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

The Last of Us, arguably, is intended as a gritty, downbeat, disturbingly real take on post-apocalyptic struggle. The thing that really hit home about the demo as I saw it was that it aims (and succeeds) to make guns – even simple pistols - genuinely scary despite years of video game desensitisation. With incredibly limited resources and seeming one-hit kills in abundance, walking in on armed enemies should be sickeningly scary. As in fact, should be whatever brief snatches of ballistic power you can secure for your self.

Note how – unlike 99% of video game bad guys – one of the mooks in the demo freaks out and runs as soon as he realises that Joel has a gun. Note how Ellie reacts with genuine unease – almost disgust - when Joel uses a Molotov cocktail on a couple of enemies. Given Naughty Dog’s character-driven pedigree with the Uncharted games, it seems clear that the aim in The Last of Us is to make violence carry real weight and significance. Long-term consequence perhaps, if Ellie’s reactions are to become a major factor. And I hope they are. To an assembled audience of exactly the type of people who should really be selling that idea however, it seemed to be interpreted as naught but fuel for air-punches and chest-bumps.


Above: Yay! Woo! Dehumanising execution! Fist-bump, brah!

And it doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident. A friend and previous colleague at the show this week told me of her unease at witnessing these kind of whooping, bro-ish “cheers for extreme violence”, 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. Obviously we weren't there to corroborate this directly, but I have no reason whatsoever not to trust my source on this one. And if the report is accurate then we're looking at some supremely disturbing behaviour from supposed journalists.

Throw in audible wolf-whistles at the sight of a pair of plastic-looking animated mammaries at the start of Ubisoft’s on-stage Far Cry 3 demo, and you have the really disappointing cherry on a rather maudlin E3 cake for me. Yes, the loutish reaction might have only been from a handful of people, but when that reaction comes from a handful of industry professionals, its significance is multiplied by a factor of ten. Especially when, given the presence of said thunderously unnecessary tits within the context of the rest of this year’s E3, said reaction seems to be nothing less than a mark of success in the cause of publishers giving the people exactly what they want. 

Above: No-one else is going to take mature game content seriously if we don't ourselves

I don’t know. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe I’ve chosen to be blissfully naïve. 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.

They have given that impression. Even to me, a man who knows his friends and colleagues (in fact pretty much everyone he knows in the industry) to be bright, insightful and totally at odds with this sort of behaviour. And they’ve given that impression at E3, on the world stage, when the global media's eyes are watching the games industry and the community around it.

It wasn’t too long ago that we were fighting to be seen as a legitimate, mainstream entertainment medium on a par with film and TV. If E3 2012 is how we celebrate having won that fight now that gaming is largely free of suspicion (or at least making so much money that no-one challenges us any more), then frankly I half-miss the days when the medium was still underground. At least then we all seemed to be trying harder to make a good impression.

Note: Just to make doubly-sure it's clear, the above is all the personal opinion of myself, and does not necessarily go for the rest of GamesRadar.

Topics

E3 E3 2012

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159 comments

  • Smash_Bro - June 16, 2012 8:10 p.m.

    This article explains a huge chunk of the reason as to why I love Nintendo and their constant innovation. I'm about to save this article because it's so damn beautiful. Unfortunately, it's the unnecessary, dehumanizing violence that sells today... I'm so ready for Project Happiness.
  • Shinard - June 16, 2012 2:59 p.m.

    What about that moment in the Watch Dogs demo where Aiden causes a massive multi-car pile up? You can see how brutally injured the individual drivers are and there seems to be a man calling out for his dead wife. The player caused this, just to get one man, and it didn't seem like that had any effect on anyone watching. I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, but I completely agree that games (and possibly gamers) have become (at least partially) desensitised to violence lately.
  • cptjones32 - June 15, 2012 5:27 p.m.

    Splendid article, I completely agree with you. It is the glamorisation of violence that really causes me to lose faith in gaming. Censorship is awful and I personally think that anything other than complete artistic freedom is a violation of our freedom of speech. It does not mean however that we should be so immature, violence is a deep subject that needs to be handled delicately. This is something that the game in question seems to have utilised remarkably well, the begging man at the end really resonated with me, I actually think I wouldn't have shot him, although his killing seemed one of practicality rather than sadism. The uproar at his death really disappointed me, it seems that the gaming community has attracted members we really don't want or there were people there who wanted to be a part of the community who simply followed the crowd and cheered. The gaming community needs to be stronger, it needs to compromise less and stop catering to the wants of idiots who only like Call of Duty and Halo. To be respected as an art form it needs to advocate the art that games designers have created and put them in the spot light, it needs to find new ways to entertain people rather than shooting people in the face from behind a wall for 8 hours (or a year depending on on-line) Keep up the good work Mr. Houghton
  • far-cry - June 13, 2012 8:47 a.m.

    Totally aggree! Seeing Sam Fisher...too violent. Bring back the old retro games like Disney is doing with Wreking Ralph and its playable 8 bit Donkey Kong alike game!!Oh and ehh Free Xbox Live, the other way around of course:)
  • gazdog9 - June 13, 2012 8:07 a.m.

    I think you may be reading a bit too much into the crowd's apparent overreaction to the visceral violence they were seeing . If you think about it , when you get a (presumably) predominantly male crowd altogether in one place (say at a football match or even in the pub) , they do tend to act in a way that the wouldn't necessarily act if they were on their own or in a smaller group. Large groups of males have a tendency to be more misogynistic and boisterous . It's a pack mentality thing. I think the developers realise that and tap into it for the most reaction. Interesting article as always
  • bash street kid - June 11, 2012 2:19 p.m.

    I've been thinking about violence in games a bit recently. I'm a fairly prolific gamer and manage to play a lot of games from right across the spectrum; from the big budget releases to smaller more obscure titles. It struck me recently that the gaming experiences that have stuck with me much more vividly in recent times have all been fairly non-violent ones. I've barely thought twice about Arkham City, Uncharted 3 and the likes since completion. However, Games like Journey, Botanicula, Windosil (even though an hour long game at the most), Fez and Swords & Sworcery (to name a few) have all left a lasting and haunting impression far beyond their finish. Why? It's hard to say precisely. The superb art directions help, but that's only part of it. They feel more like games than the other games. I mean real Video games; not playable films. Not like they're taking their core direction directly from other mediums. They felt more like unique experiences that could only really have been delivered via this medium. They also put a wonderful sense of exploration and the discovery of the New right at the forefront. They let you enjoy that discovery as the main course instead of shaping it around ever rearranging set-piece violence. There's also a pleasant sense of humour; pure humour, weird and wonderfull humour, not just shooting someone in the face and laughing (a little too loudly) because we really 'don't understand death and deep down it makes us uncomfortable' humour. The proliferation of ever more realistic and intensifying violence and the ultimate inevitable apathy it will create will have the opposite reaction somewhere else. Bands of creatives, from indies to the experimental and progressive mainstream will all distance themselves from the sausage party and more than likely be the ones to keep gaming fresh, creative and vital. With that in mind, bring on the violence. *As a final note it's interesting to see that the most interesting FPS in a long time, unfinished swan, completely strips the genre down to the bone. It's not about what's added or tacked on, it's about restraint and what's been taken away. Google it if you're unfamiliar.
  • Poffle - June 11, 2012 5:14 a.m.

    Dave, It's just what happens when large groups of Americans get together. The response would have been the same if Jack Tretton came out holding a Rustler burger.
  • ParagonT - June 11, 2012 6:02 a.m.

    I don't think it's just American's, think it's more of a global thing.
  • BladedFalcon - June 11, 2012 7:53 a.m.

    Yes it is. You'll find that kind of attitude everywhere. Trust me, Mexicans are as idiotic about stuff like this.
  • Sinsational - June 12, 2012 10:44 a.m.

    I find how quickly you aim to blame Americans for this sort of behavior insulting. Yes, America is a pretty desensitized nation, but there are plenty of peoples foreign to America that attend E3, both fans and industry alike. Using the "Americans are just big dumb brutes" is like saying the "Irish are nothing but drunks." Or, "All British people have bad teeth." We don't need more people to perpetuate the stereotypes.
  • Poffle - June 13, 2012 3:56 a.m.

    I was just being facetious mate, didn't mean to insult you. I wasn't saying Americans are 'brutes', I was saying large groups of Americans will cheer at anything.
  • bass88 - June 10, 2012 10:11 a.m.

    A quick summary as some people seem to be misintepreting the point of the article. Mr. Houghton is not complaining about brutal imagery in video games. He is complaining as to why publishers use footage of gore instead of gameplay to sell their games. Tomb Raider should show footage of Lara exploring her surroundings, solving puzzles and leaping from platform to platform. Not smashing her or others bones. Mr. Houghton is also criticising journalists for calling out on this instead of applauding the gore. "Who cares if the physics are wonky - that guy got his brains blown out! Whoo!" So hooray to violence in video games. Boo to publishers and developers relying only on violence in video games.
  • ParagonT - June 11, 2012 6:12 a.m.

    Companies shows what sells, so it's all of us at fault here. I do disagree on the obvious inferring that Dave and his colleagues are "above" this sort of thing. If that's not what was meant, a little re-wording on the last three paragraphs would tremendously help. No one is not guilty of these things, some of it is subconscious and we don't even notice it, but I'd rather not think myself perfect and believe were the angels here. This needs to be a thing that changes in our community as a whole, not as a stupid immature war of "Idiots" vs. "us". Were all gamers, we all are guilty of this, so we should all accept it and help brake the mold together instead of blaming others.
  • linorn - June 10, 2012 7:32 a.m.

    The scariest cheer for me was when Sony announced that Playstation Suite was changing its name to Playstation Mobile. Fucking terrifying.
  • Crofto - June 10, 2012 7:29 a.m.

    This is a good article, as per Dave. However, I think we know the crux of this issue simply boils down to thus: 90% of gamers are uneducated, acne-laced mongspacks. To put it elegantly. We constantly try to show how gamers aren't so easily stereotyped these days, but your article completely contradicts that; anyone who makes a sports-like cheer at someone getting shot does not behold superior intelligence. That's it. Really. Gaming will only become a mature medium, with games that make us proud to be part of it (in the same way films like Shawshank Redemption and Schindler's List make film-goers proud to state their hobby), if gamers themselves grow the f**k up. Will that ever happen? Well, judging from the rampant sexism, homophobia, orgasms over mindless violence, and general stupidity I see from all sectors of gaming... then, er, no.
  • Y2Ken - June 9, 2012 2:34 p.m.

    This is a good argument - but at the same time I can't help but feel that the audience were going to cheer and applaud whatever the content was - developers are showing off their big new games, it's only polite to respond enthusiastically, especially when it looks as nice as The Last of Us does. I see what you mean though.
  • BallisticGE0RGE - June 9, 2012 10:40 a.m.

    Some of the cheers I understand, certain things weren't possible before in games and now are, which is kind of exciting. However, I see your point, I think the bigger thing to note, is that this year, more games were about killing people. Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell, Last of Us, all person to person violence. Compare this to previous E3, where Marcus will chainsaw a locust and curb stomp another, or Master Chief would perform an execution on an elite...and it makes you wonder, why didn't you feel uncomfortable then? Perhaps because it's more okay to kill an alien, than it is to kill a man screaming for his life?
  • Sinsational - June 12, 2012 10:52 a.m.

    Well, I thinks it's important to note, as Dave did in his piece, that context is everything. I'd wager that the new Splinter Cell and Tomb Raider games have a larger focus on the action and killing, but The Last of Us? I disagree. Some journalists were given a different demo of the game where he went through the same section, but only used stealth. He knocked one man unconscious, then went on his way. I have a feeling Last of Us is more about choice and consequence, more than most games out today, giving the violence they dish out real weight, to almost make you think twice, whereas in these other new games, it seems all we see is a "Press button to stealth kill."
  • Meleedragon27 - June 9, 2012 9:31 a.m.

    I see the point you're trying to make, Mr. Houghton, but I wanted to say that this sort of reaction to violence is nothing new; remember the Colliseum? Gladiatorial combat? Catholics being publicly fed to hungry animals? Ancient Rome ate that stuff up. Then there were the festivals and celebrations of ye olde days, where people would publicly slaughter live animals or perform other cruel acts upon them... and people loved it (or at least they did until we realized animals were indeed capable of feeling pain, which didn't happen until around the 20th century). I could go on about the underground fighting, both between people and animals, which is bloody and death is commonplace (at least with animals, I don't know much about underground fights between people)... but the point I'm trying to make here, Dave, is that people whooping and cheering over violence, even disturbing and gruesome violence, is nothing new and that perhaps we should be happy these journalists are just cheering over simulated violence as opposed to the real thing.
  • jon-moss - June 9, 2012 8:14 a.m.

    I too was rather taken aback by the reactions to the gratuitous use of violence in most of the major presentations at E3. But if you get a bunch of guys together at a video game conference then there's always going to be that group of journalists who treat it as a big frat party and act accordingly. Just like when you go to the cinema there's always people who find it funny to shout and throw popcorn at the screen. I thought the 'The Last of Us' presentation was wonderful though. My main reaction when the little girl threw the brick was really due to the unexpectedness of the situation rather than the act of violence itself, and I've heard that in other demos of this sequence she doesn't throw the brick at all. Her actions will change depending on the situation you find yourself in. In most games the little girl character would stay behind and wait while you clear the rooms ahead, then you'd call for her to join you. In this case she appears out of nowhere in an attempt to aid and protect you. She also realises she's no match for the enemy physically so she grabs the only thing available to her and uses that as a weapon. That's an inteligent reaction to the situation at hand on her part, and that one act speaks volumes regarding her maturity as a character. It also demonstrates that this is not some annoying simpering NPC character you have to escort through levels who keeps bumping into walls and getting stuck in door frames, which I think we should all be thankful for.

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