Videogames have come under negative scrutiny over the years for many reasons, one of which is their violent content. Growing up, I remember friends commenting on how “cool” the severing of a head with sword or smattering of meat in an intense explosion was, but does the application of violence have deeper purpose or meaning in videogames? As an example and jumping-off point, I’d like to start with post-apocalyptic themed games. How does the depiction of violence help construct post-apocalyptic worlds? These contexts typically feature humankind on the brink of existence, recovering from devastation in an ad-hoc, piecemeal society with little rule, law, or safety. In this article, I outline several instances in which the vivid depiction of violence not only helps to complete the post-apocalyptic worlds it takes place in, but actually enriches them as well.
The Last of Us
I find it fitting to begin with one of the more recent and successful forays into the post-apocalypse, and also one of my favorite games, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. The compelling story of Joel and Ellie’s dangerous trek across the United States is heartfelt, riveting, and terrifying, but also extremely violent. Naughty Dog animates vividly detailed and gruesome deaths—from Joel’s slamming of heads into desks to the Clicker’s neck-chomping—delivered shockingly and without restraint. What importance does this violence have in the world and narrative of The Last of Us?
Violence in The Last of Us is necessary to tell the compelling story it does because the absolute barbarity acts as a signifier for the desperation of mankind in a post-apocalypse. The violence is a part of the social breakdown of society, the absolute reduction of what we are, stripped of all security, comforts, and societal structures. In the post-apocalypse, survival is all that remains, and violence acts as a narrative tool to enhance our awareness of this condition. Even in the protected zones, violence is inescapable as martial law strips us of privacy and for the sake of security, and even revolution threatens us with violence. Without this violence, we lose the vivid depravity that the breakdown of society is all about. This is something we also see in Borderlands and Fallout as well.
Violence in Gearbox’s Borderlands and Borderlands 2 is more a tool for humor than anything else. The over-the-top death animations mix with the now-iconic comic-book-like art-style to deliver a post-apocalypse that plays more off of old tropes tracing back to Mad Max to deliver nostalgia, action, and hilarity than to thoughtfully comment on the human condition. The cartoonish death animations of bandits burning up until only their masks remain, doing a jerky dance due to electric shock, or simply exploding into pulp is delivered in a way that it is not meant to be taken seriously. The violence here references that of many post-apocalyptic films and fiction, which can be equally in your face but shocking in its realism, but pushes it beyond the drama of struggle and survival. In this way, the violence of Borderlands places it in a pre-existing lineage and pays homage to those that came before it while simultaneously establishing its own style and humor.
The overt, highly detailed explosive body parts of the Fallout series may seem over-the-top, but in the particular context of the game’s fiction, it’s a perfect fit and supports a very unified expression of the post-apocalypse. Fallout is a world where mature themes of xenophobia, sexual slavery, cannibalism, anarchy, destruction, rebirth, violence, death, and survival are central. What’s more, the game presents these themes in a world that would be downright depressing if not for its Golden Era influenced cultural icons in the form of radio music, advertisement artwork, and weapon and character design. Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas featured radio channels containing jazz show-tunes and country westerns from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as futuristic robots and weapon design indicative of the science fiction at the time. Billboard advertisements were in the time-period’s style, depicting bold lettering and happy faces highlighting the characterized idealization of baby boomer and American Golden Era lifestyle expectations amidst the fear of nuclear war and Anti-Americanism. The juxtaposition of a futuristic radioactive wasteland and its violence to this culture of idealization and renewed consumerism makes for a pervasive sense of irony that has become characteristic of the Fallout titles. The absurd violence of blowing off the body parts of human and non-human foes mirrors the absurdity of the referenced political, economic, and cultural climate: idealized, isolated, and fearful. The violence in Fallout may seem overdone, but it helps create the thoughtful irony of a well-crafted world and narrative.
In titles such as these, violence contributes primarily to the believability of the post-apocalypse, and it does so in a vein of pre-existing literature, film, and fiction that has constantly highlighted the barbarity of a world redefined through destruction, rebirth, and the simultaneous fragility and strength of the human spirit. Videogames, however, allow us to journey through these worlds ourselves, inhabiting them with our own thoughts and actions. It is in this way that the experience becomes more meaningful, and the element, threat, and execution of violence contributes to the meaning we may find in these worlds.