Grand Theft Auto 5 has made me rethink a lot of the ways I play videogames. It’s made me question the core of my gamerhood. It hasn’t done this, however, through its much-hyped plot, or its “revolutionary” three character system, or anything of the sort.
It’s made me question my—our—commitment to violence. Is this the videogame we want to be associated with? This type of videogame?
Parallel to me playing Grand Theft Auto 5, my housemate has been playing The Last of Us, the game that will probably challenge GTA in year-end Game of the Year polls. And this month, NPR published an article about the supposedly brilliant storytelling in Bioshock Infinite.
These three games, which most mainstream journalists (and many gamers!) would put 1-2-3 on a year-end game of the year list, have many similarities. They all portend to have powerful, emotional, thought-provoking stories. Their mode of player interaction is extreme, over the top violence. They are Citizen Kane told with grindhouse techniques.
This isn’t to say videogames can’t be violent. They can, and sometimes should. But this permission to be violent shouldn’t be taken as a requirement to be violent. Permission to be violent has become the necessity of violence, a love of mass shootings and heads crushed like ripe melons; violence in videogames has become a mandate. If you want to be taken seriously, people have to die horrible deaths.
I’ve played videogames for a long time, since the Sega Genesis, since the Super Nintendo. So I know videogames have a rich history of murder. Mario killed goombas, and that felt crunchy, like bone breaking bone. Early Final Fantasy protagonists leave trails of bodies in their wake. We called it grinding, a term that always brought to mind the act of pushing meat through a grinder. My favorite part of Final Fantasy VI was always the visceral, slowed down sword effects over the intricately drawn figures.
Modern videogames offer the same concepts, but with more realism. Instead of The Last of Us’ Joel triggering a pixel effect when he kills, he pops someone’s head like a ripe grape. Thirty seconds later, he does it again, and then again. Or instead, Grand Theft Auto’s Michael has to shoot everyone in an office building to rescue a hostage. The game won’t let you leave until snuffed them all out in gory ecstacy. At some point, we’ve accepted this as realism: that killing a person every fifteen seconds is not only fun, but how the world works.
I can’t sit an watch The Last of Us for too long. It’s like a ten minute Youtube clip of the most gruesome deaths in grindhouse films left on repeat. And I can’t play as Trevor for too long. One too many scenes with him waking up with a crying man, one too many torture scenes, and he feels like the worst of us, the personification of the banality of brutality. He’s boring in being so completely evil.
It’s not the murder that gets to me as much as the soul-sucking vapidness of the extreme violence, the tacit acceptance that this is what videogames are good for. That our way of interacting with the world is killing waves of people—not people as much as waves—in the bloodiest way possible.
People hail The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite as pinnacles of videogame storytelling. Yet their violence is a crutch. A dependency. An addiction. The Last of Us being brutal makes more sense than Uncharted, a game about a mass-murdering professor, but it’s the difference between a high functioning alcoholic at a dinner party and an alcoholic at a bar. In the end, their both killing themselves, but we can ignore one of them and act surprised when they die in a gutter. In the end, both Infinite and The Last of Us are both closer to Troma slashers than anything else. We might not have a Citizen Kane, but we have plenty of Toxic Avengers.
Except unlike The Toxic Avenger and its ilk, none of these games are particularly funny. Grand Theft Auto V gets billed as something of a comedy, but what’s funny here? The obvious satire of vapid individuals? The despicable people (three of whom we control) doing miserable things? The unrelenting cynicism? The transphobia? The consistent effort to attack people who can’t defend themselves?
Because once you cut the comedy from Grand Theft Auto, what’s left but an endless string of horrifying murders? What’s left but the serial killer tumblr? What’s left but death after death until we’re relying on the developers to provide enough force feedback and sound effects to make us remember we’re killing someone? What we’re saying at this point is that if a developer makes a cruel, unsympathetic game that forces your to torture someone, we’ll knock off a point, maybe, and proclaim it as the best videogame of the generation; fans will slam them for that point, too, because it’s hurting a metacritic score. That we’ll talk about how much fun murdering the apocalypse is and how beautiful its narrative devices are delivered before we’ll dwell on its incredible, gratuitous violence.
We’ll proclaim, to anyone who listens, that The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite is the pinnacle of videogame narrative. They’re good stories, both of them. But to mention that without addressing that their language of communication is almost exclusively murder is disingenuous. When The Last of Us came out, many people compared it to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road . Except Heads don’t pop every thirty seconds in The Road. The Last of Us, and Bioshock Infinite, probably have higher body counts than Cormac McCarthy’s entire bibliography, combined.
When Grand Theft Auto 5 came out, I defended it, because ultraviolence isn’t necessarily terrible. Torture isn’t a concept that should be off-limits. Nothing should be off-limits. But the thing is, just because something isn’t forbidden doesn’t make it acceptable. Breaking Bad killed a lot of people in horrible ways, but it did so to drive home its themes. Grand Theft Auto 5 kills people to drive home how horrible we are. How despicable we are. Grand Theft Auto 5 makes us torture people to tell us we’re despicable for torturing someone.
We are, and we can, and should, feel ashamed. Not because we enjoy videogame slashers, but because we enjoy them and then try to pass them off as the best stories we have. Because we’re saying that dehumanization is the concept videogames best explore, and that ultraviolence is our only means of telling it.