I'm never on the side of censorship, but that does not mean that I have no sense of taste. It's the difference between saying that some forms of self-expression should not be, versus saying that I personally find something crass, tacky or offensive. So in that vein the issue of violent content at this year's E3 is one of personal taste for me: It puts me off wanting to buy some of those games.
However there's one game whose whole pitch is actually disturbing me. I'm not talking about the typically desensitising headshot shenanigans of yet another shooter, nor the roustabout splashing bloodiness of a God of War. I'm not even thinking of the somewhat more personal-yet-understandable tone of the forthcoming 'Last of Us', which while heavy still feels appropriate.
No, I'm talking about the new Tomb Raider.
Much is made of the transition to a new Tomb Raider as a more real-person game than the old Lara Croft. To hear every journalist tell it, Lara was apparently a sex symbol videogame character with many complex facades of empowerment and so forth. As someone who actually sold games in stores back when Tomb Raider launched, I cannot remember anyone actually thinking of the character in that way, and that the game was more beloved because of its puzzle-driven Indiana-Jones-esque gameplay, but the media sphere seems to believe they did.
So the setup for the new game is that of a prequel. You play a young, more realistically proportioned, Lara trapped on an island fighting for your survival. You're caught in a very tough predicament, with a variety of bad guys chasing you and many other hazards to overcome. So far it sounds like a straightforward action adventure game.
My problem with it started at E3 2011, where the original presentation for the game showed a young girl beaten, bloody and terrified, yelping, screaming and otherwise really very afraid. All while being relayed thoroughly dispassionately by the hosts. I thought to myself that perhaps this was within context, that conferences tends to be bloodless, and the game could be much like some movies or survival horror games Though it made me feel uncomfortable maybe that was a part of the art of games. Maybe it was a challenge to me, the player, to think differently.
Fast forward to this year and it's more of the same (limping, bleeding, crying etc) and the threat or inferrence of rape. What really pushed it over the edge for me was some interviews that I read with the game's makers talking about how this was all intentional, that the idea is to bring some reality into games, to really make the player want to protect this young girl, and so on.
Depending on who you are this sounds either highly avant garde or the subject of appallingly crass male fantasies. It also sounds highly equivalent. In a few debates on the subject this week, for example, I have encountered many opinions that state that the level of violence is no different than many movies. This is true. Similarly that if the character was actually male I would have no issue. This is false. Male injured characters in games are rarely portrayed as actually terrified or threatened with sexual violence.
Tone and gender are not where my disquiet comes from. It comes from the objectification of pain, which is an area that games sometimes stumble into without realising it. It's that all games tend to reduce down to their components, and in a sense are dehumanised. It's not about the fact that you're placing the player in a situation of protection, power and control, but rather that the hoped-for emotional connection that the game's maker believes will happen tends not to.
This is so for two reasons. First, the play brain. Its whole job is to synthesise any scenario into a set of components that form the levers of problems it can solve. It tends to reduce, to smooth, to quantify and objectify because that's how it figures out how to win. I often say that perhaps the main reason that games are attractive is that they are simpler, fairer, fascinating and more empowering that real life, and that's largely about the appeal to the play brain. While the game may inspire with its setting and theme, the mechanism matters.
Second, players do experience empathy for game characters, but not really for their own doll. The doll is not a hero and they are not roleplaying. They are simply projecting themselves into the world and interfacing with it through what amounts to a remote controlled action figure. It's a lensed extension of self.
This is why so many of the great icons of the game industry are paper thin as characters. Nobody knows nor cares about the motivations of Mario or the back story of the Master Chief because each is just a suit of clothes that the player gets to wear which can perform empowering actions. However narrativists often don't believe that and insist on trying to add character, motivation and empathy to the one part of the game that doesn't need it. So we get cut scenes and dramatisations and exposition. And, occasionally, shock that becomes schlock (also pathos that quickly descends into bathos).
All of that characterisation just gets in the way, and it can also lead to some pretty weird places. For example in Mass Effect one of the big moments of significance (to hear the press and the developers tell it) was this idea that your character had sex. It was hailed as a big moment in games, a sign of artistic maturity and a coming of age. Yet in reality this scene proved to be so emotionally null as to have the unintended air of comedy. Here was my action figure taking a quiet moment with fadeouts and so on for some reason that had no readily useful (play brainish) purpose. Um, okay. What's next?
Another example is the scene in Heavy Rain where you as Madison Parker are chased around your apartment by black clad thugs in your underwear. It's supposed to convey vulnerability, but in reality (largely because the quality of interaction is so incredibly weak) it becomes a weirdly dislocating scenario. It is as though you expect David Cage's head to pop up with prompt cards to tell you when to be afraid, or sad, or laugh.
The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character.
The difference between a new Tomb Raider and a Scream is not the level of screaming and slashing, it's that in the film you are empathising with a heroine, but in a game this action sort of happens to you but not you at the same time. So the feeling is either decidedly 'Meh, get on with it', or 'I don't really find the sensation of pushing this doll into torture scenarios joyful'. Where is the sense of winning in such a scenario, as opposed to just watching it all play out for reasons passing understanding? It gets a little grim, no?
And it makes me wonder about the game designers who come up with this sort of idea because of the stark dissonance between what they think they are making versus what they are actually making. How do you end up at a place where you think that the threat of sexual assault is a perfectly valid way to jazz up an action adventure? How do you square the knowledge that players will treat the game mechanically with this idea of artistic significance? What does it say about you as a person that you end up treating real human pain as just another tool in the box? By putting that kind of control in my hand, how have you not just created a very expensive new kind of exploitation game, like Postal?
That's why I find this game (what I've seen of it so far) creepy. And that's why I personally won't be buying it.