Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Death Fetish

In honor of AMURRICA, I marathoned my way through the single-player campaign of my latest library rental, Call of Duty: Black Ops, yesterday. My reaction was much the same as my response to Modern Warfare 2:

Hour 1: Wow, this looks and plays great.
Hour 6: My soul is crushed.

There's a reason I'll never buy a Call of Duty title, but it's not what you might think. It's not because I'm terrible at multiplayer-heavy shooters, although I am. It's not because their stories are barely-comprehensible Michael Bay power fantasies, although they are. It's not because Activision is creeping ever closer to Zynga levels of transparently formulaic cash-grabbing, although it is. And it's not even because I prefer not to have racist, sexist, homophobic horseshit screamed in my ear by mouth-breathing dudebro imbeciles, although that's a factor too.

No, I'll never buy a Call of Duty title for the same reason I'll never buy a Saw movie on DVD: it's death-porn.

It's not that I won't play a Call of Duty game, of course. I like to play a military shooter every once in a while, just like I like to check out a grisly horror flick every once in a while. It's fun to see where the genre is going. I just don't want to own those titles. I can't shake the feeling that would implicate me somehow.

The graphic violence, per se, doesn't bother me. I love Mortal Kombat, after all, and that franchise stakes its reputation on its glorification of human butchery. But unlike Mortal Kombat or any number of other ultraviolent titles—Borderlands, Grand Theft Auto, Left 4 Dead—the Call of Duty games seem to take themselves way too seriously. Even the Battlefield: Bad Company games lighten their tone with humor. (For the record, I don't count Black Ops' intentionally absurd Zombie mode, where JFK teams up with Nixon, Kissinger & Castro to fend off the undead; I'm talking about the campaign alone.)

Instead, I think it's the peculiar fetishizing of gruesome acts of violence that gets under my skin. Take the picture above. After battling across a rooftop level to save this guy, you watch him get shot through the head—in slow motion, naturally, with copious sprays of brain matter erupting from the wound in minute detail—just as you're about to save him from falling. You let the body (this is a body now, not a person like it was seconds ago, but the game makes no attempt to explore that terrifying concept) drop. It caroms off a neon sign, a lump of flesh and bone, literal dead weight. One cannot help but imagine ~90% of Black Ops players responding to this moment with a heartfelt "oh, sick, bro!"

In context, it makes sense that a hardened military operative like your avatar wouldn't pause in the middle of a firefight to ponder the existential meaning of life's precariousness. But Black Ops shows this event, and other similarly bloody acts, in such precise detail, in such high-definition scripted precision, that it's clear the game wants you to pay very close attention. The problem I have is that it doesn't ask you to do anything beyond that.

Consider the "rat tunnel" sequence in one of the Vietnam levels. Progressing through Viet Cong tunnels on your way to your next objective, you are limited to a flashlight and a .44 "hand cannon" revolver. Naturally, there are VC down here to kill. Except when you shoot them, they don't enact the typical death animations. Instead you get gratuitous displays of dismemberment like this:

Dismembered VC, unlike other enemies you shoot, moan and writhe for a few seconds after being shot, drawing attention to their suffering. As far as I could tell, every kill shot takes off a limb, regardless of where you're aiming. And yet, there's no narrative reason for the carnage (like in Dead Space or The Darkness). Not that I'd expect this, but there's no attempt to make you consider the ethical or psychological ramifications of your actions; at least that might have given a hint of depth to the grim proceedings. In my playthrough, I never encountered the limb-severing .44 pistol again, making it seems as if the weapon was specifically designed for this sequence. It's like a sex toy, meant for one purpose. The weapon, the amputation, the screaming: Altogether, it's as if the player is supposed to get off on the suffering and gruesomeness of this scene.

Movies like Saw and Hostel provoke the same reaction; the gore is fuel for the revenge fantasy. Perhaps in the Vietnam sequence the developers are trading on deep-seated American resentment about our dubious engagement in that country, allowing players to enact some measure of payback for our real-life perception of failure. By, you know, dismembering some virtual VC. If so, that's pretty fucking cynical and disrespectful (and aimed at the wrong generation). But I suspect that's reading a little too far into it.

It's the particular focus of these types of sequences that makes me think of them as fetishistic. There are several, and they all take place in close-up and/or slow motion. At one point, you have to swim underwater until you reach a VC patrol boat, yank a guard over the side, and stab him in the neck, keeping him from crying out by holding him under the surface. The careful attention that was clearly paid to ensuring the resultant cloud of blood disperses realistically underwater is far more unsettling than the blood itself. There's an intensity to the display that lacks any meaning other than titillation. This scene in particular has more in common with The Human Centipede than with Full Metal Jacket. Which is a shame, since the latter film used gruesome violence and bodily injury to say some very powerful and complex things. And the former was, well, The Human Centipede.

Verisimilitude, where videogame violence is concerned, is not necessarily a desirable goal. Create a photorealistic world and photorealistic animations, and your mandate then becomes to establish a degree of emotional verisimilitude as well; otherwise the experience is at risk of treading into Michael Bay or Eli Roth territory. The reality is that even for the most hardened veterans, witnessing and causing death are enormously traumatic events whose effects linger for decades, despite the protections of comprehensive training and psychological conditioning. Along with the troops who endure such horrific scenes themselves, I have deep respect for those who provide counseling services to soldiers. That shit will fuck you up. And if it doesn't, something ain't right.

To everyone but a psychopath the act of intentionally causing another person's death is, or should be, troubling at the bare minimum. Yet games like Black Ops continually ask us to behave like psychopaths without any consideration of how doing so implicates us in self-destructive, reductionist attitudes toward actual war. Their visual fidelity is precisely why they should be used not as arcade shooting galleries, which they are at bottom, but as simulators that allow players to experience the incredibly complex and disturbing aspects of combat.

In Black Ops' very last scene, SPOILERS, you finally catch up with the Big Bad Russian Guy after enduring a Fight Club twist you saw coming hours ago. You subdue him, pinning him to a catwalk submerged in water. The game then tells you to push in the analog sticks repeatedly to choke him to death. Here is the revenge fantasy come to fruition: Instead of concluding with a non-interactive cutscene in which you put a bullet in his head once and for all, you need to commit the deed yourself. You are given control of this oddly intimate act of violence. There are no blades, no guns, just your hands around his throat, pure human force. It's the most personal moment in the game, and it's as anticlimactic and emotionally empty as you'd expect. But I doubt that's because Treyarch is making a statement about the emptiness of revenge. Instead, I think it's emotionally empty in the way porn is emotionally empty: It's supposed to be.


  1. This is the culmination of a trend that started with Modern Warfare, if not sooner. With every iteration of this franchise since CoD2, players have had less freedom of movement and faced fewer choices. As scripted as they were, early CoD's and Medal of Honor called for some idea of tactics and skill in using the right weapons in the right situation. But MW exchanged that for scripted moments that would have high impact on an increasingly passive player.

    I don't think these games fetishize death so much as they obsess over spectacle and desperately try to find it in every scenario. Death just happens to be what's most readily at hand. Because there is no game left to occupy the player's attention, there must be ever-more extreme surprises to make an inactive experience seem action-packed.

    Playing as a tunnel rat in Vietnam could be an exciting and terrifying hunt in claustrophobic, confusing darkness, but that might also be difficult. So instead, just put the typical rail-shooting action through a tunnel-shaped hallway. The only way this becomes remotely interesting, however, is if it becomes more grotesque and appalling. If you switch scenes fast enough, the way a Tony Scott movie is edited together, hopefully players will never notice that nothing is really happening, and they are not being engaged.

    This is why the porn analogy is so apt. There is no build-up in the action, and the audience is never given a reason to engage with the action. There are just these sudden shocks, plot twists, and slow-motion deaths. All the rewards of a blockbuster game or TV show with none of the investment. Just out-of-context money shots.

  2. "I don't think these games fetishize death so much as they obsess over spectacle and desperately try to find it in every scenario."

    What's the difference?

  3. I think there is an implied fascination with death when you say these games fetishize it, and I don't think that is the case with these games. They are games about war, and death, and they are always raising the bar for how violent or shocking those moments can be. But death isn't receiving special treatment, I don't think. Everything else is being turned up to 11 as well.

  4. Rob, I'd agree with you about death not receiving special treatment if you're talking about all CoD games as a whole. But Black Ops in particular has a number of scripted sequences in which those "money shots" are presented in explicit detail. You're right that spectacle is a huge factor in these games, but in Black Ops specifically, I didn't find there were a ton of big explosive set pieces or scripted events that did NOT involve close-ups of your guy stabbing an enemy in the neck or otherwise causing his grisly death. For me, anyway, it was noticeably different than Modern Warfare 2, which had a much broader action-movie feel (although was still disturbing in its own way).

    But this is the thing about an action-movie culture like our own: We have no problem with Bruce Willis or Arnold Schwarzenegger murdering literally thousands of men in the course of two hours, as long as we don't see too many of the deaths up close, as long as the bad guys aren't humanized, as long as the star can deliver a pithy one-liner afterward. When you show these murders up close, you run the risk of inadvertently humanizing the enemy. I doubt the makers of CoD games are interested in humanizing anybody, but they've done so regardless.

    Your point about the series catering to an "increasingly passive player" is really resonant. Those scripted money shots are no doubt intended to fulfill the power fantasy in the same way porn is. But ironically, I see them as a mark of disrespect to the player. Their presence (and frequency) assumes we get off on the bloodlust just as much as our avatar apparently does. But the money shot animations are not multiple-step QTEs; they're initiated with one button press, and then we're forced to sit back and watch. So we have some degree of agency, but not much. We're mostly voyeurs.

    It's interesting that although the stealth kills in Riddick operate in much the same way, I never got that feeling. The sci-fi setting and character backstory probably have something to do with that, as well as the fact that your avatar is not an infinitely-regenerating bullet sponge. The goal of the game was not to kill, but to escape; this even overpowered whatever revenge fantasy your Riddick might have harbored against his jailers. The scene where you have to kill Xzibit is anticlimactic for that reason.

  5. What bugs me about all this is how invisible (I'm sure) it is in the imaginations of both the audience and the makers of these games. I'm guessing most of them think this is simply "realism" when it's just as much a Hollywood distortion as anything else in our culture.

  6. It's an interesting viewpoint, though not one I totally share, mostly because I had a different reaction to it. In particular, that tunnel sequence with the VC. Most of the game (like most military-style FPS games in general) you're fighting large-scale, mowing enemies down with little regard for them as people. Scenes like the tunnel and some of the stealth sequences however force you into a much more confined and personal feeling. In the tunnel's case, the grisly death throes and chunks of people that are up close and personal shocked me and hit harder for me; it put me right next to it as if to say "look, war is brutal, people suffer, no one is just a robot that falls over and dies." I never got off on it or said "sick, bro!" but it did make every kill in that tunnel a squeamish one for me... as I believe it should, rather than making me want to fistbump someone or something.

    I do think that perhaps the part when the guy you're hanging on to gets shot in the head could've been handled perhaps a little differently, perhaps with more character interaction beforehand or more of a reaction from your player when it happens to make the death feel like it had more weight to it.

    I will agree that the final "battle" (if you can even call it that) felt hollower than perhaps they intended. It might've been more interesting if he had gotten the drop on you first to initiate some struggle for your life which would have made it feel like it had more weight.

    I think Mortal Kombat, particularly the new one, is much MUCH more of a death porn than Black Ops, however... The x-ray shots, the visceral detail; you just know people are constantly having that "sick, bro!!" reaction you allocate only to CoD. Regardless of whether it's meant to be taken seriously or not, its large selling point is that gore.