E3's cartoon violence is a step forward

Can demon chainsaw kills coexist with adorable yarn dolls? Yes


E3 is, and may always be, about fighting. Once the show wrapped up, critic Anita Sarkeesian determined that 76 percent of the games at press conferences used combat as a mechanic, and on the first day, she lamented the ludicrously gory chainsaw kills of Doom. In years prior, I related to this exasperation with the annual celebration of blood and gore. But as I sat through hours of those press conferences last week, I no longer sensed something that I’d felt for years: that I should feel guilty about digital bloodlust. In a Twitter friend’s words, E3 had stopped being so grimdark.

I started seriously playing video games in the late 2000s, and I did it almost exclusively with story-based first-person shooters. As an avid genre fiction reader, shooters felt like the successors to dark science fiction like Harlan Ellison or the Vertigo comics I’d been working my way through. BioShock blended body horror with political commentary, Fallout 3’s storylines and moral choices were endlessly debatable, and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl was adapted from the same source material as a Tarkovsky film. I looked to shooters for stories about fate, violence, and human nature, with an added adrenalin rush.

After a while, interacting with a world mostly by shooting (or occasionally stabbing or hitting) things started to feel limiting. The writers — of BioShock especially, but many other titles as well — were aware of this tension. They used their limitations to highlight the futility of violence, or the ultimate powerlessness of people who had no option but violence. Some pushed their political commentary towards nihilism — Call of Duty’s “No Russian” campaign asked you to participate in a terrorist attack, Spec Ops: The Line was Heart of Darkness set in the Middle East. But others edged into outright contempt. When Far Cry 3 appeared, its writer paired ridiculous action game mechanics like magic tattoos and shark punching with themes that implicitly (and perhaps disingenuously) condemned players for having fun with them. In the games, this could at least be explored over hours (sometimes tens, or hundreds of hours) of play. But when it came to showing off a few minutes at press conferences… well, things could become very strange.

E3 2012, at which both Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops made appearances, was notoriously grim — we ended up making a compilation video of all the neck stabs shown in demonstrations or trailers. "‘That was a real man I killed,’ the execs and the game director and the teleprompter want you to think, as you put bullets in the brains of five more meatbags," wrote our own Paul Miller in his show wrap-up. "‘He didn't deserve to die.’ Pop pop pop boom. ‘What a terrible cost.’ Slash stab stab gurgle. ‘What a cruel world.’"

It would be easy to write all this off as cynical and exploitative, but it also felt like the people making these games were grasping to find emotional depth in mechanics that drastically narrowed the player’s interactions. Characters that had started as caricatures — like Lara Croft of Tomb Raider — were imbued with new depth, even as they cut the same swathe of destruction through their worlds. 2012 saw a new, more vulnerable version of Lara; by 2014, the E3 trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider. showed her talking about post-traumatic stress with a therapist. "Apparently the logic is if we're trying to advance narratives in action games, we need to find nuanced rationales for why we're killing so many people with aplomb," quipped Leigh Alexander upon seeing it. It was difficult to reconcile the mundane experience of a doctor’s office with the sheer scale of Tomb Raider’s body count or Lara’s origin as a dual-pistol-wielding ‘90s heroine. When games about killing critique killing, they still treat it as uniquely important and meaningful.

In 2015, things felt a little different. The past few years of E3 have seemed lighter than the year of neck stabbings, but last week, companies seemed to change tack when showing off the exact same games. When Lara appeared for Rise of the Tomb Raider, she was still vulnerable. But she was in full adventure mode, hopping around mountaintops while a partner who struggled to keep up. More than anything, she looked like she was having fun. Tom Clancy’s The Division, a slightly generic-looking multiplayer shooter, was advertised as a slightly generic-looking multiplayer shooter, not an emotionally manipulative post-apocalyptic tear-jerker — as it was the year before.

At E3 2015, the single biggest game of the show was about a child hanging out with his giant goat-dog-chicken best friend. Demos with "realistic" human enemies were balanced with ones about fighting demons and robot dinosaurs, or reenacting fights from the morally black-and-white Star Wars universe. The tear-jerking was largely reserved for a game about a tiny and adorable yarn creature. More female characters meant fewer of the same generic, tormented brown-haired white men that have populated shooters for so many years. The seriously politically oriented Deus Ex: Mankind Divided stood alongside the over-the-top Just Cause 3, in which political oppression necessitates blowing up almost every structure in a country with unlimited explosives, then riding a missile like a surfboard.

Five years ago, I might not have thought this was progress. Games ought to address the tremendous violence that players are visiting on fictional worlds, I thought. We should attempt to talk about how shooting mechanics limit how we experience those worlds, not unapologetically revel in it.

But at this point, that’s happening. As I wrote last year, it’s becoming easier to step outside the convention of killing, and games that have done it are appearing consistently at E3, even if they’re a minority. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst keeps the original game’s martial arts but has stripped out guns (and, theoretically, killing), letting players focus more on the flow of free-running. Frictional Games followed in its long tradition of weapon-free horror games with the creepy underwater Soma, and Beyond Eyes is trying to create a whole new set of mechanics to convey its protagonist’s blindness. Virtual reality’s major presence at the show expanded this even further — they didn’t get much play at the major press conferences, but puzzle and exploration games are a core part of the VR lineup.

It’s still interesting, and entirely possible, to examine the consequences of violence through a violent game. There’s also, however, room to treat it much less literally. The more we’re used to the idea that shooting isn’t the universal language of storytelling, the more we can let some games play by their own set of cartoonish rules. Stylized deaths don’t have to be put into narratives about realistic killing, and games like For Honor can treat combat as a skill to perfect instead of — as Far Cry 3's writer suggested in 2012 — a repulsive opiate. It’s totally possible to imagine playing Doom without wondering what it means that you’re good at killing demons, just like you can play on a "capitalist versus communist" chess set without wondering what it means that you’re good at sending serfs to their deaths.

Yes, it’s more complicated than that. Video games exist in the weird limbo between abstract competition like chess and purely narrative media like books or movies. It’s hard to avoid the creepy imperialist politics in something like Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon Wildlands E3 trailer, no matter how interesting the gameplay turns out to be. The closer something edges to our own experiences, the harder it becomes to think of it as just a game — and I’m going to keep poking fun whenever Nathan Drake destroys an entire village in the happy-go-lucky Uncharted franchise. But applying a protective coat of soul-searching, realism, and self-loathing can sometimes only make things worse. If E3 this year taught me anything, it’s that taking violence less seriously might be the best way to let cyberdemons coexist with yarn dolls.