Play/Write: What Videogames Teach Us About Violence in Storytelling

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge

For someone who enjoys a great story, is there anything better than a narrative that engages you from the very start? Imagine a world so rich you can almost smell the scents in the air, a delivery so clever it forces you to think in a way you never thought you would. I’m Ryan J. Hodge, author, and I’d like to talk to you about…Video Games.

Yes, Video Games. Those series of ‘bloops’ and blinking lights that –at least a while ago- society had seemed to convince itself had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In this article series, I’m going to discuss how Donkey Kong, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and even Candy Crush can change the way we tell stories forever.

What Videogames Teach Us About Violence in Storytelling

Long time players of videogames are no strangers to blood and guts. In fact, we often demand it.  To the uninitiated, this bloodlust appears to border on the sociopathic. However, nothing could be further from the truth. We are merely the subjects of an ancient narrative trick that divides the act of inflicting harm into the sub-categories of ‘action’ and ‘violence’. Make no mistake, the two terms are in no way mutually exclusive – the is such a thing as ‘violent action’, but the reason the two subjects are distinct comes down to the fact that an audience can me made to feel different emotions to similar circumstances. We may be excited by an enemy being dismembered by our hero, yet sickened when the main character of 127 Hours (2010 Film) must amputate his own arm.

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge, 127 Hours
There’s a reason there’s no laugh track here.

For the purpose of this article, we will define narrative ‘action’ as: combat whose consequence only serves to propel a character through the plot. Narrative violence, contrarily, may be defined as harm inflicted upon a character (or by the character) in service to the character’s narrative arch. In brief: when Gordon Freeman renders a human to gibs in Half Life; that’s action. When Elizabeth undergoes a forced lobotomy in Bioshock: Infinite; Burial at Sea, we may view that as violence.

So, how ‘ancient’ is this particular trick, you ask? Well, there’s a perfect example of it in Homer’s Illiad (c. 8th Century BC). Within the story, there are several battles fought between the Trojans and the Greeks, and while many fall; they fall in ‘action’ – meaning that we aren’t meant to feel anything in particular about their deaths; no matter how brutal- the ‘violence’ occurs when Hector (One of the protagonists) faces Achilles in a duel. Here, great attention is paid to Hector’s emotional state, how his courage fails him and he flees, and –of course, how Achilles opens Hector’s throat just wide enough to kill him, but not so wide that Hector is prevented from gurgling out some final words.

This death, above all others, is treated as the most tragic and heart wrenching. Homer does not stint at iterating the reaction of Hector’s parents upon learning of Hector’s death and the subsequent *ahem* ‘abuse’ to his corpse by Achilles. Our heart breaks with theirs to see brave Hector brought so low.

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge, Troy

So is that it? The difference between ‘action’ and ‘violence’ is whether the person being harmed has been given a back story? Well, while it certainly doesn’t hurt; there is a bit more to it. Very early in the art of gaming, some designs distinguished between ‘normal’ characters and ‘boss’ characters. While the nominal difference between these types usually consisted of a disparity in health and attack patterns; anyone who has actually played any of the more punishing titles from the NES era can attest that these differences in design yield massive differences in psychology.

Playing against normal enemies is usually more of an ‘obstacle course’ type of affair. Defeating them is usually no great accomplishment. With bosses, however, it’s a grueling test of skill. Players are required to recognize patterns in attacks and then adapt to changes in those patterns. They will be required to draw upon everything they’ve learned up to this point and, perhaps, master some stratagems on the fly. The player’s heart rate will increase, their pupils will dilate, and their brain will awash with neuro-chemicals. In a way, based on their physiological responses, they may as well be in an actual fist fight.

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge, Mortal Kombat
Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration

It is for this reason that the confrontation with the ‘big bad guy’ is usually reserved for the climax of the story. The human reaction to ‘action’ is simply far more subdued when compared to the reaction to ‘violence’ and the storyteller will desire to maximize the emotional draw for the finale.

However, as I alluded to in the beginning of this article, violence doesn’t necessarily have to be a ‘fair fight’ to be effective. Harm inflicted on the protagonist can be just as effective in stirring one’s emotions as any climactic battle. A fine representation of this concept can be found in Homeworld: Cataclysm (Barking Dog Studios, 2000). The player is tasked with appealing to an ancient and powerful race called the Bentusi for assistance against a techno-organic plague  (called The Beast) spreading throughout the galaxy. However, the Bentusi aren’t so much interested in helping as they are leaving, so the player must throw every ship he has at them to prevent their flight from the galaxy. Here’s the thing: the forces the player commands are no match for the Bentusi. You are no longer asking the ships and crews under your command to fight; you are sacrificing them in the desperate hope that the Bentusi will choke upon your dead long enough to listen to you. “You’re killing us!” Our Captain cries. “Stop murdering us and help kill the Beast!”

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge, Homeworld, Homeworld Cataclysm

While HW:C is a strategy game and thus losing vessels is par for the course, in this mission; their loss is particularly poignant. To lose our ships in the action of ‘honorable’ combat is at least understandable, but this is a slaughter. Worse, it tastes of a betrayal to your loyal sailors. This fleet, which you have spent so long building and protecting, will be shattered. In the end, what assistance the Bentusi give is made bittersweet by the cost required to earn it.

We see parallels to this in 13 Hours (2016 Film) wherein US and allied operators are forced to repel wave after wave of terrorist militia assaulting their compound. Throughout the film, we see our characters plead with higher command echelons within the US for support; however these pleas are ignored time and again. This creates a situation where we are not only observing effective action within the story but a strong measure of violence. The tragedy of this violence isn’t so much about the harm itself being inflicted upon the characters, but that this harm serves no purpose. There will be no triumph as a result of this fight, only survivors of a pointless conflict.

So can we concisely describe narrative violence as ‘action with no upshot’? In certain circumstances that is possible, however it is not in the character of these articles to leave it at that. Consider Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft, 2014). This title is all about war, yet there is surprisingly little in the way of ‘action’. Players are not tasked with mowing down enemy troops, or blasting tanks; yet, violence is everywhere. Players are not tasked with surmounting the enemy, indeed the title focuses on characters from both sides of the battlefield. Instead, we are tasked with merely solving the puzzle of ‘surviving’ the battlefield; all of this without the gushing fonts of blood you’d expect from such subject matter.

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge, Valiant Hearts, Valiant Hearts The Great War
Shucks, might as well be a picture book.

The most striking element of this title is the lack of jingoism or pretense that your actions can determine the course of the war. While its subject matter is bleak, Valiant Hearts is still surprisingly uplifting. Though I stated that many of the missions focus on the objective of survival and nothing more, in the scenarios this is not the case the theme switches to doing the right thing in times of insanity. The final action of Emile (a player character), is not the storming of an enemy stronghold; but to strike an officer blindly ordering his men to their deaths.

Play/Write, Playwrite, Ryan Hodge, Ryan J Hodge, Valiant Hearts, Valiant Hearts The Great War
Spoiler Alert: The brass takes exception to that.

So if you’ll gleefully mow down pedestrians in GTA, but still cringe when Clementine sutures her own arm in The Walking Dead; congratulations! You’re not a sociopath. And who knows? It just might make you a better writer!

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