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Trauma and Catharsis in Videogames — Part I of III: Acts of Killing

An epic three part reflection on how violent game mechanics can not only enhance but become game narrative. This is PART I where I introduce the topic, lash out blindly at the "Uncharted" franchise and make some not-so-big claims about interactivity.

Trauma and Catharsis in Videogames

Part I of III

Acts of Killing

Two of the most poignant and profound interactive experiences of 2013, The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite live and die by their relationship with violence. The Last of Us sets off on its dark yet tender journey, which plays like a vague homage to McCarthy’s The Road, with blood on its hands: In the chaos and confusion caused by a fungal outbreak, protagonist Joel’s daughter Sarah gets shot by a frightened soldier. She then dies in Joel’s arms. Until that point the player had been controlling Joel as he was carrying Sarah. To safety, as was the hope — to her death, as it turns out. It’s a devastating scene. And it casts a sense of futility on the player’s actions: The things you love are not safe, the game tells the player. Significantly, that’s where the game properly begins. That is, where its gameplay loop (more on that later) begins. With an act of violence. An act however that anticipates meaning at the intersection of game mechanics and narrative. 


Similarly, Bioshock Infinite, a game with a lot on its mind — from quantum theory to the mystery of identity —, initiates us into its gameplay loop with a horrific first kill. Both of these videogames can be counted among the most powerful and emotional experiences in any medium. At the same time, they are drenched in blood. I want to get to the bottom of this phenomenon. I am not at all interested in the ‘why’ but the ‘how’. These games manage to create profound meaning through an inevitable irruption of catharsis, in spite of and because of their violent turns. How do they do that? What’s the secret at the heart of interactivity that allows for that degree of profundity?


Physical trauma is integral to a large majority of videogames. As mainstream news tend to pay almost manic attention to violence in games, this is hardly a revolutionary statement. Since the days of Death Race (Exidy, 1976), violence and videogames have found themselves to bond quite well: there’s a history of violence in videogames. 

Violence informs videogames on two levels which more often than not don’t cohere: story and gameplay. That moment where gameplay does not inform the story any longer has been saddled with the now infamous term “ludonarrative dissonance” by Clint Hocking. (Now and again, I will be using the term “ludic” in relation to games in the same way someone would use the word “literary” to talk about books.) An easy example is Naughty Dog’s Uncharted trilogy: the player controls adventurer Nathan Drake who is represented in the games’ cutscenes as a compassionate and funny average joe. However, the actual gameplay loop has the player shooting hundreds and hundreds of digital adversaries, without remorse or second-thoughts. As a result, there exists an uneasy tension (dissonance) between the violence of the game (ludo), and the light-hearted adventure represented in the cutscenes (narrative).  


What is a “gameplay loop”? It’s the greatest challenge for the game designer, and the greatest constraint for the writer; but it’s also a fount of narrative potential. Due to the systems-based nature of the medium, game designers have to come up with a set of actions which the player will use again and again: game mechanics. And these actions should remain involving, again and again. They should be fun and perhaps also provide a challenge. 

The primary gameplay loop of third person shooters like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) or Gears of War (2006) before it, is tactical arena combat: The player takes cover behind a low wall and assesses the situation; the enemies take position opposite the player. The challenge (and entertainment) then lies in outmaneuvering the hostile AI, until they’re “dead”. The basic gameplay loop in Nintendo’s Mario games is the traversal of its digital worlds and their multiple hazards. At the core of the gameplay lies the basic action of jumping from one platform to the next without falling to your death. That’s why these types of games are called “platformers”. The enjoyment then comes from just making a difficult jump. 


A similar sense of intense gratification exists in shooters: The jubilant and quite primal pleasure that comes from taking that final lethal shot, with your own health whittled down to almost nothing, is as real as it gets — as alien as this may sound to somebody who has never played a videogame before. But ‘scoring a headshot’ in Bioshock Infinite doesn’t give the player pleasure because he has just “killed someone”. He hasn’t, and the digital stage of videogames never disguises that fact (more on that later). His pleasure comes from the fact that a stressful and perhaps challenging scenario has been solved by him and successfully. It’s the first hungry gulp for air after diving to the bottom of a lake. And it’s that primitive and paradoxical delight that stems from overcoming stress and relishing in one’s reflexes which make “shooters” so successful. (Five out of the ten best-selling videogames of 2013 have been shooters or, in the case of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, action-adventure games whose gameplay absolutely depends on inflicting violence on others.) 

So, a quite many videogames depend on violence. The player has to kill, again and again, due to the nature of the medium: every videogame needs core mechanics, replicable actions that consistently prove to be entertaining. However, videogames have evolved somewhat from the spartan simplicity of Unreal Tournament (Epic Games/Digital Extremes, 1999) where developers could just thrust players into virtual arenas and have them shoot each other in limited variations on the same variables, again and again. While these purist, almost abstract experiences have obviously survived in the wildly popular multiplayer matches of blockbuster franchises like Call of Duty: Ghosts or Battlefield 4, technological advancements in sound and graphics have allowed for something else, something greater: story.  


Unlike board games, videogames have high artistic potential written into their DNA. At least since 3D graphics and sound, great promise has begun to simmer beneath the misleading moniker “game”. The promise of a union between mechanics and narrative in creating something more granular than literature and more involving than film. Yet, as an audio-visual medium, videogames have long been placed inside the shadow of cinema. When unlike any film, the videogame can aspire to the scope of literature: Videogames possess the unique ability to populate their digital environments with a density of information that is without precedent in the audio-visual media. (You may argue for television shows approaching a similar scope. I would argue the opposite however. TV shows often recycle environments, characters and story arcs, and actually prove to be narrower in scope than some films and certainly videogames.) With playtimes ranging from over ten hours (The Last of Us) to over a hundred hours (Skyrim), videogames have the time and space to indulge their stories and characters in a way that movies simply can’t parallel.

Paradoxically, the great challenge to and the great benefit of telling a story in a videogame are its mechanics. How do you tell a meaningful story when the player’s main activity in the game is firing a gun or swinging a pipe? It’s limiting. That’s why most stories in action games don’t work, and most certainly do not reach the quality of violent movies, like A History of Violence or the more recent 12 Years a Slave. That has to do with the fact that the violence in these films dovetails with a more complex thematic and emotional tool set. From the score to the acting, films can contextualize their violence. Film speaks in many tongues, a videogame only has its player’s voice: his agency in the digital world and his reaction to it. Violent videogames struggle with the limitations of violence as the sole means of player expression. With its Uncharted franchise, Naughty Dog has separated the gameplay (in which gunplay dominates) from the characters and the story. There is a separation between the violence of the gameplay, and the adventure and very cinematic story-telling of Uncharted’s non-interactive cutscenes. These short films are like islands in an ocean of thematically opposite mechanics, an attempt to imbue the violent gameplay which surrounds them with meaning. The Uncharted games are great fun, but when it comes to joining mechanics with narrative, they’re a great failure. If the gameplay and by extension the player’s actions cannot be meaningful apart from the cutscenes, the story as a whole loses its way. The game as such becomes meaningless. If the creation of meaning is displaced into non-interactivity, the player’s actions become meaningless to him and arbitrary in the context of the whole. Videogames are interactivity. Thus, activity must be meaningful lest the entire exercise become futile. 

However, games like The Last of Us succeed in their ludic narration. Narration as a function of gameplay and everything else.  They succeed because they recognize physical trauma as the primary element of the “gameplay loop”. These games understand that the player’s only means of communication with the world of the game is restricted to violence. As a consequence, violence must become story. Only then can it become meaningful.


to be continued ...

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