Each week in Play in Process, Richard Clark shares what he’s been playing and why it means something to him.
When does game violence go too far? It’s a question I had to ask myself while playing the demo for a side-scrolling beat-em-up called “The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile.” In this game, you wake up from a nightmare to find yourself with an arm missing – then you find yourself later with that same arm replaced by a chainsaw. This is when the bloodletting begins. As you fight through level after level, you find yourself destroying enemies repeatedly. For some reason a flying cat follows you around. The game is fun.
But is it worthwhile? Is it corrupting me? Does it dishonor God? Those questions hinge on another question: can explicit videogame violence be done well? Does the very act of making the violence explicit also make it unredeemable? The first thing I thought of was all of those moments in scripture in which horribly violent things happened to people, and were written down for us to read. Clearly God felt that the concept of violence was important, even crucial for us to confront. Still, there’s something different about playing through a representation of violence rather than reading about it passively.
But the truth is, violent exists in God’s world. It happened in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and it happens now. It’s a fact of life – not one to ignore naively, but one to acknowledge and come face to face with. Culture can help us to do that. In the case of Vampire Smile, it allows us to empathize with someone responsible for such violence. This is important, not because we need to excuse what they do or even relate to them directly, but because we need to understand the reality of how fruitless such violence can be. Videogames don’t always do this well, and neither do films. But every now and then, there’s something brilliant, like Vampire Smile. To quote Ryan Kuo at Paste Magazine:
It may be the conditioned response to a decade of games instructing me to furiously “tap button” to release myself from a monster’s grasp—but these repeated button presses underpin the game with a sustained desperation. Battles throw me into the eye of a storm, then leave me feeling empty. Like 99 percent of games, Vampire Smile‘s emotional range is limited to anger and fear. But very few strip away the other emotions so cleanly and ruthlessly, leaving just the two. Aesthetics, of course, are less about style than about the sensuous and imagined. Thus the game is beautiful not for its “art,” but for its trembling, clotted combat.
Vampire Smile does violence right because of the way it causes you to understand the associated emotions: anger & fear. Ugliness. Destruction. Desperation. Emptiness. And unlike other games, it doesn’t try to hide those emotions with false encouragement and motivation. In Vampire Smile, you’re the bad guy, and you feel like one.