Splinter Cell Blacklist’s E3 2012 reveal was a rather mixed affair.
One one hand, it was great to see Sam Fisher step back out of the shadows. As one of the eldars of the stealth genre, he’s always more than welcome at VoxelArcade’s banquet table. On the other hand, the widespread uproar that surrounded the graphic, playable torture scene, dampened the game’s entrance somewhat – so much so, it lead eventually to the scene’s removal.
So strong were the feelings of revulsion towards the violence that was depicted that even games-industry insiders took to the Internet to vent their spleens, as though to pre-empt any external criticisms; as though to be seen to toe-the-line.
Gears of War: Judgment, co-writer, Tom Bissell:
“We’ve arrived in a strange emotional clime when our popular entertainment frequently depicts torture as briskly effective rather than literally the worst thing one human being can do to another – yea verily, worse even than killing. I spent a couple days feeling ashamed of being a gamer, of playing or liking military games, of being interested in any of this disgusting bulls*** at all”.
Strong words from someone working on a game devoted to the graphic mutilation of humanoid aliens with chainsaws and head shots. But he has a point, nonetheless. Quite what that point is remains open to some interpretation.
I recently reflected upon my passion for age-appropriate content and stated a belief that if content is delivered to the right audience and in the right context, there’s little to worry about in the way of harm to individuals. This is just my opinion, mind you, one you’re entitled to disagree with – but it’s one built upon the collective wisdom of a good many level-headed individuals and organisations.
Had the torture scene remained in Blacklist, we can assume that the game – that will be rated under the ironically trigger-happy, pan-European PEGI system – would have almost certainly received an 18. It may still receive an 18. If parents fulfil their role and pay due attention to this rating , there will arguably be no further cause for concern. Whether or not parents actually do this is another matter entirely; that’s not to say that 18-rated creative works should stop being made, though.
That is unless the torture scene was liable to fundamentally disturb the minds and souls of well-balanced adults over the age of 18? That is unless it contained something so fundamentally unhinged, it would tip us all over the edge and send us spiralling into an orgy of gratuitous violence and insanity?
Well, colour me de-sensitised, because I saw nothing in the E3 footage to suggest that would be the case. Yes, it was shocking. Yes, it made me wince. Yes, it registered an emotional response. Yes, that was noteworthy. But, no, it wasn’t worse than some of the more graphic books that I’ve read or more violent films that I’ve watched. It wasn’t worse, even, than some of the most shocking war documentaries or photography that I’ve seen.
Photography has documented and commented upon the horrors of war for decades – because it’s encouraged to do so
Context, however, remains king.
If Blacklist’s torture scene was to be repeated over-and-over in the game, purely for the sake of it, I might have a problem. If you were awarded bright, spangly, star-studded on-screen points based on the number of times you rotated the knife in the man’s chest, I might have a problem. If there was a global leader-board to rank the most effective torturers, I might have a problem with it. But there isn’t, so I don’t.
Granted, there’s the argument that this is an interactive, entertainment medium and it would be me pressing the button or rotating the stick to torture the virtual enemy – but that’s a strength of the medium not an inherent flaw. It’s a strength that no other medium can even begin to approach and one that has tremendous capacity for constructive, carefully-crafted emotional response. That should be celebrated, not feared. If it’s something that can better engage a world that’s become so de-sensitised by decades of witnessing both real and fictional violence, then maybe it can be used to the benefit of society? Maybe it can be used to remind us of how brutal the world around us really is and of the responsibility that we all share in being ‘better animals’ than we presently are?
Looking at the present state of the world, I’d argue that such a tool needs to be put to use now, not later.
If a game is capable of framing brutality in a mature, thought-provoking and age-appropriate adult manner, then I say let it. If it’s capable of putting such a graphic act of violence into a meaningful, powerful and engaging context, then I say let it. Let it try and reach the brutal heights of other creative works that take the exact same source material and explore it in detail. Works such as The Crying Game, Reservoir Dogs, Braveheart, Marathon Man and, more recently, the controversial Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty:
Here’s a work of art that’s stimulating serious, thought-provoking, relevant, disturbing and necessarily healthy debate about an uncomfortable truth. Yet whilst there are two sides to the argument, both with very valid points, are we seeing actors or film-makers coming out and deploring it? Are we seeing the film-makers re-write and re-edit the film so as to not further offend those voices? Can you imagine what the film industry would be like if that kind of commentary and reaction were considered ‘normal’ – healthy and positive even?
Yet the question remains: was Blacklist capable of provoking such a mature debate? Is any game capable of it? Maybe Blacklist was; maybe it wasn’t. Now it’s been removed, we’ll perhaps never know.
Blacklist producer David Footman, speaking out in the scene’s defence:
“If it makes you squeamish and uncomfortable, maybe that’s the point. I always know when we’re onto something that’s really touchy and interesting when we get reactions like that. The truth is it’s really happening. That’s the truth. We all know it’s really happening all over the world.”
He’s right. It is happening. Sanctioned by governments the world over. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the uncomfortable truth that Blacklist aimed to explore – just like Zero Dark Thirty. Maybe our reaction against it was more an indication of how successful our governments are at shielding us from the truth rather than of how crass or insensitive the game was being? Maybe our reaction is just a sad indictment of the ways in which we proclaim a desire for games to grow-up and evolve yet, really, we’re afraid of letting them? Just as afraid as the paranoid anti-games lobby are.
Maybe, just maybe, it was one of the most brave moves that a AAA game developer has made in recent years – and we just smacked them down, rolled our eyes, tutted and sang a tune that we thought the mainstream press would want us to be seen singing.
Does the Lego trivialise the message or does it perhaps make it even more powerful? Remove ‘Lego’ and insert ‘game’.
Extreme violence needs to be placed into a meaningful, age-appropriate context if its inclusion is to be justified in any creative work; so too does extreme criticism. Shooting-from-the-hip, grabbing a few sound-bites and banging the head of gaming against the proverbial wall without a full-grasp of the wider context is just as, if not more gratuitous. Perhaps Ubisoft didn’t have the vision and tenacity to put the torture scene into a proper context. Perhaps the knee-jerk reactions and forum-venting that ensued would have proven to be right.
The sad fact is: we’ll never know. The sad fact is: we’ve probably put others off trying for the immediate future and bumped the medium’s evolutionary trajectory back by a good console generation or more.
How about, next time, we do our beloved medium a favour and let it grow up and make its own mistakes? You never know: it just might surprise us.