Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Trials By Fire: That Muddy Middle

Trials by Fire is a column from D. Bethel whereby two game demos are arbitrarily judged and one is declared the victor.  In actuality, it's a veiled rant.  This edition discusses video game violence as perceived through the demos for Warp and I Am Alive.

As much as players, developers, and critics might involuntarily twitch at the statement, the importance of violence in video games is undeniable.  To a certain degree, violence is an assumption for video games, but it’s often rolled into sterile terms such as “gameplay” and viewed as a mechanical response to button-pressing.  Video game violence is rarely celebrated with the exception of a few safe zones (speaking specifically to Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series or Sony’s God of War six game trilogy) where spectators regard its excess as more expressionistic than horrifying, but is still a non-issue because, in the end, it's "violence in video games" and we don't like to talk about that.  Therein lies the inherent problem with video game violence; because it has been condemned and misunderstood by gaggles of pundits, lawyers, and ignorant parents (among others), the community imagines that hushed acceptance is more livable than investigating why it's a part of the medium in the first place.  Violence in this digital format does not exist as a binary (pun intended)––games aren't merely “violent” or “not violent”; instead, as with any entertainment-based format, violence strides a gradient––tent poles on either end hold aloft an infinite variety between them.  The most interesting games reside within that muddy middle, from which two incredible new examples arise: Trapdoor’s Warp and Ubisoft’s I Am Alive.

The most notable aspect about these two games is their inverse relation to their expected violence, when based on a quick and superficial judgement.  Looking at Warp, an action-puzzle game which uses its teleportation mechanic in a similar fashion as ‘Splosion Man’s explosions, the game seems harmless enough at the outset with its adorable protagonist teleporting its way through a slickly rendered underwater laboratory.  However, the demo begins with a surprising amount of pathos despite the soft, appealing visuals (the latter of which, again, echo ‘Splosion Man).

This is how I imagine Jawas look naked.
The captured alien Zero (as the protagonist is called) awakens groggy and defeated, meandering its way through a patronizing obstacle course.  While this tone is off-putting against the timbre established by the playful visuals, the game comes into its own the moment Zero regains its ability to teleport and becomes as fast and fun as the demo originally sold itself to be.  Whereas ’Splosion Man wore its cartoonish nature proudly, Warp’s seemingly benign aesthetics misleads more than it pacifies because teleporting quickly becomes nasty business.  As the only tool at Zero’s disposal, teleportation is much more than a mode of transportation; it can also be used to short out electrical devices (by teleporting inside of them), allow for cover inside barrels and boxes (by teleporting inside them), control enemies in order to get through a crowded room unnoticed (by teleporting inside them), and, lastly, explode enemies as a mode of attack (after you teleport inside them).  This last mechanic is a shocking revelation when it first happens, and betrays the rules established by the lively animation and stylized design.  

Welcome to Happy Murder-Time Theater.
The action in Warp is immediate and frenetic until these moments of violence––the game halts as the player must pound a button and watch as the scientist or security officer inflates and struggles against the burgeoning destruction inside him; in fact, the entire demo plays this way––masturbatory button mashes perforated by occasional character movement.  Blood of the unknowing victims soaks the ground in the aftermath of the attack, from which Zero bounces on as if stepping to a jaunty alien tune only it hears.  Though the extent of this unexpected mode of attack may seem egregious the first time, its prominence and strategic necessity allow it to quickly fade into being just another tool of gameplay instead of what it is: murder.  But Warp is ultimately very fun.  It's smart and engaging amid this shaky balance between the cute and the horrible.

 Violence seems like a natural tool to the nameless protagonist in the post-apocalyptic survival adventure, I Am Alive, if only because it looks like it should be.  The demo consists of the protagonist arriving at the outskirts of a destroyed metropolis after walking across the country in the wake of a cataclysmic event.  The player must help him accomplish a seemingly simple goal in the demo: to get back to the protagonist’s apartment mere blocks away.  Rendered in a more realistic manner––its protagonist is grubby and weathered; the city is in jagged ruin through some unknown natural violence; the people encountered are desperate and aggressive––it brings to mind such survival-horror games as the latter Resident Evil entries or even action-adventure games like those of Uncharted fame.  With those associations come assumptions of staggered waves of violent encounters, the bullets flying in both directions as throngs of equally nameless opponents fall much easier under the player’s ordnance than the player does to theirs.  The assumed rules going into I Am Alive are as broken, however, as the world it portrays.
I Am Alive...because I'm not acrophobic
Challenging those assumptions of the genre is where I Am Alive revels, much like Warp, but approaching those goals in the opposite way.  Combat is clunky and weary and difficult, something the player regrets entering into after the first few encounters because it's a trying feat.  In a sense, the awkward violence helps the game stay in character and lends to the overwhelming sense of defeat that lingers and watches from the desaturated grays that blanket the scenery.  It is only in the running, jumping, and climbing––the feats of true, fear-based survival––that the demo feels its most fluid and graceful.
One of the few games where "Fuck Off" is a viable strategy.
The violence in I Am Alive effectively creates a sense of dread since its most effective form is not in the action but in the threat of action.  Instances arise where players can choose to fire their only bullet or command an enemy to yield only to murder them with a machete or kick them off a ledge or into a fire.  Every violent action evokes a duality of success: of joy for succeeding at surviving the sortie, and despair for knowing what success means having done.  This conjures a sensation not really felt since Sony’s masterpiece, Shadow of the Colossus.  The resemblances don’t end with the metaphysical and moral questions raised by the player’s violent acts, but also in the reliance on a fixed amount of “stamina” that is used like personal currency for survival.  Putting aside story-based logic, the gameplay of I Am Alive succeeds in crafting an honest connection between the player and the character, creating a visceral sense of the decisions and fatigue that are a part of a world in which both are now straining to survive.

Warp and I Am Alive are only two points along this infinite scale that every video game can be placed upon.  Violence isn’t inherently a shameful subject––it’s a natural survival response––and its presence in video games should not be surprising, and it should definitely not be maligned or praised.  While civilized society may feel that it has outgrown the need for violence, it must remember that violence helped history create what exists today––a realm predicated on work and leisure––and while persistent violence may not be a first world concern, it survives in the games people play.

The Victor: Violence has no winners. : (

D. Bethel never has time, but when he does, he makes
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Follow him on Twitter @DBethel


  1. Once again, Trials By Fire blows me away. Another great article, Mr. Bethel.

    1. Thanks, dude. I had no idea you liked these things so much.

  2. This article is ridiculously good.

    I always assumed that the gaming world took for granted that since the days of the angry goomba, all obstacles to victory must be eliminated (i.e killed) in a creative way for the purposes of fun.

    This article is slightly more explanatory with regards to conservative views against violent video games.

    1. Thanks for the kind words! I think the implied statement in my article says something along these lines: Violence is not talked about in video games, which is how it should be. However, it is ignored for the wrong reasons--I believe we don't talk about it because we're more afraid of starting another dust up than just accepting that violence is normal and that to dwell on it in any entertainment medium is irrelevant because, with regard to humanity and its relationship to violence, violence just is and always will be a part of who we are. When we just accept that (though we never will) then it will be a non-issue. Since that will never happen, we should talk about it but be honest, straight-forward, and clear about its role in video games.

      So, though it does shed some light on the, as you said, conservative views about this topic, I hope it sheds just as much light ("slightly more explanatory") on gamers themselves.

  3. I can't help but mention that I ended up buying I Am Alive and, unlike Rock, I absolutely love it. If you like the tone that's set by the demo, you should enjoy the full game.

    1. Yep my review will be going up this week. Spoiler alert- fuck that game, right in its stupid face

    2. I heard as much in the last episode of KGB Radio. While I can respect your opinion, I will humbly disagree with it. I found both the play and the ending surprisingly satisfying (though I am a fan of anti-climactic and unresolved endings...I guess I'm all set to play Mass Effect 3, amiright?). As far as I'm concerned, Ubisoft can do little wrong with regard to their downloadable titles: first was my second favorite game of last year, Outland; then this tiny masterpiece; and I had a lot of fun the other day playing the demo to their Metal Slug-clone, Shoot Many Robots. I found the gameplay of I Am Alive suited the game perfectly and, if anything, caused me to think a little bit harder than I'm used to...almost in the same, puzzle-solving manner of a classic point-and-click adventure game. More than anything, what sold me on this game, through and through, was its atmosphere; to me, the gameplay and the visual aesthetics (not to mention the superb use of audio) really lent credence and verisimilitude to how survival in such a situation would be––there are no badasses, survival is a fragile state and, if anything, the game perpetuated what would inevitably a fear-based existence, fearing not only the people around you, but the looming, empty towers of overspent opulence as well. I loved this game and am already halfway through a second playthrough.

    3. I totally agree with you as far as tone and setting are concerned, and to me they were the most compelling elements of the game. I thought the intimidation based combat was really great too! Most of my problems with the game are mechanics based than anything else. Most of the systems are just plain clunky and have been done better elsewhere, especially the combat. This game had a pretty troubled dev cycle, and it shows. I love the setting and to me it's the most realistic post apocalypse yet, and exploring it was great fun.