Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Four: THE GOBLET OF FIER

In the last three posts in this series I looked at the degree to which violence is signified in games, the degree to which play experience is mediated, and how these two factors may affect the experience of the game. Specifically, I've discussed:

- Violence in terms of "interactivity": How mediation affects what you can do in a game.
- Violence in terms of signification: How acts in games are signified or not signified as violent.
- The intersection of mediation and violence in video games: Complete with lame-o chart work!

Most recently I plotted a handful of games in terms of both play mediation and signification of violence. In some cases, a single change could affect a game's standing along both axes. I mentioned then that a game would likely not be a fixed pint, but could vary in its position according to the changing values of a game. Here are two examples of games that do just that.

Once again, my chart is freakishly small. Click on it to see it be freakishly medium-sized.

1. No More Heroes: US versus Japan and EU releases

It's uncommon to encounter a video game about violence... stranger still to come across one about violence in videogames. It follows a otaku-turned-assassin, who goes from idolizing wrestling and anime to living in a world of this sort of stylized violence. Like any good satire, No More Heroes isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. When the main character, Travis, kill an enemy, it spews both an impossible fountain of blood and a handful of coins.

The vicious gouts of blood are taken directly from anime drawn from seinen manga, who have been stylizing this types of hypergore for decades. The coins, of course, are pure video-game stock and trade... a coin of the realm, as it were. To have both erupt from a target is a surreal effect. As a game devoted to systematically killing through a swath of foes, it is decidedly two ways about its homicides. There is a high level of violence signification, on par with other games explicitly about violence. But in coaching the violence inside the signifiers of retro-gaming, it functions as a clear statement: "Forget what you have seen. This is what a violent video game looks like."

The irony is that since its thematic statement is predicated upon the excessive use of the exact same violent images that other games boast so carelessly, No More Heroes has, itself, been the target of censure. In the Japanese and European releases, the violent surges of blood were removed altogether. As well, corpses disappear quickly after being killed, rather than remaining on the ground.

A youtube poster, xserothx, has done an excellent job providing comparisons of the death scenes from both the US and censored versions.

As you'll see in the original, Destroyman is vertically bisected by the final attack: a common, if improbable fate in samurai movies and manga. He falls to the ground, his chest-weapons still clacking away like some ridiculous rigor mortis. Though his body is dead, he continues, feebly, as a weapon, mirroring the fashion in which becoming a professional killer (as well as one who cosplays a super hero of his own devising) has rendered him inhumane and incomplete.

Faced with the apparent difficulty of censoring a man with guns for nipples getting cut from stem to stern, in the censored version he just... disappears. At the point of the final bisected shot of the original, players are treated to a long, poignant shot of the floor. There is absolutely nothing on the screen, save a little smudge of dirt on the ground, Perhaps that's the moral, here: That being a professional killer is untidy.

In the censored version, play mediation increases only slightly, due to the fact that, in helpfully erasing those killed from screen and existence, the game acts as a automated clean up crew. But in moving from one extreme pole of signification, including gouts of blood and permanent corpses, to another, in which death is only a symbol for defeat and bodies are spirited away without fuss, the game is radically transformed.

This is not a solely aesthetic concern, but a thematic one. In a world full of hypergore and morbid death, Travis' nihilism makes sense: He is a video character aware of his role in a violent video game, who is fated by design to proceed to perform increasingly grisly acts. Just as Pac-Man must eat dots and run from ghosts, Travis must commit murder again, and again. But in a video game where character spew coins but not blood, where enemies disappear in a puff of smoke, his bleak attitude and behavior are unwarranted. Why brood over stomping on a goomba?

2. Diablo 2 versus Diablo 2 Hardcore mode

I did an image search for "hardcore", and this was the only picture that didn't include ladies.

If No More Heroes is a game explicitly concerned with its killing, Diablo 2 is one that doesn't care one bit. Its violence, though graphic, is couched in the same gaming standard of carnage for the sake of carnage. You hack your way through foes, each of whom die with a few mouse clicks in a fashion that is gory, yet still somehow tidy. Since you're killing demons and undead, you proceed with impunity. These types of hack and slash games derive their fun from exactly that: hacking and slashing. Since it is the act of fighting that the game is based upon always inured in a swarm of monsters, are always click-click-clicking through a stew of rancid demon flesh.

Despite its name, Hardcore mode is not simply a change in difficulty, but a dramatic alteration of the rules of play. If a hardcore character dies, even once, it is erased: Death is death, and one misstep can ruin the dozens of hours you've put into your character. Though this is, to some extent, a play anomaly - games that have implemented permanent death tend to be few and far between - the change in relationship between play and character extends beyond, to the game world.

No longer are the countless imps that populate the game world there for your amusement, to be splatted with impunity. In Hardcore mode they are real threats, each of whom has the potential to undo you. In this given context, any killing done is given freight due to the increased risks of the mode. In shifting the experience away from a light environment of mindless slaughter to one which has major play consequences, the very nature of violence signification is changed.

The level of both games' mediation changes in a like fashion, moving further right as more 'invisible rules' are introduced that govern the play environment. Just as in No More Heroes, the changes in the game affected to the spiriting away and dissolving of Travis' vanquished foes, so the additional mediation in Diablo 2 is enforced as a superscription: It may be a goblin that kills you, but it is the game that erases you from existence.

What's of note is how for two games roughly equal in mediation, making a roughly equal change in mediation offers dramatically different changes to the way in which play violence is mediated. Of course, these cases are variants of games, rather than changes outright within a play environment. On Thursday I'll be looking at the Metal Gear Solid games, with a focus on Metal Gear Solid 3, to examine how much certain games can vary even moment to moment.

Oh, right. The thing I said about this post being the last one in the series? That was one big trick. It will never end. Because semiological discussions of violence in video games is SUPER FUN and NOT AT ALL BORING and FREE ICECREAM.

All right, fine. That bit about free ice cream was a lie. But the rest is true.


- Rook

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