Grossed Out

Interesting piece on gamasutra about the effects of making gruesome video games on developers.

I’ve never spent eight months looking at colon pictures, and luckily I never had to research depictions of hanging etc, but I’ve certainly had my share of playing and modding violent video games. I have always been pretty grossed out by those mods and games that make it their point to add even more blood and gore, until you have blood on the walls, blood on the ceiling, blood splattering on the camera like so much strawberry juice while you watch slow-mo killcams and your avatar shouts “Motherfucker!” or gleefully stabs the other guy to death because he’s a Korean, an alien, or just on the other team…

Yeah, I never quite understood the appeal of going ever more over the top. I was grossed out by God of War already, I was taken aback at the slow-mo disembowelment, dismemberment, and decapitations of games like Ryse: Son of Rome, and all the “takedown animations” of Street Fighter that consist of ripping out ribcages or whatever.

But it goes further back; ever since Tomb Raider switched from shooting at wolves and bats to shooting at people, and Quake switched from shooting Lovecraftian horrors or barely-human kludgy cyborgs to shooting disgustingly human-looking things, and since the appearance of games like Call of Duty or Far Cry, and games’ art styles tending ever more towards the gross and the shock value until “realistic dismemberment” became a selling point, and games tried to emulate the grossest scenes of “Saving Private Ryan”, there was an undercurrent of wrongness that never quite went away.

What happens to you when you spend years playing games whose major game mechanic is shooting things, or shooting people, or realistically dismembering other living things, in a claustrophobic environment or on a simulated battlefield is an interesting question. My guess is it eventually desensitizes you. And does spending hundreds of hours in an ever more photorealistic simulated war zone result in the same thing as being in a real one, namely PTSD? Why would it not?  You get drawn pretty deeply into it when you sit in front of your PC or console after dark, possibly under the influence of drugs or stimulants. (Drugs are in no way uncommon in the gaming scene.)

Do we think it desirable, then, to become desensitized? Hopefully not.

Note I’m as much into movies like “Alien” or a good horror story as the next guy. I just don’t habitually watch the more extreme splatter movies and I don’t habitually play the more extreme splatter games. I think if it becomes an everyday thing, it grinds you down. I watched “Dancer in the Dark” once and found it excellent, and the ending is one of the grossest things ever, but it’s not a movie I would want to watch again. Once was enough. I got the message. I can’t remember when I last actually re-watched an “Alien” movie. There is no need, I remember them well. I think everyone who watched them does.

And while I play games like Starcraft, with their abstract eagle-eye perspective on strategy and their comicky characters, I don’t go for the semi-realistic war games. I recently watched a playthrough of the last Battlefield game, just to see where the current bar is for graphics, gameplay and animations, and that was quite enough.

As for development, I never quite grasped why people needed flaming gibs (meat pieces) and more ample amounts of blood, but it was quite a standard thing to do in shooter game mods. And I’m guilty of implementing a backstabbing mechanic in Quake and animating prisoners who had lost their mind crawling around and moaning. Um, yeah. That was then, though. This is now.

Anyway, maybe my being grossed-out at this point is one reason why Scout’s Journey doesn’t have such a thing as stabbing people in the back. I don’t want to program or animate it, and the protagonist will actually refuse to do things like that (she’s quite her own person at this point.) And if you somehow managed to make Scout evil enough to remove her resistance to shooting someone in the back, you’ll still get a “murderer” stamp if you do.

I took care to blur the line between friends and enemies, the Herd soldiers you’ll come up against are people as much as Scout is. The entire faction is designed as such. Maybe some of them are assholes, but they’re still humans. They have wants and needs and you will hear them talk about it. Some of them are your friends. As the game proceeds, you’ll learn about the horrible situation that these people got themselves into. They’re not “evil by default”, quite the contrary – they were soldiers just like Scout before (spoiler) happened. The game even has a mechanic to help injured enemies, and if you do, you’ll get rewarded. Not to mention that attack in SJ is a bit of a last ditch option – if you’ve ever played one of these mods that give enemies the same firepower and accuracy as the player, you’ll know how that changes the game. And in SJ, they come in groups and you’re alone. Some of them are spellcasters or summoners. Better prepare the retreat before you start anything, and better think twice before taking a shot at anything of theirs. You’ll even be able to talk to certain enemy soldiers and trade with them to improve your relation. An enemy Banshee might give you 30 seconds to interact with her before she goes hostile (which her faction duty still demands.) Unless her commander is in sight. If you’re spotted, depending on your relation and coincidence, you might get 10 seconds to make yourself unseen. Or you might be shot at. It depends who you’re dealing with and what your relation is.

Scout is in this role of outcast, of onlooker. They don’t really consider her a threat, unless one of them has a bad day or Scout is getting uppity. Then they will whack her. She’s not the all-powerful superhero of other games.

Basically, the “enemy” in Scout’s Journey is like you, just more desperate.

I find that a lot more interesting to design than some cut-and-dried cannon fodder enemies and slow-mo dismemberment mechanics. And hopefully, the player will be forced to empathize with these people. Empathy is a thing severely lacking in the gaming community and the world.

My game still deals with some dark stuff, but not as a tapestry of sales-oriented edginess, instead as a requirement of catharsis.

I’m kinda glad I don’t have to sit in a studio and animate realistic hangings for months. The upside of being indie, I guess.

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