The debate on violence in games is nothing new to gamers, and there’s been no shortage of attacks against the industry over the years. Many titles have been used as scapegoats in various incidents, and the ban hammer has come down hard on some games in various countries due to excessive violence or some form of other, unsavoury content – at least according to censors.
This has all been talked about to the Nth degree, including here on the the site, and no matter how many people get involved in the debate, it’ll rage on for a lot longer. So we’re not going to dwell on the whole subject here again. Instead, we want to consider the simple, back to basics gore. No sex, no drugs, no political agenda. Roll it back to some good old-fashion ultra violence and gore.
You’ve got red on you
Ever since games arrived in arcades and the living rooms of the masses, it’s been a form of entertainment that’s been met with confrontation, especially after violent games hit the market. The simplistic Death Race in 1976 was as basic as it gets, but it depicted cars, controlled by the player, running over people. Granted, these were crude stick figures, but it was a kind of gore, like none that had been seen before, in that innocent people were squashed under the player’s wheels. It was enough to cause concern, and this was only a bunch of white pixels. Little did people know at the time that this was going to get much more detailed, and much more realistic.
Time moved on, and a whole cavalcade of gruesome games hit the market. That Atari 2600 was one of the earliest platforms used to cater for those looking for a more violent diversion, and despite the limited hardware capabilities of the system, it had some surprisingly gory titles. The movie tie-in for Halloween, for example, saw Michael Myers stabbing and beheading children in a rather gruesome way, and although not as graphically violent, the game of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre put players in control of Leatherface, with the goal of killing people with his trademark wood-cutter.
Later examples of this early era of gore followed, with one of the most controversial being the first Splatterhouse title, which arrived in the arcade in 1988, and was released on consoles later on in different guises, such as the Mega Drive’s Splatterhouse 2. These were simple horror-themed side scrollers, with an emphasis on violence and gore in order to provide shock value, such as taking a chainsaw to demonic babies. Cute.
Home computers of the time were also breeding grounds for gory games, especially as most were seen as a more adult platform. Here we saw games like Moonstone: A Hard Day’s Knight, and Personal Nightmare emerge, as well as other horror titles like the Elvira adventures. Of course, let’s not forget the classic Palace Software Barbarian, which was the first time many of us got to decapitate our foes with a well-timed spinning sword attack. This also graces the less powerful systems like the C64 and Speccy.
Since these early examples, games have come on in leaps and bounds in terms of technology, and some developers used this to help make violent games more and more gruesome. Surely the most famous example of all time has to be Mortal Kombat. Released in 1992 in arcades, and then on numerous home consoles, the key distinguishing feature of the game was the real-life, motion captured FMV combatants performing all sorts of gruesome finishing moves, or fatalities, on each other.
This gore-fuelled feature largely overshadowed the gameplay itself, which was nowhere near the level of main competitor, Street Fighter II. The game quickly became a major talking point, so much so that it was responsible for the formation of the ERSB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board). Never before had people seen such graphic and gruesome violence in a game, with Sub-Zero’s infamous spinal decapitation taking centre stage.
The use of digitised actors as sprites only made the furore worse, with the gratuitous amounts of blood spraying all over being the icing on the cake. Midway even had to hide the gore away behind a cheat code on the Genesis, and the SNES version omitted the gore totally.
Looking back at it now, you realise how primitive is was, but there’s no denying the shock-value, and it was this that made the game such a big seller. Midway knew that controversy sells, and Mortal Kombat was about as controversial as they came back then. Would Mortal Kombat have been such a big hit, turning into the long-running franchise it’s become without this gimmick? Possibly not.
Mortal Kombat‘s debut was only the beginning, and the series would continue to grow and evolve, and this included the gore. Each iteration has delivered increasingly more gory fatalities, brutalities and more, leading us to the most recent release, Mortal Kombat X. We’ll come back to this later, but first, there are other games that arrived during Mortal Kombat‘s evolution, games that took gore and violence in different directions.
Doomed and hunted
Another big poster child for gore was 1994’s PC hit, Doom from id software. The daddy of the modern day FPS, along with stable-mate Wolfenstein, Doomwas about tackling the forces of hell with an assortment of guns, explosives and the game’s infamous chainsaw. This lead to a lot of onscreen blood and guts flying around, especially with the latter weapon. You could even become super-powered, able to punch your foes so hard they exploded in a shower of giblets. Nice.
Another of the most notable examples is Rockstar’s 2003 release, Manhunt. More disturbingly violent than gory, Manhunt still had its fair share of over the top gore, such as stabbing enemies in the eyes with shard of glass, or brutally beheading them with a meat cleaver. This was all ‘filmed’ in a gritty, snuff-movie style, with subject matter, and alleged real-life impact that made the game one of the most controversial ever released.
These games had a reason for the gore and violence, with clear motivations for the central characters and their violent behaviour. Other games didn’t really care about this trifling detail, including another gruesome game, Postal, and perhaps more fittingly here, Postal 2.
This was a game where a simple trip to the shops to buy milk turned into a sandbox rampage. There was no rhyme or reason, just violence for the sake of it, and some gory violence at that. Innocents could be decapitated, dismembered, set on fire, and generally reduced to mulch (not to mention urinated on). It was all fairly crude visually, but nonetheless gory. Other FPS titles from the time used a similar style of gore. Soldier Of Fortune, Blood 2, Kingpin, and many more all featured chunky gibs. It wasn’t limited to on-foot carnage either, as Carmageddon, the natural evolution of Death Race (the idea came from the same movie) saw players once again run over pedestrians, this time in full 3D, with gratuitous amounts of blood.
Another genre that embraced gruesome visuals was survival horror. Made a major success by Capcom’s Resident Evil, this usually wasn’t as devoid of taste as many FPS titles that threw in gore for the kicks. Here gory content was used in a more fitting way. Resident Evil‘s gore went hand-in-hand with the zombiefied setting, and games like Silent Hill produced novel takes on gruesome gameplay, with its surreal and disturbing character designs. The horror setting warranted the use of gore, and the atmosphere and design made it all the more effective too.
The mid-2000s saw the Xbox and PS2 dominate the world of gaming, and both consoles were aimed at the more mature gamer, resulting in some fairly violent, and often gory games. Two prime examples included Marvel title, The Punisher, and Sony’s God Of War. Both were very violent, and both had their fair share of pretty heavy gore. The Punisher’s brutal environmental and interrogation kills were pretty graphic, and many of us are very familiar with Kratos’ hands-on approach to tackling his enemies. Both were also fine example of a more realistic, and detailed depiction of gore, with The Punisher having to be censored just to make its 18 rating.
After a few years of gradual technological improvements, gore in games seemed to go backwards in terms of visuals, with many games using more stylised violence, instead of attempting to go for a realistic approach. Titles like The Wii’s Mad World, for example, took ultra-violence and gore in a different direction, using the monochrome world to highlight the gallons of blood, and even more artsy games like Killer7 made OTT violence and gore more palatable by using highly refined artistic techniques. This fusion of real and cartoon violence was seen all over, including games like No More Heroes and the ludicrous kills of Bulletstorm.
That’s not to say that increasingly detailed gore was gone, and stopped evolving. Titles like Gears Of War and Dead Space kept piling on the technically superior level of blood and body parts, and both The Elder Scrolls and Fallout had their fair share of gruesome kills, especially Fallout, with it’s slo-mo VATS deaths.
This leads us up to the more recent consoles, and back to Mortal Kombat. As I mentioned earlier, the latest Mortal Kombat, MKX, is without a doubt the most gruesome of the lot, possibly the most gruesome game ever made. The fatalities here are disgusting, with disembowelments, decapitations, dismemberments, face-slicing, and whole bodies ripped and sawn in two, lengthways. This is all delivered using a detailed, and very gruesome level of graphical fidelity, as well as often disturbing and lifelike animations, screams and gurgles.
Even if you’ve become increasingly desensitized to video game gore, Mortal Kombat X may still shock you a little.
This is obviously all part of Mortal Kombat‘s style, and it’s to be expected. If you sit down to play Mortal Kombat and are shocked at the fatalities and the level of violence it contains, you’re clearly not familiar with the series.
That said, with the graphical technology now available, which allows for the kind of detail we see in MKX, the question should be asked, have things gone too far? Has the technology behind games gotten so good, and detail so realistic that we have to step back and question how far games should go?
When graphics were more basic, and far less lifelike, gore in games wasn’t a real issue, at least for most. Just as we don’t panic about cartoons like Tom and Jerry or Roadrunner, which are fantastically violent at times, games with clearly artificial characters and crude depictions of blood and gore were easy to distance ourselves from. It was just a game, it looked like a game, and it wasn’t real.
As games get more lifelike, however, with characters that look far more realistic and technology able to render gore in much more intricate detail, this isn’t so easy. It’s harder to watch violent acts, such as Ermac’s stomach extraction, or Kung Lao’s buzzsaw split, as people in the game look and react in a far more real manner, and the results are much more horrific as a result. Some levels of detail really do make you feel uncomfortable, like the way people’s eyes roll back and become lifeless, and expressions droop when their face is sliced off, or the way half of a brain slops out of the head cavity while the remnants of the victims tongue flops around. Many will end up feeling more than a little queasy, and I’ve no doubt plenty will find it offensive.
Does this mean that developers, with this ability to render such lifelike violence and gore should stop, though? No, I don’t think so, but I do think more care now needs to be used. Mortal Kombat X is pushing the proverbial envelope, but as gruesome as it is, it’s still done with some care, and the fatalities are still very OTT and borderline cartoonish in design, so much so that you can still dismiss it as silly, ridiculous fun.
If, however, a developer was to really try, the technology now exists to produce a gory game that could really unsettle people, and it’s here where the issue lies, and where real restraint need to be used. It would be very easy to create very lifelike acts of barbarism, so much so that it could be very disturbing, perhaps even mentally scarring. Imagine a game like Manhunt running with today’s tech, and all the realistic animation, motion capture, and gore. It could be truly nasty.
We’ve all been unlucky enough to see horrible images in our news feeds on social media, or by stumbling upon some horrible websites, and we all know that feeling when you can’t shake a stomach-churning image from your mind. Imagine this image, but as a result of your own actions. It would be far worse, and for some, could be too much, especially for younger players.
Age ratings have always been important, with them being even more so now, and with graphics attaining such realism, and such high levels of detail, it’s very important for these to be adhered to, so good parenting, and responsible sales staff are paramount.
It’s your choice
For consenting adults, however, it’s all about personal taste, and what you find acceptable. As with the larger debate on general violence in games, and with anything else that elicits a divisive response, you have to remember that no one is forcing you to play these gory games. If you’re squeamish, or dislike overly violent titles, you really shouldn’t be playing Mortal Kombat or its ilk. If your favourite movies are titles like Final Destination or a Saw sequel, then games like this aren’t really going to phase you. It’s each to their own, and no one really has the right to say what other people should or shouldn’t find acceptable.
Still, there is an argument for taste, and some would say that developers have a responsibility to adhere to some form of guidance concerning this, and shouldn’t simply make games gory and disturbing for the sake of it, or to reap easy publicity and controversy-lead sales. As much as I value free speech and always accept other people’s views and tastes, I do think that there needs to be some level of control over violence and gore in games. Titles that pile on the gore for no real reason other than to provoke controversy, or for simple shock value are not really doing the industry, or our favourite pastime any favours.
Someone who watches a straight to DVD, badly-acted gore fest as their first horror movie experience isn’t going likely to warm to the genre, but a well-produced horror movie with this content used in the right way will probably prompt a more favourable response. It’s the same with games, and in the interest of advancing the medium, and further straightening it, decorum and tasteful design should be high priorities, even when gore is required.
Of course, that’s just one opinion, and it would be interesting to see what you think. Share your thoughts in the comments…