The Duke is Dead


Listen, I know it hurts, but we need to face it. Yes, I enjoyed the slaughter of Imps as much as the next guy. I, too was ecstatic after the first-won deathmatch. Believed that running some guy over with a tank would never get old. I was wrong and it's time to admit it. Game violence is dead.

It had a good innings, that much is sure. Who would have thought in 1992 that a group of Texan social rejects could topple the hithero undisputed king, the dexterity-based game? But it all changed after the first dead Cacodemon: Platform jumping, puzzle solving, and all the other canonical gameplay elements of the time worked best in 2D, and suddenly, 2D just wasn't good enough anymore. Sure, they tried to update them. They tried awfully hard, and succeeded quite a few times. But that's exactly the point: It took an effort.

It's really easy to let the player fire a gun in a 3D game. Try to make jumping from place to place feasible, not to mention fun, though. With the staggering costs of those newfangled engines, that time investment started to look a bit wasteful.

Thus began the bloody reign. New titles, no matter of which nature, built their gameplay around gibs, simply because it was cheap, easy, and popular. The clamor of automatic weapons became the universal language of gaming. "Innovation" seemed to be synonymous with "bullets plus X": Alone in the Dark had already married action and adventure in new and portentous ways. Eidos fused the old with the new, jumping puzzles with guns, and created Tomb Raider. Rockstar took the concept of the sandbox game, an idea as old as the legendary Elite, and blended it so artfully that today the premise doesn't seem to work anymore unless you include prostitutes and baseball bats. Even racing games suddenly started boasting guns. Sooner than later, every other gameplay style seemed to carry Doom's half-blood offspring.

Looking back, that's likely what pushed it over the edge in the end: Violence was everywhere, and so, we got used to it, only to demand more and more refined experiences. This could never be seen more plainly than in that battle between the sequels to two of the most popular straight shooters there ever were. One of them, Doom 3, stuck to its guns. Granted, they had added in-game cut-scenes. Sure, they tried to add some horror to the mix. But in the end, the defining moments of the title were the same as in its precessors. Then as before, it was all about the confrontation, about that one shotgun blast that wipes another Imp out of this plane of existence.
Compare this to Half-Life 2. The game still featured lots of guns, sure, but if we're honest, it wasn't as much about the violence as the promise thereof. Think of those dark first steps into Ravenholm – crows cawing, ropes creaking, and then, that sound of splintering wood and the realization that you are not alone. Remember outrunning a Combine barricade's bullets in a speedboat. Or, coming up with the idea of lobbing a radiator into the oncoming hordes. The action itself was a byproduct. Valve never relied on it, and we thanked them. Time was ripe for change. The market opened to a complexity that had turned visionary titles like System Shock 2 into lead on the shelves not six years ago.

Our tastes had crossed the watershed line. Killing goons was nothing but the old default anymore. Battlefield 2, the most successful shooter of '05, featured horrible shooting, instead focusing on tactics and strategy. And it didn't stop there. Where once we would have drawn guns, we now wielded guitars, petted dogs, climbed giant monstrosities straight out of Salvador Dali's more excitable dreams, or rolled whole cities into tight balls.

'Course, there's still room for some old-fashioned all-out carnage in a game. While our tastes have become more sophisticated, they are not impossible to satisfy, if a skilled developer only tries hard enough - but that's the point, actually. It takes an effort. And who will take it in an environment that sees gun-porn like Black, a sure sale not three years ago, fail horribly?

Violence has had its day. And as usual for regent's deaths, the corpse hasn't had time to cool off before the battle over its succession begins. In the race for the market shares lost by heavy action titles, we see old greats like the RPG, the strategy game, even that once dethroned sovereign, the platformer, face off against ideas that wouldn't have stood a chance in the indie scene, let alone the mass market, five years ago. Back then, who'd have believed that one of Sony's flagship franchises would be called Loco Roco? That a game called Geometry Wars would make people pay five hundred bucks for a new console? That Rockstar Entertainment, Rockstar Entertainment, would create a game about table tennis?

The duke is dead. Pity it took so long.

Comments

Dead? The Duke is alive and well. In fact, he's immortal.

People crave sex and violence, videogames will continue to reflect this.

Well, why do they? I'd argue that people crave strong emotional reactions, and you just named two staples. The thing here is that we get used to certain stimuli, and so, my conclusion is that violence as a mainstay of game design has run its course for a good long while.

I think you make some good points. For a while, some people believed violence trumped gameplay. And now that we've seen most everything violence has to offer, people are crying out for gameplay. A lot of modern games based around combat don't even have blood in them (CoD, BF2, WoW).

I don't agree with you on your main point for a couple reasons the first and foremost being that most games are presented in the classic protagonist Vs. antagonist situation. This set up automatically adds a key ingredient to completing the game which is defeating the enemy. Defeat implies conflict and 9 times out of ten conflict leads to violence. That coupled with the primal release of whiskey directly into the brain when I watch a jeep explode from an RPG shot says to me that violence is going to be around in video games until we evolve into a different species.

Gore for the sake of gore may get tired. Co-op with your buddies in fps's never gets old and in my view its the reason to play. However, I must admit that I still boot jedi academy just to chuckle at bits of storm troopers getting lopped off with a saber throw.

Violence is here to stay but gore is damn near extinct and that makes me sad.

NemesisZero wrote:

Well, why do they? I'd argue that people crave strong emotional reactions, and you just named two staples.

Yes, they're staples. Neither one will be leaving the gaming world anytime soon.

NemesisZero wrote:

The thing here is that we get used to certain stimuli, and so, my conclusion is that violence as a mainstay of game design has run its course for a good long while.

The latest sales chart that I could find was on Gamespot for the Week of May 7th. Out of the ten listed for top PC sales, 7 require one to kill enemies while the other 3 are Sims titles. Hardly a death wail for violence.

The Duke isn't dead. He's just been indicted for money laundering and illegal campaign contributions.

I thought Serpentor killed him in that movie where Don Johnson guest-starred.

The Duke's not dead. He'll be ready when he's ready.

Anyway, great fun article! There will always be room for gore titles with violence overload, if well made, but their mainstream time is indeed over. I never liked games like Soldiers of Fortune anyway, the exuberant (sp?) violence made me sick.

Gears of War looks pretty gory, and that's a flagship title. It's not Soldier of Fortune levels of sadism, but it does have chainsawing people in half. That should count for something.

Well I hope the 'kill 50 goons in a 3d maze and then watch a cutscene and repeat 50 times' type of game design is dead. FPS games are branching out, but their evolution seems so very painfully slow.

You haven't checked out God of War, have you?

Great article!

I don't think violent videogames started with Doom per-se, I think they simply fused a new technology onto the age-old pasttime of violence and destruction. Instead of little triangles that represented dragons, where you had to use your imagination, we turned off our brains and settled into the virtual game space.

Humans have always craved death and destruction since we were able to fashion melee weapons out of bones. The Romans joyfully participated in real life gib-fests to sate their appetites. Little kids playing cowboys and indians.

I do agree we went through a period (ie. Soldier of Fortune - the highlight of excessively grotesque violence) in gaming where excessive violence was the primary focus, but I think now that that card's been 'played to death, and devs can't use it as a crutch for a sh*tty title, violence is becoming more of a complimentary part of a game instead of the main highlight.

Or, maybe we're just getting older. Maybe the younger generation of gamers (yes, we're old timers now) are going to go through the same phase - grinning with glee as they pick up that BFG for the first time to blast those pink imps into a puddle of goo.

Thanks, folks. As I said in the article, I'm certain we will continue to see violent games, just on a significantly smaller level than, say, during this generation of consoles. GoW certainly is a flagship title, but much like Mario 64, it'll quite possibly be a brilliant flagship title in a field pretty much ignored by the competitors. Crash Bandicoot was the hugely inferior platformer, but still, Mario 64 didn't manage to defend Nintendo's superior position against Sony.

CannibalCrowley wrote:

The latest sales chart that I could find was on Gamespot for the Week of May 7th. Out of the ten listed for top PC sales, 7 require one to kill enemies while the other 3 are Sims titles. Hardly a death wail for violence.

If there was nothing else to enjoy about arguing with you - and believe me, there's more -, I'd still appreciate the way you save me the time to search for facts supporting my arguments
Looking at the charts, we have one "tactical shooter". Of the other six games requiring one to kill enemies, three have an emphasis on strategic thinking, two are MMOs and thus have heavy social influences, and one is Oblivion, not exactly the title I think of when I want to enjoy some senseless carnage. None of those games places a high focus on the act of killing; it is, much like in BF2 or HL2, a byproduct of the actually worthwhile gameplay. Also, you cast an awfully wide net here. Your definition of 'violent gaming' spans from GoW to Sonic the Hedgehog.

To avoid a rather futile debate, let me admit right here that I engaged in hyperbole with the "... is dead" rethoric. I was trying to exaggerate what I perceive as a real trend to make the symptoms more obvious.

Desram said: "Violence is here to stay but gore is damn near extinct and that makes me sad."

Well, Desram, then you need to get yourself a copy of Gears of War when that game comes out because from what I saw at E3, that game is chock full of blood and gore.

But, as far as the main thesis of the article is concerned, I agree to an extent. Just look at how the "Soldier of Fortune" series fell off the map. And the outcry over the "Postal" games (although it wasn't really about gore). I think games like Halo on the consoles and Half-Life 2 proved that you can have wildly succesfful games with gunplay without actual blood and guts.

Come to think of it, I recall hearing several people comment that in the game "Gun" that the scalping was just too over the top and "unnecessarily violent". Nevermind the fact that it served no in-game purpose whatsoever, but I do think we have reached a point in time when gamers and developers look beyond gore for their shock value.

Makes me think of the first PSone game I ever bought -- Project Overkill. top-down kill-a-thon in which the cover art actually used the phrase "buckets of blood" as one of its selling points. The game was actually pretty fun, but the endearing image from it was leaving squishy bloody footprints everywhere I went from all of the killing.

I doubt we'll see something like that again.

If I could program worth a damn, I'd remake Soldier of Fortune in Doom 3 engine, model every human organ in characters separately and triple the amount of gore, guts, blood splurts and dismemberment. All that just to spite people who insist on removing gore, without even leaving an option to swithch it on and off. I don't like when somebody else makes decisions for me. If I want to see gore, that's my problem. There should be a bloody (haha) switch. What's wrong with having a choice?

Gears of War, GTA, God of War, and so many other games say "Hello!". Violence makes people feel like they're cool and playing "teh mature" games. Violence is still here to stay.

Gears of War, GTA, God of War, and so many other games say "Hello!". Violence makes people feel like they're cool and playing "teh mature" games. Violence is still here to stay.

I love when folks generalize like this. I mean, that's the only possible explanation why I'm not playing whatever you don't enjoy.

buzzvang wrote:

I thought Serpentor killed him in that movie where Don Johnson guest-starred.

Such happy memories. Cobra was always cooler.

Elysium wrote:
Gears of War, GTA, God of War, and so many other games say "Hello!". Violence makes people feel like they're cool and playing "teh mature" games. Violence is still here to stay.

I love when folks generalize like this. I mean, that's the only possible explanation why I'm not playing whatever you don't enjoy.

After working at Gamestop for over six months now, I think that's the reason many people who come in to buy these games play them.

I forgot you were there. That place nearly killed my love of games.

Ulairi wrote:
Elysium wrote:
Gears of War, GTA, God of War, and so many other games say "Hello!". Violence makes people feel like they're cool and playing "teh mature" games. Violence is still here to stay.

I love when folks generalize like this. I mean, that's the only possible explanation why I'm not playing whatever you don't enjoy.

After working at Gamestop for over six months now, I think that's the reason many people who come in to buy these games play them.

I thought you worked for IGN?

Certis wrote:
Ulairi wrote:
Elysium wrote:
Gears of War, GTA, God of War, and so many other games say "Hello!". Violence makes people feel like they're cool and playing "teh mature" games. Violence is still here to stay.

I love when folks generalize like this. I mean, that's the only possible explanation why I'm not playing whatever you don't enjoy.

After working at Gamestop for over six months now, I think that's the reason many people who come in to buy these games play them.

I thought you worked for IGN?

I picked up the job in order to get extra money for my trip to Taiwan, China, and Japan. I'm going to keep it when I get back to save for an engagement ring.

I forgot you were there. That place nearly killed my love of games.

How'd you cope with it? I'm almost to that point.

Two year veteran here. It wasn't the games that killed my love, it was the customers. Maybe redirect your anger elsewhere like rough sex? That usually worked for me and the SO.

At the risk of sounding snarky or overcritical, I didn't think this was one of GWJ's stronger articles.

I think a little more critical thought needs to be given to the distinctions between violence versus gore versus sadism, as well as the role of violence and gore as a gameplay feedback mechanic and immersion driver.

I suspect that GTA/Mercenaries/Oblivion-style sandbox games are going to become the dominant game design in the upcoming generation, much the way the Doom-style FPSs was the dominant action game design for the last ten years.

A lot of these upcoming sandbox games are going to allow the player to wreak havok and devastation on a order that makes anything seen before seem fairly tame.

polq37 wrote:

I suspect that GTA/Mercenaries/Oblivion-style sandbox games are going to become the dominant game design in the upcoming generation, much the way the Doom-style FPSs was the dominant action game design for the last ten years.

I guess you are far more optimistic about the average developer's funding than me, then

polq37 wrote:

A lot of these upcoming sandbox games are going to allow the player to wreak havok and devastation on a order that makes anything seen before seem fairly tame.

Not necessarily. Accepting your assumption for a minute, the spectrum of sandbox games you just opened spans from GTA to (*groan*) The Sims. I'll grant you that violent options will be included in most of them, but there's a big difference between giving the player a single tool and insisting that he use it to complete the game, and offering various solutions. A player with violent inclinations will still be able to employ the old tools exclusively, but the focus has shifted.

I agree that the field of the reasons behind the prevalence of violent content are more complex than the techno-economic ones I cited, but they appear to me as what drives the shift I perceive.
Sadism in the sense of 'joy from destruction' can be motivation for playing a game, but it can be substituted with various other similiarily primary motivations like the hunter-gatherer instinct used in (MMO)RPGs, or even the joy in one's creation (Sim City & co.). The reasons why one was cartered to over the others were, in my opinion, economical. Which is why I mentioned them.

I'm sorry to read that you didn't find the article very strong. On the bright side, my second one might be better

polq37 wrote:

At the risk of sounding snarky or overcritical, I didn't think this was one of GWJ's stronger articles.

I think a little more critical thought needs to be given to the distinctions between violence versus gore versus sadism, as well as the role of violence and gore as a gameplay feedback mechanic and immersion driver.

That's why we beat the issue to death later in the forum.

One of the things i don't agree with in the article is the discussion and presumption that HL2 is any different a game than Doom.

Both use emotion as a means to tell the story of people going through a tough time. The violence is a byproduct of the story and action. I do not believe that HL2 did anything particularly different except having better dialogue and a basically well-written storyline rather than a recycled plot of an idea from over a decade ago
I don't think violent games are dead, more that badly written violent games are dead - nay badly written games are dead. As you said in the article, violence is a byproduct of the story, the arc of the character. We've had a transition from badly written plotlines and acting in TV series to the more dynamic and enthralling chapters of entertainment we view in the better series these days.
There will always be badly written, scripted and plotted games but people/gamers will always favour those with a little more stimulation and thought, regardless of how violent the game is.