Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Signifying Violence, Part Five: Insert Number Based Movie Reference Here

Are we at the fifth installment of this digression already? How time has passed! I can remember, dimly, a time before all of this, when mediation and signification of violence in video games weren't graphed against each other and considered in turn. A simpler time. How we sung! How we danced!

BUT THERE'S NO GOING BACK NOW, PEOPLE. Because here we are, at number five. That may not sound like a large number by itself, but just consider: By the fifth Rocky movie, Rocky had brain damage. By the fifth Harry Potter movie, the child actors had aged to the point that they looked darn-near thirty. And by the fifth Saw movie, no one in their right mind cared anymore. On the other hand, "Five Easy Pieces" was the best one in the epic "Easy Pieces Pentalogy." So it's sort of a toss-up.

When last we left off, your humble narrator was outlining the degree to which certain games exhibited some dramatic shifts of both mediation and signification of violence. In Diablo 2, this happens when gameplay is moved from the standard mode to "Hardcore Mode" which introduces an element of permanent death. In No More Heroes, certain editions were heavily edited, and the result is a game environment that represents violence very differently. I illustrated this latter case by linking to a game clip including a man with weaponized nipples.

"Are those guns grafted to your vestigial man-mammaries, or are you just happy to see me?"

But in both these cases, the shift in how violence is mediated and signified occurs outside of a play environment, as either a shifting of game mode, or through a jump from one version to another. As a final example, I'd like to consider the degree in which a game can be said to move about these fields during play. So, once more I light the incense and begin the unholy chanting that will summon forth to this world... "The incredibly small chart."


As you can see, though the first two examples tend mainly to the right side, being games with medium-to-high degrees of play mediation, The Metal Gear Solid Series' shifting draws it from a place of low-mediaton/high-violence-signification to one of extremely high-mediation/moderate-violence-signification. Where in the latter two cases small changes are made to play mediation that, in turn, reflect upon the signification of violence, the examples here reflect a dramatic shift along both axes.

While playing through the bulk of the game, your objective is to kill as little as possible, and be unseen. You are provided with the tools to remain undetected, and from a gameplay standpoint, every skirmish you do get into represents a failing on the player's part to avoid conflict. The result is a sandbox environment that weighs killing against nondetection, similar to the Grand Theft Auto games.

All these options laden your actions with significations of violence: Since you may choose to skip conflicts, it is an option you actively exercise, or are forced into. Since it typically occurs during moments of increased conflict and stress, your usual toolset is compromised and often the acts are represented as desperate ones. The bodies of slain men stick around, and must be lugged about so as not to draw attention. And, finally, the many realistic ways you can dispatch your foes only adds to the sensation that these are weighted acts of violence.

All this changes when play moves away from the chiefly play-oriented environment of the world to the highly narrative environment of boss conflicts. Gone are the sandbox elements of nondetection and combat evasion: In these circumstances you are confined to a usually small arena, and must fight until the boss is dead. Entire bodies of gameplay are abandoned in these places for a new bag of tricks involving efficient boss killing. It helps that Kojima's bosses aren't just your standard villains, but cartoonishly exaggerated uberbosses. They don't just chew the scenery: they devour it whole, then shoot flaming hunks of it back at you, all the while minging about their sad childhoods in Kurdistan, or outer space, or whatever.

It's one thing to hold up some nameless grunt, shake him down for information, then accidentally hit the wrong button, slitting his throat. It's quite another to go head-to-head with a man who spits BEES at you, while helpfully shouting "GO, MY BULLET BEEEEEES."

Trivia: In French, his name is "THE BREAD."

Though you might imagine that killing a character with a name and personality would increase the degree to which violence in signified, the opposite is true: These function as plot points. Since killing these figures is mandatory, the player is absolved of anything that they may do. No game highlights this better than Metal Gear Solid 3, in which if you do take the crafty route and tranquilize rather than kill the bosses outright, they will fall down, go through the same death-spiel, then EXPLODE ANYWAY.

The point is made that it isn't you killing these figures - it's the game. By forcing you out of the sandbox and into the gladiator's pit, by letting its villains rattle of their speeches beforehand and gargle out their dying breaths afterwards, most signification which would link your behavior to violence is scored away: Suddenly you aren't in a game. You're in a movie, one that is possessed of it's own tautological morality. James Bond can kill with impunity because he is JAMES BOND. For Solid Snake, killing is avoidable and stealth is preferable, except when they aren't. And when they aren't, it's okay... because he's not Solid Snake anymore.


I mean, I know he has a license to kill... but does he have to be so darn smug about it?

- Rook

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