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Violence: The Worst of Us

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When I watched Joel, the player character in Naughty Dog’s the Last of Us, beat a man to death on the corner of a desk, I was horrified. It only got worse as each survival motivated death became grislier than the last. My stomach fell and I’m sure I became pale when I watched Joel kill a man that was asking to be spared (despite attempting to murder Joel just seconds before). I stared, frozen, at the Last of Us logo for a few minutes before I could collect my thoughts and move on.

I watched that one while alone at home. Compare that to the uproar of cheers and applause that the trailer received at Sony’s E3 press conference. I’m not positive what frightened me more, the thought of such a raw and unglamorously violent game existing or the enthusiasm behind it. Thinking about the game made me pretty excited about the prospects of gameplay that were hinted at in the trailer. I always a enjoy a game that raises the tension of having more enemies than ammo, or at least just enough ammo. Also, if I was in a group setting like that, and I saw gameplay that exciting, I probably would have cheered.

And although I would not have the time to develop these thoughts, here’s why I would’ve cheered: The Last of Us is one of the few games that has the potential to treat violence with the gravity it should have.

I probably would have written The Last of Us off as a murder simulator if it wasn’t for the girl, Ellie. In fact, I was quickly losing interest in the trailer until Joel throws a molotov cocktail at a man engulfing him in flames, and she makes her disgust known. “Keep it together,” Joel retorts under his breath. This really opened me up to what Naughty Dog was trying to do. They wanted to make a game that reminded you, that sometimes violence happens for the best.

I am not a condoner of any unprovoked violence, I certainly believe a peaceful way to resolve a problem is always the best, but I do believe that sometimes peace isn’t the only option for the best outcome, and violence can be necessary for defense. I believe that, with hindsight, the European front of World War II was justified, and I believe the American Revolution had a profoundly positive impact on not just America, but the world’s political landscape. However, an objectively righteous cause for violence does not make it any easier to handle.

On the (hopefully) opposite end of the violence spectrum from Last of Us is where Mortal Kombat and Manhunt congregate. In these games the plot and the aesthetic not only justify but boldly encourage colosseum-like bloodlust. Mortal Kombat’s signature Fatality moves have no effect on gameplay, they only after the game is already over, it is simply there for morbid fascination.  The Last of Us might appeal to the same moroes sensibilities, but so does Saving Private Ryan.

The Last of Us will hopefully be a large point in bringing balance to games’ presence on that spectrum. It feels so unbalanced in favor of the tantalizing parts of violence. The Last of Us has so much potential to bring a seriousness and impact. A lot of this will come from Ellie’s reactions. Also, if I had a teenage girl tailing me, I might be more keen to avoid violence altogether, but also more prone to it for protection’s sake. How Ellie effects my tendencies toward violence in gameplay rest entirely in how she is characterized and how well Naughty Dog accomplishes their characterization goals. Given their track record, hopes are high.

One such situation was described Chris Plante in Polygon’s E3 day of coverage videos. Joel kills a man in a room absent of Ellie’s presence,blood begins to pool around the corpse, when Ellie enters the room, she just shakes her head in disgust. It is a novel idea that works, but it’s incredible that it’s taken so long to have characters be disgusted by disgusting actions.

Ben Kuchera in his review of Spec Ops: The Line, which was wonderfully insightful, talks about the gravity that game had in its plot about violent things. He says it best, “This is war as a destroyer, not a crucible; when you put men in monstrous situations, monsters emerge.”

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Man Slave

(WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the following games: BioShock, Shadow of the Colossus, and Red Dead Redemption)

My wife’s surprise diagnosis of epilepsy started a Lemony Snicketian series of of unfortunate events that took our lives’ goals out of our hands. One night, while I held my spouse as she cried over the loss of control in her life, I thought to myself, “Maybe Andrew Ryan was wrong about everything.

I always thought the Rapture baron and his namesake, Ayn Rand, got a lot wrong, I never did agree with objectivism, but I clung to the idea that I was a man who chooses, not a slave that obeys. I had never questioned the existence of free will; after all, I choose what I have for breakfast every morning, why can’t I choose everything else?. That all changed when I was forced to watch myself beat a man to death. Soon I realized the arrow I chose to follow and all the waypoints every game gave me may not have been my choice at all, but just an order I kindly obeyed.

Science still cannot find evidence of free will, in fact many believe evidence points to the contrary. There’s an experiment that physicists and neurologist shave repeated several times mostly with the same results. They hook subjects up to device that measure’s a brain’s electrical activity and tell the subject to remain still but to wiggle their finger at random intervals. The timing is all measured very carefully and the result tends to be that the finger is wiggled before the brain decides to wiggle and send the wiggle signal. Basically, a finger is wiggled before the brain tells it to do so. Another psychology researcher, Lawrence Williams, found that most people would consistently form opposite opinions about a person that was described to them simply depending on the temperature of the coffee they held moments before reading said description. Physicist Brain Greene, while saying that he stays out the free will debate has publicly said, “We are just a sack of particles acting out the laws of physics.”

As my wife and I moved onward, very much not living a life we chose for ourselves, the questions, “Am I Jack? Are neurons out of my control asking my body, ‘Would you kindly?’” kept hounding me. It is not something I would want to accept, it is not comfortable thinking every action I’ve taken in life preceded the thought to to it, just like the wiggling finger. It is just plain unpleasant to think I am not in control.

This lack of control is what made my wife upset. In one morning, a seizure took away my wife’s ability to drive a car and thus took away of lot of her freedom here in the Los Angeles area. My wife did not react well, as most people would. This lack of feeling in control drives people mad, it is what made a lot of the denizens of Rapture turn against their underwater home.

Dr. Steinman’s descent was over his control of others’ appearances. When he ponders ADAM’s possibilities and surgery before its appearance, he asks, “Could we really do anything before it?” ADAM provided Dr. Steinman so much control he felt incapable of anything before he had it as a tool to exercise his will on his patients. This feeling of utter control drives him past any sort of normalcy, he declares beauty a “moral obligation” and begins to look at surgery more as art than science while comparing himself to “that old Spaniard,” Picasso. Dr. Steinman’s ultimate control over this patients made their faces, as well as their surgeon, quite ugly. Dr. Steinman’s control left the world a little worse off.

Sander Cohen’s danger comes from the same struggle as his poem, “The Wild Bunny” shows. He writes, “I want to take the ears off, but I can’t,” He wants to shape the world around him into his own art, but he can’t.

The desire for control is ultimately what destroys Rapture. Andrew Ryan, although claims to give everyone total autonomy, fights back when his authority is threatened and Frank Fontaine fights for his control of wealth. Their conflict brings a definite ruin to rapture. Perhaps, the quest for control ultimately leads to a downfall.

BioShock isn’t the only game that brings this up. Wander in Shadow of the Colossus refuses to lose his love and tries to control her death, but instead he ends up making his world worse off. John Marsden in Red Dead Redemption tries to control his life, but the feds get in the way, and eventually rob him of his life and his potential to exert his free will. However, the epilogue of that game presents an interesting choice. As Jack Marsden, do you immediately avenge your father, or do you do whatever it is you want out in the west? You do have a choice.

I didn’t. I never stopped sprinting toward Edgar Ross and quickly killed him, which creates another interesting point that the writer of the Red Dead Redemption wikipedia article did a surprisingly good job describing, “Almost immediately after Ross’s death, Jack looks down at his gun in confusion; while he has avenged his father, he has also become a murderer and a criminal, which his father died to prevent. Jack holsters his gun, pauses, and then walks back up the riverbed, his future, uncertain.” Edgar, John and Jack all learn that imposing their free will over their own lives, and especially others’, can become an ugly and difficult affair.

As everything keeps happening to my wife and me, we have trouble controlling the world around us, and when we try grab control, we become more like Sander Cohen than anyone pleasant. However, as we’re trying to focus our energies to internal control, life looks a little brighter. Despite everything working against us, we’re still excelling in our jobs and at school. Maybe we succeed because our neurons are making us and we just think we’re in control, or maybe our desire comes first. And maybe I killed Frank Fontaine and saved little girls because I chose to be a nice guy.

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