Thursday, September 20, 2012

Brutality! A history of violence in videogames.

If you’re easily offended, you can stop reading now.

Yes, this is a piece about violence in videogames. It’s a look at the most brutal, gratuitous and vile things that you can do to your opponents (and sometimes to yourself) in some of the most controversial games in history.

But this isn’t a rant about how videogames are ruining our children, and turning them into mentally unhinged murderers who run amok, cheerfully decapitating bystanders, neighbours, cousins and school principals (videogames don’t do that, but that’s a discussion for another time and place). Oh, no. This is a celebration of very adult entertainment (not THAT adult entertainment. Drag your minds out of the sewers, if you please) provided by the fantasy violence that is the hallmark of some of the finest videogames ever made.

Violence has always been a common theme in games, even in the old days. Take chess, for instance. Nobody ever accused chess of being a bad influence on tender young minds. But it’s undeniable that it is a game about cowardly, pansy monarchs who send out troops to kill the troops of other similarly spineless despots, while they muck about safely behind the lines. With a little imagination, it’s easy to look at a game of chess in progress and see mounted knights hacking foot solders into pieces, evil priests sexually harassing beautiful queens by menacingly circling around them (sometimes hunting in pairs, like fast bowlers) and a battlefield stained with blood, bodies strewn by the wayside. Uggh. I hope I’ve convinced you to pull your innocent children out of those dangerous chess classes immediately. A most vile and corrupting influence, this game. Turns your children into corrupt generals, murdering soldiers and deviant priests. Shudder.

But I digress.

Videogames, in fact, started off fairly innocently. The very first videogame, Pong, was nothing more than a friendly game of electronic tennis. But it didn’t take very long for the corrupting influence of traditionally violent games like Chess to find their way into videogames, and before long, we had spaceships shooting laser beams at each other, crazed gorillas carrying off pretty girls, and then being attacked by plumbers carrying hammers, strange pizza-like creatures defending themselves against monsters by actually eating them raw, and other such gory goodness. But videogames such as Space War, Donkey Kong and Pac-Man were still perceived as wholesome entertainment - because, like Chess, they hid their darkness behind cutesy-pie facades. Nobody looked at Pac-Man gobbling up a monster and saw it for what it was - cannibalism. Without even the decency to cook your fellow creatures before eating them. (I’m personally shocked that Pac-Man did not set off a wave of cannibalism in the United States when it first came out. Maybe there weren’t enough anti-videogame campaigners at the time to spark it off.)

So people did not quite get offended by videogame violence for a while. Not until Death Race arrived in 1976.

Death Race was a game in which you drove around in a sports car and ran over innocent pedestrians for points (this makes it even more cynical than the much reviled Grand Theft Auto, which doesn’t explicitly reward this soul-cleansing activity). To make it worse, every time you successfuly ran over someone, a cross would appear, marking the spot where they once stood. People in America were so horrified by this, they even forgot that it was based on a movie featuring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone (a most heinous crime by itself), and started complaining en-masse about how the game was ‘sick’ and ‘morbid’, triggering off TV debates on the psychological impact of violent videogames, and raking up all manner of controversy that eventually caused Death Race to sell many more copies than it would have otherwise.

It’s important to remember that Death Race (and other controversial games of the time, such as Custer’s Revenge and Texas Chainsaw Massacre) featured graphics that were extremely primitive, and a far cry (see what I did there?) from today’s games. If you were to watch a game of Death Race in progress today, it’s highly unlikely that you’d find it even in the least bit disturbing. 

However, you’re unlikely to have that problem with Bulletstorm.

The recent first person shooter from Epic, controversially advertised as “the game your mom doesn’t want you to play”, encourages players to ‘Kill with Skill’ - awarding special points for creative ways of disposing off your enemies, such as lassoing them and then impaling them on metal spikes, kicking them on to live wires and electrocuting them, and pulling them off helicopters and then shooting them in the ass before they hit the ground (I kid you not). This game is so over the top, it makes Grand Theft Auto look like a game of tic-tac-toe. It’s re-ignited the debate over violence in games all over again, and given Jack Thompson one more reason to regret that he’s disbarred in practically every state in the US. 
Bulletstorm is hardly the first game to feature gratuitous violence. The famously controversial Postal featured levels where you generally had to run amok, killing everybody in sight. Soldier of Fortune was the first game to feature different animations when you shot enemies in specific body parts. Manhunt featured a feature where you could kill enemies by choking them with plastic bags over their heads (a feature so disturbing, even publisher Rockstar games, not known for being averse to controversy,  debated it for long before including it. But they included it, God bless them).

But the important thing is this - Bulletstorm and its ilk aren’t meant for kids. The Electronic Software Ratings Board (a body that was formed thanks to Mortal Kombat’s famous spine-ripping, neck snapping fatalities) has had the good sense to rate these games ‘M’ for Mature, meaning that only persons aged 17 or above can play it. And if you’re 17 or above, there’s some incredible good times to be had with extremely violent videogames.
Gears of War 2 features a level where you’re inside the belly of a huge monster, and have to wade through neck-deep blood before using a chainsaw to cut your way out from the inside. The Fallout games feature combat where you can decide whether to shoot that hideous mutant in the kneecaps, eyeballs or head - all to the quite surreal background of cheerful classic hits by artists such as Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters.Many such delights await the player who is capable of enjoying them without feeling the urge to regurgitate the most recent meal.

And let’s face it - we live in a violent world, and there’s little evidence to show that it’s going to get any gentler or kinder overnight. The make-believe violence found in videogames is simply play - an extension of the bang-you’re-dead popgun play we all indulge in as children. Renowned writer Gerard Jones, in his famous book ‘Killing Monsters : Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence’, makes an eloquent, well-researched and convincing argument that fantasy violence actually helps children deal better with the many kinds of violence they face during childhood, and as adults later in life. Indeed, children relate to make-believe violence ( such as that found in videogames, comics, cartoons and films) completely differently from how they relate to it in news broadcasts or when faced with it in real life. And this distinction stays with us through adulthood (at least, those of us who aren’t mentally unhinged), which is why we can enjoy violence without indulging in violent behaviour - why we realize that it’s probably not a good idea to respond to a power cut by ripping off a bright friend’s head to use as a light source, or to react to the high prices of foodgrain by spraying bullets around the local Big Bazaar. 

If you still believe that videogame violence is evil and will make you behave violently in real life -  then a piece of heartfelt advice. Don’t play chess.

Grandma Gamer

Or how the gift-request killed the headshot.

Six hours of gaming every day. Signs of serious addiction - such as inability to think of anything else, a propensity to wake up at 3 a.m. to complete an unfinished game quest. Identifying more with game friends than real-life ones (and never mind family - they don’t even figure). It’s enough to drive everyone else in the household nuts.

Grandma really needs to kick her videogame addiction.

Oh? You thought we were talking about teenage boys? Heavens, no. 

The world is seeing the rise of a new kind of gamer. She’s anywhere between her thirties and seventies, and couldn’t care less about oversized orcs, perilous planets, swashbuckling swordsmen, super-soldiers and all the other stuff that have historically defined videogame-cool. She’s far too busy tending crops, caring for animals and making cities look pretty. Yep. That friend on Facebook that keeps asking you to help her bake cakes or build a day-care center? That’s her.  And she’s ushering in a revolution that is shaking the hitherto testosterone fuelled world of videogames at its very foundations.

The growth of social gaming is old news. Powered by the likes of Farmville, Cityville and The Sims Social, games on Facebook and other social networks are perched cheerfully right atop the gaming heap. These games command the kind of following that all but the most elite of hardcore franshises can only dream about. Consider this - blockbuster hit Grand Theft Auto IV has sold 22 million copies in over three years since its release. Cityville has over 70 million people playing it every single month. Pwnage, gamers would call this.

But we’re not here to toss numbers around to prove who’s winning. No no no. That would be like bringing a flamethrower to a food fight.

We’re talking about something far more profound. We’re talking about the age of happy. The era of glad. ‘Tis a time to be jolly, hold hands, skip around and generally annoy the crap out of others by being overwhelmingly friendly. And the new gamer chic is the looneytunestechnicolorcandypop aesthetic of the social gaming world.

It’s different, this gamer world. A far cry from the trash-talking world of flying fists, exploding heads, aliens with dubious motives and scantily clad warrior-princesses we core gamers know and love. Violence, anger, sex and mad skillz are being replaced by [shudder] love, caring, playing with dress-up dolls and virtual duplo, and [shudder] being nice to other gamers. You’re not s’pposed to be NICE to other gamers. You’re s’pposed to blow them to bits. Whatever happened to tradition? It was instagibbed by the neighbor request, that’s what happened.

The colourful, happy, bouncy and, crucially, friendly and welcoming world of social games has changed the dominant vocabulary of gaming. Gift requests, helping friends and inviting neighbours are pushing headshots, deathmatches and clan raids into cult status from the cushy environs of the mainstream. This new kind of game is like a big, warm hug. It welcomes everybody. Grandma loves this - which is why she’s taking to these games like a duck to water. And other ordinary people just like her are loving it, too. And you know the thing about ordinary people? There are zillions of ‘em - which is music to the ears of biggie game publishers.

The world has always looked at games as things that are played by ‘gamers’ - as though gamers weren’t human beings but some strange other-worldly life forms. Then somebody (it was probably Will Wright, that wonderfully mad coot) realized that ordinary people didn’t play games because nobody made games that they’d want to play. And they realized that games didn’t necessarily need to be epic adventures that required godlike reflexes in order to be fun. They just needed to be fun, period.

A Sims, a Farmville and a Cityville later, here’s where we are. 

What’s happening here is nothing short of a grassroots revolution in the world of videogames. It’s never been more exciting - all sorts of new games are popping up, enticing newer and newer audiences to generally slack, ignore their duties and spend time playing. Good thing, that.

And while, at first glance, it may seem that gaming’s latest revolution is bypassing its hardcore faithful in favour of the new kids (and grandparents) on the block, all is not lost. The creative, positive gameplay vibe from social games is having ripple effects on hardcore games as well. The result? Games like the phenomenal Minecraft - which can be best described as Lego with monsters. Minecraft is essentially about creative sandbox play - build a world with blocks. They just put the monsters in to make it more exciting for core gamers - but Minecraft at its deep core has more in common with games like Farmville than with any hardcore genre from the past. Beneath its hardcore skin of a first-person perspective and retro graphics is a game that is essentially about building things, and enjoying watching your creations grow, little by little. It’s like playing with toys. 

Be sure - there is a convergence afoot here. According to a report by gaming website, 30% of XBOX owners, who nobody would accuse of being anything less than hardcore, also play games on Facebook, up 10% from the previous year. Increasingly, people are playing a wider spread of games. 

This convergence is actually heading to a happy future where the word ‘gamer’ will stop meaning ‘anyone who enjoys playing videogames’. We don’t have specific words for people who enjoy reading books or watching movies as a matter of course. Sure, we call the obsessive types ‘bookworms’ or ‘couch potatoes’ or ‘Roger Ebert’, but those are outliers. ‘Gamer’ should mean ‘someone who obsessively plays every single game ever released, even Big Rigs’ and not ‘someone who enjoys a bit of Halo and Super Mario Bros on weekends’. And Grandma and her friends are helping us get there.

You know what I want to see? A scene where Grandma spends an hour accepting neighbor invites and neighbor requests, tending to farms and cities, before saying “Maybe I should try that new game about that dear little boy running around with a plasma cannon. My grandson says it’s fun.”  She calls out to the kid, asking him to show her the latest sci-fi FPS. And the kid shoots back “Later, Grandma. Need to harvest strawberries.”

That would be pwnage.

Holy Cow!

A sideways glance at the most stellar performances by cows in videogames.

While playing Rockstar's recent classic Red Dead Redemption, I had a cow moment.

Red Dead Redemption is an action adventure game where you play the role of a former outlaw and cowboy on a quest to extract terrible revenge on his former comrades, riding, shooting and badassing your way to victory. Except, along the way, you occasionally stop to herd cows into their pens. Don't ask.

But back on topic - when playing through the segments where you need to ride alongside a herd of nervous bovines and ensure that they don't wander off the path and fall off a cliff (or get stuck in the level geometry. Blasted polygons.), I couldn't help thinking back to the 80s ATARI 2600 game Stampede, and how far videogame cows had come.  The cows in RDR are awesome, as cows should be. Each one is the end result of high-poly modeling, texturing, dynamic lighting and motion captured (you may now take a moment to reflect on the wonders of cow mo-cap, and visualize a cow covered in those mo-cap sensors. But only a moment. Done? Good.), fluid animation that results in absolutely top-end cows. It wasn't always this way.

Stampede, the first game in which I remember seeing cows, and possibly the first game to feature them as a key gameplay element, was a game typical of the 4 bit ATARI era. Its cows, which you, as a gallant and dutiful cowboy, had to lasso and prevent from escaping, were merely a bunch of pixels. It was only by very skilfully stretching your imagination that you could identify them as cows. In fact, by stretching the same imagination in a slightly different way, you could just as well identify them as alien spaceships, or dune buggies, or your grandmother. Pixel art was cool like that. The context of the game (ably assisted by beautiful hand painted box art tat looked nothing like the actual game) provided the guidance so that players could look at horribly pixelated things and relate to them as whatever the game designers intended them to be.

Fast forward to the early 90s, to the era of the resurgence of CRPGs, and specifically to Fallout. Fallout, a game set in a post apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, featured perhaps the most interesing cows in videogame history - the Brahmin, a two-headed mutated species that the characters in the game used as raw material for delicious (though mildly irradiated) steaks. The Brahmin remained popular with Fallout fans, and, when the franchise was revived after a long gap with Fallout 3, they returned. And now, you could sneak up behind them and tip them over. Awesome. In fact, it's so awesome that the publishers decided not to release the game in India, for fear of offending the millions of people here who ostensibly worship mutated post-nuclear cows. Good move.

Perhaps the most famous appearance by cows in videogames is in the Diablo series. The first game, Diablo, featured a lone cow which would just stand idly by in the town - perhaps providing some bovine serenity as a relief from the mayhem that prevailed in the rest of the game. The presence of the cow without any obvious purpose in the game, however, led to the spread of one of the most famous rumours in gaming history. "Is there a secret cow level ?" asked millions of Diablo fans, frantically trying to unlock the fabled dungeon where the player could take a break from fighting demonic forces and fight demonic cows instead. However, they would remain disappointed. There was no secret cow level. At least, until Diablo 2. Blizzard, like only they can, responded to the fans and actually included a secret cow level in the sequel. If you beat the game with a specific weapon (Wirt's leg - a rather grim club, made up of the reains of a character from the previous game. Don't ask) , you would unlock a dungeon where you could battle hordes of bipedal cattle carrying meat cleavers, and finally beat the Cow King (a contradiction, and also a truly 733t end boss). What more could a gamer want?

After a bit of a quiet period (barring some sensational cameos in the Call of Duty series and in Rayman : Raving Rabbids), cows resurfaced in games and emerged stronger than ever before.

And no game has done more for cows than Zynga's monster Facebook hit Farmville. Thanks to Farmville's massive success, more people have been clicking on cows than ever before - and, unlike in Diablo, this time it wasn't with the intention of killing them. Farmville's cutesy cows have pretty much become the mascot of the game, and, arguably, the mascot for all of social gaming.

In fact, cows are so strongly identified with social games that Ian Bogost, noted game journalist, author and developer, created the satirical 'Cow Clicker' - a facebook game intended to poke fun at what Bogost felt were the most cynical and shallow aspects of popular social games like Farmville. In Cow Clicker, all players could do was click on a cow once every few hours. They could invite friends so that they could click more ften, and buy different kinds of cows. That's it. But, much to Bogost's dismay, people actualy began playing Cow Clicker without getting the joke - they were actually enjoying the game! People have debated and discussed this episode to death in the gaming pess and forums - but I think the whole thing just points to the awesomeness of cows. They should teach this at game design colleges : Successful game design 101. Step 1 - Put a cow in it.

In 2012, the presence of cows in videogames promises to show substantial growth. The game that everyone's playing now - The Elder Scrolls V : Skyrim, has more than its fair share of cows, and more than its fair share of funny glitches. Thanks to which, on a full moon night in Skyrim, if you chance to clance up at the moon, you just might see a cow flying over it.  Just before it collides with a Dragon. These are the moments that videogame dreams are made of. And these moments wouldn't be possible without cows.


Some games just make you want to throw your controller at the wall.

Videogames weren't always this way. They didn't always mollycoddle you with 'easy' modes, automated save points, helpful tutorials and sissy automaps.

Oh, no. 

Back in the day, when videogames were meant for real men (and real women who were real men), one of those cheerful, bright and colourful 8-bit plastic cartridges could bring you to tears. Remember any of these names ? - Battletoads. Ninja Gaiden. Contra. Ghosts and Goblins. Mega Man. Ikaruga. Robotron. Yes? Then you probably also associate these with memories of aching thumbs, bruised egos and walls scarred with the marks of gamepads hitting them at considerable speeds.

Let's start with the infamous Contra, shall we? Three miserable lives is all you had [yes, yes, I know about the Konami Code. But that was for sissies.]. Three stinking lives to get through many hours of utterly devious level design, switching perspectives and relentless enemies raining a veritable bulletstorm around you. And guess what? One hit and you were dead. No namby-pamby shields or regenerating health bars to give you breathing space - you were a one-hit kill for your enemies. I think the first time I ever publicly said 'Fuck' was when I died for the 348th time in Contra. My parents have blamed videogames for my ongoing downfall ever since.

Or perhaps you'd prefer to talk about the maddening, superhuman coordination and reflexes demanded by that most badass of all shooters - Ikaruga? Your ship had two polarities - white and dark - between which you could switch at will. As did your enemies, and their bullets. Using two simple rules - you could be hurt by bullets of the same polarity, but you would do double damage on opponents of the opposite polarity - SEGA created a game of such beautiful complexity and difficulty that it is still spoken of as one of the hardest videogames of all time. You could either master Ikaruga, or you could have thumbs without calluses.  It was impossible to do both.

For the more strategy oriented masochists among us, there were also those deliciously brutal hack-n-slash dungeon crawlers, as they were called. Dungeon Master, Eye of The Beholder, NetHack. You'd spend hours painstakingly creating characters, giving them all sorts of skills and equipment to survive the deadliest of dungeons. Only to then get hopelessly lost in a labyrinth [games didn't have automaps back then - and unless you meticulously mapped the levels on pen and paper, you were doomed]. Or realize that you've misplaced a key that opens the gates to Level 21. These legendary dungeon-crawlers were renowned for taking delight in frustrating players in new and exciting ways every time they played. I once died a pathetic death at the hands of a lowly creature - because it was immune to magical and enhanced weapons, and all my weapons were in fact TOO POWERFUL to hurt it at all. I would have traded all my +5 Greatswords and Maces of Fire for a simple iron dagger at that point. Too bad there were none in sight (or in my inventory). Permadeath. Grrrrrr. Okay. Let's start over. This time - I'm keeping an iron dagger in my inventory for emergencies. And maybe I need a thief to backup my battle-mages . . .

Games back in those days lacked many features that make them so accessible today. No 'save' concept, for starters. If you died, and saw the dreaded GAME OVER screen, you started again from the very beginning. You had limited 'lives'. You had no tutorial levels - you had to actually read physical manuals to learn even the basic controls. You didn't have adjustable difficulty levels. Life was hard for gamers back then.

So why, then, do we insist on continue playing these games that mock our efforts to come to terms with their challenges? Why are we so willing to go through the humiliation of finding that our skills are so hopelessly inadequate that we're unable to do what, judging from their online boasts, other players accomplish quite easily?

Because, gentle readers, games are, at their very core, learning machines. And there's nothing that the human brain enjoys more than the mastery of a new skill. And, if you keep at Ikaruga or Contra long enough, you'll suddenly find that what was until now a seemingly impossible task is suddenly so easy, you are left wondering how you could possibly fail at it. It's beautiful, this thing that gamers call 'flow'. Suddenly, your mind sees a pattern reveal itself, solutions and strategies suddenly become obvious, and, before you know it, you're breezing through a series of challenges like a seasoned pro. "Look, n00bs, this is how it's done!" you sneer. The difficulty peels away, and you're flying (think of the first time you mastered riding a bicycle without trainer wheels). Until - BUMP! - you hit the next difficulty spike. And the process begins again.

The playing of difficult videogames is no different from any other sphere of human activity in which people attempt to master chellenges. In a sense, Contra, skydiving and cross-stitch are all the same. Okay, maybe not cross-stitch. 

Which is why difficult and hardcore videogames will never really go away. Recently, after a brief lull, they've made a great comeback. Dark Souls, Super Meat Boy,The Witcher 2, Trials HD and Legend of Grimrock are all modern games that have a retro core where difficulty is an integral part of the experience. These are games that offer the players the heady reward that only a truly challenging game can offer. Sure, you can complete Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim or Uncharted 3. But only the most hardcore of players can claim to have conquered Dark Souls or Trials HD. Legend of Grimrock even offers a 'hardcore mode' where it disables the automap. And you wouldn't know how to cast spells in the game unless you actually read the manual! How's that for retro? The ad campaign for Dark Souls featured a video commercial with the tag-line "You Will Die" - followed by a montage of different deaths a player can experience in the game. Old classics like Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun are seeing re-releases on multiple platforms. The Indie development boom, combined with an ever-growing market of freshly-minted gamers looking for more hardcore challenges, has resulted in a mushrooming of difficult and hardcore games. Ironically, this is happening at a time when most publishers of big-budget blockbuster titles are all trying to done down the difficulty of their games to appeal to a wider audience. Lolwut?

So keep 'em coming, game developers! We need 'em hardcore and brutally hard games. We need the next Contra. The next Radiant Silvergun. The next NetHack. We need some good old fashioned difficulty - just to balance out the sissy stuff like Farmville, Angry Birds and Call of Duty.

Game Over.