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Opinion: Video Game Ethics And The Coming Bulletstorm

Gamasutra contributor Richard Clark considers whether Epic's forthcoming Bulletstorm crosses ethical lines never before crossed, and, if so, what that could mean for the games industry going forward.

Richard Clark, Blogger

January 25, 2011

5 Min Read

[In this opinion piece, Gamasutra contributor Richard Clark considers whether People Can Fly and Epic's forthcoming Bulletstorm crosses ethical lines never before crossed, and, if so, what that could mean for the games industry going forward.] We kind of asked for it. After the last couple of years in which many video game enthusiasts did everything they could to drive home the medium's artistic validity, and after lauding blatantly flawed games simply because they did something that spoke to the human condition (and rightfully so), it only makes sense that it would come to this. After all of the rants about the immaturity of the industry, the calls to higher standards, and the comparisons to other mediums, this sort of thing just seems inevitable. From its unveiling at E3, we knew Bulletstorm would be something special. Claiming that the glut of military shooters had gotten to be a bit much, they sought to solve this problem by producing a pulp sci-fi shooter with a crucial gameplay conceit: creative killing. Using incredibly large guns, an electric leash, a giant boot and the surrounding environment, players would use their creativity to come up with unique new ways of destroying their enemies. A Good Idea Gone Bad Here's the thing: that could be fun. We've all experienced the joy of the flying rag doll effect in videogames, and it only makes sense to exploit that effect and the environment for a gameplay style that feels fresh and unique. But they didn't stop there. They produced an aesthetic that revels in "skillshots" not only by rewarding them, but by giving them names that do little more than cheer on a sort of sociopathic obsession with causing the enemies the most pain and humiliation possible. I'm positive that there are a number of things - both good and bad - about the game that we have yet to see, but here's what we know: the game features the stereotypical meathead protagonists (in addition to one female, who is seen brutally emasculating them with her words in the trailer), these protagonists seem to enjoy killing, maiming, and humiliating others. They are provided ample reason to do so by a conveniently scripted plot that guarantees that the enemies we are faced with are beyond empathy. Their scripted dialogue is meant to be insane, but also dabbles in being incredibly off-color, including lines like "You scared the dick off me!" and "Pull up your skirt and strap that dildo on!" A Unique Kind of Excessiveness We've seen these features before. Games have always been violent, and they've often reveled in brotastic protagonists who serve as ciphers for our own power fantasies. Games have always featured lame and offensive dialogue. The difference between those games and Bulletstorm, though, is the intentional nature of all of these things. Bulletstorm is meant to shock and offend, but ultimately, to titillate. While games have portrayed violence, and shocked the public sense the beginning, rarely has a such a mainstream AAA title been so blatantly unabashed about the nature of the game. In the 70s, the arcade game Death Race, arguably the reason for the first video game violence related controversy, was conceived with an obvious naivete. In Tristan Donovan's book, Replay, developer Howell Ivy said, "We had no idea that it would cause any controversy. The game was fun and challenging. There was no underlying motivation or thoughts in creating the first controversial video game." Compare that with the recent marketing videos for Bulletstorm. The game developers, producers and writers describe the game in the most provocative way possible. The protagonists are described as the "premiere basasses of motherfucktown." Both the hero and the villain are referred to as dicks, though when it comes to the protagonist, "you love him at the same time." It's not clear in the trailer why, though one can presume it's because he acts as our avatar in a supremely self-indulgent and inhumane fantasy. The marketing low-point? The infamous Cliff Bleszinsky sarcastically brags, "I made a video game where you can blow out another man's ass-hole." And yeah, it's possible. That commercial ends with a quick cut to a man's anus being shot with burning bullets, and overflowing as he screams bloody murder and falls face first to the ground. In fact, it's the sexual subtext of much of the dialogue, marketing and in-game text and actions that is most disturbing. By encouraging players to pull off such skillshots as "Facial", "Gang Bang" and "Bad Touch", Bulletstorm becomes far more than just another violent videogame. Mortal Kombat's spine-removal and explosive blown kisses seem perfectly reasonable (and very well may be) in the face of Bulletstorm's seemingly complete lack of any social responsibility. Coming To Terms To be clear, I have no problem with this game being legal. I stand with the majority of the gaming industry against the pointless law that would legislate against the sale of this type of game to any demographic. It's up to adults to make rational decisions about these types of games based on research and the rating system. In a sense, we should expect and accept these types of things. They represent the same thing that certain types of films, books and albums represent: a wide net, capable of encompassing every possible expression of the human condition, even if that expression is, by most outside accounts, undesirable and troubling. In a way, I'm glad we've finally arrived at this point. This game very well could provide the impetus for game reviewers and critics to begin reviewing games with values in mind. After all, it would be a shame if this was considered one of our "critically acclaimed" offerings. The ones making this game are doing everything they can to let us know that this is like no other game we've ever seen. Can we please keep it that way? [Richard Clark is the editor-in-chief of Christ and Pop Culture, where he often writes about video games. He and his wife live in Louisville, KY. He can be reached at deadyetliving at gmail dot com or followed on twitter (@deadyetliving).]

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