needed to sell 3 million to break even.)

When the stakes are that high, publishers do everything they can to make their games stand out, and the easiest, least creative way to do that is to take what already worked and kick it up a few notches. And for the core gaming segment, that means embracing and outdoing the chaotic set pieces and grisly brutality of something like Call of Duty: Black Ops. You can see it in the way Max Payne 3 lovingly depicts the effects of bullets when applied to the human face, or the way the Mortal Kombat revamp managed to top the series' own threshold for violence with X-ray demolitions of the human body.

Judging from the lineup of would-be blockbusters at this E3, we're winding up with an era of games that are wallowing in savagery. And that's not evil, wrong, immoral, or irreparably damaging to the children. It's just boring.

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