Opinion: Why E3's constant stream of identikit brutality saw me embarrassed by this industry for the first time

A man lies on the ground begging for his life. His pleas are met only with the cold, uncompromising metal of a shotgun barrel as it hammers into his skull. A moment later, nose meets end of barrel, trigger clicks, and head is detonated at excruciatingly intimate range. A crowd full of braying industry ‘professionals’ whoop, cheer, laugh and honk like seals. I get really uncomfortable.

All of the above of course occurred in and around Sony’s on-stage E3 demo of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Previous to this particular outburst of jubilance and brain-matter, the audience had responded like a winning sports crowd as a 14-year-old girl’s violent outburst had facilitated another man to have his head cracked repeatedly into the corner of a table until brain failure led to either unconsciousness or death. It didn’t matter which.

Above: The violence of this scene is not a problem. What people seem to be getting out of it is

Now please do not get me wrong here. I’m not joining the hysterical tabloid anti-violence brigade. I’ll support any sort of extreme content as long as it’s contextually sound, and while I’m totally behind the idea of fully-enforced age certification on media, I will not stand for censorship. You wouldn’t believe the size and severity of my much-prized collection of horror cinema, and hell, I grew up in the ‘80s, fuggodsake. You can probably guess the kind of gleefully violent OTT nonsense that informed my early love of film. But “contextual” is the most important word in this paragraph. The intent of - and landscape around - any kind of media content is what matters, not the content itself. And so, that in mind, there are a few things about this year’s E3 that have made me uneasy.

For a start there’s the fact that E3 2012, more than any recent one I can remember, seemed to be all about the killing. Beyond The Last of Us, we also had Splinter Cell, Far Cry, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Watch Dogs, and all seemed to present me with nothing but one long parade of close-up throat-stabbings and skull-crackings. Games, like any other medium, have the right to be violent. I get that, and I’m fine with it. But there seemed to be a particular brand of intimate, brutal, one-on-one pain infliction defining this year’s show. It was everywhere, it was rendered with relish, and it was the constant (in fact sole) punctuation between each and every one of the never-ending string of explosions that made up the beat to this year’s song and dance. 

I was going to make a compilation video to sum up my feelings towards this year’s E3, but this guy has already done it as well as I ever could. When I think about E3 2012, this is exactly what bursts through my mind:

Admittedly, in isolation probably none of these games’ content would bother me as much as it has at E3. The effect of said games is intensified by their concentrated, close-proximity presentation over a mere couple of days at the same event. But unfortunately that very proximity also raises yet another problem. It draws a direct comparison between the titles in question, and starkly shows up the intense similarities between their demos.

Think about those games I’ve listed. Splinter Cell. Far Cry. Tomb Raider. Resident Evil. A few years ago their franchises couldn’t have been more distinct from each other. Now? Stealth-kill leads to cover-shooting bit, leads to explosion leads to more cover-shooting and a bigger explosion, leads to a brutal, intensely directed, interactive execution scene. That model can be nigh-seamlessly applied to the pacing and choreography of almost all the big demos at E3 2012, including those of new IP.

Of course, with only minutes to make an impression at a show as big as E3, the old axiom of “Show them the most exciting bit and get out” always applies, particularly to one-off on-stage demos. But that doesn’t help. In fact it only further emphasises the issue that across the board, whatever the game, whatever the franchise history, whatever the supposed values of the supposed genre, exactly this same identikit violence is what publishers and (presumably) developers now consider “the most exciting bit”.

Above: Sam Fisher or Lara Croft. It doesn't matter. Everyone acts like Marcus Fenix now

And the worst part? Going off the evidence of the conference footage I’ve seen streamed from the show, that thinking seems to have worked all too well. And that’s starting to scare the crap out of me.

Because my real point, the point that spurred me on to write this feature, is not strictly the content of the big games on show this year. It’s the immediate audience reaction to them. It seems that the more intense the violence on show, the more likely the crowd is to whoop and cheer, regardless of the context or the quality of what is on show. That would be depressing if I was watching a public demonstration, but all too often this year I’ve seen this kind of behaviour during press conferences. That means an audience made up of games journalists. Industry professionals. The supposedly insightful, articulate experts and ambassadors who champion gaming as a mature, ever-developing narrative medium.

Like I said, it scares the crap out of me.


E3 E3 2012


  • Mooshon - June 8, 2012 6:03 a.m.

    Great job on that vid there Dave. Snorted on my cheese on toast. You're absolutely right. There seems to be a resurgence of glee with the up-close and personal executions at the moment. As a mechanic it can be incredibly rewarding though as it makes you feel like you're playing the game really well. Problem is one of desensitisation now with players requiring new kill anims for their jollies. Feels pretty awkward mainly because of the realism. Maybe it should be mandatory for gamers to play through Manhunt for grubby context. As you say Naughty Dog did seem to be pretty self aware. Reminded me a lot of that knife kill in Saving Private Ryan which still grates on me.
  • ParagonT - June 8, 2012 6:03 a.m.

    "Of course a consistent percentage of the world’s population is always going to be made up of idiots. Organise a big enough event with a big enough attendance, and that percentage will take effect as the microcosm forms. And the idiots are of course always the noisy ones, the vocal minority who make the rest of us look bad by the distorted impression they give. But again, that’s a problem." I suppose this type of view, opposed to them, is more professional? Anyway, I think that games are getting more violent, but there are different reasons people are "whooping and hollerin'". You can't take a general view and simply infer certain generalizations. Yeah, people are becoming more numb to violence, its a fact, there's research about it, and yes, an obviously biased "professional" whistling is not making this industries image any better, but sadly violence has always sold. Your right about the context of violence and how it should be used to push the story and backdrop of the game forward I think, but it's pretty opinionated. The industry is getting more violent, fast paced, and sexual year by year, but that's what the majority wants obviously from sales. In summary again, people are becoming desensitized, but I don't think any one of us should act like were above it. Especially when calling out others then inferring an angel like status. Gaming is not the only front to these problems.
  • Pwnage19 - June 8, 2012 6:08 a.m.

    Interesting article, and definitely a great read. However, I believe there is one major oversight: these reactions are typical in almost all forms of entertainment (and, in rare cases, news stories). It's not your esteemed colleagues you should be worried about, it's our evolving society. Scenarios like the ones you experienced at E3 just happen to be further exacerbated because of the overwhelming amount of men present. While we try not to stereotype, it's difficult not to in this case. Society is growing more and more numb to violence, murder, and sex, and it seems that men are at the forefront of it all. It's disheartening, and I do agree with many of your points. Here's to hoping we will see changes in the future.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - June 8, 2012 6:20 a.m.

    Indeed, desensitisation is an issue. But for me, the kind of affecting contextual differences The Last of Us seems to be bringing to its violence are a step in the right direction. Which is why it's really frustrating to see them celebrated for simple visceral thrill value.
  • tiben36 - June 8, 2012 6:50 a.m.

    i think the real reason why people cheered so much is because violence is taken in the right direction in the game everybody i talked with about this game always told me how tensionful and "shocking" the game was its gruesome, horrible and mercyless, but who isnt in that game? its kill or be killed
  • TheHowetzer - June 8, 2012 6:15 a.m.

    Wow man you are overreacting. You should think of what was going on in the situations you were refering to in your article. E3- You have a bunch of people who WANT to be excited, it should not be that much of a surprise when it happens. People tend to laugh/cheer along with others espeacially in crowds when they are not sure how to react. The context of the game you kept referring to "Last of Us" is a world where you can DIE if you don't do what needs to be done, and guess what Suzie, sometimes it aint pretty. Thats the point, the fact you are reacting to it in the way you are is most likely the intention of the Devs. Its NOT pretty, its NOT glamorus to have to kill someone, the medium is becoming more realistic so you are seeing it better than before. These games are becoming more emersive, they are conveying the fact of the in game story that certain things need to be done, and this is what it might be like..can you handle it? As far as a large percentage of the games doing similar things? Is that NOT always the case? I mean you want to compare the medium to movies, but movies aren't the same mostly violent, sex pushing flashy events? Your article asks a question which people SHOULD be asking themselves, but it hardly calls the integrity of the industry into question man. You yourself have admited buying horror flicks in mass quantities, is this different? Maybe people WANT to see what the most EXTREME situations would be like? Isn't THAT what they are selling? An Experience? Because the devs think the most sellable experiences are very similar across the board just shows us that people want it...and nothing else.
  • bass88 - June 8, 2012 6:33 a.m.

    I don't think he's complaining about people having a giggle over violent images (I roared with laughter at the recent Mortal Kombat) but those who seem to get their jollies off to violence. The violence in The Last Of Us is meant to convey a cruel world where "survival of the fittest" is the mantra by which people live. A world where killing a man over a can of beans is longer classed as Murder One. Whooping and hollering was not the intended reaction and I would be creeped out if I was in the same audience too.
  • TheHowetzer - June 8, 2012 7 a.m.

    Thus my comments about crowds and how people behave in them. This is human evolution, its the way people react. It doesnt mean the gaming industry is full of knuckle draggers man, common. And make NO mistake here people, it WAS the intended reaction. Do you think your game will be talked about if people were REAL excited when they saw it, or NOT excited when they saw it? DUH. They WANT them to have a big reaction so they will talk about/promote their game. Also, do you guys know what society was like 500 years ago? You think some video game killing is "ohhhh mygosh thats sooo gross!!!" People would be killed in the streets where they stood for doing almost nothing and guess what? Before there were guns to make a mostly clean kill, it was done with Swords and your head or other body parts were simply HACKED off. It's interesting now that I think of it, the video gaming industry almost tries to keep us all in touch with that reality, that life really aint always so civilized. And since we know what sells, we can also infer that people WANT that. What are your thoughts on that David?
  • bass88 - June 8, 2012 8:07 a.m.

    I'll admit that the developers wanted people to talk about the violence, but as to how it reflects the social order of the game's world. Not talking about how cool it was. This is what Mr. Houghton was referring to. I'm not going to piss and moan about violence in Tomb Raider either. I don't even mind people cheering to it either. It's an action adventure game. Yes, the gore is gratutious but who really cares? Complaining about violence in an action game is like whinging about Arnie chopping a guy's arm off in Commando. But people should understand the difference between "fun" violence and "serious" violence. Clap all you want to God Of War and Saints Row all you want (it is visceral fun) but games like The Last Of Us and Kane & Lynch don't exactly scream violence for shits and giggles.
  • TheHowetzer - June 8, 2012 8:19 a.m.

    @bass88 I completely agree about the point of Last of Us, I am sorry if I was ever coming across any different than that. I appreciate the ugliness of it, it IS ugly and THATS what they wanted us to see man. The game is trying to let everyone know it ain't a very nice situation to be in and we should contrast our own lives with the lives of these characters. Im just saying that people need to show these things off to get a very excited response from people ESPEACIALLY at a industry show, so people will talk about it and be excited (notice im not saying happy about it) but excited and when people are in crowds and are excited, thats what they do, they cheer and hoop and hollar. Also I bet ALOT of the people even the ones cheering etc when they went back to thier rooms or whatever later in the day and were going to TALK to someone about what they saw during Last of US they were not so "cheery" about it, but guess what man? They remembered it didn't they? David Houghton obviously did. You have simply fallen prey to marketing my friend.
  • bass88 - June 8, 2012 10:02 a.m.

    No need to apologise for anything. This is a forum for debate. I guess my problem is that the crowd reaction to The Last Of Us is further proof that there is little room for intelligent discussion within the gaming community. If people waited until the end of the video and gave a standing ovation, then it would indicate that the audience were impressed with the mature presentation of the game. But since it was during moments of violence, it came across as "Whoa, she just totally stoned that guy! Fist-bump, bro!". I had the same problem with the reaction to the Hitman and nuns trailer. I didn't find it misogynist as it didn't present a hateful portrayal of women. It was sexist, but I found it to be too silly (a la Sin City) to take seriously. However, I did think it allowed for a debate to be made about the fetishisation of women in video-games (is it just a laugh or should there be more done to improve the perception of women in games). Sadly, both sides of the argument came out as idiots. You were either a man-hating dyke or a rapist in waiting. Even Graham Linehan and Charlie Brooker came out looking like dicks, insulting any that didn't think like them (Brooker engaged in a childish tit-for-tat with someone who pointed out the difference between misogyny and sexism as well as bullying by openly mocking somebody who asked how is it misogyist). If these are supposed to be the intelligent voices of our hobby, we are completely fucked.
  • ParagonT - June 8, 2012 8:21 a.m.

    I don't think the reason people were joyous was because of the head-shot and killing, I think it was because you have that choice of life or death. It makes the game more immersible. Survival and "what would you do?" situations are whats now trending in games and movies, the idea that you control what your character does. If he did not shoot him, would the guy have pulled out a knife? A gun? Were not sure, but what exactly would you guys do if he pleaded for his life? Perhaps there was a shout of joy in the game, but its hard to tell what they were joyous about. It could have been the killing, or the choice of life and death. I tend to think the better of people, makes life seem much less messed up and bearable.
  • db1331 - June 8, 2012 6:22 a.m.

    Alright, Dave. This was your best work yet. Spot on with all points. I have noticed the "Everyone is Marcus Phoenix" problem in games for years now. It's so sad. Look at 1313. I was totally digging the demo, until that explosion shat out perfectly placed waist-high walls and it turned into yet another cover shooter. I was really hoping they would take more of an Arkham Asylum approach to the bounty hunter, sneaking around and setting traps, using your jetpack to navigate the environment as Batman uses his grapple. As for the violence itself, I think it works fine in The Last of Us, for the reasons that you said. It's a horribly bleak world, where if you had better be willing to kill someone to survive, because you can bet someone is willing to kill you. It's also great to have Ellie there to add some outside perspective to how awful it is to burn someone alive. Where it doesn't work, however, is in that Tomb Raider demo. Did I really just see Lara Croft rip some dude's throat out with her bare hands? What in the actual fuck? As for the bro whoops in the crowd, that's typical at any large gathering. You can't go anywhere these days, be it the movies, or a sporting event, and not see some group of bros determined to be the loudest people there, so they can get all the attention. If these bros were watching E3 at home, you know they wouldn't get the least bit excited over what they were seeing, but because they are in a crowd, they want to show off by shouting at every pair of tits and every execution they see. "LOOK AT ME, FELLOW DUDE-BROS. SEE HOW MUCH I LOVE TITS AND VIOLENCE?! SHOWER ME WITH YOUR ATTENTION." As for this bit: "...and also detailed open laughter during a behind-closed-doors demo of Ubisoft’s gorgeous-looking Watch Dogs. It wasn’t violence that elicited the reaction that time. Stunningly, it was the revelation that an NPC was HIV positive." I hope that's not true, but I know it is. That is just fucking disgusting. Just based on statistics alone, someone in that room knew someone who was HIV positive, if not themselves. I wonder how that made them feel? Anyhow, great article Dave. Everyone in the industry should be forced to read this.
  • tiben36 - June 8, 2012 6:46 a.m.

    i think the HIV positive thing shows how "easy" it is to get very personal infos on people in that game
  • db1331 - June 8, 2012 6:57 a.m.

    It makes perfect sense in the context of the game, where having knowledge of someone's secrets or records gives you power over them. But for a group of people to laugh because an NPC is HIV positive is just disgusting.
  • gilgamesh310 - June 8, 2012 7:04 a.m.

    "Did I really just see Lara Croft rip some dude's throat out with her bare hands?" No, she used an arrow and shoved it into his neck with her hand just. I agree that the people cheering is just something that happens at large gatherings. I don't think it means anything at all. The issue I have with most of the games on show is that they are all becoming cover shooters. Tomb Raider, Resident Evil and Splinter Cell used to be completely different genres and now they all seem to be turning into one. I don't see why the cover mechanic is becoming such a popular thing in gaming. I mean what is honestly so great about it? It restricts your movement and what you can do and saps the daring and in many cases challenge from a game. And everything simply has to be a shooter. That's what pisses me off.
  • db1331 - June 8, 2012 7:31 a.m.

    Ahh ok, I couldn't see the arrow due to low video quality. That's still pretty ridiculous though. Why is the cover mechanic so popular? Because devs are targeting casual gamers. A cover mechanic with a regenerating health bar is the same as making the player invincible. You got shot? No biggie. Just crouch behind this wall for 5 seconds and try again. Even the actual gameplay is mind-numbingly easy. All you have to do is aim above whatever cover the enemy is using, and he will stick his head up in the same spot over and over, like he wants to get shot. It's like playing whack-a-mole. Mass Effect 3's combat just about put me to sleep. If I ever play through that game again, you can bet I will select the "I don't care about the combat, just give me the story" option at the start.
  • Hobogonigal - June 8, 2012 7:57 a.m.

    Hmmm, I am playing ME3 at the moment and I think that the challenge are actually quite good with flanking techniques, shielded enemies, ranged enemies, charging enemies etc. Maybe this is because I am playing it on the hardest difficulty? But I have to agree with your point that cover mechanics and regenerating health appeal to casual gamers, to be honest I'm surprised CoD doesn't have some form of cover mechanics yet but then again it is a twitch-reaction shooter.
  • db1331 - June 8, 2012 8:16 a.m.

    It's not the lack of challenge that was the problem. It was just boring. It seemed like there were only 8 enemy types in the whole game, and most of them behaved largely the same way. First time through the game though, huh? A word of advice: Look up Marauder Shields on Youtube, and once you reach him, save your game and don't go any further until Bioware releases that update.
  • Hobogonigal - June 8, 2012 8:31 a.m.

    Yeah I see your point regarding enemy types. I do tend to overuse the pull and shockwave powers. This Marauder Shields isn't anything to do with the ending is it? I have taken a strict approach to knowing absolutely nothing regarding the ending of this game so that I can make up my own mind regarding the conclusion. Am I good to look this up without the fear of spoilers? Really don't want it to be ruined as I have played all the way from ME1.

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