"I've always been a non-violent person," Tim Jones told me last week as we chatted in a subterranean nightclub in Manhattan. He's a "peace and love" kind of guy and designer of a new video game featuring spine-dangling decapitations.
Jones is the head of art and design at Rebellion, the U.K. studio behind Aliens Vs Predator, one of the goriest games currently announced for 2010. Of average build, soft voice and a close-cropped beard, Jones is altogether typical of the quiet, pleasant video game designers who so seldom make it into the public eye but are indeed the men — mostly men, as far as I've encountered — responsible for the games that unnerve polite society. I met him last week at a showcase of Sega games in New York City. One of the highlighted games was Aliens Vs. Predator, the PS3, PC and Xbox 360 first-person shooter coming out later this month.
AvP's achievement in notoriety is its decapitations, it's enabling of players to assume the role of 20th Century Fox's mighty Predator alien hunters and rip the head off the shoulders of a human space marine. It allows the player to stab the marine with knives, or, if the player's one of the movie studio's famous Aliens, to chomp those skulls with glass-sharp teeth.
There tend to be two camps in the discussion about violent video games. There are those on the inside who make and play violent games and bat an eye at the gore as infrequently as they ever talk about why they make and enjoy this kind of thing. And then there are those on the outside, often critical of violent games, sometimes in positions of policy-making, sometimes calling for bans or legal protections.
Jones is in the inside camp, of course. He's a child of horror movies. His folks have seen clips of the games he makes. "It's not their cup of tea," he chuckled. They weren't into the horror movies either. "They love me and they know I'm a good guy."
He can explain exactly how decapitations got into this new Aliens Vs. Predator. He recalls early meetings at Rebellion as he and his team batting around ideas for their first-person shooter. "We'd sit around and talk about what we could do in the game. One or the other designers would say quietly and sheepishly, 'I want to rip people's heads out, and their spines. Can we do that?'
"We said, 'Let's prototype it.'" They did. And they played it.
"What we found is that it never got old," Jones recalled. "You didn't get desensitized to it. And when we'd play it you'd see all kinds of reactions, like malevolent glee or shock."
Decapitations fit the R-rated lore of the Aliens Vs. Predator series. The movies upon which Rebellion's new and previous Aliens Vs. Predator games are based are violent. They are fantasy, of course, a science fiction view of the universe that puts Predator above Homo Sapien in the food chain and adds Alien to the list of man-killers that also includes Great White Sharks. Because of that, the game couldn't be tame, Jones said. Rebellion wanted to make a game that felt "authentic" to the films. Its characters, controlled by the player or not, had to be vicious: "If we chose to pretend they didn't do really nasty things to people, these creatures you'd be frightened of in real life… it would have felt dishonest."
In Australia, where video games aren't rated unless they are deemed acceptable for at least a 15-year-old to play, Rebellion and Jones' desire to indulge the sheepish desires and spray the same amount of fantasy blood as their source material, almost got their game banned. The authorities there differ than those of the game publishing world. While Australia flinched, Sega pressed on. The publisher had asked Rebellion to help assemble a trailer of the game's most vicious kills, Jones recalled. The brutality would be a selling point.
In last fall's best-selling Modern Warfare 2, the developers allow the player to participate in a mission in which they, as an undercover CIA operative, are part of a terrorist cell that massacres innocent civilians in an airport. Jones played that level and recalls that he kept his gun pointed to the floor. He likes the idea of games that can make a person uncomfortable with their violence. He believes they might help "teaches us where the boundaries of behavior are." But he sees Aliens Vs. Predator's gore as somewhat outside of that and anything else that aspires to provide the gut-punch of realism. "It's clearly fantasy violence," he said. "It's not a documentary."
Video games, Jones told me, are good vehicles for delivering a "primal" emotion. They provide a release and a catharsis. He believes society yearns for this. "Why do people go shooting clay pigeons?" he pondered. Or a more ghoulish example: "During the execution of Saddam Hussein, somebody took out their cell phone and was filming it. And millions of people went to look at it on line." These are the actions, Jones believes, of people living in a thankfully gentler world. "The world we live in, the western world, is a far safer world than we ever had before ," he said. "Yet people seek some sort of primal experience." Aliens Vs. Predator and other violent games might be part of that.
Jones, like the other makers of violent video games who I've met, was as amiable as he was thoughtful. Get a person who knows their violent games talking, and fascinating discussions can ensure about how the killings and the guilt of Kratos in God of War registered with a player versus those in a Modern Warfare 2. How decapitating a space marine in Aliens Vs. Predator will feel the first, 10th or 100th time, however, is something we can't talk about freely yet, not until the game is out and more of us have had the chance to do it. The violence isn't for everyone, of course, though some can live with it. Jones' parents, for example. "They love me and they know I'm a good guy," he told me.
Tim Jones is a peaceful man. He will continue to play — and if there's good cause to — make games that are violent. There's no contradiction there, not to him. The virtual, fantasy violence has its purposes. "It's just that," he begins, "I don't think it's unhealthy."