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Are Video Games Mature Enough to Deal With Truly Dark Themes?

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And, are gamers? This is a follow up to my previous articles on a similar subject, and can be considered part three in the recent series of maturity articles. As y’all know, I don’t do short articles, so I figured I may as well break this up over the course of several days. This is leading up to an all day mega session with Tomb Raider that CainKarl and I will be doing next week (we did that already), and then Xeawn’s Gaming Corner will return to the generally more lighthearted articles you all know and love. As per the last two articles, please use your own discretion for your tolerance to topics that society has molded us to be uncomfortable discussing.

So, are video games as a medium ready to deal with mature themes? I’m curious about that. One can say that even movies are only just beginning to reach a point where they can do so tastefully. So far, it’s accepted that you can deal with serial killers, rape, molestation and other dark themes in books and movies, but its heavily rejected in gaming. I suppose this has a lot to do with how society views gaming as an immature past time, or something that should exist solely for entertainment. This mentality is further pushed by industry heads such as Miyamoto and Sakurai stating that they feel that games either shouldn’t have stories, or should have minimalistic or entertaining ones.

I can name countless movies and books that deal with these topics, but very few games. I can name even fewer ones that do so tastefully. By and large, it’s really only very recently that games are beginning to reach a level where they consistently make you feel something. Even those that do, there’s an unwritten rule that they’re allowed to make us feel uncomfortable only to a certain degree, and then they have to move on and make us feel good about life and ourselves again immediately thereafter.

Now, death is no stranger to games, and I’m not just talking about when you run out of health or fall of a ledge. I can think of games as far back as Final Fantasy 2/4 that killed characters left and right, though 2/4 brought most of them back to life with a myriad of Deus Ex Machina excuses. More recent offerings like Gears of War and Mass Effect put death all up in our faces, but unfortunately dying seems to be the only mature theme that games are “allowed” to handle.

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A lot of Tomb Raider’s controversy stemmed from people in interviews saying all the wrong things. Phrases like “She’s like a scared, wild animal and you want to protect her” or, “it’s a really tense moment; they’ve backed her into a corner like an animal and they want to rape her” always ending in “and you want to protect her” or “she’s like a wild animal” or using the easy button trigger words “they want to rape her” coupled with the de-fanging and removal of all the sass from gaming’s favorite tough girl made Tomb Raider a hotbed for controversy.

But, is the problem that games aren’t the place to deal with this theme, or is it that either the fan base isn’t mature enough to handle it or that the way it was portrayed was wrong?

In the import version of D2 for the Sega Dreamcast, a tentacle filled demon monster assaults your friend before killing her. The moment was terrifying and as you play as a woman it immediately instills the constant fear feeling of “I have to kill these things.” This feeling is fueled not just by the desire to get revenge, but also to prevent yourself from suffering a similar fate even if such a thing is never shown in any of the death scenes.

It’s common knowledge for anyone who studies the Silent Hill mythos that Alessa over the course of her childhood was subjected to everything from verbal and violent abuse to molestation and various forms of sexual degradation in order to make her a vessel of pain and hatred for the cult’s pagan god. We also see Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2 assaulting various female formed enemies as a parallel of James’ own sexual frustrations, and we have the visual of Heather Mason being dragged away with open legs on certain game over sequences.

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Heavenly Sword is a more recent game that had the courage to broach the topic of abuse of a minor. Whether or not Kai was molested by Flying Fox in her past is left up to the player’s interpretation, but it’s heavily implied especially with the sort of things she screams as she flees from him both in the segment that you play as her, and the segment that you play as Nariko trying desperately to find and save her.

These are several examples of games that tastefully dealt with the themes of abuse that are generally viewed as too taboo to broach in a video game, but they are also examples that are rarely discussed or publicized, and generally feel swept away under the rug. Well, D2 did it about as tastefully as a game with tentacle monsters can. In a previous article I also mentioned the feelings of isolation, degradation and violation that Haunting Ground and Clock Tower 3 inferred.

By and large it’s driven home quite strongly that video games aren’t allowed to deal with these topics. Furthermore, society tells victims and survivors that they aren’t supposed to talk about it. As I’ve mentioned in other articles on this site and others, commonly your friends don’t want to hear about it, your family doesn’t want you to talk about it, it’s supposed to be your dirty little secret. You’re supposed to be a dirty little secret, even more so if you’re a male. This is what society tells you.

Even mainstream video games that broach the subject make sure to only do so in a medium that the fan base is not likely to ever see. Show of hands, how many people knew that Bernie Mataki from Gears of War is a gang rape survivor? How many people that only played Fist of the North Star rather than read the manga or saw the unedited anime were aware that most of the women in the game are survivors as well?

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Speaking of surviving, both Bernie and Yuria could break you pretty much just by blinking.

Given that there are games that have dealt with this topic in the past, why is it such a problem for Tomb Raider? Primarily I believe it comes from how tastelessly it was referenced in interviews. The interviews made a point of making it feel like a cheap ploy to make a few bucks and flip the trigger that automatically makes you care about the protagonist. Is the subject handled in a meaningful way? I won’t know till Tuesday (I actually already know, as CainKarl and I got our review session in, but, you’ll have to wait to hear my thoughts till the weekend! Work and classes and such).

Actually I might never know, as its been implied that both the game and the script have been heavily modified after the negative backlash from the interviews. I’m assuming the latter is the case, as Kotaku was extremely outspoken about the interviews, but gave the game a glowing review and never mentioned anything of the sort in it.

Rape isn’t the only hot topic that games don’t deal with. Really, anything that makes you feel uncomfortable isn’t allowed. Unfortunately this isn’t just by the media; if I had a dollar for every gamer that said “Games aren’t supposed to deal with ____, they’re just there for entertainment, jeez!” I could build myself a mansion out of dollar bills.

Personally I feel like both the medium and the user base need to grow up. I’m not asking for a call to arms ushering in an era of unrelenting darkness like what the present comic book scene looks like, but I am asking for more games that tastefully deal with darker themes. Spec Ops: The Line springs to mind right away. I’m exceedingly disappointed with the number of gamers and reviewers that took issue with the hard moral choices, the ambiguity, the grey lines of judgment, and yes, the infamous fire scene.

In my circle I’m typically the one who has no issue with wading into the deepest, darkest muck with you. Having myself been drowning first hand in almost all of it, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable. On the opposite side of the spectrum I’ve got a friend who doesn’t like dealing with any of that at all, still a great guy mind you, and one who sits in the middle. One night the three of us got together and decided to just play Spec Ops, switching off every time that we died (which was quite often towards the middle), and just see how far we could get.

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We made it probably an hour after the fire scene before Guy 1 who was giving a ride to Guy 2 was too sleepy to keep going and we called it a night. Prior to that though, we paused the game after the infamous scene and had a discussion about it. We were all stunned into a heavy, weighted silence for a while. However, we respected it.

I’ve played lots of games with dark, depressing things in them, rpg’s mostly as they’re the only ones that don’t seem to mind making you uncomfortable. Games like Gears of War 2 and 3. Games like Mass Effect 3. Games like Fire Emblem and certain Dragon Quests and Final Fantasies. Still, I hadn’t played one that made me just stop with the breath knocked out of me like Spec Ops, and I loved that game for it.

I’m always looking for an experience to make me feel something, and the way Spec Ops didn’t shy away from what it wanted me to feel is something I respect greatly. We discussed how tastefully done the scene was, how it clearly wasn’t done just to get a knee jerk reaction, and how powerful it was. We discussed the way the characters reacted to the scene, and how engrossing it was and how it served to draw us deeper into the experience. Furthermore, the way that we had no choice but to do it, and the way that made us feel explicitly connected to the character and his struggle was masterfully done and really just made the overall experience. Spec Ops is a game that gets you used to doing exceedingly uncomfortable things, but generally with the understand that however forced your hand might have felt, you made the decision. Robbing you of the choice you’d been used to having made the scene that much more powerful.

Yet gamers and reviewers the world over tossed up their hands in rage, rage that can really only be translated as “THIS IS A VIDEO GAME, HOW DARE YOU MAKE ME FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE!”

Ever since the dawn of gaming, stories and gameplay have always been polarized. Either you don’t make us feel a thing, or you paint in stark black and white that we are good and they are bad and so we shouldn’t feel bad about anything that happens to them because they are not us and are clearly awful people anyways. The world is black and white, red and blue, and that is the way that gamers by and large want it to remain.

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It’s time for a change. It’s time for more shades of grey, and every other color in between. I want to be challenged, I want to feel, and I want the idea that we are always in the right to be shaken to its foundation and broken.

I love moments like in Mass Effect 3 where someone I cared for very deeply died and there was nothing that I could do about it; I didn’t reject it because it made me feel and feel badly, I embraced it because it didn’t shy away from the fact that it happens nor did it insult me by sugar coating it. I embrace moments like the climactic Maria scene in Gears of War 2, and respect scenes like that Kai moment in Heavenly Sword or Bernie’s past in the Gears novels.

I only ask that writers do these scenes with purpose and reason, and with respect. What of you? Is it time for games and gamers alike to grow up, or do you feel that they should only exist for entertainment? I’ll meetcha’ in the comments below, Xeawn out.

Oh, and by the by video game writers; it’s okay to have this sorta stuff happen to males too.

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NOTE:

As of the posting of this article, my review session of Tomb Raider (2013) with CainKarl has been completed. I will be posting my review by this Saturday. My feelings on the game are quite…surprising, even to me!

See you then, and happy gaming!

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2 comments on “Are Video Games Mature Enough to Deal With Truly Dark Themes?

  1. I’ve played many games much more mature than these games that were released back in the older days I feel your post is invalid.
    Checkout games like Planescape Torment, Shadows of the colossus, Persona 4, Shin Megami Tensei, and many more.
    You’ve got to realize what is mainstream is usually much less mature than the more hidden games. Pretty much like any other entertainment medium.
    None of these games will ever sale as much as games like Call of Duty, and Gears of war(Two games I consider very immature even though they carry a mature rating.).

    Most well sold (truly)mature entertainment is folded in with more childish forms of entertainment. look at HBO shows many have some pretty mature stuff going on, but every five minutes you will get a nude sex scene which usually feels out of place and takes too long to satisfy the less intellectual crowd.

    • Depressing themes do not a mature game make. Gore and violence don’t equal maturity either. I think you’d be reaching considerably to call Shadow of the Colossus a particularly mature title. The game is exceedingly minimalistic in its story telling, leaving a narrative that is open for the player to experience and piece together the mystery of. If Colossus is a particularly mature game, by your definition, then anything with a minimalistic story and stoic environment with an open experience should be considered mature. By all means I enjoyed Colossus, but I consider it neither mature nor immature; it simply exists as both a piece of art and an engine for research and discussion. A fantastic piece of art, but not a drastically “mature” one either.
      From the games that you mentioned, it appears that what you’re equating with maturity is something that is either dark or gory, and likely has a lengthy story. While “dark” and “mature” often go hand in hand, they are certainly not synonymous with one another.

      While I wouldn’t consider Persona 4 or Shin Megami Tensei to be light games by any measure, I would consider Gears of War to be more mature in its greater mythos, though I will cede that the fourth entry in ShinMegaTen is certainly a mature title (and one that I’ll be reviewing in the weeks to come). At the heart of it, the point of every Persona game is that selfish ambition leads to corruption and death, and that selfish ambition can only be overcome with the power of love, friendship and the occasional montage.

      Persona is not a bad series by any measure and is actually one I enjoy quite a lot, however without spoiling the third game, for example, I wouldn’t call it mature. Shoving the overt idea of the constant specter of death and the futility of life became more of a parody by the halfway point of the title, perhaps sooner. You could set your watch by how many times Strega’s leader walks on the screen and shoots someone. The maturity of the plot points are poorly explained, the twists are done just for the sake of having twists, characters live and die for little more reason than dramatic tension, and the overall reason for why anything happens at all boils down to the traditional “I vill vule ze vorld!” plot point that every evil organization defaults to in most media.

      The game is most certainly enjoyable, but again, dark does not equal mature.

      I’ll give you that Persona 4 went about things considerably better, but even then it all boiled down to “I’m bored and can’t have what I want so the world be damned.” Did I enjoy P4? Most definitely. However, I also wouldn’t call it anywhere near the most mature game I’ve ever played, and certainly not more-so over the themes and struggles dealt within the expanded Gears of War Universe, which is far more expansive than the console games.
      Each one of the games I mentioned in this article are all examples of titles ranging from mainstream blockbusters to obscure gems that are mature for reasons beyond having people die or there being a lot of gore. There is no logical way that anyone can argue against the maturity of Spec Ops: The Line, Clocktower 3, Silent Hill or Mass Effect. While there will always be the temptation to beholden to our obscure cult classics as well as the “glory days of gaming”, one oughtn’t allow themselves to be in a position where our love of those titles becomes a blinder to the validity of the more mainstream releases as well. By comparison, for example, I found Persona 3 to be enjoyable, but considerably less mature than, say, Gears of War: Anvil Gate or even The Fall of Reach.
      Last but not least, your final paragraph kind of invalidates the point it appears you were trying to make with the previous two. It appears you were stating that sex scenes are immature and out of place, yet are designed to satisfy intellectuals? I don’t really see the point or validity of that statement. Copulation between characters can serve a literary purpose, but more often than not it’s simply there to be there. There’s rarely any real reason beyond nudity sells. A naked body is no more mature than an exploding one is no more mature than death or rape or any other topic when done for no reason beyond having it exist.

      In any case, though I don’t agree with your comment, I respect your views and appreciate you posting!

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