If you remember one thing from E3 2012, it’s probably the neck stabbing.
Over three days, attendees watched game after game showcase increasingly creative methods of murder. Press events were so bloody that Gameological began publishing an "E3 Murder Report," detailing the body count of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo’s events. "Between Microsoft, Sony, EA and Ubisoft's shows on Monday," wrote Fred Dutton of Eurogamer, "we counted roughly 78 throatstabs, 63 snapped vertebrae, 57 exploded heads, 27 shattered knee caps, a brace of disembowelings and, courtesy of Far Cry 3, a couple of immolated jungle cats." Even fans of shooters or other combat games found themselves unsettled by the relentless catalog of killing. Our own "Neck Stabs of E3 2012" is tough to watch a year later.
In 2013, the body count skyrocketed. Gameological’s new series of Murder Reports noted that Microsoft’s hundreds of deaths (largely from Dead Rising 3) surpassed all three major 2012 keynotes put together. Sony increased its body count by dozens, and Nintendo’s number edged upward as well. But, strangely, the effect was somehow less overwhelming, and the deaths didn’t evoke the same horrified numbness.
A gameplay demo from Destiny didn’t show a single human face during combat, and Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare lampooned the whole idea of a grim-n-gritty shooter by letting you play as bok choy. Many visibly human deaths were downright bloodless compared to 2012. Max Rockatansky might have run someone over in a Mad Max teaser, but the trailer cut away. A shooting in Watch Dogs’ demo felt shocking, not par for the course. For every Battlefield 4, there was a game whose premise or aesthetic was more notable than its body count.
In 2012, Ubisoft showed off Assassin’s Creed 3 by demonstrating protagonist Connor’s ability to dodge musket fire and hack into Redcoats with a tomahawk. The cinematic trailers showed massive battles and close-quarter combat, all against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War. By 2013, the combat was no less intense: The official E3 trailer opened with a barfight. If the gameplay was less obviously bloody, it was partly because we’re used to seeing sword-based killing while axes still feel uncouth.
"It's about a sense of adventure."
But alongside the fighting, Ubisoft released its "Horizon" trailer, which lingered on tranquil seascapes and started with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote. Carsten Myhill of Ubisoft told us the trailer was meant to be "a little bit more contemplative, not as much of the stabbing and violence as we usually show." Horizon, he said, showed that Black Flag was "not just about drinking and stabbing and shooting… it's about a sense of adventure."
Over at Square Enix, developers were bringing back one of gaming’s least violent action-game heroes, the master burglar Garrett from Thief. While Garrett can shoot guards, he’ll quickly run out of arrows, and it’s easier to avoid someone than knock them out. "The fighting is really just about getting rid of the guards, not killing them," said game director Nicholas Cantin. "I think it's good not to encourage it. We give you the tools to defend yourself, but you're not an assassin." Of course, cracking somebody on the head will never really be non-violent, but fighting is an unpleasant and risky chore, not something players will be seeking out.
The most notable counter-example was Ryse: Son of Rome, which tasked the player with getting unspecific revenge for the murder of his family. At the Microsoft booth, Ryse was represented by a faux stone tableau of warriors, at which I stared absently while in line for the game. Some minutes in, I realized that the stone was bleeding.
"Is there anything you want to know?" someone asked me. "How do you play?" I responded. What followed was a loving description of how the game’s three essential buttons (block, stab, and club-someone-with-your-shield) could open up a veritable treasure trove of bloody deaths, all delivered with a huge grin — the Ryse folks were probably more visibly excited about their game than anybody else at Microsoft.
Even the faux stone was bleeding
After a few minutes, I was excited too. Sure, there was a long and boring cutscene in which my comrades died with severed arms and arrows to the eye. Once I got through that, though, I was sweeping across a beach and up a tower, trying to time my strikes well enough to throw people off ledges or slit their throats at a more interesting angle. It was some of the most fun I had at an E3 demo.
Why? It wasn’t the gore. It was that I was moving fast, feeling a virtual body get into its flow and seeing the results. I was trapped in a convention center where I couldn’t walk two steps without running into someone, but part of me was the complete master of an environment.
One of the biggest questions at E3 2012 was whether the games were actually incredibly graphic, or if the violence was just being placed front and center. Many of the people we talked to this year defended their violence as an integral part of the game, not something to be afraid of. "In the same way you can make a movie about action that contains violence, we strongly believe you can make a game that contains some form of violence and if we do that in the right way I don’t think that people can see that in a completely negative way," said Dice’s Karl Magnus Troedsson. "We don’t just add violence for the sake of violence. Blood, gore, just for the sake of it, we don’t do that. On the other hand, we don’t shy away."
"We don’t just add violence for the sake of violence."
People have also acknowledged, though, that killing and explosions are much easier to showcase at E3. "We could do huge demos of all the parts of the game that have no violence in them at all but I don't know how it would stand up in a three minute big screen demo," Assassin’s Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson told Eurogamer in 2012. Instead, marketers tend to show trailers that "blow some shit up." In a gameplay demo, solving a puzzle or making a complicated series of jumps is tough when 30 other people are waiting for you to finish.
E3 is a particularly bad place for introspection. It’s not an easy place for emotional or gameplay subtlety, no matter how many sad songs play over Metal Gear Solid videos. Companies are there to show you some cinematics, patch together some bombastic trailers, and (hopefully) set you free for 20 minutes to play in their sandbox. That’s not a good thing. It does, however, go a long way towards explaining why bloody spectacles can be so common.
Despite these problems, I don’t actually want to excise the ideas that lead to gameplay violence. A lot of the backlash against AAA franchises has focused on the power fantasies these games offer. But I’m not convinced power fantasies are inherently a bad thing. There’s a place for utopianism in fiction and gaming, for creating a world where people have the freedom to influence their world and do things they’d never be able to in reality. The problem is that we don’t seem to have many ways to define power that aren’t built around violence.
Batman: Arkham Origins, another of my favorite demos at E3, was technically non-lethal, with an emphasis on the technically — thugs might have been alive at the end, but only after I’d broken their legs and maybe impaled them with a grappling hook. I felt queasy watching Batman knock out man after man with bone-crushing force. But there’s no feeling like flipping across an alley with superhuman speed, dodging someone’s arm and vaulting behind them to attack. I don’t care how many meditations on family life and solitude I play, I am never going to get tired of things that let me feel physically free and competent.
What does freedom without violence look like? It could come in the form of one of the most highly celebrated (though still combat-heavy) announcements at E3: a new game in the parkour-focused Mirror’s Edge series. In many ways, Mirror’s Edge was deeply flawed. When it was good, though, it did something incredible. It gave me a sense of complete agency — sliding down buildings and flying over gaps — that didn’t depend primarily on being able to hurt other people. And it made me feel like I had earned it.
The most limiting part of Mirror’s Edge? Honestly? It was the guns.
Illustration by Dylan Lathrop.