There's really no getting around it: many, many games are about violence, and sometimes it can be a bit much. Kill this, kill that, kill this until it all feels the same, like mowing a lawn or stomping an anthill. We've written a ton about it. But violence can also be incredibly powerful and interesting. Let's talk about that.
I don't think violence in games is inherently bad—or even played out—by any means. Bigger budget games tend to rely on it a little too much, obscuring potentially more interesting parts of vibrant worlds with thick, sickening splashes of red, but that doesn't make it a dead end. Could we use more variety in games, a few more neat ideas without guns? Absolutely. I hope to see the day when we have it, too.
Taken on their own merits, however, violent games and violent mechanics can produce some incredibly meaningful, provocative, or just downright entertaining moments. Here are some of the best. First, my favorite (SPOILERS AHEAD).
The game? Metal Gear Solid 3. It's the final battle against main character Naked Snake's arch-rival and beloved mentor (1960s Facebook status: it's really, really, really complicated), The Boss. The whole thing takes place in this field of flowers that swirl in the wind like tiny, raging tornadoes. They change from feather-white to blood-red underfoot, punctuating each and every impact with the brutality of bones breaking, the mournfulness of blood running in snow.
I've just realized I could spend a whole lot of time talking about video game flowers here, and for everybody else's sake I'm going to stop.
What makes this moment so incredible isn't the fight itself (though the way the close-quarters fisticuffs tie back into both the game's core mechanics and Snake/The Boss' relationship is a huuuuuuge thing) but rather what happens after. When it's all said and done, The Boss lies beaten and broken on the ground, and she asks Snake—her pupil, the closest thing she has to a son—to kill her.
She tells him he's wonderful and hands him a gun.
And then it stops being a cut-scene. When it happened to me, I understood what was going on immediately. I had only one option: pull the trigger or just stand there. In my own mind, I was really shaken. Metal Gear Solid 3 did a great job of making The Boss a complicated, empathetic figure and—without spoiling everything—this whole situation was unfair and terrible for her. It felt wrong. It felt gross.
But in that moment, after being Snake for so many hours and witnessing so many things, I felt an almost complete one-ness with his mindset. In that moment I knew his inner conflict, fear, sadness, and anger, but also his sense of duty—one instilled by The Boss, no less. A lot was changing in him, and this was a huge last straw for his belief in who he was working for, why he did the things he did, but right then and there he had to end it.
I didn't hesitate. The moment control returned to me, I pulled the trigger. At the time I had never played the game. I didn't know if maybe there was some kind of moral-choice-type thing going on, if maybe waiting would yield an alternate ending in which Snake didn't kill The Boss. It didn't matter to me. That wouldn't have been true to Snake or The Boss or other characters or the events that had transpired or what I'd seen or done or any of it. I was Snake. Nothing else mattered. So I pulled the trigger, the gunshot rang in the otherwise perfect silence of the scene, and my heart snapped in two.
That is, in my opinion, the single best trigger pull in all of video games. Because god damn.
That, however, is just one example of violence as an incredibly meaningful thing. Here's a selection of gaming's best violent moments according to developers who, themselves, have used violence in really interesting ways—or avoided it in their own games entirely.
Walt Williams, writer of Spec Ops: The Line which famously put military game violence under the microscope to very powerful effect, cited a moment from Fallout 3's early goings in which acting like A Video Game Character produced some shocking results:
"My favorite violent moment comes near the beginning of Fallout 3. You've just acquired a gun and are sneaking out of the vault, when you come across the Overseer scolding his daughter. He has his back to you, giving you a perfect opening to shoot him in the head. Which I did, expecting nothing to happen. This being a video game, and the Overseer being an important character, I expected him to turn around and attack me. Or, at the very least, fall to the ground unconscious, until his health regenerated. But nope, I pulled the trigger and blew a hole in the Overseer's head. He died instantly. His daughter, covered in his brains, ran away in terror. Unsurprisingly, our friendship wasn't quite the same after that."
"Why is this my favorite violent moment? Because 1) It's a perfect moral choice. You have a gun and you have a target. What do you do? Most players didn't even realize it was a moral choice, myself included. Which is crazy when you think about it, because what else did we think was going to happen when we shot a man in the back of the head? Which brings us to the second reason I love this violent moment. 2) It defied player expectations simply by having the world react in a realistic way. I shot a man in the back of the head because I wanted to see what would happen. The outcome I got was also the one I least expected: he died."
"That is a brilliantly designed moment of violence. It reminds you how fake most game violence actually is and how dangerous it can be to thoughtlessly wield a gun."
Luftrausers and Nuclear Throne (among many others) developer Rami Ismail, meanwhile, pointed out that Call of Duty—now frequently picked on for being a meaninglessly gratuitous explosion-fest, video gaming's Transformers—has used violence quite creatively in certain moments.
"I think my favourite violent moment is in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which is interesting as it is literally 'a violent moment' amongst a sea of stabbings, shootings and explosions. It's not the airport shooting, though, which I felt was extremely contrived. I think in many ways, the resolution to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 always stood out to me."
"While most 'kills' in games are simply points to score or obstacles to progression, General Shepherd had made things much more personal in a way only games can: by betraying your trust, leading to the demise of someone you were playing."
"So the whole sequence of pulling a knife out of your ribcage to throw it into his face meant a little bit more than just a point scored. I think it's one of the few times where I jumped out of my chair, threw down the controller and shouted at my screen for a non-multiplayer kill in a video game."
"Violence can be human, it can be personal, it can be emotional, it can be important. It can be used for good or for bad. It can be used for radical notions, or to stop those notions."
"Killing Shepherd was all of those, and that's what makes it a remarkable moment."
JP LeBreton, lead on Double Fine's Spacebase DF-9 and former lead level designer on BioShock 2, argued that some of gaming's best violent moments are the unexpected, non-scripted ones nobody else gets. In games like monstrously detailed simulation Dwarf Fortress there are no storytelling tricks or tropes. Just experiences. Just tiny lives playing out—and sometimes also tiny deaths.
"I love these stories specifically because the violence hasn't been crafted by an author to shock me, to wring sympathy from me, to spice up a dull stretch. We have zero assurance any of these poor dwarves will survive, and this is exactly what allows their lives to take on meaning—meaning we must discover ourselves, undirected, through the act of playing and story-making, mining for meaning in the vast mountainsides of possibility."
"The real genius of Dwarf Fortress is less in its simulation of individual drops of water than in its choice of specific dynamics to model, which mesh like gears to capture aspects of human experience, however humble or strange. This is rich territory for games to explore and I'm always happy to see more work being done in this direction."
Robin Arnott, creator of one of the most soothing, non-violent games I've ever played in SoundSelf, offered an especially surprising example: The Sims. Yes, you can be violent in that game. Extremely, perhaps even frighteningly violent if you know what you're doing.
"I played the original The Sims a lot. My grandpa was dying, and I think I used that game as a sort of a coping mechanism. I spent a lot of time modding it and creating new items for my sim-people to buy."
"But one of my favorite things to do was torment them like ants under a microscope. I built a swimming-pool moat around one of my sim playthings, leaving him just enough room to look in the four cardinal directions. I was punishing him for some minor domestic failure, like leaving his dishes out too long. He would piss himself and wave at me for my attention—'I'm hungry!' 'I'm tired!' But I left him to starve while his lovers, friends and children acted like nothing was wrong. They had garden parties while he slowly decayed into a tombstone."
"I don't know why such cruelty gave me such joy. Maybe I'm just a monster."
Alex Preston, whose Hyper Light Drifter is a hack 'n' slash action game that also wrestles with notions of disease and sickness, closed things out with another moment of violence used to drive home a point. One from a Nintendo game, of all things, because violence doesn't have to be "realistic" to be great.
"The head stab from the final battle of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker remains one of my favorite moments, violent or otherwise. It was brutal, surprising (though still inline with the narrative) and impactful. It read as an incredible punctuation point to an already incredible adventure."
So now it's over to you, dear readers. What are your favorite violent moments in games? It could be anything—a story that really hit home with you, something crazy that happened in a multiplayer match, or something somewhere in between. Let's talk about it!
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.