Phillip Pullman, in his introduction to an edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, begins with an apocryphal anecdote about “a bibulous, semi-literate, ageing country squire two hundred years ago or more, sitting by his fireside listening to Paradise Lost being read aloud.” This squire, enthralled by the narrative, at one point “exclaims ‘By God! I know not what the outcome may be, but this Lucifer is a damned fine fellow, and I hope he may win!’”
It is easy to see why this anonymous drunk felt this way: Satan is a charismatic and entertaining hero. He is eloquent, possessed with the “courage never to submit or yield” and, when faced with the physical avatar of Death, stands “Unterrified, and like a comet burned[.]” He is so enthralling that critics and writers down the centuries have ventured that he is the real hero of Paradise Lost. William Blake’s contribution to this line of thought is perhaps the most famous: “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”
But there is a problem with this understanding: Milton was an ardent Christian, and it is difficult to see Satan as the hero when much of the poem is spent lamenting his evil. In order to reconcile Milton’s beliefs and Satan’s charismatic villainy, the American scholar Stanley Fish proposed that the devil’s heroism is intentionally seductive, and the degree to which the reader sympathizes with the devil is an indication of the reader’s own sinfulness. In essence, your receptiveness to his satanic charisma represents how willing you are to accept form over substance, to accept matters of appearance over matters of morality. This complicated kind of work—where unthinking enjoyment is an indictment—has not disappeared: The Wolf of Wall Street adopts the same method, and the degree to which you envy and enjoy Jordan Belfort’s ecstatic life of money, drugs, and sex is an indication of your willingness suspend moral considerations in favor of solipsistic pleasure.
Now the perennial discussion surrounding complicit entertainment has been reincarnated into a new medium, as videogames move from the simplistic black-and-white dichotomy of binary moral choice to a more complex exploration of situations that have no right answers. This War of Mine, for example, gives players the opportunity to steal from an elderly couple with mechanical impunity—but the husband will follow the player as they pillage and prick her conscience by asking, “why are you doing this?” and “Please, leave my wife’s medicine alone.” By stealing their supplies, the player is given a better chance of winning the game—but at the same time, it is an incredible uncomfortable indictment of the player’s capacity for evil. Another example: Spec Ops: The Line thrusts the player into a position where there simply are no good choices. Do you euthanize an agent who has orchestrated the drought of a desert city, or do you let him die a slow, agonizing death by fire? How do you handle a crowd of furious refugees who have, perhaps justifiably, lynched one of your comrades?
One of the more frustrating aspects of this development is the way in which the authors of morally complicated games assert the player’s prerogative to simply remove themselves from the experience. In an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the creative lead for Far Cry 3, Jeffrey Yolahem, opined that players could “just stop playing” when railroaded into a compromising position. Similarly, the writer of Spec Ops: The Line, Walt Williams, asserted that “Turning off the game is a valid player choice.” Granted, Williams’ and Yolahem’s suggestion is an inevitable translation of a medium that prides itself on player interactivity—but the response they are suggesting does not challenge the immorality of the systems depicted; it is retreat, not a reckoning.
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour. In his attack on pre-publication censorship, Areopagitica, the poet argues that part of the moral value of literature is its ability to involve the reader in a kind of moral test: “He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true wayfaring Christian.” Leaving aside the seventeenth-century religious chauvinism (we can substitute “human” or “humankind” for Christian, as we subconsciously do in Donne’s Devotion beginning “No Man is an Island”), what follows this sentence is one of the more famous defenses of self-examination and the inevitable encounter with immorality in art: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
Our concern for morality in videogaming cannot be rooted in some vague appreciation for the artistic reputation of the medium; we are concerned with morality in videogaming because we are concerned with morality in our own lives. To quote the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky: “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” Part of this harrowing is an encounter with a coupling of pleasure with depravity—the blatant theft of food and supplies from an elderly couple, or a narcissistic and selfish investor, or the very devil himself—and our own reflections on that emotional chimera.
Enter the transparent murder simulator Hatred, which is currently slouching its way towards release. Thus far, the game’s trailer and accompanying interviews have given off a pared-down experience: a stark, monochromatic game livened only by the golden spark of explosives. According to Creative Director Jaros?aw Zieli?ski, this visual minimalism is matched by an absence of the trappings (such as plot, character, heroism, or moral justification) of more conventional shooters like Halo: “The game is also addressed to people that are in general tired of colorful, sci-fi shooters and are looking for a change. In Hatred they are not forced to run with a laser gun and save the universe for a hundred time [sic].” Similarly, the game is free from the coercion of what he understands as political correctness in the gaming industry—“In this world you cannot simply say that you are working on a game about killing people for no particular reason, not to expose yourself to angry, negative comments caused by panic and shock”—and thereby, presumably, represents a purer gaming experience because of the lack of political meddling.
Hatred, according to the hand that made it, is a simpler, more straightforward videogame, free from hypocrisy and industry groupthink. It is its own thing, nothing more or less than what it shows itself to be, a lean creation that, according to Zieli?ski, has won them some appreciation: “What did surprise me though was the insanely positive feedback we’ve got! . . . Those emails, messages and comments show clearly that in fact people do want to play our game, because they consider it being honest to the bone, about what it has to offer.” It is this word “honest” that best summarizes the appeal of the game: it is a transparent murder simulator, and the way in which the player is expected to enjoy the game is obvious and straightforward. As though honesty itself, as an adjective without a noun, were sufficient. As though transparent violence is acceptable, while hypocrisy is not.
Destructive Creations is quick to remind everyone on their website that it’s “just a game” and helpfully append an emoticon “:)” to make sure their meaning is not mistaken. But that does not mean the game is as mono-dimensional as it is monochrome. Every work invites examination and reflection, just as both halves of a conversation invite a response. And part of this interaction is the inescapable reflection of the audience: how do we explain our sympathy for the devil? How can we understand our enjoyment of a transparent murder simulator? This is not to beg the moral question while judgment waits in the wings, but merely to raise that question—as all our interactions with different media must.
The idea of retreating from a morally complex—or even morally abhorrent—aesthetic experience is simply not defensible; if you are primarily concerned with the idea of morality in gaming, remember that we cannot praise a fugitive virtue that turns off Spec Ops: The Line or Call of Duty for a more morally conventional, or palatable, experience. At the same time, though Destructive Creations tries to compartmentalize its game’s experience by saying that “it’s just a game,” the terms they propose—that you can have a transparently violent game that is just that, a variation of a rose is a rose is a rose—are equally indefensible. Nothing exists in a vacuum; the kinds of works we engage with go well beyond their immediate confines, and interact with both larger cultural forces and ourselves.
This much is obvious. What is more difficult to appreciate is the way in which we have a responsibility to our entertainment: to ensure that we treat it with the thought and reflection it demands. To remember that it is not the work that needs justification, but the way we understand that work and how we bring that understanding into our own lives.
Header image is one of Gustave Doré’s 50 woodcuts from the 1866 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.