*WARNING: The below trailer is very violent and incredibly bad and possibly contains trigger visuals!
There are two ways to look at this, let’s start with the one that has been seldom done by observers, the technical merits. The video game itself is like some death metal power fantasy with zero sense of irony or humour. The nameless protagonist in the video has a little soliloquy where he talks about how he hates everyone and everything and wants to die violently and how his “genocide crusade begins here” upon walking out in to the street and opening fire on innocents simply taking the bus to or from a hard day at the office. Technically, the animation is serviceable and the use of colour is actually interesting. Primarily in black and white accents of colour are used to make environments pop. There is not enough to provide you with a gameplay context so this could mean “targets are in here” or this could be an art direction decision to layer an edginess on to the game. Frankly, in listening to the developers, I doubt there was much thought put in to it. Much like the people complaining about the colour palette of Diablo III it was probably along the lines of “dark is cool!”
The animation itself is amateurish, the Unreal 4 engine is the latest engine designed by Epic Games and looks like it will end up being the de facto industry standard of the start of this generation much like its predecessors dominated prior generations, despite this raw horsepower the animation looked cheap with hair obscuring much of the facial features of the protagonist. In the opening scene he starts piling ammunition and weapons in to his coat though oddly all in to the same pocket. Either he has a bag of holding for a left coat pocket or the animators and developers simply lazy (I’m thinking it’s probably the latter). For the record he places, apparently in the same pocket, a 9 mm pistol, two hand grenades, a banana clip for an automatic rifle and a giant bowie knife. We then cut to a third person isometric view of ultra-violence that would have got Alex from A Clockwork Orange all ready for the old in out in out. We have cut scenes with varying degrees of brutality involving pistols, shotguns, and multiple scenes of stabbing again and again and again. The thing is, they are all pretty much the same. There’s little variation and there’s not a lot of technical elegance to it.
From a purely mechanical and dispassionate sense, this game is a piece of garbage shovelware. The concept itself is hardly original with the Postal games pretty much hewing this path years ago (more on this later) and given the raw power available with this engine Polish developer Destructive Creations (a name I suspect that is a sad attempt at wit) don’t provide us with anything at all inspiring. The artistic direction is that of a 13 year old death metal fan’s binder art work, the omnipresent trench coat mafia style and greasy locks are the shorthand uniform for a type of metal fan that is pretty much considered antisocial and the dialogue (what little there is) serves as nothing more than something to fill the background as the cheap animations go through the motions of loading up that massive left pocket. Based on technical merits alone this game should be stuck on a shelf and left to gather dust like its predecessors.
There are two points of discussion, one we would ideally not even be having to discuss, the first is the obvious violence in video games and context. The second, which ideally we wouldn’t even have to discuss, is the creators and their artistic intent. The game and the trailer itself is so devoid of meaningful narrative if left on its own I would assume it was actually commentary on the nature of video games and in that context I would have pegged it as being a very smart counter argument (pointing to the illness hidden in the violent gameplay mechanic) but sadly the developers opened their mouths and that went out the window.
To address violence in video games, we are going to first have to contextualize it by looking at the second point, the developers. The developer is as I mentioned Polish based company Destructive Creations and their main face is Jaroslaw Zielinski. He has stated that the “intent” of the game is to strip away the politically correct world of video games being dictated by “SJWs” and “video game aesthetic trends such as political correctness, politeness, vivid color, and games as art.” He goes on to explain in interviews “By the game? That we should not bend under political correctness propaganda which we can see everywhere right now. We live in the free world, with freedom of speech and artistic expression and we should use it in any way we want, otherwise we'll be falling under SJWs [Social Justice Warriors] regime. Some reactions for this trailer are a great example of this. Fortunately there are many people who understand us and are standing on our side.”
Zielinski is creating a meta-narrative that the “SJWs” are ruining video games but his premise just makes no sense. What he and his company gives us is something that simply makes the point of his opponents for him. This is nothing more than a disturbing murder simulator with zero redeeming qualities (I say this based on the only interaction anyone has had with it yet which is via the trailer). I’ve used the reference of a 13 year old metal head’s binder art already and let me elaborate. I know many metal fans, most of them are intelligent, kind and eloquent individuals. Music is no more of a defining factor for them than it is for anyone else but we all remember in high school there was the one sad misanthrope generally a male sitting in the corner with his obscure Norwegian death metal band t-shirt and scribbling on his binder. We all have that phase and most of us grow out of it (I bore a lot of resemblance to that person but my t-shirt was a Sisters of Mercy t-shirt). These individuals appear to have been somehow frozen in that state of not being able to play well with others and lacking an appropriate social output.
Much has been said about the team being “Neo-Nazis” the actual evidence on this is pretty sparse. The one connection that can be made is Zielinski has friended Polska Liga Obrony on Facebook (Polska Liga Obrony is also known as the Polish Defence League). His excuse is he “doesn’t have time to follow the news” and as such saw many of their articles and liked them so he could get his news on his wall because they appeared “unbiased”. This is the only solid connection to a hate group, a Facebook like, but the excuse is pretty telling.
Now, the Polska Liga Obrony started as a force during the push against Communist Russian domination of Poland but after the Polish revolution and the Solidarity movement an aspect of the group (a Polish first element) started to be the main thrust of the organization. To call them Neo-Nazi displays an incredible lack of understanding of both the National Socialist movement and the nature of European politics. This kind of gross over simplification common among many is actually dangerous, in many ways more dangerous than Neo-Nazis themselves as it creates a situation where complex issues are over simplified and reduced to quick buzzwords without addressing the underlying social problems.
As I mentioned Polska Liga Obrony were in many ways hailed as heroes coming out of the Polish Revolution of 1989 Poland was still a nation divided. Part of Communist Russian dogma was inserting individuals in to an area to enforce diversification and dilute the cultural identity of a region. We see China continuing this practice today in Tibet and many other troubled ethnic regions by inserting ethnic Han Chinese in to these regions transforming the native population into a minority population in their own home nation (as well as forcing relocation on many of these natives). Poland suffered a diaspora that for many they felt was the death of their culture. Polska Liga Obrony pushed an anti-immigrant propaganda message in general focusing on Muslims in specific. They are documented cases of them attacking people on the streets especially when young immigrant club goers are in the company of “Polish women”.
In short, Zielinski may not be a Neo-Nazi but he is certainly an idiot. He feigns ignorance of the party’s political agenda but to be ignorant of its agenda in your home nation is like being ignorant of the Parti Quebecois or the Tea Party movement’s agendas. It displays a lack of awareness, nuance or even basic common sense that calls in to question every intellectual decision you made. To then rely on them as a source of news is taking that one step further, beyond ignorance it displays a lack of judgment and a clear impairment when it comes to critical thought. These are the individuals who are critiquing “SJWs” and “Political Correctness” and if their scope of vision is a few video game blogs and groups that have been identified as hate groups then that calls in to question the very foundation that thesis is built on.
Now, we have the context regarding the creators, let’s look at the actual message they are preaching from their blood soaked pulpit. Historically the game appears to essentially be a twin stick shooters, this is a bloody version of Robotron (with even less plot). There have been other ultra-violent games in the past that are even closer like Smash TV. These ultra-violent blood sports were over the top but in a way similar to Verhoeven’s Robocop or Starship Troopers. It was a piece of structured satire and its true message was anti-violence.
We have games like Doom, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty, GTA, and so on which all base the essence of their gameplay around a central conceit which is to kill. Even artistic darlings like The Last Of Us and the Bioshock series at their core are based around acts of unspeakable violence. No list of examples would be complete without including the two black sheep of the video game world Postal, Postal 2 and Postal III. An obvious play on the term “going Postal” referring to a spate of gun violence in American postal centres at the hands of displeased employees these games are lowest common denominator shooters. The mechanics are almost identical to this game with the same “anti-PC” agenda. There is little to no narrative and it is simply violence for the sake of violence and after the initial shock wore off these games were tossed away because, essentially, they were no fun.
Bringing up Postal though helps bring up the point to the point this is not exclusive to the realm of video games “film maker” Uwe Bolle (and if you wonder why I put that in quotes go watch ANY of his movies) made a movie of the video game that is simply a series of increasingly offensive stereotypes set to hyper-violence in what passes in his mind as satire. He is not the first though artistically we have examples going back centuries, look at Macbeth and Hamlet, the body count in those two works is astounding, in more contemporary literature we have The Catcher in the Rye, A Clockwork Orange, American Psycho and Fight Club which all have central characters draped in misanthropic and violent psychopathic behavior. Three of these made it to film and as a visual medium cinema and television are not alone in their representation, we have the Punisher comic the Alpha and the Omega of violent misanthropic behaviour, we have songs like Butterfly by Screaming Trees which is a point of view story from the mind of a predator and the video’s haunting imagery is hard to shake decades later. All of these games and narrative experiences have one thing in common, fantasy.
Video games are unique in their interactive nature, film, literature and music as acts of catharsis are much more identifiable due to their relative distance from the observer. Video games due to their interactive nature though generate a much more palpable result. Studies have shown that exposure to violent video games create an uptick in aggressive thoughts by players (though no correlation tying video games to actual outbursts of violence and it is hypothesized that it may in fact lead to a down swing in violent behavior as it serves as an “outlet” for such tendencies much like sport which operates as an outlet for many others). For an older generation though, one less fluent in the language of video games this becomes disconcerting especially given our post-Columbine culture.
So, where does this leave us? The difference between Hatred, Postal, Postal 2 and Postal III and the rest of the video game landscape (for the most part) is that of a point of entry and context. Hatred and its ilk are examples of ultra-violence fueled by a feeling of impotence. This impotence could be sexual, it could be a matter of franchise, socio-political disenfranchisement or it could simply be the moral breakdown of individuals so unable to communicate with other people they are seeking a way to act out their misanthropic power fantasies. Stabbing (an act displayed multiple times graphically in the trailer for Hatred) is often considered by psychologists and criminal behaviourists to be associated with impotence. Watching this game trailer it very much feels like this is an avatar for the developers or players and it makes me think basically they want their own Falling Down without realizing that Michael Douglas was an object of pity.
The other side of video games equally if not more violent has one key difference. Point of entry, even in games where you play as the “silent protagonist” like Half-Life the games evolved in to a world where you see people displaying genuine emotions. Modern games try and impart consequence and feeling not as some sort of moral lesson on how to be a good little cog in society’s clockwork but as a part of good story telling. The reason why these games like Mass Effect where your every word has an impact, Bioshock where you forge bonds with children, or Assassin’s Creed where you are fighting for some kind of ideal society work is they give the person something to strive for. Sure they are having to commit violent acts but they HAVE to, either out of a necessity for survival or out of a greater good. Other forms of fiction have, by their nature, allowed nuance to enter in to the equation either in the form of written or visual signals. It’s only recently that technology has allowed video games to reach this level of parity with other forms of communication. What Destructive Creations see as “PC interference” is actually an evolution of gaming towards more complexity and diversity.
There are outliers, an example would be the exceptional Uncharted series. This is a series that is very much like an Indiana Jones adaptation, the problem is this charming rogue of a character Nathan Drake feels like a homicidal sociopath. The disconnect between action and result when he does something like break a neck of an enemy is jarring, other games like the updated Tomb Raider game have taken moves to address this. Lara Croft is driven to acts of violence to save herself and her friends and the reaction upon her first kill is jarring, she is broken by the experience which they are looking to explore in the upcoming sequel where she is clearly suffering from PTSD. This is very much a young medium finding its voice and establishing the modes of communication in what is essentially the wild west era of its development.
We live in a world where unspeakable acts happen on a daily basis, in my country yesterday a man acted in a manner that shocked the nation. We could point fingers and try to assign blame but we as a nation appear (so far) to be pulling together and looking at the man’s true problems, disenfranchisement, addiction, and poverty which are all forms of social impotence leading to a violent and ultimately deadly outburst. Columbine was a similar act, as was Aurora, Sandy Hook, the murder of Lee Rigby, the Akihabara massacre as well as a thousand other similar events. Games like Hatred are a symptom, and by focusing on the symptom we only make the disease worse by leaving the underlying social ills untreated but if we ignore it, let it stand on its merit artistically or in the case of other aspects of the gaming community logically, it will fade away becoming nothing but a footnote. Let us not focus on Hatred but focus instead on making a world where Hatred ceases to be relevant.