By Neil Merrett
Not a Hero for Playstation 4, developed by Roll7
There is probably more than a grain of truth in the idea that, as consumers, society is increasingly desensitised to depictions of graphic violence as films, literature and games evolve to try and reflect the more brutal nature of humanity.
‘Not a Hero’ for the Playstation 4, for example, should be horrific. Not a fun, quick paced 2D adventure, where you crush enemy skulls under your feet, incinerate crooks and police with makeshift incendiaries, and shotgun blast individuals through doors, as well as doors through people.
These summary executions and action movie cliches, such as endless floor slides and dual wielded pistols, are all performed in the name of in-game societal approval and creating a satisfying, bloody crunch from the corpses of fallen enemies.
On a standard playthrough, gamers are able to choose how best to eliminate an entire building of people, smashing through a window and executing individuals from behind, slitting their throats on the ground, or taking out an entire building floor with nail bombs to clear enemies away, The only stipulation is often to eliminate anyone else that moves, while sometimes being asked to simultaneously escort a doddering aunt to her front door or finding cake.
As the game racks up kill counts in the hundreds, playthroughs over time can become somehow balletic and wonderful, with the player endlessly resetting and replaying levels to choreograph their brutality for maximum efficiency, style and unlockable rewards. Without any consequence, your only concern is to eliminate the highest number of individuals with the least amount of firepower possible.
The choice whether to blast out a door to surprise and knock down potential attackers, or put them through a window to wipe enemies below is all down to you and your choice of weapons – shotguns, knives and high explosives strapped to kittens are all at your disposal.
It is stylised, darkly comic violence of the most brutal kind, albeit it using the visual and musical trappings of late 1980’s video-games. A multi colour odyssey of stab wounds, ricocheting bullets and hand grenades that bounce around like volleyballs.
In populating the game with brightly colourful, cartoonish games videogame stereotypes that perform the most obscenely brutal executions for a malevolent rabbit and aspiring civil servant called Bunnylord, does the comedic tone and old school graphics somehow diminish the acts the player perform?
Do comedy stereotypes, light satire and nostalgic graphical appeal derived from a bygone age of 2D games somehow makes brutal violence more palatable as gamers?
In recent decades, titles like the original ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and Manhunter have garnered intense criticism, as well as commercial interest, for their perceived brutality and adult content, yet they take a similar approach to the morally void, dark appeal of violent retribution as the cutesy, Not a Hero.
So what exactly then do we find most problematic about video game violence as a society?
Is it the idea that children, pensioners and just about everyone else can choose to kneecap and enact mind numbing, hammer-based brutality to their heart’s desire with no real world consequences, or the increasingly photo-realistic graphic depiction of that acts themselves that we have problems with.
Modern games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 give players the choice to orchestrate crimes, murders, hit and runs, and a host of other larcenies and obscenities in a real world setting, where criminals and elected officials are – mostly like the real world – not unhinged cartoon psychopaths.
As one of the biggest selling games of all time, GTA5 for some provides thrilling escapism, while to others a disturbing reflection of the worst aspects of humanity, where individuals can mow down innocents and engage in snowball fights at the same time.
By the time the game was ported over to the current generation of consoles with a further graphic overhaul, as well as the chance to play the game literally through the eyes of your character, a great deal was made of the level of detail, realism and violence.
While GTA games in the past had the player controlling the character as if looking down on them or from behind, the ability to remove the fourth wall was seen as providing a very different experience,
Journalists at the time found the addition of a first person mode where you could strike down bystanders in the street with a hammer as if you were actually there as powerful experience – some finding it a guilty, highly enjoyable pleasure, while others were outright “horrified”.
For some it seems, games can feel a little too close to reality.
Almost three years later, and with VR seen as an emerging means of streaming media and playing games from their comfort of our own heads, the idea of what makes a game, at least visually immersive is likely to evolve even more drastically than it has over the last decade.
Might there be a point when realism will become unpalatable for some gamers, say when the worlds and the characters we assault, maim or fail to save feel ever more realistic. In that case, the cartoonishly demented Bunnylord, and retro-style titles evoking the safer memories of 2D gaming may be a more palatable means of letting us live out blackly comic or outright violent fantasies.
Jon Hare, a pioneer of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming during his time with Sensible Software leading development of titles such as Sensible Soccer, and the war satire Cannon Fodder, previously explained to Squareblind the psychological appeal of less sophisticated graphics and older 2D games. In particular he touched on why photo realism wasn’t always the same thing of immersing oneself into a digital world.
Hare argued that the power of modern consoles and computers to define visuals so realistically disabled an individual’s brain from filling in the spaces of more representative graphics.
“This means that effectively an entirely different part of your brain is being stimulated during play…. When graphics are representative and control is very fast and intuitive the game content is secondary to the sensation of thinking like you are immersed in the game world in a psychological sense,” he said.
Perhaps Bunnylord isn’t so cute after all.