Our Games Are Not Depressing Enough [Feedback Loop]

An excess of violence has become a point of criticism for video games. The real problem isn’t the violence, but how games want us to feel about our stylized murder sprees.

In recent interviews David Cage and Warren Spector both addressed the need for games to be more emotive and less violent. However, it shouldn’t be an binary situation. Violent games could be a path to better art, if we deal with violence in the correct way.

In Edge magazine, Cage’s interview centered around the recent E3 demo Kara. The demo by Quantic Dream showed a game character presenting subtleties of emotion only approcahable by the last Quantic Dream tech demo, ‘The Casting’.

While next-generation technology is not required for good games, Quantic’s demo shows the potential to create characters with greater emotional depth, a characteristic that does more to make them realistic than all the pixel resolution in the world.

However Quantic Dream’s execution has traditionally been outside of games’ popular norms. While Heavy Rain’s interactive cinema is fascinating, it misses a larger audience that could reap significant benefits.

Spector discusses how “we’ve gone too far” by glorifying an adolescent an emotionally shallow view of killing in games.

“I mean, there are spreading blood pools under innocent dogs when you kill them in Deus Ex, and I wanted you to feel disturbed if you actually pulled the trigger. […] [At E3, the industry] went too far with the hyper-real celebration of blood and sex and violence.”

While the shooter may be on its way out, it won’t just disappear. Here we can find a middle ground by combining the narrative depth for which Spector is famous with Cage’s emotionally charged approach. Imagine a game where every enemy you could shoot had the emotional reality of Kara and an underpinning narrative that made them real people with real, instead of cartoonishly evil, goals.

What we want in our video games then is not just emotion, but negative emotion. We must take games beyond the generation of fiero. Spector talked about building emotional depth in his most recent game.

“I pushed the team very hard to make sure it was a game of contrasts, where there was really, really dark stuff so there could be really light stuff, and really sad stuff so there could be really happy stuff.”

This isn’t new behaviour for Spector, nor for storytelling in the world of other media. While good stories need not have terrible things happen to their protagonists, when done properly it can build quality works. In AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, at least: two involve close family of the protagonist brutally murdered; two center around the events of the holocaust; six center around anti-heros; four involve their main characters slowly going insane before our eyes; one is entirely focused on domestic abuse; and another involves implied sexual assault on the male main character.

Watchmen is a prime example of this in comics, one of the most lauded works in medium. Recently 1Q84, a novel containing a main character who murders men who have perpetrated assault in order to come to terms with tragedy in her life, gained significant critical acclaim. The more commercially successful The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was originally titled Men Who Hate Women. All dealt with negative themes in ways true to their characters.

However, it is something video games seem to significantly lack. Chris Bateman’s 2008 survey of video game players found that none of the top 10 emotions experienced were negative. In fact, the primary negative emotions, sadness, guilt and embarrassment, sat at the bottom. Very few games attempt to generate a negative emotion in the player and this is holding back video games from growing as a medium.

I recently argued that games’ potential to allow players to embody alien experiences is one of its greatest potential tools for the future. By being other people we can better understand and sympathize with them. This is just as important for negative experiences as it is positive ones.

To be successful as an art form, games will do terrible things to characters we like. This doesn’t mean that doing terrible things to the player characters somehow makes games better. No, it has to be thought out, presented in a correct context, and dealt with in terms of real emotional consequences. It shouldn’t be always, or even often, but it does need to happen.

Which brings us to the recent Tomb Raider trailer.

While it is unlikely that EA Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics will present the issues brought up by the trailer in a mature and significant manner, that doesn’t mean that the topics should never be brought up within a game.

We need games that make us feel uncomfortable, that make us want to crawl out of our own skin, put down the controller, and walk away, but also drive us to stay in front of the screen. For games to succeed as an art form doesn’t just mean less mindless violence. It means that when there is violence we, as players, need to feel every bullet.

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  1. razikain

    While I agree that games should evoke more negative emotions, I don’t think we should get rid of mindless ultra-violence entirely. There are some days we just want to let off some steam and blow some heads off to relax, without having to care about a deep plot or feeling guilty or sad for our victims. Playing Bejeweled or Solitaire or Plants vs Zombies or whatever will never be as relaxing as tearing our enemies apart and spill gallons of blood onscreen.

    •  @razikain I don’t know about the ‘spilling gallons of onscreen blood’, but I do think there will always be a place for ‘sport shooters’ like Unreal Tournament or Monday Night Combat. I too find a certain relaxation when just headshot-ing my way through hordes of meaningless enemies. That being said, I think the industry has gone a bit overboard in producing these, there’s just too many. I also have a real problem with the tendency to slap the ability to bleed on a character model and call a shooter ‘mature’ when it is really anything but. 

  2. EnochSoames

    I agree wholeheartedly. Pathologic and The Void (both by Ice Pick Lodge) are probably the best examples that spring to mind in terms of dealing with true emotional darkness and mature (even metaphysical) themes in an intelligent way. In my opinion root of the problem  is the wide-spread stagnation in the “industry”, though the current wave of independent/experimental games and new creative voices gives me some hope for the medium’s future. 

    •  @EnochSoames I don’t know Pathologic, but I own The Void (just haven’t gotten a chance to play it yet), in part because I’ve heard that it does a good job dealing with negative emotions. 
      Yes, a lot of people have talked about how the high cost of AAA development make developers less and less likely to innovate, the result being this stagnation loop that caught so much attention in this year’s E3. Indie games have done a good job bridging the gap, but unless that sector can create a real breakout hit, I don’t see things changing very quickly. Even if it does, we’ll just end up in the same loop. It’s a problem. 

  3. razikain

    I’ve tried to read the full interview now, but I stopped at the first few answers. I might have gotten it wrong or maybe I’m overreacting to his opinion. I guess I’ll make myself clearer by putting the points that raised my eyebrows and made me think “Are you seriously complaining about *that*?”
    “I left Eidos in 2004 because I looked around at E3 and saw the new Hitman game where you get to kill with a meat hook…”
    Yeah, because assassins give bouquets of flowers to their victims, take them to dinner, then watch a My Little Pony episode and gently asks them to die. It’s a goddamn game about an assassin, assassinations, people getting killed. It’s never pretty and never should be.
    “…and 25 to Life, the game about kids killing cops…”
    So adults killing cops is okay? Awww, darn it! Back to my GTA then…
    Jokes aside, I don’t really see the problem here.
    “…and Crash & Burn the racing game where the idea is to create the fieriest, most amazing explosions, not to win the race…”
    To each his own, dude, there’s Gran Turismo or Forza Whatever and plenty of family friendly racing games. It’s just a demolition derby that has racing.
    He seriously gave me the impression that games should be all pretty and and family friendly. And a “mature” approach to violence is the only right way to put it in a game. I won’t repeat the argument about  ultraviolence as, at the very least, a stress reliever in gaming. Read my previous comment for that.

    • EnochSoames

       @razikain The problem is that the industry’s embarrassingly juvenile attempts at maturity (particularly in regards to violence and sex/sexuality) have become the standard representation of the medium. Of course there’s a place for gore and ultraviolence, but Spector’s talking about the industry as whole. He’s plainly not arguing for games to be pretty and friendly, simply for a greater emotional maturity and range in what  is still a fairly young and evolving art. It is a real problem and I find it worrying that so many people react in this knee-jerk manner when confronted by it (the furore surround the whole Tropes vs Women is a fairly depressing example of this).
      “And a “mature” approach to violence is the only right way to put it in a game. ”
      Without meaning to be rude, could you possibly explain what you mean by “mature”?

      • razikain

         @EnochSoames  It’s what I got from his concept of “mature” violence: always serious and concerned about the consequences and implications of the violence I’m inflicting and being inflicted. While it might be a good approach depending on the setting and the plot and whatever else, he says it like we always have to be touchy and careful about it.

        •  @razikain  @EnochSoames That’s what I think of when I say ‘mature’.
          The problem is the game production companies that apply the term to anything involving killing people, when many of those games are anything but. The term tends to get misused.

      •  @EnochSoames  @razikain Yes, the issue isn’t that developers create those types of games, the issue is that it is the only thing they create. 
        And yes, our video game culture tends to be overly defensive, sometimes disgustingly so. 

    •  @razikain Yeah, I don’t think that either David Cage or Warren Spector addressed a solution in their interviews, but I think they both came closer to discussing what needs to change than anyone else has. Spector clearly is looking for more family-friendly games overall (he is the person behind Epic Mickey after all. Even if he thought otherwise, Disney would probably not want him to say that he wants to pour buckets of blood on gamers).
      I think the gamified ultra-violence has its place within gaming. Just like within film, a medium that has Kill Bill and Hobo With A Shotgun, there should be a place for everything.  I just think we need more than the ultra-violence. Imagine if all films that came out this year was Shoot Em Up and you’d have a good metaphor for the current gaming industry. 

  4. lewdanimals

    I don’t think these games or their players need to be pathologized. Lamenting the stagnation, creative bankruptcy, amorality, etc. of the industry strikes me as fundamentally unproductive. New ideas are constantly on display, whether in the indie scene or even in the “derivative, violent” titles critics rail against. It’s hard to find an AAA title that doesn’t involve killing, but I feel that as the means of production become more accessible, we will see more diverse work. 

  5. stealth2k

    i like happy games

  6. Clive Muscat

    I hope that Bioshock Infinite will be transmitting some of the darker feelings from the emotional spectrum. Well, I am hoping for a lot of things from that game heh…

  7. Nightmare Mode

    I’m hesitant myself, Clive… My fear is that they try to sum up something that was supposed to be meaningful in a trivial binary choice between “good” and “evil” like it was done with the Little Sisters.

  8. Clive Muscat

    I can understand that although I still believe that Bioshock did not impose a moral binary in its other aspects.

  9. Numquam

    As it stands right now, most games striving to resonate emotionally have difficulty finding an audience. To make games a truly respected medium, we have to change the way gamers view their games, not just change the games themselves. That signifies altering game marketing, reducing the amount of reiterations of a series, stressing the importance of narrative in games, etc.

    •  @Numquam I think those are all good points, and absolutely things we need to do. However, we will likely need a popular game in a more standard format to get the emotions right first, to help lead the way. 

  10. In Judaism, dreams are considered part of the experience of the world that can be interpreted and that lessons can be garnered from. It is discussed in the Talmud, Tractate Berachot, Second Part.