Let’s have a little history lesson here. Do you know how many people were killed by “Charlie” company in My Lai, Vietnam in 1968? Five thousand people? Ten thousand? Maybe more? After all, it’s called the My Lai Massacre, so it’s bound to be a lot of Vietnamese people being killed right there, right? And if anything, videogames tell us what a real massacre looks like. Hours and hours of shooting people in the face. In slow motion. In 3D. In space. Maybe even riding dinosaurs, but that’s taking it a bit far now.
In videogames, the massacre is the preferred mode of transportation. Well, of transportation as in “moving the narrative forward”. Or “giving the player something to do between bits and pieces of story being presented." Overcoming obstacles is a common theme in many narratives. In videogames, those obstacles usually wield assault rifles and crouch behind cover. The truly narrative obstacles are usually scaled by the games’ protagonists in between the glorified shooting galleries.
That is not to say that manshooters are bad or no fun. There are indeed good games that are manshooters, first person or third person shooters that see the player mow down hundreds and thousands of “virtual people” throughout the game, as the main course. The problem with these games is, that we—gamers as a whole—can’t seem to get enough of them. They sell in unprecedented numbers. And the industry can’t stop producing enough of them, because we can’t get enough of them. So instead of making games that offer emotional challenges, meaningful decisions and well rounded characters, we’re getting a slightly more polished versions of previous manshoots, starring a wisecracking team of special ops troopers, gunning down more people in one hour of gameplay than Clint Eastwood in his entire filmography.
There’s that clicking sound, an achievement pops up. “Five Hundred Kills with Pistols!” it tells me. I’ve been playing Max Payne 3—a great looking game about shooting people in the face in slow motion. I just racked up five hundred kills with pistols over the course of the game. I’ve not yet finished the game, and just recently I got my first two hundred kills with rifles award. It’s a game about killing people like flies. At the end of the game, about two thousand virtual people will been killed by my character’s bullets alone. Max Payne 3 is a perpetual massacre, and a good starting point for illustrating all that’s wrong with supposedly mature video games today.
But where do I begin? Max Payne is a series that started in the late 90s, when videogames weren’t as serious a business as they are today. But even back then, the game was special in being extraordinarily brutal. Then again, giving constant nods to John Woo movies and other great action flicks with high body counts (for movies, anyway), it was something those games back then had an easier time getting away with. Springing from this heritage, I find it hard judging Max Payne 3 any different. It’s a game version of ultra violent bullet ballet movies. But…
The problem is that ever since those games in the early 2000s spat their thousands of shell casings across our screens, gaming in general has become ever more like them. A hyper violent videogame like Max Payne 3 isn’t special in its violence any more these days. Sure, there are plentiful little awards the game hands out for shooting people in various body parts. But that’s neither a novelty, nor always well implemented. Lots and lots of people get killed. But again, the ridiculous body count isn’t special, the gunplay and viciousness of the violence too, isn’t special any more these days. In videogame standards, the hyper-violent Max Payne has become the gold standard, so a new game from the franchise will have a hard time upping the ante here. And therein lies the problem.
Max Payne 3 is supposed to be a mature game. I know, 16 year old me would have loved getting his grubby fingers on it. Mostly because it’s an 18 rated game that you’re not supposed to be playing when you’re 16. Now, some years later, I’m hard pressed at finding anything worth my while with games like that, games that have little else going on besides hyper violence that grants them the “Mature Content!” label. This game here, developed by Rockstar, is a game that wears the tons of money it cost on its sleeve. This one was expensive, you can see it in every highly polished polygon, every single slo-mo captured kill. But all that money eventually gives us nothing more but a cheap, quick fix.
And it distorts our perceptions of reality. Max Payne kills about 2000 people during Max Payne 3. Charlie Company? The death toll of the My Lai massacre is contested and not ultimately proven, but the estimates are somewhere between 380 and 500 people. Let us hope and pray that life won’t start imitating art there.