A bullet tears through the air and spins on an axis. Rolling around as it careens down a crash course, each rotation counts another heartbeat until its inevitable impact. The slug moves too fast to process the sound it passes by and silence permeates the trajectory. Then it strikes. A face explodes. The skull cracks and splinters, shards splitting and slicing through mangled flesh. An eyeball bursts, viscous dark fluid spilling everywhere. The silence a distant memory amid the pulpy tearing and course shattering that sounds off and echoes.
My own eyes squint and my jaw clenches. At first all I can do is suck air through my teeth and then I let out a guttural moan. I look to my housemate, a controller in his hands and his face a mirror image.
The game is Sniper Elite III.
“It’s pornographic,” he says and if anything makes me disagree it’s that I don’t have a problem with pornography. Pornography doesn’t make me uncomfortable. He tells me how the game satisfies a carnal desire, a primal urge lodged in the deepest grey matter of our brains. And he’s right. I did keep watching, and you kept reading the entire introduction above. Don’t worry, there’s more to come. A part of me does want to see, but what’s throwing me off guard is the uneasiness. That’s a new feeling. I’ve been playing video games for more than half of my life and gore never had this effect. Why now? My housemate turns to me and asks, “Have you seen the new Mortal Kombat X fatalities?”
I’m not about to feign disgust at the state of ‘the industry’, at the corruption of childhood or even my own grim satisfaction. Mortal Kombat has always been cartoonishly violent and always will be. That is its role; to shock and awe. But still that discomfort arises. A woman is shot in the head, her kneeling body lolls aimlessly as blood spurts from the wound. Her aggressor stems the bleeding by pushing bubblegum down into the bullethole which then expands and bursts in a spray of thick plasma. I smirk awkwardly. That’s inventive for a dumb gag. I do admire the commitment. But why am I still so disquieted? Is it just a matter of resolution? Are these games just looking and sounding too close to reality for me? Cognitive dissociation from the knowledge that this onscreen reality is manufactured? No, I’m not that immersed. If anything, it’s the opposite.
It’s 1960 and the Nazis won the war. I’m in a Berlin prison freeing members of the resistance. Two automatic shotguns peer up from the lower perspective of my peripheral vision and I’m mowing down members of the Reich. Claret floods the halls, limbs fly aimlessly and those guns make noise. I’m playing Wolfenstein: The New Order and this violence is as gratuitous as anything else I’ve seen recently. But I’m at peace. It takes some time to understand but the conclusion I reach is that Wolfenstein earns it. Beneath the hyper-violence is the story of B.J. Blazkowicz, a Polish-American Jewish soldier who awakens from a coma to find that he lost the only fight that ever mattered to him, the only fight that ever would. He has the doubts and fears of a real man, quiet, sombre and reflective. When not murdering scores of the SS his plight is endearing and touching. I think to other recent games…or rather, other recent stories; I felt unsettled playing The Last of Us, executing foes in face smashing, bone crunching struggles. They were actions I initially reasoned as necessary in a harsh post-apocalypse but which later underlined the truth that the character I was playing, Joel, was not a good guy. He – I – was just one of many reasons the world of The Last of Us was so dangerous. The first real action I took as Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite was pushing a man’s face into a spinning claw blade… but that hideous act had a purpose, to tarnish the bright utopian cloudscape of Columbia and set the stage for the tone that would soon progress; the dark fairytale that would soon unfold.
There’s no time stopping bullet for exploitative and indulgent games, nor should there be. They’re a staple of the pixellated landscape and deserve their own corner as long as they have an audience. But I’m getting to the point where gore as fan service is beginning to feel cheap and shameless or, perhaps more concerning, just unnecessary.
Judging from the breadth of recent artistic endeavours criticised for measuring brutality with beauty, I’m not the only one.