Video-game violence at E3: too much, yet still not enough

Microsoft and Sony packed their Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) press conferences with fountains of blood and shotgun blasts to the head. Maybe that's what it takes to sell games — but sales figures say that it's not working.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist's main character can kill two guys at once!
(Credit: GameSpot)

I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to video-game violence. I cut my teeth on Unreal Tournament and I am a machine with a shotgun in Halo. But the bloody displays at Microsoft's and Sony's press conferences at E3 left me horrified — and depressed that an industry with so many challenges chose to offer so little to its existing, and potentially new, audiences.

Microsoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist trailer was a mano-a-mano murder fest (you need to enter your age just to watch it online), featuring multiple headshots that were helpfully slowed down, Matrix-style, so you could really see the brains go flying. Plus, the carotid-slashing, garrotting and skull bashing are all in an amazing new pseudo-realistic style. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was roughly as you might expect with the horrors of war; and the protracted Tomb Raider trailer, while admittedly mesmerising, bashed around a vulnerable, prequel-era Lara Croft to such a degree that you kind of wanted to cry.

By the time I hit Sony, I laughed in horrified bemusement as the God of War: Ascension trailer showed the main character, Kratos (newly imbued with the ability to turn back time, in case you care) stabbing a giant elephant-man creature to death amidst gouts of blood so cartoonish, it looked like he was repeatedly puncturing a water balloon.

That bordered on ridiculous, but my amusement faded as I watched the Last Of Us trailer and its roughly eight deaths in three minutes, including the main character shooting a foe, point blank, in the face with a shotgun. (Watch it for yourself, if you think you have the stomach.)

Last of Us is meant to be a dark survival story. It's dark, all right.
(Credit: GameSpot)

At first, I thought I was just being "old nana", since the audience was inexplicably, and sometimes wildly, applauding all this hand-to-hand murder, slow motion blood fountains and shooting people in the face. Up close.

But, as the conferences and the tweets wore on, it became clear I wasn't the only one feeling like the gore-fest had gone too far. It became a bit of a sick joke with those around me. Joshua Topolsky, editor at The Verge, tweeted his dismay that, "In all this time, the only thing we can think to put in the hands of game characters is a gun". Wired UK's Nate Lanxon noted the irony that "They'd beep out the swearing in the South Park demo, but show someone literally being stabbed through the face in [Resident] Evil".

Nilay Patel, also at The Verge, cracked me up imagining the internal dialogue at Microsoft over whether to close with Usher and Just Dance 3. He tweeted: "GUYS WE CAN'T END WITH USHER DO WE HAVE ANOTHER GAME ABOUT MURDERS". Oh, they did. Bring on Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and about 20 minutes of it.

The violence in the majority of the demos was intense, over the top, gratuitous and, as this brilliant editorial over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun points out, it was also embarrassingly mindless. Is this what it takes to sell video games these days? And, if so, it's no wonder video-game sales were down 42 per cent in April, and continue to slide. The industry does have more to offer than the equivalent of ultraviolent summer blockbusters, but it clearly thinks only neck-slicing will sell.

E3 is, in theory, an annual showcase for the biggest and best in the videogame world. And this year's E3 takes place at a time when gamers are waiting impatiently for new hardware, and complaining about all the sequels; Sony is decried in the press as "on the brink of irrelevance"; and everyone, even fan favourite Nintendo, is said to be facing an uphill battle in the face of consistently declining sales — in an industry once thought to be recession-proof.

Unfortunately, E3 this year has done little to impress anyone who isn't already either a fan or an apologist for mind-numbing game violence. If anything, it's successfully buried the vibrant, creative, nuanced, clever and amazing games that could help the industry get its mojo back.

For example, Quantic Dream's upcoming PlayStation 3 game, Beyond, has a dramatic storyline, a big-name actress in the lead role, a compelling and action-packed look and a studio head who keeps imploring his industry to focus less on selling stupid headshots to teenagers, and focus more on crafting good, deep, compelling content. Beyond got a decent outing at Sony's press conference — but was sandwiched between bloody displays of stupidity. Do better, game industry — and do it to help yourselves.


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