Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Murder Simulators

The lights come up on a macabre scene straight out of a Poe story. Decaying castle walls surround the gallows where the blindfolded prisoner, hands bound behind his back, waits for the trapdoor beneath him to open and the noose around his neck to snap taut. To his right a priest in white robes rhythmically bends forward and backward, miming a crude simulacrum of the Last Rites. The executioner, face obscured by a black hood, stands impassive on the prisoner's left, awaiting the signal to throw the lever. The atmosphere is suffused with grim anticipation, a sense of guilty fascination, of morbid curiosity. Something terrible - and, maybe, secretly satisfying - is about to happen.

Eventually the priest stops swaying. There is an interminable pause.

And then, with a sharp crack, the floor opens. The prisoner drops. A thud as his body smacks against the scaffolding. The lights dim as the castle doors close. The scene, like the prisoner, is dead.

And it only cost a quarter.

This grisly scene was one of several contained in the antique coin-operated machines housed at the wonderful and weird Musee Mecanique in San Francisco. One of the highlights of my business trip there earlier this month - aside from hanging out with Gamer Melodico proprietor, musician, Kill Screen contributor, beer connoisseur, and International Cool Dude Kirk Hamilton - was touring this collection at Fisherman's Wharf.

Alongside vintage Pole Position and Star Wars cabinets, one can find an eclectic assortment of antique test-your-love-skill meters, crank-operated moving picture displays (many of the scandalous peep show variety!), pinball tables, photo booths, player pianos, nightmare-inducing laughing puppets, and mechanically-animated dioramas such as the morbid spectacle described above.

The animated scenes range in tone from pedestrian (a depiction of a farm at work) to exotic and salacious ("The Opium Den," pictured above) to surreal ("The Drunkard's Dream," in which mechanical monsters emerge from every dark corner of the wine cellar the drunk has collapsed in).

But most curious, and most genuinely disturbing, were the "execution" machines. Mrs. JPG and I saw at least one other: in this one, clearly inspired by the French Revolution, a criminal was guillotined after being read his Last Rites. Again there was a tense pause before the blade swished down and lopped off his wooden head, which fell neatly into a tiny basket.

It's strange to say, but somehow true: watching these crudely-painted, wire-controlled figurines enact these pantomime executions was far more shocking than nearly any digital murder I've been a party to in a videogame. And I've killed a lot of virtual people.

There is something undeniably grotesque about witnessing a death, real or virtual. Doubly so when that death is an execution. You can't help but feel, looking at this terrible thing, that you bear some small measure of responsibility for its occurrence.

One of the most disturbing images I've ever seen was a grainy .mpeg of the Nick Berg beheading my brother managed to download shortly after the event in 2004. I barely made it through the video before leaving the room. I remember being filled with a palpable disgust, not being able to shake the idea that by viewing this act, I was somehow complicit in it. Maybe that's just latent Catholic guilt, but it's still difficult to get past.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the execution scenes at the Musee Mecanique was the fact that I caused them to happen. I brought those scenes to life with my quarter. It's one thing to view a murder scene; it's another thing entirely to be the cause of it. And unlike most videogame deaths - which have become so fantastically gory, frequent, and inventive as to render them cartoonish parodies - the very crudeness of the Musee scenes, coupled with the awareness that they were explicitly built to showcase real-world "taboo" events, made them all the most resonant.

People who call games like Gears of War "murder simulators" have a poor understanding of the videogame landscape, or a distinct agenda, or (likely) both. The vast majority of videogames, I would argue, do not attempt to present emotionally affecting or even realistic depictions of death. Death is a mechanism by which obstacles to player progress are removed. Gory death animations such as the close-up chainsawing in Gears are, perhaps, intended as sensational rewards for players' displays of skill, and derive most of their impact from that sense of reward, not from the depiction of violence itself.

At a fundamental level, there is little difference between chomping a ghost in Pac-Man and stabbing a mark in Assassin's Creed II, despite the obvious gap in the degree of verisimilitude. I'm not saying the latter game is appropriate for young audiences. But I do find it hard to believe violent videogames make children more prone to violence. (Instead, I think, actual violence makes children more prone to violence. But that's a topic for another post.)

As in a given real world situation - the media's videogame-like depiction of the first Gulf War comes to mind - we find it difficult to empathize when death is presented on an abstracted level. Only humanizing victims, something most videogames fail to even attempt, can inspire that kind of emotional connection. The only videogame death in recent memory that not only intended to evoke genuine emotion in the player, but succeeded brilliantly at doing so, was in Deadly Premonition - a game that would never show up on the cable news radar.

Anyone who's endured a traffic jam caused by rubberneckers on a highway understands a basic fact about humans: we're fascinated by the morbid. This is nothing new: thousands of years of cultural artifacts, both mainstream and subversive, attest to this. The existence of decades-old coin-op execution scenes - with their embedded questions about audience, function, complicity, etc. - speaks volumes about the reactionary discourse around videogame violence in 2010.


  1. Yeah, I can't remember the last time I found a character death that genuinely disturbing. I mean, sure it's melodramatic and cheesy... but damn. That was some seriously fucked up shit... and all the more nasty because it was a nice person you knew. Norman Rockwell meets Japanese body-horror. Fucked. Up.

  2. Man, it was so nice to meet you guys as well!

    I really dug this post, and I think you're getting at something important here—why it is, exactly, that games area able to truck in such extreme violence and yet not affect us in the same way that violence would in the real world. Steve Gaynor (Minerva's Den, now working on Bioshock Infinite) wrote a piece about that called Specific Violence that I really liked, as well. (Perhaps you've already seen it.)

    He talks about something similar, about how basically, it's the anonymity of the identikit enemies we kill in games that robs them of their humanity and makes killing them so easy and painless. When a character is made "real," (Steve points to Andrew Ryan as an example, and recent GOTY-ish discussion of Heavy Rain made me think similar thoughts), the scene becomes wrenching, and difficult. Specific violence.

    Anyway, good times. When I next make it out to Boston, drinks are on me.

    Well, the first round, anyway. :P

  3. @Matt - Agreed, and thanks for that colorful analogy, which I'm sure Eli Roth will appropriate for his next film. (A different death scene in DP actually affected me more strongly, in a very different way - will discuss offline, though, to avoid spoilers.)

    @Kirk - This bromance is getting heavy. Maybe when you're out here we ought to go to a monster truck rally or something to compensate.

    Dammit, I think I had seen Steve's piece months ago, but must have just assimilated the idea unconsciously. That is a terrific read, and a very logical look at what makes violence meaningful/not meaningful. Unintentional plagiarism strikes again!