Original article follows.
A few years ago, a movie came out titled Valhalla Rising. While it was beautifully shot, it wasn't a very good movie - most of it consisted of the characters staring meaningfully just to the side of the camera. Since they were given nothing to stare about, it came across as pretentious instead of deep. And yet, because it was so empty, something very interesting happened.
It became a blank slate.
Many of the film critics imposed subtext and meaning into the film in their reviews. The movie had, in effect, held up a mirror to the viewer. Whatever meaning you see in the movie, it's all coming from you.
And this brings me to Hatred.
Hatred is a controversial game - it is, in the most literal sense, a murder simulator. You play a maniac who wants to kill as many innocent people as he can before he gets taken down. The violence is graphic, gory, and disturbing. You would think that this would make the game irredeemably vile and offensive.
And yet...I'm not sure that it does.
Regardless of whether this is deliberate or not, Hatred seems to have rendered itself into a blank slate. The game is just murders - there is no context or plot given. The genocidal fury against the victims is not bound by race, color, gender, or religion. The player character hates everybody who isn't him, and wants them dead.
Let's face it: anybody who has played first person shooters, real-time strategy games, or even Civilization - myself included - has done terrible things in videogameland. We've murdered, razed towns and cities, and killed innocent people.
All of this is done within a certain context, however. There is a story we are experiencing, be it the founding of an empire or fighting off an alien invasion. Any violence we commit against our pixel-based enemies is part of the story itself. We understand that it is all fiction. This distance and removal allows us to undertake terrible acts without them reflecting on who we are as people.
But, when you remove this context as Hatred does, all you're left with are the terrible acts. And now it's a different matter.
It reminds me of a game that came out around seven years ago called The Torture Game 2. It was also controversial and shocking, a free flash game that had a sort of human doll with an expressionless face and staring eyes, bound to the ceiling by ropes. A number of tools allowed you to inflict terrible torture and dismemberment upon the doll, complete with blood and gore. There was also the option to release the ropes, letting the doll fall free to the ground. And that's it - no context, no rhyme or reason, and the only meaning or subtext is what you, the player, bring into it.
I remember my encounter with the game well. I loaded it up out of curiosity, and then I stared at the screen. I did this for some time. Then, without a word, I removed the ropes and let the doll fall, unharmed. Any questions I may have had about whether I was capable of true sadism had been answered - the game had held up a mirror, I had looked deep into my own eyes, and seen what was there.
Several years ago, I was part of the fight against Jack Thompson and attempts to censor video games. Thompson liked to talk about "murder simulators" - however, looking back at it, I don't remember anybody ever asking what would happen if we actually got one. Would it be a bad thing, a disgusting thing, or a powerful statement?
One of the reasons Zero Dark Thirty is so controversial is because of the way in which it depicts torture: it takes no sides, just showing you the events and letting you draw your own conclusions. This possibly makes it more powerful than if it had taken a side in the matter - by letting the actions speak for themselves, it forced the viewer to face and come to grips with them without any hand-holding.
I don't know if this is what the developers of Hatred set out to do. However, it seems to be what they accomplished - they created a murder simulator, with nothing but the action. The act of murder speaks for itself, in all of its brutality. Anything else that appears is what the player brought with them. Like Torture Simulator 2, Hatred holds a mirror up to the player.
What will happen, I wonder, when people play this game? Will they do as I once did, staring at the screen and then putting down the controller, unable to go through with it? Will they start the killing spree and then stop in shock and horror? Will they finish the game, yet be unsettled by it all and what they did? Or will they play through unscathed?
One thing is for certain - for better or worse, the world of video games finally has its murder simulator. And, it may turn out to be the most impactful statement on violence the medium has ever created.
After all, sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is to hold up a mirror and show people what's there.
Author's Note: A few months before this column started back up, I was trying an experiment with Patreon: can it be used as a platform for a monthly subscription magazine? (I own a publishing company, so I'm interested in stuff like that.) Unfortunately, it didn't go terribly well (not too surprising - a decade spent mainly on the editorial and business side of writing will erode a readership), and once The Eternity Quartet and Garwulf's Corner started up there just wasn't any time to keep it going.
But, things have settled down, and I think it's time to restart the experiment. So, it is my pleasure to announce the reopening of Garwulf Speaks.
In my career, I've had a lot of things published (I lost count of my paid publications after they hit 350), but a lot of stories and articles didn't make it to publication for various reasons. So, for a total of 12 issues, at the beginning of every month, I am posting a never-before published piece of fiction, often along with a non-fiction article. The first issue is free, and your donation - which can be as low as $1 per month - is your monthly subscription fee, with which you not only gain access to the upcoming issues, but all of the archives. And, once the experiment is done, it gets shut down...unless it's a wild success, in which case I'll just have to serialize a novel or something.
So, if you've enjoyed Garwulf's Corner, and you want to read more, as well as to support the author, please go and give it a look!
Robert B. Marks is the author of Diablo: Demonsbane, The EverQuest Companion, Garwulf's Corner, and the co-author of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora. His current fiction project is The Eternity Quartet, with Ed Greenwood. His Livejournal can be found here, and his Patreon-based magazine experiment, Garwulf Speaks, can be found here. He can be reached by email at garwulf at escapistmag.com.