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August: Violence [Fukubukuro 2010]
January 9th, 2011 by Dan

It all started with Metal Gear Solid.

Hideo Kojima is a pacifist. How do I know this having never spoken to him? It’s the only logical explanation behind Metal Gear Solid. Big whoop, I mean, the games themselves are about as overtly in support of pacifism and nuclear non-proliferation, but I’m not talking about the overt, obvious messages. Anyone can put hours and hours of cutscenes in a video game (although few can get away with it like he can), but Kojima is special because he emphasizes the holiest of modes of expression for a game designer: mechanics.

I came to the Metal Gear Solid series way late in the game, around the spring of 2008. Metal Gear itself was 20 years old at that point and I was looking forward to playing these games that my buddy Lee so adored. Thanks to my cripplingly completionist attitude toward games, I found myself looking up MGS on Gamefaqs to ensure that I didn’t miss any limited items via careless play. It was there that I learned that the game scored you higher based on how few enemies you killed. It was a sneaking mission, after all.

Deciding to challenge myself and impose arbitrary limitations on myself like “kill only the enemies that are required” changed my life forever. Real life is decidedly unlike video games, which is just fine by me. God help us if psychopath mass murderers were as common in life as they are in games, and that’s not even counting the villains. How weird is it that Metal Gear Solid, a game featuring a trained special-ops soldier armed to the teeth with pistols, automatic rifles, and explosives, turned me into a pacifist by forcing me to value digital life.

All it took was a slight shift in philosophy. Long before (and long after) Metal Gear Solid, gamers have been penalized for shooting innocent victims or bystanders. All MGS did was flip this on its head a bit. The game rewards you for not killing hostiles. This changes everything.

It sounds stupid when you think about it, but the mechanics are slight and subversive enough that the shiftcomes on gradually. Little things, like giving Snake a tranquilizer gun from the get-go, just reinforce the idea that there’s another way to do things. Most of the time it makes the game significantly harder. Snake (or Raiden in MGS2) has a pathetically small non-lethal arsenal when compared to the rest of his repertoire. The tranq darts are significantly weaker AND enemies eventually wake from being knocked out, which heightens the alert level on a given stage.

Reinforced by mechanics, the message is crystal clear. Doing the right thing (because playing this way usually yields nice rewards) is not easy. There’s only one instance throughout the Metal Gear Series, to date, where pacifism makes things easier. During one of Kojima’s more overt narrative moments, Snake faces a spiritual adversary, The Sorrow. Wading through a long river, Snake must avoid every enemy he’s killed prior to that point. Players like me have relatively little problem, since there are no enemies, but the trigger happy player has quite the obstacle course ahead of them. While I’m partial to a more subtle narrative, This was also unlike anything I’d ever played before.

I think Kojima’s crowning moment, throughout his entire catalog of work, is the final battle against The Boss in MGS3 where he attempts to get the player to the closest approximation he’ll probably have of killing another person. I’m being a little overdramatic since it depends on how much you care about the narrative, but it goes something like this.

If you’re me, you’ve gone through this whole game without killing a soul and suffered for it. Our in-game avatar, Snake, has suffered the betrayal by the figure he most respects and he’s spent all mission grappling with his orders to kill The Boss, who was an absolute loyalist to the United States, but who had been turned on when she got in trouble.

The battle begins and ends. Snake stands above his mentor, holding her gun to her head. She tells Snake to end it.

Nothing happens.

It dawns on me that the game is waiting for my input. I had spent the entire game not killing a single soul. Saved and reloaded after every accident. Taken hours to get through things that could have been cleared much faster. I pushed the button and the gun fired. The only way not to bloody your digital hands is to not play. The Boss’ message transcends the fictional.

Two years later it was 2010 and I went to see Kick-Ass. I think Roger Ebert put it best when he said, referring to the high degree of violence that an 11-year-old in the movie inflicts and is subjected to,

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool? Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point? Let’s say you’re a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in. A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life. Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

When I left the theater that day I felt sick. It took me a while to realize why, but when I did, it blew my mind. Video games had sensitized me to violence.


One Response  
  • Eric Mesa writes:
    January 9th, 201118:09at

    While there are certainly more games that reward mowing enemies (even the fact that we refer to mowing – as if the enemies were no more important than grass), I think this game and your analysis it a great counter-point to those who say that video games only lead to violence. I hope some of those making the amicus briefs in the upcoming (or did it happen already) Supreme Court case about violent video games. Sure, MGS can be violent, but it doesn’t have to be.

    I’d also argue that Assassin’s Creed paradoxically (if you consider the name) is in a similar vein. I often find it easiest to play through the game if I kill only those who require killing. You aren’t ever punished as brutally as in a Kojima game, but it’s definitely harder.


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