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on the consequences of violence

Mild spoilers in here for the following games: Yakuza 0, Resident Evil VII, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Mortal Kombat X.
BIG spoilers for Final Fantasy VI & Final Fantasy VII.

I’ve taken a pretty hard shift in my stance on violence in media as I proceeded from early adulthood into capital-A Adulthood – maybe this is more common than I think – where I’ve become more picky about what violence I consume. I’m pretty pacifistic by nature but I used to be much more okay with watching violence in games, movies, or other visual media, even the extreme stuff. As I was a teenage boy this wasn’t that unusual.

These days my palate has shifted. I’m certain this has to do with being a bit fatigued from hearing about and seeing real-world violence, and several of my furious young boy chemicals having burned off, and probably some other factors. But whatever the case, I generally don’t like watching it – at least, unless there’s a good reason for it in the context of telling a story.

But what upsets me the most – and that’s what this post is about – is violence without consequence.

This can be hard to pin down because every universe has its own proportional level of violence, and their characters are affected by it differently. Sometimes, a single bullet or knife wound can be enough to kill a character (and rightfully so). In another universe, a character can be riddled with many bullets or stab wounds, but keep on fighting.

As a baseline, this already annoys me, especially if it’s particularly egregious level of wounding that is inexplicably shrugged off, because that’s not how the real world works. But I get that in storytelling things aren’t that simple. For example this only applies if the story we’re telling is supposed to be based in the real world, it gets blurry when you’re talking about characters with superpowers or fast healing or from other planets or universes or whatever else you’ve got going on.

So I accept there are differences, but in order for it to feel appropriate, as a storyteller, you need to establish a baseline expectation of what violence is, and stick to that expectation. It shouldn’t be allowed to bend or break when it’s plot convenient, or when you deem it’s a good time to show people something shocking.

This past weekend we finished off Yakuza 0. I’ll only talk about details concerning the thing that bothered me, which isn’t too revealing, but it was toward the end of the game so be warned.

One of the playable characters, Goro, was fighting an ultimate assassin sort of boss, in a big showdown. My partner had the controller. A few times during this fight (and all boss fights in the game) a quicktime event cutscene interrupts the action and demands a button press, which takes a bit more health from either you or your opponent. These are pretty much always rather brutal, but in one in particular during this fight, the assassin tackled our main character in slow motion, and growled, “I’ll take your other eye”.

This is a big deal. Goro only has one eye during the game, and wears an eyepatch over the other – it’s established he had lost his other in a traumatic event, and people talk about it a lot during the game. It’s unsurprisingly a pretty core part of his look, his character and a lot of his motivations and decisions in the game.

My partner messed up the button press.

The assassin and Goro landed on the ground, and the assassin drove his thumb into the eye socket, up to the knuckle. Blood squirted and gushed out of the wound, and the assassin said, “it is done”. I sat there horrified that one single mistake could cause such a crazy repercussion.

But the fight continued on, and Goro was still able to fight unhindered, like nothing had even happened. “It looks like he’s squinting his eye a bit?” my partner offered, knowing me and noticing my horrified reaction to this. Goro was twirling too fast for us to know for sure, but during the next game’s cutscene, there he was, and there was his face in full view, his character model pristine complete with an eye that was not even slightly injured.

This game is violent, with plenty of heads bashing hard against metal, brick, lots of stabbing, shrugging off bullets, you name it. But this bit crossed a line for me, by trying to play off something pretty plot-critical as a totally meaningless combat animation. They made these dudes into basically superhero material but they’d already established with Goro directly that once your eye is gouged out, it’s gouged out (somewhat similar to how it works in real life). So this moment was total ass.

I really love Resident Evil VII but man, it has a hyper violence problem. Spoilers for the first hour of the game here.

Your character, Ethan, travels up to a house in the middle of nowhere tracking down his missing fiance. He locates her in a prison cell in this house, but something isn’t right about her. It’s revealed quickly that she’s being possessed by some malevolent force, and you quickly get into a fight with her that ends up being for your life, and ends with the main character driving a hatchet into her neck. She falls dead.

This is jarring, and the moment is given its due (despite some unusually calm/awkward vocal reactions from Ethan). But the kicker is when she not only gets up and shrugs this fatal wound off no problem, but responds by promptly chainsawing Ethan’s left hand off.

The rest of the opening scene sees Ethan fumbling, spluttering, and appropriately messed up – he has to visibly fumble to do even basic tasks, and is slow to react from the shock. The scene eventually ends with another crazy fight, and both characters ending up on the floor.

A scene later, we find that our missing hand has been literally stapled back on and it works exactly like it used to. And of course, after shooting our fiance a couple dozen times to bring her down again, she’s completely unscathed. This insane escalation of violence continues to see you chainsawing a man literally to pieces to keep him from healing back up from all the damage you’ve done to him (in a boss fight I actually really enjoyed), but, spoilers, even that isn’t enough to kill him.

So here, they’ve established a baseline level of violence, and they do have rules and limitations which they do end up following (mostly). However, the baseline is so hilariously high that it doesn’t even matter anymore and it all circles back around into just being stupid. Any sense of tension or consequence is totally lost by the fact that you can just Wolverine your body back together with some magic all-purpose cellular goop juice.

(Horror movies in general are really big perpetrators of this – having insane levels of violence for its own sake, or just used for shock value, with no appropriate consequence – but that’s another huge post for another day.)

In COD:Modern Warfare 2, there’s a level/scene called “No Russian”. Even if you haven’t played it there’s a good chance you heard about it in the news at the time, it was called out by the media for being pretty disturbing. Content warning in this section for gun violence.

The level features you playing as an undercover CIA agent, infiltrating a terrorist organization. In the level you carry out a terrorist attack in the form of a mass shooting at an airport. The level has you and your comrades gunning down unarmed civilians. It’s very graphic – people run from you screaming, the bodies crumple to the ground and pile up, and injured civilians crawl away leaving trails of blood. Others try to carry people to safety and get shot themselves. The screams echo off into the distance, people see you and put their hands up and beg for their lives.

This was disturbing as hell and obviously fell pretty hard on a world already dominated heavily with gun violence (at least, as a person that lives directly next to the US it certainly is).

However, one thing they DID do was give the scene sufficient weight. They provided a content warning before it, and allowed the player to skip playing it with no gameplay penalty. Before the scene is a mission briefing where your superior tells you something to the effect that what you do will cost you your soul. If you get too uncomfortable during the level you can pause and bail out/skip the experience at any time. It only takes a moment of playing or watching the scene to see that there is absolutely no glorification in the violence. It’s meant to make it seem horrifying, and to make you feel terrible for having to not only be party to it but participate in it.

I’m sure the scene was definitely also played for the response/basically free media coverage it got, and to drum up that buzz around the game, but I do not believe the scene was inherently improper or shouldn’t have been created. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to exist because it is made to be horrifying. I think CoD as a series varies in success when it tries to show you ~the horrors of war~ because the act of shooting people still pretty much always feels good, so the message doesn’t carry.

However playing No Russian made me feel sick for a good long time and was actually one of the turning points in me maturing from a teenager that made me look at guns less like awesome toys and more like things to respect and be afraid of. I believe there is absolutely value in that no matter what sort of person you are, if you can stomach it.

I can only speak from general experience as I’m not a huge fan of Mortal Kombat but I’ve played enough of the games to have a sense of the violence. The actual fighting itself isn’t the focus of the violence usually, it’s always in the fatalities, and historically, it’s right in the name – they’re severe acts of violence that kill your opponent into pieces. In more recent games those have gotten more gruesome. What bothers me are the mid-game animations that they came up with for the newer MK games (the first I saw it in was MK X, though I’m not sure if that’s where the feature made its debut).

When you hit with a special attack with full special meter, your character will go into what they call an X-Ray attack to show exactly what you’re doing to your opponent on the inside. It’s gross, but what really makes it bad is the lack of consequence. Sometimes it’s a broken bone or some trauma somewhere that could, feasibly, possibly, maybe be ignored in the context of combat and adrenaline and magic fire-breathing ninjas. However in other animations you might stab out both eyeballs through to the brain, break their legs and arms, completely crush the spinal column of the opponent, or all of the above. Then, no matter what just happened to them, if they have health left the victim always gets back up and keeps on fighting with no acknowledgement of what just happened ever again. Sometimes they’ll even break their entire spine two or three times during a match.

This is maybe the best example of this problem – I think no fatality, no matter how gruesome, is nearly as bad as the idea that debilitating injuries are absolutely meaningless to your character.

This is going to spoil a real big moment at the end of Final Fantasy VII (and the BIG twist of Final Fantasy VI) so if you actually are someone who wants to play those that hasn’t yet (as I was only but a year ago), skip this section for sure.

In what is easily the most insane example of this concept taken to an extreme that is total nonsense, when you’re fighting the final boss in their final form, they can summon a crazy attack called Super Nova, which I’m told by fans has a shorter/less insane animation in the Japanese version of the game. However, in the American release, the attack contains a three minute long animation mini-epic which shows Sephiroth summoning a giant comet that (seriously) destroys most of the solar system, plunges into the sun, makes the sun explode, which blows up more planets and then radiates into the earth enough to damage the characters greatly (but nothing else).

I want to set aside how stupid this entire idea is, even though it is the stupidest god damn thing that ever stupided. I also want to set aside that this couldn’t even theoretically happen because that’s not how anything works, and even if it somehow could, would kill everything in our solar system forever. But let’s work with what we’ve got.

What really gets me is that Sephiroth can (and will) use this attack four or five times during the battle. This will show that entire animation again, and you’ll watch the same planets get blown up and you’ll watch our sun die five times before the fight is done. Then, when the fight is done, earth will continue existing, I guess.

As weird as it sounds this upset me for the same reasons several of the other examples I wrote about here upset me – even though it is a silly and hilarious idea, I still find it an insulting application of violence that legitimately has no meaning and no repercussions, and exists just to look crazy at the expense of all logic and sense.

(Sidenote: playing FFVI was by comparison a breath of fresh air – an apocalypse event takes place during the game and it DEEPLY affects the characters, forever changes the world they’re on, and has serious repercussions. Gold star.)

So basically, all I’m asking is that if something bad happens to a character, say, gets their arm ripped off, gets shot eight times or are mutilated in some other way or maybe their sun gets blown up, that they

  1. care, &
  2. suffer consequences.

Have them show that they’re suffering, have them actually hindered somehow as a result of the violence. Or have there be a point? Maybe try not having characters that can autoheal injuries like they’re nothing? Maybe just don’t even write those characters? Maybe they ESPECIALLY shouldn’t be able to do that if they have no reason to, like they aren’t literally a superhero or something? I feel like this shouldn’t be such an enormous ask but, you know. Video games. Video games with their beefcake bullet sponge power fantasies.

I’m so fuckin sick of video games.

Speaking of which all these examples here are from video games, but I’ve noticed culprits of this in a lot of visual media, including movies and TV and graphic novels and so on. The pushback against violence in media seems to resurface with each new technological push, but I think the core of the problem lies more here, with the actual messages that we impart.

When creators do things like this, the message is that violence is no big deal, and that there isn’t consequence for such extreme actions. This is an awful message and I wish people weren’t so dismissive of this stuff so god damn always.

Anyway thanks for reading if you made it through all that. Yow.

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