Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Meaningful Violence in Condemned: Criminal Origins

Condemned: Criminal Origins isn't a fantastic game. The scares are cheap and the plot, though supposedly grounded in reality, devolves into Clive Barker hooey towards the end. But in discussions on videogame violence, I think it makes an interesting example. In two articles I've read recently - this interview with Consensual Torture Simulator creator Merrit Kopas, and this, by Steve Gaynor, who directed Gone Home - there are arguments that violence in videogames can be approached differently.

Kopas says that, without needing better physics or graphics technology, the effect violence has on a human body can be more realistically depicted in games than it is now.

Gaynor says that violence is most effective in fiction when it's visited upon characters who have identity, and that rather than cut down swathes of faceless "enemies" videogame players should only commit violence against people with specific relevance to a game's plot and world.

Both argue that, in doing these things, videogames can achieve a more meaningful treatment of violence.

Condemned gets at least part way there. Starting with Kopas's argument, and the physical effects of violence on a human body, Condemned is a game that, partly, is about the collection of forensic evidence. Your character, Ethan Thomas, is a crime scene investigator for a metropolitan homicide unit and at various points in the game, in the early levels in particular, he has to analyse crime scenes to locate wounds, blood splatters and potential murder weapons. In fact, the first real gameplay in Condemned, prior to any combat, is investigating the murder scene of a young woman who, by taking photographs of her neck and scanning for fingerprints, you determine has been strangled to death.

It's a framing device for the combat that follows. In this opening scene, players are given to understand the effect that violence has against the human body. They analyse the wounds in detail. They're told precisely what it is that caused this person to die.

Rarely do we get this close to the people we kill - or the people we find dead - in videogames. Often their bodies show no physical signs of the gunshots or stab wounds we've inflicted. Other times their corpses disappear altogether, making their deaths, and the violence we commit, completely meaningless, since the game cleanly brushes them aside and continues, literally unchanged.

Even games that take an ostensible unsanitary approach to violence fail to depict is consequences. Videogames that receive X-ratings, are derided by the mainstream press and called "realistic" by players often feature hyperbolic and silly depictions of violence. In Manhunt for example players can remove an enemy's head using a line of strangulation cord. Visually satisfying though these games may be, they do not accurately depict the physical results of violence committed on the human body, unlike Condemned which, from its very beginning, encourages players to appreciate the damage caused by violence, damage they are going to inflict themselves.

It's not a perfect representation. Rather than anatomically accurate wounds, the damage caused by players in Condemned is summarised by generic patches of blood, which appear on enemies' bodies at the approximate place where they were hit. So, instead of an open wound, a blow to the head will leave a bloody patch on the side of the face, while the facial features will remain undamaged.

However, although injuries are glossed over, violence - as in, the act of violence -  is unusually detailed. Killing a person in Condemned is never a case of merely pressing a button, nor does your target ever die quickly or cleanly.

Most of your encounters are fought using a blunt weapon and your boot, meaning you have to slowly beat targets to death. There's a deliberate focus on the gradual effect of violence. Hit someone once, for example, and they'll reel back, grabbing their face and screaming. Continue hurting them and they'll try to run away from you - if you've hit them in the leg, they'll limp.

Once you've hit them five or six times, they'll no longer be able to stand, and will fall to all fours. At this point you can either finish them off with a final blow or give them time to recover their strength and start attacking you again. If you hit them, unfortunately they transform instantly into a ragdoll model, precisely the kind of "weightlessness" that Kopas criticises. However, if you let them get up, they'll continue fighting but with diminished ability - their co-ordination and the strength of their blows will be reduced.

Condemned shows the gradual, corrosive effect violence has on the human body. Your enemies become steadily damaged. Their ability to function is gradually weakened by your blows. And this is depicted not by a slowly lowering health bar or number of hits points, or any other cold, numerical markers: It's depicted with ragged breathing, screams of pain and faltering limbs.

The effect of violence in videogames is usually simple: A character ceases to be a combatant - a component of gameplay - and an obstacle between the player and the objective is removed. There is no half-way point. Your enemy will continue to function healthily and to attack you until he's dead.

In Condemned, however, we get a sense of damage, of the slow degradation of the human body that violence will cause. Like the murder victim, strangled to death, our victims die slowly and in pain. They are not simply "switched off" by a tap of a button, before vanishing from the game world: they are incrementally and viciously beaten to death.

To put it in game reviewer's lexicon, the violence in Condemned is "visceral." It substitutes simple patterns of gameplay (alive/dead, playing/not-playing) for a more complex representation of how the human body is affected by violence. It does not simply "die." It does not cleanly "lose points", or "lose health." It bends, bruises and eventually breaks.

And this makes the violence more unpleasant, more true to life. My own problem with game violence is that it's always associated with positive emotions. Developers will conceive ways of making it spectacular in appearance; fun to perform; exciting to experience. Rarely, if ever, will the act of killing in a videogame be miserable, unfulfilling, or punitive. It may have some small implications - killing a non-player character at one point in a game may slightly affect the story, or what items you receive later on. But in terms of gameplay, it will usually be a blithe action; it will be something you perform either happily or without worrying about it.

That problem may be tied to what Gaynor is arguing for, about how the characters murdered by the player need to be individuals rather than nameless masses, but I think it may also relate to what Kopas is saying, about how game violence lacks "weight."

Violence in games is easy to perform. Particularly in Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, it is simply a case of holding down the aim button and then pressing "fire." Your enemies are often weak as well, and plentiful. In terms of your own skill-set and the counter-abilities of your targets, it doesn't take a lot to kill people in videogames.

Not so in Condemned. Your enemies are strong and resilient, and your own attacks are difficult to co-ordinate. At its launch in 2005, Condemned was a peculiar example of a melee fighting game that used a first-person viewpoint, lending the combat an unfamiliar and disorientating effect.

Rather than dispatching enemies via a routine pressing of buttons, your encounters in Condemned involve frustration, an abortive mashing of the controller and luck. Enemies attack in unpredictable ways while your own weapons have ill-defined characteristics and rarely land where you're aiming. It's a hard game wherein fighting two or more enemies at once presents a significant challenge. Any kill that you "score" comes by way of completing a complex chain of attack and block commands, and outsmarting the erratic behaviour of opponents. Killing, or even harming, is difficult in Condemned. And rather than joyful, it's typically awkward, dissatisfying and unfair.

Killing is hard to do. The enemies are frightening. You come to want to avoid violence, rather than associate it with pleasure. If I had to give an example of what I think Kopas means by "weighty" violence, the combat in Condemned would be it.

It certainly seems more meaningful than typical game violence, which is throwaway and disinterested in consequences. The violence in Condemned is "real" in the sense that the emotional responses it provokes are unpleasant. They may not be the unpleasant emotions solicited by real-world violence - you certainly don't fear for your life while playing Condemned - but at least it isn't joyful. At least it's closer to the real, terrible thing than most videogames get.

Onto Gaynor's article which proposes a metric for violence in games: "violence performed by the player in a videogame is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual."

Condemned is certainly not that clever - the people you kill are still "enemies" in the depersonalised, mechanical sense. But they're nevertheless imbued with a level of identity uncommon for first-person action games. 

Their facial expressions change depending on their situation. If they're attacking, they'll grit their teeth and furrow their brow. If you've just hit them, or electrocuted them with your taser, their mouths will open and they'll squeeze their eyelids together. A small touch, but it makes them appear more human, more like the "individuals" which Gaynor defines as having "families, homes, jobs [and] friends." 

And although they are lacking back stories, distinct physical characteristics or relationships to other characters in the game, your opponents in Condemned are still individually significant - they still respectively mean more to the player than typical game enemies.

A single enemy in Condemned can drastically alter the player's experience of the game; his ability to progress. As I've described, they are each of them strong and difficult to kill - they each have the power to significantly harm, if not kill, the player. Unlike Call of Duty, BioShock Infinite, or other games where the player cuts down harmless groups of enemies, in Condemned, each enemy has a significant bearing on the gameplay. He is able to meaningfully impede the player's ability to continue, either by causing the player significant loss of health or sustaining the player's attacks until the player's weapon breaks, or runs out of ammunition. The enemy's bearing on the game's narrative, or the bearing his death has on the game's narrative is admittedly minimal. However, he is able to noticeably affect gameplay and his defeat always marks a significant victory. More than a single enemy in most videogames, a single Condemned enemy can influence the player, and the player's experience of the game.

The way Condemned treats firearms is also tied to how it wants players to respond to enemies. Not only are players limited to the ammunition remaining in the gun when they pick it up, meaning that, even if they find the very rare sub-machine gun, they'll only ever have a maximum of thirty bullets, they're also forced to physically check how many rounds are in the weapon - there is no heads-up display giving them weapon information.

And so the game, even during gunfight sections, never degenerates into an anonymous, effortless "mowing down" of enemies. Players literally do not have the resources to behave that way. Bullets are so scarce that they must carefully decide when to use them and where to aim, something that's reinforced by the physical checking of the ammo clip.

You begin to count your bullets as you use them meaning that, when you kill an enemy, you're aware of how many rounds he absorbed and how many that has left you with. This precious and exact parcelling out of your resources makes each enemy feel significant. Unlike a lot of action games, where you kill a group of enemies and can then expect to be given enough ammunition to kill another group, in Condemned, you're consistently aware of your precarious supply situation: Additional bullets are rare and, in fact, health recharges are only available at fixed places in each level. Each violent encounter has a marked and potentially progress-threatening effect on your inventory. You're unable to carelessly "blast through" enemies, to think of them as surpassable obstacles - the way Condemned gives, or rather, does not give you weapons lends each enemy you have to fight a sense of menace.

It also adds a narrative to each of your fights. You never remember how you "killed a bunch of guys." You remember how you hit one in the head with your last bullet, took a punch from another, was able to quickly grab a pipe, hit him back, and so on. Weapons and supplies are so rare in Condemned that their every usage becomes a significant moment in your game, and any violence "achieved" with them is memorable. The enemies may not have real narrative bearing, certainly not to the extent that Gaynor wishes for, but they're a significant, game-affecting drain on your supplies. They're never just some guys who you  killed. They're guys who forced you to use your last three bullets.

But, to end on, there are two things that I think damage Condemned's credibility.

First is how the narrative slides into supernatural drama. The enemies you meet are decreasingly human, culminating in a dual-sword wielding final boss with blank white eyes and pieces of metal sticking out of his body. It's absurd, and undermining of the tangible, meaningful, human-on-human violence you experience for much of the game: It's hard to take Condemned seriously as a treatise on violence when its plot starts to include monsters and evil cults.

Second is how, occasionally, the bodies of your enemies will disappear. I noticed early on how small details like blood-marks and bullet holes would appear in the game: In the fifth level, I shot an enemy in the head with a revolver, and found his blood sprayed across the floor behind him and the bullet lodged in a wall on the other side of the room. Stepping back and looking at the scene in front of me, I was reminded of the crime I investigated at the start of the game, the case of the strangled woman. In the way I looked for fingerprints and DNA, it was easy to imagine another detective discovering my murder and having to search the room for the bullet, and match the blood trail to the gunshot wound. This gave the game a kind of poetry - the visual similarities between the two scenes made my own kill seem as significant as the one I'd investigated.

I liked the idea that every murder I committed would become a crime scene, that the game world wouldn't just forget what I'd done, that cops would eventually arrive to search the place. It made it seem like the enemies I killed had, like Gaynor talks about, identities. They died in similar circumstances to the people whose murders I policed. Perhaps they had  lived similar lives as well.

But then I left the room and came back, and the body, the bloodstain and the gunshot in the wall had all disappeared. I don't know if it was a creative misjudgement by Condemned's developers, or a technical limitation of their hardware, but I wish the bodies in the game would remain on the floor.

Nevertheless, Condemned is a good example of how violence in videogames can be done differently. Killing in Condemned isn't fun or easy and the enemies, though hardly fully formed characters, have a significant bearing on the player's performance, experience and decision making. As Gaynor points out, there's no harm in using violence in fiction - in Greek tragedies, English literature and Hollywood films, the deaths of characters have enormous dramatic and emotional effect. Games however continue to appropriate violence for the wrong reasons: for fun, exciting spectacle and repetitive, meaningless mechanical activity. Though imperfect, Condemned is counter-intuitive to those traditions and should serve developers as the template for a better class of violent videogame.

1 comment:

  1. "It's hard to take Condemned seriously as a treatise on violence when its plot starts to include monsters and evil cults."

    It's almost as if it's a videogame and not a treatsie on violence.

    Never mind that it's a horror game with more on its mind than pleasing Hipster McDipshit, if it dares to use its imagination it surely belongs in the trash.

    What a joke. You blog for VICE, how impressive, I hope it keeps you stocked with ugly flannel shirts you pretentious human dildo.