By my estimation Twitter, the Grand Pooh-Bah of the 140 character micro thought, everyday produces 8,167 times more text than the world record holder for longest novel (Proust’s In Search of Lost Time). This seems to me a pretty fine argument that people really hate to write more than a few words (hell Proust didn’t even finish In Search of Lost Time). Similarly, I’m also forced to deduce that people hate to read, as evidenced by the fact that my in-law’s friends think I’m working on a game without violence.
Let me explain. A couple of days ago I wrote an article for games blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun about game violence. Specifically I talked about two things:
- That acts of game violence alone are too abstract to make a person more or less violent in the real world.
- That games with broader player choice have a stronger chance of evoking enough emotional response to educate gamers socially and morally.
On that same day I also launched a Kickstarter for Unwritten, the first game from my indie team Roxlou Games.
The response to the article was fantastic in that it sparked debate without defensive name calling and arbitrary side-taking, a credit to the article’s readers. It also prompted non-gamer acquaintances of mine to skim the article and the pitch for Unwritten, and then congratulate me on deciding to make a game that “wasn't one of those horrible violent things”.
So here’s the problem. In the Kickstarter video for Unwritten, a man with a 5 foot sword decapitates a llama in a single stroke, prompting a dehydrated elderly man to drink the blood as it arcs across the sky. So why the praise from the “violence equals bad” crowd (which is incidentally exactly the opposite of point number 1 from my article)? Maybe we’d best examine the scene in question. Those with delicate dispositions are advised to turn away.
For those that don’t know what they’re looking at, Unwritten has storytelling tableaus enacted with shadow puppets, mimicking Balinese traditions. In the early prototype shown above the blood is represented by ribbons tied to sticks (watch the whole video here for additional context).
But that guy really is decapitating a llama and an old man really is drinking the blood. And the little guy on the left? That’s the old man’s son. He was just sold into slavery. For blood.
I know, right?
Now I wouldn’t categorize Unwritten as non-violent. And I’d also just written an article that said that shying away from game violence won’t help us to address society’s issues in the real world. It would instead only soothe the fears of those that balk after seeing their very first headshot, appalled at what is essentially presentation. So the pleasant reaction of my distant Facebook pseudo-friends puzzled me but also got me thinking.
Lee (Roxlou Games' artist) and I had gone with the shadow puppets for a number of reasons, the most convincing of which was that it was eerie and awesome. But had we stumbled onto a perfect balance of benign presentation and gritty subject matter? Most games have gritty presentation but essentially shallow subject themes with limited player choice. By inverting that formula did we now have carte blanche to explore mature, challenging themes without offending my parent’s friends from church?
I decided that the answer was "no", they probably just weren’t paying very close attention, and it was Little Red Riding Hood that convinced me that violence in all forms would probably still piss them off. Again I should explain. Below is the ending from an early version of Little Red Riding Hood.
"Grandmother, what big teeth you have got!"
"All the better to eat you up with."
And, saying these words, this wicked wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up.
If you’re waiting for the woodsman to bust in, with his musky woodsman ways and totally non-phallic long handled axe, go ahead and stop holding your breath. He interferes with the moral of the story, which is “stay on the straight and narrow or get devoured by wolves”. Which is really a more charitable read than the moral that the author actually wrote down, which basically says that the wolf is a metaphor for being raped at home (no really).
So... why is she in bed with the wolf?
The point is that fairy tales and fables nearly all have their origins in cautionary tales, and the plot of these early stories are fed on a steady diet of violence. This is because many evolved during medieval times, when they were educating children and adults alike about matters of life and death. Cinderella’s step sisters cut off parts of their feet to make the slippers fit (before eventually being blinded by birds), and even Rapunzel’s prince is blinded himself by razor sharp thorns.
And all I did was kill a llama
Over the last few hundred years these stories have had much of the violence sanitized from them, getting mostly cleaned with the Brothers Grimm adaptations, and the last gasp being squeezed out in an effort to make a Disney movie.
I find this telling. Although these changes were made under the pretense that the stories were being shifted to an audience of exclusively children, the implication is that our culture has become increasingly unwilling to even acknowledge violence, no matter how abstract. And if a storybook can’t get away with artfully severing a spinster’s toe or heel, I’m certain that my shadow puppets won’t pass closer scrutiny.
Of course, I’m going to go right ahead cutting the heads off of things and spilling ribbon blood all over the place (provided we meet our funding goal). This whole series of events has made me realize that Unwritten is basically an old school fairy tale for adults, and maybe we need a bit of that tough love back in the world. While it’s easy to be appalled by violence, removing it from the dialog entirely is a major step backwards. There is a reason that those simple, old morality lessons penned examples of violence for audiences of adults and children, and it’s not because of ancient barbarism. It’s because the potential for violence is a part of our world, and only by discussing it do we stand a chance of understanding and avoiding it.
Stories of all kinds are the foundation of understanding morality and consequence, especially to people of the modern age when personal experience is usually found second or third hand. In this same way our games have the potential to intelligently explore adult themes that may have passed us by in our childhood. Of course games as an interactive medium set themselves apart by being an experience that engages and, if it so chooses, instructs with potent ability.
In my book this is an intensely exciting prospect, and after all a pretty fair prize for the low cost of one sacrificial digital goat.
Provided you're not the goat