Knives are dangerous, there's no doubt about it. If a person with a knife gets close enough to you, he can really mess your stuff up.
And yet in the world of video games, knives have become a bit too deadly. They're far more deadly than guns—in everything from Call of Duty to the recently released Spec Ops: The Line, guys can take three, maybe four rounds from an AK-47 and keep right on truckin'. But if you hit them once with a knife, they're down forever.
In a far-reaching, fantastic essay over at Grantland, critic, novelist and one of the new writers on the upcoming Gears of War: Judgment Tom Bissell has weighed in on Spec Ops: The Line and video game violence in general.
Among his many musings about the game (which he liked, in a conflicted sort of way, for many of the same reasons I did) is this gem:
The game is filled to its gunwales with shooter ridiculousness. The most terrifying enemy in the game, for instance, is a guy with a knife. He runs at you, with his knife, across a battlefield whistling with small-arms fire. Your squad mates will alert you to the knife guy's presence, which is never not hilarious. Everyone's got automatic weapons and the dude with a knife is the single most terrifying enemy onscreen.
Har har. Bissell goes on to point out that he understands why this is necessary from a design perspective—knives (and in his specific line of work, Chainsaw-bayonets) must be more deadly than guns for balancing purposes. But he's right that this kind of balancing stands in stark, often humorous contrast to any semblance of gritty realism. As he puts it, "the appearance of Terrifying Knife Guy bursts any fragile bubble of contemplation."
(I enjoy "Terrifying Knife Guy" as an archetype, though I also enjoy that the official term for the Spec Ops character is "Edged Weapon Expert". Ha.)
The farther I get from Spec Ops, the more I wonder: one of the things Spec Ops does so smartly is subvert video game norms (endless waves of enemies, mindless ultraviolence, genocidal body count) in the service of making a broader statement about war. But will a war game ever be able to do something similar without relying on the subversion of game genre conventions? In other words: Can a war video game speak honestly and truthfully about war without relying on clever self-reference, or will Terrifying Knife Guy always be there to bring things back to Video Gameville?
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Shooter [Grantland]