The Ryan Lambie column: a history of videogame violence

With Manhunt 2 finally getting a green light for UK release, Ryan ponders the videogaming violence of old.

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

At last, after what feels like years of legal wrangling, Rockstar have finally been granted permission to release the latest instalment in their Manhunt stalk-em-up series, much to the chagrin of the tabloid press.

Of course, violent games are as old as the genre itself – from Space Invaders to Call of Duty 4, killing things has been a videogaming staple since its inception over thirty years ago.

Every few years though, a game is released that sparks panic among parents and media circles alike. It may seem tame by today’s standards, but old-school 2D blaster Operation Wolf got my mother into a full-on hand wringing mode way back in 1988 – it was probably the full sized Uzi 9mm on the arcade cabinet that disturbed her. At any rate, she banned me from playing it – which of course made me want to play it all the more.

Bally Midway upped the violence stakes later the same year with Narc, a bloody (and boring) side-scrolling shooter where you controlled a fascist cop as he machine gunned his way through an army of drug dealers and dishevelled crack addicts. Narc was followed by Mortal Kombat in 1992, an otherwise forgettable beat-em-up that would have long since disappeared without its digitised graphics and now infamous death moves. With the right button combination, you could tear out your opponent’s heart, kick off their head or burn them to a cinder.

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The game sparked a wave of condemnation in newspapers, and gleeful excitement among schoolboys the world over. Midway of course, laughed all the way to the bank, and numerous sequels followed, each more outlandishly violent than the last.

As games technology improves, so does the ability to depict violent situations more realistically. The forthcoming Ninja Gaiden II for the 360 is a good example – judging by the footage on YouTube it will be possible to dismember and eviscerate your opponents in a spectacularly graphic fashion.

But do I really want to play games where killing is so realistic that I feel almost guilty after I’ve shot/stabbed/strangled someone? After a tiring day at work, do I really want to play a game that could give me post-traumatic stress disorder, where my victims beg for mercy or scream in anguish? The answer is no, not really. Personally, I like my games to be a little more detached from reality – and though I love running around shooting things in Unreal Tournament or Resident Evil 4 as much as the next gamer, I begin to feel uncomfortable when games start to become too realistic or grim.

This doesn’t mean that I believe that violent games should be banned or even censored, as long as they’re marketed and sold to an adult audience as 18 rated films are. The sentiment that videogames are somehow corruptors of young minds, a view held by many moral guardians (including our own Prime Minister), is an archaic mindset that assumes that games are still the same blocky bleepy things they were thirty years ago. They’re not – they’re rapidly becoming as artistically and dynamically diverse as literature or film, and their audience is evolving with it.

Manhunt 2 is far too violent and sadistic to be played by children because it’s an adult game. The more pressing issue is, will it actually be any good?

I bought the original Manhunt when it was first released, and was surprised by my own reaction to it – I found it depressing and repetitive, the gameplay boiling down to level after level of sneaking around in the shadows, waiting until some unfortunate chap’s back was turned and then quickly stabbing him with a potato peeler, cake slice or whatever makeshift weapon that came to hand.

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This, I feel, is the problem with a lot of games that enjoy the free publicity that press notoriety brings – without the gore and controversy, we’re left with a pretty mediocre game.

I therefore suggest that there’s a simple solution to the whole violent videogame issue – games can only be bloody and explicitly violent if they’re not rubbish.

Developers that deliberately use gore to hide dull, repetitive gameplay (as Midway did with Narc and Mortal Kombat) would be forced to return to the drawing board until they can come up with something worth playing. If, on the other hand, the game is a great one, as I suspect Ninja Gaiden II may be, then let the bloodletting continue.

To paraphrase a famous quote by Oscar Wilde, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or immoral videogame. Games are well made or badly made. That is all.’

Ryan Lambie writes a new videogames column every Thursday at Den Of Geek. His last one is here