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Analysis: The Complexity Of Violence In Grand Theft Auto

In this column, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche examines GTA: Vice City, discussing how abstraction, not realism, makes its gleeful violence simultaneously less disturbing and more effective.

Game Developer, Staff

March 29, 2010

8 Min Read

[In this column, writer Andrew Vanden Bossche examines GTA: Vice City, discussing how abstraction, not realism, makes its gleeful violence simultaneously less disturbing and more effective.] Senseless violence in videogames is fun, but more importantly, it can also be intellectually stimulating and thought provoking. While designers and critics alike cry out for more depth in games, pathos is not the only path to artistic merit. For a medium that's constantly patronized, misunderstood, and derided even by its supporters, sometimes satire and irony is the best way to get a point across. This is the philosophy of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, as the most unapologetic of that series so lambasted by those who were the target of the game’s satire. The ultraviolent and candy colored Vice City is an excessively pink world in which violence is comical and cartoonish. Violence in this game is already highly desensitized. Pedestrians die, but after their bodies despawn the world will be back to normal as if nothing happened, maintaining the status quo like a TV serial. It's the worst-possible environment for a serious engagement with issues of violence, but it's a great environment to engage with how we depict violence. Most games are designed to soften, justify, or excuse violent actions so that players feel like heroes instead of murderers. It's the same treatment summer blockbusters get. But unlike most of these media, Vice City goes a step further. This is a game that mercilessly skewers the groups most opposed to its existence, freely leaps into self parody, and satirizes the cultural attitudes towards violence that ultimately gave it form. By the end of Vice City it's clear that everyone from the mob to the talking heads on the radio are guilty of the same violence as the protagonist. No one in Vice City is innocent, and neither is anyone in the world. How to Take the Sense Out of Violence While technology makes blood and gore more realistic, game designers continue to construct this violence to minimize its impact. In the goriest of games (like Mortal Kombat) violence is there to thrill or disgust, not to inspire existential terror. Designers (and gamers) get excited over realism, but we want it for specific reasons. Despite how much we clamor for realism in graphics and physics, emotional realism actually gets in the way of enjoying games like Grand Theft Auto. For this reason GTA 4 has actually been criticized for being too realistic. GTA 4 succeeded in its attempt to be more serious and taken more seriously, but it resulted in a different game experience--one that many fans hadn't been looking for, and subsequently found in the much less-serious Saints Row 2. GTA 4’s Nico feels more like a person than the caricature that is Vice City’s Tommy Vercetti, and for that reason it can be hard for players to engage senseless violence. Even the normal missions feel a little odd considering the sheer number of people you kill, creating a scenario in which the gameplay and story don’t quite mesh. Abstracting Emotion Trauma Center is an interesting example of a game that uses abstraction to eliminate squeamishness. This is a game inspired heavily by medical dramas with surgery-based gameplay. Medical dramas have a wide appeal; exposed organs do not. Surgeons and other medical professionals have to get used to blood and guts, but most people are pretty squeamish about that. Even the bloody fantasy violence of the average videogame can be less intense than the exposed entrails of a living human. Because of this, the designers went to great lengths to create a representation of the human body that wouldn't be grotesque. Naoya Maeda, the lead 3D and event designer, said on the Trauma Team web site that he came up with this abstract approach while thinking of how a surgeon would see the entrails. What's interesting about this approach is that the more realistic option may be less "true." In the game, the player is a doctor and revulsion is not part of the experience. In the same way, Tommy Vercetti's attitude towards human life is pretty obvious from the way pedestrians are depicted. A World of Mannequins In violent videogames, it’s common to dehumanize the enemy so that players can feel justified in killing them. Zombies, robots, and aliens all serve their roles. With human opponents, it’s common to make them as evil as possible, which may be why WWII is the favorite FPS genre and Nazis the favorite foe. Ultimately though, the greatest tool for removing humanity is simply to leave them undeveloped. The civilians in GTA don’t mourn, cry, or express themselves. Because they don't exhibit sympathetic actions, it's hard to empathize with them. They exist only to run screaming like Godzilla was stomping through the city. Vice City is inhabited by crash test dummies that respawn endlessly no matter how many times they die. It’s similar to watching Bugs Bunny gets blasted point blank with a shotgun: the next second, he's up and chomping carrots. No matter how many times the player dies in GTA, or however many generic citizens he wastes, everything in the world will be respawning and back to normal in minutes. In this way, actions that would normally appear reprehensible loose all their emotional impact. If GTA was an accurate murder simulator, depicting the horror of real-world violence and murder with unflinching accuracy, the nightly news stories would have been about kids getting PTSD. Sensitive Violence If there is a flaw in this form of violence in videogames, it’s that it isn’t violent enough. It’s emotionally casual, designed specifically to not challenge the player’s feelings of empathy or guilt. Although it takes a lot of design work to make sure the player won’t feel sorry for the extras, seeing how many pixilated crash-test dummies you can run over isn’t emotionally challenging for the player. Survival-horror title Haunting Ground has a near-opposite outcome, but the design is obviously quite intentional. Compare GTA to the visceral Manhunt, and you can see that Rockstar is quite capable of creating an experience uniquely tailored to inspiring certain emotions. That’s a game that really does make the player feel like a murderer. So Vice City is engineered for players to be as violent as possible without thinking about it. This is where a lot of games stop, having accomplished their purpose, and just let the player have fun. But Vice City fills the game with relentless satire, and this cleverness works in part because it's so violent. The result is a game about thinking about not thinking about violence. Whose America? The talk radio blabbering about videogame violence is underscored by the incredible violence perpetuated by the player. With Tommy Vercetti chaining rows of exploding cars and fighting everything from SWAT to the US Army, the irony of legislating against bleeding pixels isn’t lost on the player. The jingoistic ads run by the game's gun stores unsubtly implicate that GTA is not the cause of America's attitudes towards violence, but a product of it. The entrepreneurial rise of the main character reflects a certain pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-attitude that, along with this construction of violence, satirically constructs Tommy Vercetti as an ideal American. Vice City is a violent videogame about America’s attitude towards violence. Vice City came out after GTA 3, and it was born while the immediate reaction to that game was fresh in the minds of its audience and opponents. As the in-game talk show parody unfolds, extremists from all sides fight over which vision of America to cram down the rest of the country’s throat while the player is laughing at them and having a grand old time. While the guests on talk radio worry about fictional violence, their world is being blown up by the player on a regular basis. After mowing down the city in a tank, players may wonder why they aren't the ones being discussed on the news. Shouldn't they be thinking about real violence? Shouldn't the player? It's fun to live the American Dream as Tommy Vercetti, but is this bitter satire worth bringing to reality? Even though Vice City goes to great lengths to create emotionally uninvolved violence, it wants the player to be conscious of how different this is from real world violence. At the time, the charge levied against the playerbase and the industry was that videogames confused the two. With the pitch perfect satire of radio pundits and activists, Vice City invites the player to think about whether the game is more damaging to society than the people trying to ban it. Rockstar has a clear agenda, of course, and stacks the deck in their favor. Even so, that’s a lot to think about for a game that’s not supposed to be about thinking at all. Pathos certainly has its place in videogames, and it's certainly something we need more of. A GTA-like game that forced players to confront the realities of murder would be an interesting idea. It couldn't work as a satire, and it wouldn't really be fun, but that’s just fine as it’s another way to engage the player. One of the great things about survival horror games like Haunting Ground is that they've proven that games don't necessarily need to be fun to be compelling. But let's not underestimate Vice City just because it makes us laugh. [Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which is updated less often than this message, and can be reached at [email protected]]

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