The good guy is the one who isn't getting choked to death.
Video games’ stories – and the characters who drive them – have changed a lot in the past ten years. When I was in middle and high school, many popular video game protagonists were basically anonymous. Probably three quarters of the first person shooters that came out during my adolescence featured gruff, stereotypically angry space marines as their protagonists – characters who amounted to little more than an empty vessel to hold a gun and appear in cutscenes, most of which involved helicopter crashes.*
*For those of you who don’t know, a tried and true rule of video gaming is that when your character gets on a helicopter, that motherfucker is going to crash. I have probably boarded 100,000 virtual helicopters in 16 years of gaming; maybe four of them have landed safely.
Video games’ stories have changed a lot since then. The core audience for video games has grown up, and games have with them. In the past year alone I’ve played several video games that have had stronger stories and greater emotional impact than a number of movies I’ve seen, along with bar none some of the finest helicopter crashes yet.
The Last Of Us is one such game. It’s a tightly written, emotionally complex story, equal parts Children of Men and The Road, in which you play a middle aged smuggler with a shady past who is forced to escort a teenaged girl across the postapocalyptic United States. Along the way you’ll have to contend with hideous monsters – the mutated remains of humans infected with a parasitic fungus that caused the apocalypse 20 years before – as well as predatory human scavengers.
The "violence is not the answer" crowd doesn't have an answer for this situation.
The story of the smuggler and the girl, as well as the people they meet along the way, is powerful and heart wrenching. The performances are incredible and the atmosphere is spot on. It’s the sort of experience that leaves you emotionally exhausted when you stop playing for the day. After the credits rolled, I took a look at the statistics the game had recorded for me and discovered that my aging, emotionally conflicted smuggler had killed 716 people over the course of his trip across the country.
Tomb Raider is a story about a young woman empowering herself by killing several hundred heavily armed pirates. In Red Dead Redemption you play as a former outlaw who kills several hundred people in a quest to clear his name and leave his violent past behind. Bioshock Infinite is a game about love, loss, redemption, power, and self determination where it’s possible to sic a bunch of bloodthirsty crows on someone, set him on fire as they peck at his flesh, and chop his flaming head off.
We’ve reached the point where video games have the power to create protagonists that are every bit as compelling, believable, and empathetic as their onscreen counterparts. Recently, though, members of the gaming media have begun to point out that this newfound emotional complexity is undercut by the fact that video game protagonists, as a rule, tend to kill hundreds and hundreds of people in their adventures. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, because you’re basically playing as a really empathetic mass murderer.
Before you feel too sorry for these guys, remember that the enemies in BioShock Infinite are like Sean Hannity-level racist, so it's kind of okay.
In its defense, The Last Of Us is a game about survival at all costs. Every one of the 716 brutal stranglings, beatings, stabbings, and shootings I committed was an act of desperation where the only alternative was the death of my character and the young girl he was tasked to protect. Because of that it was easy for me to forget that I had killed the equivalent of my high school graduating class two times over.
The concern I’m seeing from gaming journalists isn’t that violence is present in games; it’s that gaming as a medium is being held back by a 20-year-old game mechanic which dictates that your progress through the story is governed by how many people you can kill. They feel that video games’ sheer body count is the only thing keeping them from becoming more like movies and achieving that level of legitimacy. That's a valid concern, and I really love that this is a discussion people are having.
The thing is, while video games have taken a lot of storytelling and thematic cues from movies for practically the entirety of the industry’s existence, they’re still video games – and video games have their own unique set of tropes and conventions to abide by.
Not all tropes are good tropes.
No critic complained that Goodfellas wasn’t split up into a few dozen chapters, nobody said The Catcher In The Rye should have been written in rhythmic, rhyming verse, and nobody but me thinks that the collected works of Emily Dickenson could be improved by a helicopter crash. This is because these are all different storytelling mediums, each of which plays by its own distinct set of rules.
Video games are the only storytelling medium (short of the well respected “choose your own adventure” literary genre) that you can interact with. To keep players interested, developers have to give them a constant stream of problems to solve as they work through the story. Based on sales figures, the most popular problem to solve is, “Here are people. Kill them.”
If we’re going to compare modern video games to movies, why don’t we compare them to musicals? Because that’s their closest relative, if you ask me. Musicals tell a story with frequent breaks for everybody to start singing and dancing; video games tell a story with frequent breaks for everybody to start killing each other. That doesn’t make Singin’ In The Rain any less legitimate a work of art than Slaughterhouse-Five, and it doesn’t make The Last Of Us any less legitimate than any Academy Award-caliber movie.
For better or for worse, people killing each other is good entertainment. You personally might not agree, but the vast majority of people who have lived certainly do. Odysseus killed more people in his adventures than Lara Croft, Bioshock's Booker DeWitt, or Joel the smuggler in The Last Of Us – and he did it without the help of guns, crows, or a single crashing helicopter.
Truman Capps almost exclusively plays big budget shooters, which is why there is no mention here of the scores of indie and Nintendo games that have been extremely successful without violence.