I was playing Max Payne 3. Having removed a poor gentleman’s mouth after shooting him in the heart, I couldn’t help wonder if I was being slightly excessive. The idea of ‘overkill’ has never really made sense to me, though: once a thing is killed, what does it matter how the killing was done? Perhaps there’s something different about shooting somebody in the head and, say, slowly removing his limbs – but then we can discuss torture, surely, as opposed to killing?
All games are essentially puzzle-solvers: we’re distracted by the Oscar-winning voice talent; the Hollywood explosions; beautiful graphics and sexy women; but all combine to create a thick, gluttonous mulch slopped over what is essentially, always Tetris. Puzzles now have flesh: they scream, wriggle, and die. They attack you. They kill your friends, your world, your character’s dreams. Let’s not forget: puzzles themselves are obstacles we have to overcome in order to create meaning to our current actions. Otherwise we’re merely static apes, drooling at colours.
These flesh puzzles can easily be solved by aiming the bullet in the right direction, at the appropriate time. Just as slotting in the requisite block solves the picture, just as a navigating the right path leads to completing the maze, so it is that putting the right amount of ammo and aim into a flesh puzzle removes it as an obstacle to reach your goal.
But what happens when the game congratulates your “solution” by slowing down, tracing your bullet-solving solution all the way into the flesh puzzle’s face; encourages you to press the button again and again and again, watch his limbs and arms and head explode and rip apart. Watch. Slow down. Spin. Blast away and watch the light of your gun reflect off the perfect pixels. This ‘excess’ is precisely what’s encouraged in Max Payne 3.
But this isn’t unique: we’ve always been rewarded with over-the-top prizes for solving a puzzle: a zillion points, a thousand dancing women, a bajillion rings bouncing on the floor. To congratulate you, to indicate you’ve solved the current puzzle, Max Payne 3 slows down and says “Look! You… really… did it!” Bang. Bang. Bang. That sound of a flesh puzzle’s pain, that tiny piece of meat and drops of blood flying off his face, that’s your reward. Well done.
What’s disturbing isn’t the violence; it’s not even the ‘excess’ of violence. It’s the reduction of people characters into flesh puzzles. It’s the idea that these are not really people, these are just things to overcome. Many games do this: create entities that must simply be overcome – but our reward is watching them writhe with pain we’ve caused.
The entire Hitman franchise hinges on viewing elaborate murder as a success. Hitman is little different from that other famous puzzle-solver The Incredible Machine: putting in place intricate designs, manipulating the environment so that your objective is achieved. Sometimes you need to get down and dirty; othertimes you can carefully set one domino after another so that you can walk away in slow motion, just after a tiny nudge. Falling into place, you know your goal is achieved.
For example, there was one mission where I had to kill a man eating an expensive restaurant. After sneaking into the kitchen, through knocking one particular person unconscious, I snuck inside, found a poisonous fish and slipped it into his outgoing meal. This itself required many steps: timing the waiter’s movements, the chef’s, the target and his minions. One careful domino placement, then another, then another. Finally, after all was achieved, I “tipped” the first domino – put the poison fish in place – then disappeared. I was alerted to my target choking to death. Mission complete.
Is this excessive? Well, this isn’t ‘glorifying’ in terms of giving us slow-mo bullet decapitation. It is however rewarding us with murder. Hitman likes to tell us, don’t worry, these are legitimately* bad guys! But how many games tell us otherwise? How many games inform us that we’re taking the life of some loving parent, some kind husband? Yes: we might have the Eichmann scenario of a monster at work, but a loving husband at home. But we’re not given the rounded characters: instead, we’re told “These are bad guys. Kill them.” Even elaborate machines’ rewards end with their death; even careful aim and proper timing glorifies their demise. But it doesn’t matter: they’re bad guys!
Call of Duty and all its clones have been killing foreigners for ages, equating not American with evil. I’m no pacifist nor anti-American; indeed, I think often the wars and battles portrayed in modern warfare games – and, indeed, historical ones during World War II – are just wars. I think the enemy combatants are worth fighting. But that’s not my point: it’s that we’re never, ever allowed to think of these people otherwise.
Consider how many women Max Payne kills? How many does 47? For Max Payne, I can think of a single woman he’s killed in the entire franchise. For 47, I can think of a few contracts. However, this is dangerous to the narrative of “These guys here must be destroyed because we say so” – women tend to upset this narrative; it reminds us of two things: that evil and horror and immorality isn’t particular to one sex and, secondly, there is more to these people than just their evil deeds.
What happens if 47 discovers his target was stealing important medical supplies, which resulted in many deaths, because his family was held hostage? What happens if Max Payne stopped to realise these thousand of thick-necked goons were not just two-armed, two-legged entities holding guns? In fact, there’s a scene where Max is leaving a destroyed office building and watched a poor, legless grunt crawl his way to the exit. Max, after interrogating him, grabs him by the collar and helps drag him out. It’s one of the few times a protagonist kills off the narrative of bad guys are just bad guys, not people with a mistaken or desperate agenda.
And that’s the problem. It’s too easy to forget people aren’t merely the sum of their bad actions. Sometimes there are reasons – simple, stupid but powerful reasons – that people have joined this militia, have gone too far in this bad gang. It’s easy to just take a thick brush and dip it into the bucket labelled enemy and cast it over all who stand against you.
Games are part of this kind of thinking, because it’s very, very human. I’m not blaming games or preaching anything hysterically immoral about the medium. What it is indicating is a symptom, not a cause, of the kind of thinking that makes our interactions so one-sided, so easily slipped into a narrative where we’re always on the right side of morality. But life isn’t that easy. Soldiers defending their country might not have all the information: you could be the one mistaken for invading their home (Iraq, for example); targets could be performing “evil” deeds for bigger, wider, moral reasons of which your ignorant.
I conclude two things from this: firstly, that we must all of us be careful of giving into the easy narrative of “Me-as-Hero, Them-as-Bad”, since we could be making enemies merely because they’re not on our side. This too easily is the reasons behind much conflict, wars and so on. Secondly, this is a way to make games mature: villains are too easily made, evil is too easily portrayed as “not good”, whereas, in reality, evil is more than that. I will be exploring how to make proper villains next time, but for now, we can at least be adult and recognise comic-book villains are not real. They’re not worth using for games that are meant to treat us as adults. We know the world is messy; conflicts complex. Why then should we be happy with villains and bad guys being these comically inane “bad guys” who do “bad things” as if we’re always on the side of angels?
Angels fall. Wings are torn. Halos become horns. Humanity is a property of fallibility and flaws; we all have the ability to morph into the monster we fight. Denying this is to deny ourselves. Denying that life is complex, reasons more so, is an insult to reality. We should grab horns and halos and destroy them. Once we’re left with naked humanity struggling to justify itself, fighting and screaming to stay alive, maybe then we can actually engage properly with our so-called enemies and be closer to portraying what wars, battles, conflicts really mean.
* I now hate this word.