For Silva, fun remains the primary goal. "There's developers out there who want to hit that trigger that makes gamers think 'Oh my God, this is making me physically ill.' I think the mass market is still going to be games like Call of Duty or Gears of War that are all about entertainment. I'm still going to be in that camp."

Outside of games where graphic violence is a central mechanic or a key visual component there seems little desire (or demand) for a realistic depiction of violence.

Agala shared a similar view:

It's a matter of timing, it's the difference between a few frames before something goes from exciting to disturbing. The actual acts the characters are performing on screen are pretty violent but [in Shank] they are cartoon characters which lowers the perception of gore. We spent a lot of time making Shank's combat feel nice and responsive so every attack works with the overall rhythm of the combat. We're very conscious of how long something violent is on screen: If it is too long it becomes distasteful, if it's too short the player doesn't get it. We always look to provide a satisfying kill without overplaying it. The harder the move is to pull off, the more violent it is, with boss kills being the most violent.

It seems simple enough. Games are supposed to be fun, so if putting your hand in the puddle of goo that used to be your best friend's face isn't fun, don't put in the game. For most players, the bare minimum of suggested violence to initiate the aforementioned suspension of disbelief is sufficient. How else can you explain the piff-paff blood spurts of a Call of Duty, a series that takes every opportunity to look just as gosh-darn spiffy as possible yet depicts combat as a cross between a G.I. Joe cartoon and paintball?

Outside of games where graphic violence is a central mechanic (Splatterhouse, Bulletstorm) or a key visual component (Mortal Kombat, Gears of War) there seems little desire (or demand) for a realistic depiction of violence. Even those games are less about "real" violence and more about hyper-stylized bits of gore designed as Pavlovian indicators of player triumph. To the best of my knowledge, the first two Soldier of Fortune games were the only titles to really attempt a semi-grounded approach to violence, and it was less out of a desire for narrative weight and more as a tech novelty, the internal hemorrhaging equivalent of colored lighting and curved walls. Of course none of these games really needed realistic violence, any more than a Die Hard or a Commando would. As long as games aim for the narrative immersion of an action film, the implausibility and repletion of violence, and the subsequent desensitization of the player to its moral aspects, aren't a problem. Scale back the violence when needed, pump it up for titillation.

Where this technique comes up short is when games try and have the "Pow! Pow!" mentality and then simultaneously treat violence as more than escapist fantasy. For me the most egregious offender is Modern Warfare 2, arguably the broiest of bro shooters, whose "No Russian" level was distasteful not so much for its premise, but its limp execution. What could have been a powerful (albeit out of place) moment of seriousness quickly becomes farce as civilians topple willy-nilly, repeating the same animations and awkward responses again and again. To me it felt staged and artificial, though Silva disagreed, saying. "People thought it was a corny sequence; I thought it was really haunting. It worked for what it was. You have to ask where you draw the line ... They could have taken it further, but [they stopped] in the name of good taste." Agala agreed. "I think games like Shadow of the Colossus and MW2 have shown us that you can take a core mechanic and with the addition of a simple story suggestion make the player feel totally different about performing the same act. I don't think realism needs to be there, the player just needs to have a connection with the characters. I remember playing Lemmings as a kid and feeling really bad for the exploding lemming."

Clearly individual tastes will vary, but I can't help but feel that games have hit a ceiling of sorts in terms of giving weight and consequence to violence. It's not impossible for games to create meaningful in-game moments. Agala raises a great point with Shadow of the Colossus, and I'd throw Half-Life 2 and The Darkness in the mix as well. The bulk of dramatic narratives, however, seem to continually rely either on pre-rendered cinematics, or clunky scripted events that more often than not simply abandon the previously established mechanics for an unearned tug at the heart-strings. It's more frustrating than depressing when your previously invulnerable A.I. companion is, for story purposes, suddenly felled by a single random bullet. Games as pulp entertainment are as good as they've ever been, but I have to wonder if modern technology and game design can offer us a title that addresses violence with the gravitas of a Saving Private Ryan while still retaining the fundamental player involvement that makes the medium unique.

Maxwell Patterson is a freelance writer.

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