The hero takes the creature’s arm, tears it from its body and kills it with it. A screech tears the air, blood pours down on the floor. “It’s like a Saturday morning cartoon for adults,” says the creator of this scene. The creature lies torn on the floor, the players move on – to the next victim.
The computer game “Doom: Eternal” is drastic, aggressive, sometimes entertaining. The recently released first person shooter is the newest part of the series that co-founded the term “killer game” in Germany. The players have only one task: to kill demon after demon and save the world from an invasion from hell. The political stance against this brutality was: ostracism, warning, flagellation. In Germany in particular, violence in video games was viewed primarily on the premise of damaging the players. But this negotiation of violence, its representation in a product around which a whole subculture revolves, does not arise out of nothing. From the point of view of the creators, the creation of virtual excesses is an artistic process.
Hieronymus Bosch and He-Man
This is the case, for example, for Marty Stratton and Hugo Martin from the developer studio id Software. “Every monster starts with a drawing,” says creative director Martin. Initially, these archetypes were inspired by painters such as Hieronymus Bosch or Carl Joseph Geiger, but also by overly masculine action and cartoon characters such as GI Joe or He-Man. If the archetypes were established, the artists would improvise, says Martin. “The goal is that every creature has personality.”
What is special about a video game is that all the monsters and demons that arise in the course of development must also serve a purpose. For Martin, the fact that a creature’s arm can be torn off is not senseless brutality. “What a demon looks like, how it falls apart, all of this should be indications for the players – they should be able to identify weak points and the state of the opponents,” says his colleague Marty Stratton, Game Director of Doom: Eternal. He emphasizes that there is never blood and intestines at the beginning of a game idea. “That would be misguided.” The focus should be on game mechanics and how players can master them as well as possible, not violence.
Stratton and Martin say they mostly wanted players to have fun. They should be torn out of reality and transplanted into an artificial world of exaggeration, in which all rules are exposed. “Like an insane comic,” says Martin. The story of Doom: Eternal is simple: the demons from hell rule the world. Everything is suffering, fire and blood – until the players take up arms and restore order. What remains are screeching, torn creatures, like in Bosch’s “Weltgerichttryptichon”.
Scene change. A reporter looks desperately into the camera: “We have never experienced such a pandemic”. Chaos behind her. Houses burn, people flee. Images and sentences that echo particularly strongly in the Corona crisis. A virus spreads, making everyone who touches it lifeless flesh shuffling around. The zombie reign begins. “Resident Evil 3: Nemesis”, remake of the classic from 1999, will also be released these days. In this game too, all kinds of creatures stand up to the players: mutating, wavering tentacles, masses of skin breaking out of the body – the game is like a fashion show of what can actually not happen to a body.
“Some of our creatures were created by photogrammetry to give them realism,” says Peter Fabiano, producer at Capcom, the studio behind Nemesis. This is especially true for the human-like zombies. For them, people or objects were photographed from many perspectives, and a 3D object was then created from these shots. The fantastic looking creatures were created on the drawing board. With the ZBrush software, the drawings became three-dimensional models. “For this, the artists look at very different templates, such as pictures of the human anatomy,” says Fabiano.
“We want the players to feel fear and tension. We know that the limit of what can be endured is different for everyone.” One would have to find out what kind of violence matches the tone of the game. “Anyone who plays the game will notice that there are many borrowings from pop culture in the 90s.” Images of a past time viewed through the filter of the end times. The players roam through a rotting world that is only remotely reminiscent of their own.
Violence in video games shakes up the order. Social conventions, the rules of togetherness – in video games they are literally released for shooting. It is playing through a “what if …” at a time when physical violence is hardly part of people’s everyday lives. The constant threat posed by the onset of violence has long placed Western societies in the arts and negotiates them there.
In epics from the Middle Ages, the hero stabs and cuts all sorts of monsters in amazing detail. “Both received three broad, deep wounds that the blood broke out of them in strong waves and started to flow like a brook,” says the “Crône” by Heinrich von dem Türlin, which was created around 1220. A struggle that continues over many pages. The joy flows from the sentences to artistically transform the violence. In Richard Wagner’s “Ring des Nibelungen”, violence is found not only on the stage, but also in the orchestra pit. Every murder has its own tune. Seven murders are committed in the four operas – out of vengeance, intrigue or lust for power. In Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill the flowing blood becomes its own character, the color of the revenge that drives the main character.
Violence as an easy way
Many studies are investigating whether video games cause real violence. A majority of the studies say: rather not. But that doesn’t answer the question of whether the depiction of violence in video games does not also affect how players look at the world afterwards, how they see news and brutality. What applies to games like Doom or Resident Evil, those fantastic worlds with their own rules or new natural laws? Or is it rather that the depiction of violence that simulates the real world as realistically as possible influences the players?
“Violence can be too easy a worn game mechanic,” says Jörg Friedrich, who was, among other things, design director for the game “Zombie Island 2”. He says that it is crude if the portrayal of violence is continually worked out in “pseudo-realistic games”. “No sense just to shock people”. This is especially true in games that recreate the world practically exactly, only to then become the playing field for under-complex ideas of violence. However, Friedrich admits that he enjoys creating splintered bones and cracked skin.
He also worked on serious games. “Spec Ops: The Line”, for example, is an anti-war game from 2012 that questions every shot of the players, wants to plunge them into moral crises – do you follow orders without questioning? Do you shoot so-called terrorists or do you drop your weapon? “We wanted to show violence as it is. The players should know that they are shooting at people.” Soldiers who have been shot remain lying there, moaning and screaming for help. “We did a lot of research back then. Watched videos from the Iraq war on Afghanistan, Somalia.” That was very close to him – after all, it was the real world.
A young man jogs along a sunny California boardwalk. Headphones in the ear, perfectly styled hairstyle, white teeth, and a gaping bite on the arm. He does not notice that the world is falling apart around him, as people are dragged to the ground by zombies – until he himself rots, becomes the undead. He continues jogging.
It is the trailer for Zombie Island 2, which has not yet been released, but is now being developed by another studio. “We were looking for excessive violence,” says Jörg Friedrich about the process of game development. The trailer was a parody of the hip lifestyle of Los Angeles. “It was important to us that the game and the violence were so exaggerated that any connection to reality was broken. It was about escapism,” he says. Searches for consumption, carcass obedience, vegetation instead of authentic life – these should be the topics that run along in the subtext.
Tarrantino, Rodriguez and Saturday Night Fever Friedrich calls as inspiration: “Splatter without feeling guilty.” Humans are a violent species, dealing with them is an important part of social processes. “Games like Zombie Island 2 can give a different perspective on violence, not take it seriously, but play with it and see what happens.”
This of course requires mature players. And there is often the problem: Many games leave consumers vague, do not force them to question their virtual actions and do not give them a moment to reflect.
Video games are a medium that can make violence, its origins and consequences playable. In order to consistently enable the players, however, a new understanding of the medium would be needed: It is clear that the developers and designers want to entertain. But they too often miss the opportunity to take a critical stance on what they are showing. Interesting game mechanics can emerge from this approach – the moral dilemmas in Friedrich’s “Spec Ops: The Line” point the way. Doom, Resident Evil or Zombie Island will never be the place for such reflection – even if one recognizes their creation as an artistic process.