It’s sometimes tempting to imagine violence isn’t just a creative part of game design but the defining quality through which a game’s truer meaning can be understood. It can be hard to really know what a game is about based on a ten minute demo on the showfloor at E3, but violence remains a constant among almost all of the show’s biggest games. What follows is a list of the games that saw the most creative, inspiring, or original instances of violence at this year’s show.
I had to apologize to an EA representative after watching the Dead Space 2 demo. I thought the first game was a disjointed misfire that connected deafening gunplay with ambient exploration without anything to really discover. I had promised to deliver some skeptical criticism and, going in, I was ready to deliver it. After the demo, it’s hard to think of many criticisms that stick. Dead Space 2 is a vulgar amplification of everything I disliked in the first game. Ironically, it’s all the better for it.
The demo opens with Isaac making his way towards the church of Unitology, via a series of intestinal metal corridors. Along the way Isaac is assaulted by a new enemy type called a Puker. Though it shouldn’t require explanation, this beast attacks by grasping Isaac’s shoulders and vomiting on his face. If you hit him with a stasis shot you’ll see the Puker’s spew hanging in the air like a cloud of fecal spatter. Which is a perfect segue to the main church area where Isaac is attacked by a giant spider-scorpion creature with a baby-like thing wiggling on a giant spike. The church is a lustrously decorated room with torn blue curtains, dark crimsons, robed zombies on the attack, and one especially satisfying moment where Isaac is surrounded by a group of Necromorphed babies.
The whole sequence plays like a slapstick version of a Dario Argento movie in outer space. It’s utterly ridiculous, a gothic horror scene (robed zealots on the attack) combined with violence built on a teenage obsession with bodily fluid and physiology. Opposed to the austerity of the first game, these wrenched decorations provide a much more sensible backdrop for a game where sputum, innards, vomit, and other mucosal spurts reward players for successful action. Dead Space 2 is a buffet of rot, served in a church. I couldn’t praise it enough afterwards.
Flail till you fall.
You probably haven’t seen anything about Nickelodeon Fit. It’s a compilation of thirty mini-games designed for children 3 to 8 years-old using Nickelodeon franchises like Dora the Explorer and Ni Hao Kai-Lan. While the visuals and the design aim are as wispy as cotton candy the design beneath is an exercise in violent gestures, surprisingly tiring and confusingly unclear. The first game I played was one where my child character sat on the back of a bird. With the Wii remote in one hand, I had to flap my arms like wings to keep the bird afloat. There were periodic updrafts that required a side-to-side hip-twisting motion to perform a spin trick.
There is no real connection between your motion and the bird’s animations. I was left on my own to judge how successful my inputs were. In less than ten seconds I was instinctively flailing away with my arms, trying to make the bird go as fast as possible, a sore strain building in my shoulder muscles. When there’s a disconnect between motion control and in-game response the best thing to do is to make subtler movements and reorient yourself. Yet there’s something counter-intuitive to every animal instinct I had in that moment. If it doesn’t seem to be responding, the remote must be shaken harder and faster, an enervating rush of adrenalin mixing with the aggravation and fear of losing.
In this respect it’s a perfectly suitable game for kids. It plays on that innate instinct that’s with us from the start, the tendency to respond to confusion with increasing intensity and violence. If you’ve ever seen a child break something just to see it break, or hit someone just because they didn’t know what else to do, you’ll know what’s at the heart of Nickelodeon Fit. The genius of the game is that it traps this irresistible human tendency in an environment where it can be used for good: to put all that flailing, flapping, and squatting towards building stronger bodies and burning off the sugary excesses bound to flow through a youngster’s arteries. My arms are still sore.
Good kitty, bad player.
When Kinectimals was revealed with a demo of a young girl playing with a tiger called Skittles, I immediately wondered what would happen if Skittles became angry. Moreover, I wondered what might be possible for me to do to make her angry. One of the most memorable moments I had with Nintendogs was in discovering that my curious little Chihuahua could be made to yelp in discomfort with a well-placed stylus poke in its backflap. Like Nintendogs, Kinectimals is not supposed to be violent, but it’s an instinctual reaction to the idea of petting a tiger, even a cute one that’s clearly trapped in a television screen.
Part of what makes this a charming experience is precisely that knowledge that, under any other circumstance, the act of tugging on the cheek fur of a wild cat could result in a terrible delimbing. In demos on the showfloor it didn’t appear that Skittles was programmed to respond to violent gestures. A slap across the face or an attempted tail tug didn’t produce the yelp that similarly aggressive behavior did in Nintendogs. But it triggered that response inside me, and the absence of a response to that input played a big part in demystifying the charm of playing with a carnivorous hulk in fur.
Knowing that, even in the vaguest way, my Nintendog could experience negative effects from my treatment of him gave every caring action a layer of meaning beyond simple cuteness. The sparkling grin and contentment on his face after a bath suggested that he might suffer in some small way if I didn’t make time for cleaning. The scratching behind the ears and the Frisbee tossing fun were tinged with a knowledge that I could also just poke at him to produce discomfort and retard bonding. Without any negative consequences to balance out the larding of cuddly fun, I found my superficial attraction to Kinectimals waning as the show wore on. It’s wonderful to see a new game based on the simple idea of sharing affection with another creature, but absent any recognition that creatures often have other instincts as well, the act of kindness feels a little hollow.
It’s hard to imagine a game I’d had a less open mind towards coming into E3. The idea of learning more about Gears of War 3, a series that turned the phrase “mind-numbing” from a put-down into a world view, seemed more boring than a weekend at a lumberjack festival. The reveal of Beast Mode for Gears 3′s multiplayer side seemed to be a continuation of the series past but seeing actual footage made me reconsider every assumption I’d made about the series. The objective in Beast Mode is the same as in any other shooter, you’re asked to kill some life-form that happens to have a different appearance than yours, either physiological or sartorial. The difference is the range of physical limitations players must deal with on the way to their murder’s rendezvous.
You can choose from a wide range of enemy species, from small exploding cockroach-rats to the lurching monkeyman scramble of Wretches (a name that dates back to the series’ mind-numbing days). I was especially affected by the Wretches because of their small stature and hobbled movement. Killing them down in a numb spray of bullets in the first two games, they seemed like time-killers between the real set pieces. The idea of controlling one for myself, feeling its imbalanced mix of vulnerability and narrowly focused strength makes it possible to think about the entire game through new eyes. It reminded me of Quasimodo, a wretch in reality and not just for heavy metal coolness.
Beast Mode is an example of one of the strongest ways to build empathy in games: making players vulnerable. In playing the part of a weakened pawn against a group of armored human tanks, there’s a feeling of hopelessness that frees the violence from any of the more disturbing overtones it might otherwise have. The underdog story is the one we can all cheer on. Violence is a terrible thing except when it’s the little guy no one expected to win who’s suddenly taken out the heavily armored favorites. Mixed with animations that look like a mix between Gollum and Tiny Tim, the heroic vigor of playing a Wretch hunting Marcus Fenix is beguiling. I’ve got no issue with killing in games, it’s the who and the how of it that matter. Beast Mode is a limping step towards a vulgar meritocracy of murder among all creatures. Littler, weaker, and more hobbled, indeed.
She’s having a baby.
The F.E.A.R. 3 booth had a photo station where those interested could pose for a picture with a model dressed like Alma. The model wore an ankle-length red dress, covered in pale zombie make-up with blood streaming over her face. She also had an unavoidably large stomach to signal Alma’s pregnancy, one of the game’s main story concepts. Sex and horror have a long and well-detailed history, and pregnancy is a figurehead for the most vulgar conflation of the two. Fear of what happens to the vagina during childbirth is a kind of ultimate horror for many Western men, bred by ESPN, Hooters, and Playboy to think about their libidos, and the objects with which they sate it, in a very narrow way.
The implications of this kind of sexuality in F.E.A.R. 3 are among the darkest I’ve ever encountered in a game. Alma begins as a child held against her will by an intrusive father, experimented on, and grown supernaturally powerful as a result of this heinous abuse. At the end of the second game it was implied that she was now the abuser, who was shown raping Becket in horrific glimpses, and now, in a turn darker than most fans seem to appreciate, the offspring from this rape is an omen for the end of the world, which only two well-armed men can suppress. The brief snatches of childbirth in the game’s trailer show the nightmarish worst-case scenario of a hand clawing its way out of Alma’s uterus, through her stomach, and punching into the world, apparently with a mind for trouble.
It’s hard to escape the ugliness in the story, the urge to suppress the victim for fear of what’s happened as a consequence of the original crime. Embedding it into Alma’s body in the form of a child is the ultimate violation of something most cultures tend to treat as sacrosanct and one of the central differentiators between men and women. F.E.A.R. 3 so far seems a dense mix of every deeply rooted male fear, from the lurking suspicion that violence is addictive to phantasmagorical recoil at the potentials of the female anatomy. Setting these themes in a game built around the lurid rubber-necking made possible by its slow-motion effects is a bracing combination and one of the most disturbing games of the show for me.
One lives, one dies, you choose.
It’s hard to think about strategy games as anything more than iconic abstractions, but 2K Marin’s revival of the XCOM franchise gives a surprising depth to the series’ iconic moments of choice. The game got a mostly skeptical reception from journalists at the show, but I thought it had one of the most interesting mechanical implementations of choice and morality into a game world where you shoot alien tar. Before you get to the shooter sequences, the game pays homage to the original with some minutes spent in a base doing research, arranging materials, managing team members, and making strategic choices on a map.
If you played the original X-Com you’ll be familiar with the moment of staring at a map and choosing which mission to accept, but the ability of actually moving through missions in first person adds a sense of emotional viscera to the tough decisions. It forces players to consider the consequences of choosing to save neighborhood A over neighborhood B in terms of front lawns, toys, and screaming women flailing in a slimy alien clutch.
In the demo shown, players were presented with two calls of help described by a dispatcher working in your base. You can consider missions on humanitarian terms but they come with practical considerations. As the demo guide choose one mission to help a family in a residential area who’d reported an attack the dispatcher reminded players that there weren’t many research points to be had by taking the mission. It’s an old moral trap, do you abandon a cause to save an individual, or are you willing to sacrifice the individual for the good of the larger cause? As familiar as it might be, it’s a terrific moment because there has never been, nor will ever be, a right answer. It’s a sort of Kobiyashi Maru test for players who want to do the right thing at all times. Being able to follow that eternal question from the strategic view of the map all the way down to the first person view of individual people overcome by the amorphous menace is one of the most exciting game structures I saw at E3.
Polish for gore.
One of the unspoken pleasures of experiencing violence in the media, be it games, movies, or books, is the underlying knowledge that the viewer will always be spared no matter how bad things get. Bulletstorm is a game built to celebrate the freedom that this essential fact gives to both players and developers. The game is a combo-based shooter where players are awarded points for kills, which are eligible for multiplier bonuses depending on the creativity a player might apply to their killing. You get 10 points for killing an enemy, but if you shoot them in the throat so that they asphyxiate as they bleed out you’ll win 50 points for having performed a “Gag Reflex” move.
Another award called “Gang Bang,” has players pinning a remote explosive dart into an enemy and waiting to detonate it until they’re around a group of their allies for maximum damage. These simple tactical choices are not new to shooters. Area-specific damage and using weapons in unorthodox ways to maximize killing has been a part of shooter design for more than a decade, but rarely has their been such a glib encyclopedia of all the different ways in which players instinctually think when manning their guns. The combination of combative destruction with puns pulled from pornography vernacular is likewise something that usually passes during in-game chat or on messageboards, but hasn’t ever been openly acknowledged in a game.
Bulletstorm is a cacophony of things that make men feel better about themselves. It’s got allusions to sexual prowess, a wide array of high-powered machinery, and encourages aggression in hyperbolic extremes. There’s something especially unique about the fact that the game’s made by Polish developer People Can Fly. These cultural tropes of pornography and tawdry action are American exports readily absorbed in other parts of the world and now regurgitated back into American culture with an extra helping of irreverence and adolescent glee. I find it endearing, like hearing a French person quote the Terminator or namedrop Jenna Jameson. It’s crass, immature, and bizarrely wonderful.