When killing avatars is justified.

In his review of the pseudo-subversive Spec Ops: The Line for Grantland, famed game writer Tom Bissell lists 13 potential reasons why we play a genre of games whose volume of violence surpasses that of most mediums up to this point. From passages to personal stories to jotted notes, the review is as comprehensive as it is conflicted. Part V alone is a canon of games that he believes use violence in subtle, creative ways—games that don’t posture violence to end all violence. 

A few shooters I regard as having handled violence as well as can be reasonably expected, given the medium’s distinct strengths and limitations:

  1. Metro 2033: Killing stuff is depressing as hell. Enemies don’t die easily. A lot of them are scared, freaked out. The world is not at stake and you’re just pushing through enemies because you have to. At one point you wipe out three guys sitting around a campfire. When they’re dead, you see that one of them had a guitar, which you’re now free to strum.
  2. Far Cry 2: Here the enemies roll around and cry for their mothers after you’ve shot them. The game never comments on what you’re doing — not internally, not externally — and so you’re a monster, mostly, that does monstrous things. All the while the game just stares back at you with lidless, reptilian eyes. It doesn’t care how you feel.
  3. Half-Life, Half-Life 2: Killing as physics: gravity guns, energy balls, etc. The bad guys are evil, masked, and inhuman. You never wonder which of them watered the flowers back at base. I think I’ll hurl a toilet at that one over there …
  4. BioShock, BioShock 2: A game that presents a bunch of dynamic systems by which to inflict violence (lightning, mine traps, killer bees, harpoon guns, freeze rays) in an incredibly atmospheric setting. A simple formula and a great one. It’s violence as opera, essentially, and also a sneaky critique of power fantasies.
  5. Bulletstorm: Here’s a planet of psychopathic nutballs — go to town. Killing these guys isn’t the point. Killing them with style is the point. This is violence as an exhilaratingly blank canvas, a pure puzzle-performance killing game.
  6. Halo, Gears of War: Both franchises have figured out that the slaughter of unpleasant, genocidal alien bogeymen turns out to be a delightfully qualmless way to spend one’s leisure time.
  7. Kane & Lynch 2: Violence as aesthetic misery. The characters are awful. The people you’re killing are awful. The world is awful. The guns are sloppy, i.e., awful. Everything’s awful. It’s not fun, not at all, but it is both hideously absorbing and completely numbing — kind of like what I imagine being inside a psychopathic mind amounts to.