Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Moral Quandries

I've noticed a lot of criticisms leveled at games like GTA V and Watch_Dogs recently, but rather than retread what others have said how about we turn a critical eye toward robots, zombies, Nazis and demonic aliens?...or "The Four Horsemen of Video Game Apocalypses" as I like to call them.  These foes might have been novel adversaries once upon a time, but now they're more often than not a crutch for lazy storytelling.  Instead of presenting situations which could be thought provoking dilemmas a lot of game developers try to come up with flimsy excuses as to why violence is the only solution.  It's an argument that doesn't hold water even when protected by the veil of genre conventions.

From Shodan to the Cybrids and the Reapers to AM, robots of all shapes and sizes have been threatening humanity in fiction since before the invention of the silicon chip.  The question I always have is why?  Do advanced artificial intelligences want to destroy all the humans out of some misguided sense of self-preservation?  And if so, doesn't that imply some kind of emotional response (namely fear)?  Please note that this is antithetical to the definition of a machine, and implies that we're not talking computers at all, but rather sentient (albeit artificial) life.  On a slight tangent, what happens if these machines succeed in their objective?  What do the doomsday armies of metal and plastic do then?  Don't give me that incomprehensible-to-human-minds bullshit, because H.P. Lovecraft did it better than anyone else and even then it felt like a bit of a cop-out.

Moving on, let's take a closer look at video game's most prolific form of undead, zombies.  I'm not an expert when it comes to biology, but I know for sure that muscle tissue doesn't work unless it has an energy supply.  In other words, if the flesh is dead it's not going to move at all.  Granted magically animated dead are fair enough, but a lot of games try pitch the notion of a disease causing zombies to appear.  It's plausible enough provided that the walking dead are actually still alive to some degree.  Of course this raises the question about whether or not the infected can be cured or recoup enough of their former selves to become a new culture of sorts.  Ever read the story "I am Legend" by Richard Matheson?  Here's a little tidbit for you, it doesn't end at all like the 2007 film of the same name (including the filmed alternate endings).

How about Nazis then?  Everyone hates them, right?  Well sure...but don't let righteousness bind you to the fact that a non-trivial amount of them were misguided (particularly Hitler Youth) through a carefully crafted system of indoctrination.  Or more ambiguously still, guys like Claus von Stauffenberg, who objected to a number of the Third Reich's policies yet still fought for Germany out of a sense of nationalism.  Don't get me wrong, Nazism is pretty much as bad as any ideology can get.  That said, anything seen as bad can't always be be pinned on them.  Godwin's Law, anyone?  If you've ever read the bizarre novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" you might find yourself questioning the firebombing of Dresden.  In particular, was incinerating tens-of-thousands refugees justified when it had little to no benefit with regards to ending the war?

Lastly, demonic aliens, lumped into one category here because for all intents and purposes the difference between cross-dimensional and extra-solar is trivial in most games.  What isn't irrelevant though is the fact that these entities are usually portrayed as irredeemably evil, and exist solely to do battle with space marines or some regional equivalent.  Never mind the fact that any military force requires the logistical support of an even larger contingent of non-combatants.  Of course one could argue that the player simply doesn't run into any of them because that might lead to ethical concerns over what's to be done with POWs.  On a side note fantasy games have the same problem with orc babies.  For the ultimate in deconstruction stories about alien invasion though I recommend reading "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clark.

After watching some 2014 highlights from E3, I think it's safe to say celebrations of violence in video games aren't going away anytime soon.  Which probably means the ubiquity of the above mentioned quartet of grab-bag of baddies isn't going to change much either.  You know what though, that's okay with me.  My beef isn't with overuse so much as underdevelopment.  In order for video games to evolve and grow both as a hobby and an industry, players need to have their ingrained assumptions challenged in interesting ways.  Exploring concepts that were simple when most gamers were children, more deeply now that a lot are older, can create new and fascinating storytelling opportunities.  After all the whole point of video games is to experience things that would be impractical or outright impossible in real life.

No comments:

Post a Comment