Published on August 3rd, 2012 | by rowsdower0
Video Game Violence as Puzzle Solving
A few weeks ago, I read Tom Bissell’s article about video game violence and Spec Ops: The Line (spoilers ahead). Bissell’s main argument, that there’s something deeply wrong with the current fondness for violent first-person shooter games, hit a bit close to home. I tend to play different types of games: for example, I’ve been playing a lot of Cities in Motion, a public transportation simulator, and Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, an Ork intestine examination simulator. I’ve always felt a little bit of an internal contradiction about how playing games that feature occasionally unconscionable acts of violence was more or less fine. Ideally, the level of violence in a game should be a story element, deliberately chosen by the game’s design team to accomplish some kind of story or gameplay effect. When this effect edges into “weird sadism” territory, like the Splinter Cell: Blacklist example Bissell brings up, the effect gets a bit mixed. Bissell makes another point in his article, however, one that he lightly touches upon but which I think is fairly crucial to understanding the role that violence can play in video games.
Early on, Bissell (by linking to this article) points out that most games have a kind of puzzle-type component to them. Without being too reductionist, this statement holds true for a lot of very different video game genres. Most adventure games are just a series of puzzles strung together along a narrative. That being said, there’s a lot of variations that fit under this broad genre heading. Zork, The Curse of Monkey Island, Myst, and Phoenix Wright can all be called adventure games and all have that kind of “here’s a series of puzzles, do them” structure, but each game is a fairly different experience. To put it in the most basic possible terms, Zork‘s all text, Curse of Monkey Island is about finding objects and putting them on other objects to do things, Myst‘s more about pushing buttons on strange machines and seeing what happens, and Phoenix Wright combines the “find objects and use them” style with thrilling legal drama and shouting at your Nintendo DS like a crazy person.
But this isn’t about adventure games, which can sometimes be ultra-violent (see Phantasmorgia) but have become less relevant over the years. We can also think of an FPS game as a series of puzzles strung together; the puzzles here merely take different shapes. Let’s use one of the Hitman games, all of which have the same fundamental plot and structure, as an example here. A standard Hitman level is a single environment in which someone(s) needs to be killed. There are a variety of elements—a barbecue, an open bottle of wine, an old-timey pistol that can be swapped out for a prop, a piano—that you can interact with to stealthily kill the target. (Writing that last sentence felt real weird, to get back to Bissell’s point.) The game rewards not only stealth, but also ingenuity: kills that look like accidents and that cause as few non-target deaths as possible give you higher rankings and more money to spend on weapons that (because you’re stealthy) you aren’t using. The puzzle elements come in through piecing together how all these disparate elements work together: the player has to study the NPCs’ routines, make a choice as to what method of murder to use, and then set it up. The game is roughly 70% planning and puzzling out a good course of action and 30% execution, but as I think Socrates once said, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
But this idea of “FPS as extended puzzle” isn’t just limited to weird literal murder simulators like the Hitman games. I’ve been playing Grand Theft Auto 3 for the first time recently (yeah I was a bit sheltered), and that game more or less fits this model. A mission is a kind of very direct puzzle: get to Point A, do Action B, get money, and go save your game because autosave hasn’t been invented yet. You have relative freedom in determining how to get to Point A, but the game can be real picky about how it wants you to complete Action B. The mechanics follow the whole “problem is presented-conceive solution-enact solution” that we see in a Hitman, even if the puzzle itself is somewhat simpler.
So what does this model mean then? Well, I think it can partially answer this question about why it is that most gamers have relatively few issues with playing violent games.
Let’s continue with GTA3 for a second. GTA3, like most open world games, has a more or less functional traffic
system: there are red lights, green lights, and cars that will only occasionally go onto the sidewalks. Try playing the entire game while obeying regular, real-world traffic laws. Messing around in the open world whilst staying in your lane and not running red lights is possible, but just getting around is now much slower. You also don’t have any mechanics for acquiring new vehicles, and most (if not all) time-sensitive missions are now impossible. On a PC-only note, the controls are a bit touchy, and I’ve unintentionally veered into pedestrians and flipped my car on accident more times than I’d like to admit.
GTA might demand that you get from point A to point B in two minutes to kill some people that have not personally harmed the player, or you might just have hit the accelerator too hard and accidentally fishtailed into three otherwise innocent NPCs. As grim and creepy as Hitman can be, you’re not going to be fishtailing into any unlucky passers-by on accident (if only because there’s no driving). You can play Hitman as a deranged lunatic, but the game rewards only killing the people that the game tells you. Hitman’s internal rules and systems reward a certain level of deliberation and precision that GTA only sometimes requires. My point here, which is something that Bissell touches upon but doesn’t go into as much, is that the mechanics and interal logic of a videogame can dictate player action as much, if not more, than the player’s own choices or intent.
This point helps explain part of the “what” behind Bissell’s question. His wider point, however, has to do with why these games are so popular. Bissell’s ultimate conclusion is somewhat interesting: shooters aren’t as engaging to play or as “fun” to play if they present a realistic portrait of their subject matter. If FPSs serve as our stress outlets, that implies something unpleasant about how we work our stress out and what we find satisfying. I think Bissell has a good point, but I’m not sure if that explains everything. I can only speak anecdotally, but most of the people I know that play video games aren’t into the old ultraviolence, At best, a game can use violence to try and make a statement, even if it is just as a basic as Saints Row 2 or The Third (violent, kinda dumb games that I happen to really like) telling the player “the other not good people will hurt the ones close to you, but you’ll give them back ten times worse, because that’s the kind of psychopath you are.” At worst, a particularly grisly chainsaw-on-Locust kill from a Gears of War multiplayer match with some friends is temporarily disquieting, and the game continues as normal. It doesn’t seem good that my generation seems to be somewhat desensitized to violence in video games, but I’d like to think that there’s an intermediate stage between “utter apathy” and “principled moral revulsion” that governs our reactions to these games. At least, I hope there is.
Well, going to go on a sabbatical for a bit to make sure that I still have a soul. Either way, I’m going to be doing a 57-part series on proper tram placement in Cities in Motion, so get pumped for that.