Nuns, guns, empathy

By Failbetter, June 1, 2012 · Tagged with

The ‘Attack of the Saints’ Hitman Absolution trailer: a bit of the old ultraviolence committed at length, with power chords, by 47, against sexy latex nuns, in a glossy, cynical sort of Tarantino pastiche. The blogosphere has presented us with enough outrage, counter-outrage and counter-counter-outrage that you’re probably up on the details, but if not then this is a good, no-nonsense response:

I don’t want to go over the same ground, but I don’t want to sound dismissive, so let me be clear, first: sexualised violence is much nastier than other kinds of violence. Depiction of violence by a man against a woman is more problematic than violence by a woman against a man, given the historical and cultural context. Videogame culture has some notably ugly habits and attitudes around this. Yes, there are worse things in the world, no, most people who watch 47 killing a nun won’t kill women, yes, there are dramatically and artistically justifiable depictions of this kind of violence, yes, there are real arguments about where you draw the line. But the H:A trailer was over that line, and I’m glad people called it out.

(Yasmeen says: yeah, all true, but what’s the point eh? everyone just has the same knee-jerk reactions. But the conversation has moved on over the last few years: the comments sections are less depressing to read than they were, the glib dismissals less successful.)

But the wider context of Hitman.

I love the Hitman games. I have for years. I love their non-linearity, the emergent incidents, the range of unusual environments, the openness of the puzzles, I/O’s feel for symbol and myth, the way their AI has evolved from hopelessly whimsical to plausible and predictable. But I’ve always struggled with the fact that the games are about a man who kills people for money in a glossy way: that it’s a sometimes smart game about a dumb, unpleasant concept.

I have the sense that I/O have struggled with this too, and their engagement with theme and fiction ranges from the innovative through the banal to the incoherent. Hitman does entertaining things with narrative: the repeat-mission-with-a-twist of 2, the flashback structure of Contracts, the unreliable framing narration and credit-sequence climax of Blood Money. The games are literate – generally in the show-offy way of literate video games (here’s a gag about Tosca, here’s a tribute to Le Samouraï) but there is a sense they’ve absorbed and remediated the source material, rather than just riffing off it. But the plot arcs fall apart on examination. The female characters are mostly blow-up dolls, the portrayal of ethnic minorities is stiff with cliche although you get the impression I/O have done some reading, and the only gay characters I can remember are stereotypes or pederasts.

The morality… mostly your mission briefings suggest that you’re murdering people who jolly well deserve it, and they reward you for letting civilians live. This is the uncomplicated excuse of the anti-hero genre. But occasionally it switches into a different gear. In Blood Money you start out by murdering a former fairground owner whose business and marriage are both hopelessly ruined. You’ve been instructed to show him the picture of your employer’s daughter – who his negligence killed – and he gets on his knees and begs for mercy until you kill him. It isn’t a cut-scene – you’re fully complicit in your action (to my mind, Bioshock fumbled a similar scene by taking agency away from you at the crucial moment), and the fact that you choose the method of despatch makes you more complicit still. Hell of a way to start a game where all your other targets run the gamut from ‘unrepentant murderers’ to ‘terrorists’ to ‘child pornographers’.

Mamet said – I paraphrase, it’s somewhere in Bambi vs Godzilla and I don’t have a copy handy – that the key difference between drama that happens to be violent, and simple exploitation is that violent drama demonstrates the consequences of violence. You might have a caveman moment of delight in carnage, but you’re grounded afterwards, and that helps keep your empathy alive. Exploitative violence kills that. Hitman glances at empathy… and then glances away. It does, up to a point, have a sense of choice and consequence. You are never required to kill innocents in a level, and the game lets you set your own moral rules. But the consequence only goes so far. Hitman corpses are literally anaemic things: there’s little blood, there’s mostly the sense that you’ve disabled a mannequin.

It’s a microcosm of the general issue of fiction in action games about killing people, which is to say, even when they’re smart, they’re dumb. This is usually because the core gameplay aligns trivially with the fiction, or the fiction is brutal and desensitising, or both. Bioshock (which I’m dissing twice in two paras, so let me add that Bioshock does lots of great things ) is nominally a game about Ayn Rand but it’s actually a game about choosing whether to set someone on fire or hit them with a spanner. Hitman’s theme and story are nominally about the emotional journey of a man dealing with brutal and desensitising violence, and of our reactions to that. And now and then, more than nominally… but only now and then. This is a rare opportunity for a consonance of story and theme and gameplay, without needing to eschew violence or get preachy, and the opportunity is mostly wasted.

Part of the reason for this is the specific fantasy that the franchise sells. This is not just a fantasy of being invincible and infallibly well-dressed, or of 007-esque foreign travel on an unlimited expense budget, but specifically a fantasy of  emotional inviolability. 47 never exhibits a more extreme response than irritation or urgency or brief surprise: he’s never at a loss for words. Even when he’s confessing his crimes to a priest as part of his (nominal) rehabilitation at the start of the second game, he doesn’t seem terribly bothered about it. That’s the core of the character, and the game simply shies away from anything that would challenge it too closely. A macho distaste for empathy is a particularly adolescent response: video game machismo is one reason action games often feel adolescent. And it’s a core reason why the Hitman games feel smart, but dumb.

Valve, as usual, are smarter than most of us, and they’ve known this a long time. Left 4 Dead promotes emotional engagement through both script and game design- with the characters, with other players  – and the intrinsic and extrinsic stories are stronger for it. Half-Life 2 works hard (not always successfully) to promote empathy with Alyx in particular, and the nameless resistance members you fight alongside in general. And conversely, you never shoot anyone with a face in Half-Life 2. It’s all nonhumans, or masked guards – even Breen’s face is concealed when you finally dispose of him. No-one you might be in danger of humanising. From an ethical point of view, I don’t know if that’s better or worse – that HL2 doesn’t desensitise you to shooting actual people, or that it makes shooting a specifically antiseptic act – but all this is one of the ways that HL2 encourages emotional responses to what could be a sterile shooting gallery. It’s not just a morally appropriate approach – it’s a narratively effective one.

I don’t want to get too grandiose here. Lack of empathy is one of the reasons we start stupid wars; encouraging empathy should be a serious goal of games, of fiction and of art in general; but obviously game designers aren’t going to end war by making macho game protagonists cry. Still, an empathy gap makes it much easier to enjoy the frisson of sexualised violence without remembering that it’s people we’re talking about. More empathy, less misogyny, stronger stories.


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SimpleScripts Jul 20, 6:56pm

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Gordon Jun 17, 11:19am

Building on the Alexis' ideas, maybe the player would first have a brief moment to prepare the coup-de-grâce if she/he is so inclined. After that period, the command would be repeated and the player taunted - which the character would automatically begin to move into position/wind up for a strike. The player can counteract with the controls... button mash to resist, or better yet, use Heavy Rain Trip Addiction torturous sequence (the problem is that it would be confusing and risk breaking immersion with a change in control scheme) Very determined and skilled players can resist for good length of time if they so choose, but ultimately they will fail. They probably should get an achievement and have a logged time of how long they held out so that they can brag about it.

Alexis Jun 12, 11:26pm

Sure, I agree that's a deliberate choice. I think the *execution* is fumbled. The consonance up until that point is so effective because you have the illusion of free will perfectly coincident with the actions you're required to take. At the moment they could have made that most effectively consonant, they sacrifice agency and complicity for designer direction. Imagine if they'd imposed health damage every second you didn't hit him; or frozen every function but the fire button; or made every key press activate the fire function; or just left you alone in the room with nothing to do but beat the man to death. Instead they resorted to an in-engine first-person cut-scene. At the crucial moment, they didn't trust the player to make their own experience.

Dan Whitehead Jun 12, 9:16pm

"It isn't a cut-scene - you're fully complicit in your action (to my mind, Bioshock fumbled a similar scene by taking agency away from you at the crucial moment)" I always thought that was a deliberate choice on Irrational's part. In a game that is all about manipulation and the illusion of free will in games, to have that be the one moment where you [i]can't[/i] interact, right on the heels of [i]that[/i] revelation, is too symbolically perfect for it to be a fumble.