“I have seen too many frightful proofs in court—the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!” – Reverend Hale, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible
I sat perched on the balcony, surveying the grand, vacant palace lobby below. While crystalline chandeliers reflected the glint of dazzling white light throughout, I backed into the shadows. From my vantage point I could see the palace guards patrolling the corridors, guarding all entrances and exits. All that is, but the ventilation shaft I’d just crept through.
Orders were shouted back and forth: get ready, he’s coming.
It really didn’t matter if they knew I was coming or not. I can teleport long distances and had decided that digital representations of life meant nothing to me.
They were expecting me, but they were not expecting this.
A moment came, when a single guard remained in the room. The unlucky one, or at least the first of several. I targeted my destination, directly in front of his watchful eyes. They flared in surprise as I hurtled myself through space and appeared, as if out of nowhere. Surprise was replaced by horror as my blade flashed through his neck, tearing flesh and sinew. Before either of us knew it, a body lay crumpled at my feet.
He was the first of many to fall that night. Vigilance. Surprise. Death. Those expressions passed across the faces of all that I transported from this life to the next.
Did they deserve to be killed without mercy?
No, but killing was faster and easier than incapacitating.
I felt disappointed when I reached the end of Dishonored and it told me that because of the violence of my actions, others would continue to pay the price. If only I’d killed fewer men, I might have received the “good ending.”
No way, I spared far more than needed! I only started killing during the tough parts! (Denial)
This game is ridiculous. I bet the creators are trying to make some ridiculous cliche point about human nature. (Anger)
I only killed to save time. If I wasn’t just renting this game I totally would have tried harder for the good ending! (Bargaining)
Whatever. I don’t even care. (Depression)
Hey, at least the game was fun to play. (Acceptance)
I was through the grieving process in a matter of minutes, I had accepted my fate. There was nothing I could have done to reach another conclusion. If I’d had more time to play the game perhaps, but in reality, too many factors were working against me.
I had earned the bad ending. But I had found a way to shift the blame.
There is a psychological condition called “learned helplessness.” It was demonstrated in the sixties, in experiments with dogs. One group of dogs was given painful shocks, with a way of making the shocks stop. The other group was given painful shocks without any way to stop them.
In phase two, both sets were placed on a floor that delivered more of these regular, painful shocks. This time both groups could escape by jumping over a low wall. The first group quickly made their exit, leaping the wall handily. The second group lay down whimpering, resigning themselves to their fate.
Another week another game.
The game is Hotline Miami and I have a birds-eye-view of a brutal hit-man running through buildings, leaving a trail of blood and dismembered limbs in his wake. Slice. Boom. Whack. Blam-blam-blam. Crack. Whatever tool catches my eye turns into a tool of death. The faceless mobsters that my mysterious masked man has been sent to deal with are quickly turned into fleshy lumps, coagulating pulp.
This game is brutal. This game is fun. This game does not give me a “bad ending” for having fun and being brutal.
I like this game. But why? If I take a step back, I notice the blood, the heartlessness.
Perhaps it has something to do with the “aestheticization of violence,” a phenomenon in popular culture which has not merely desensitized us to brutal and graphic violence, but has actually made us see it as beautiful.
Xavier Morales once explained this well in his review of Kill Bill, where he said “Intellectually, we should be horrified by what we see. But the violence is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have.”
By the time I finished Hotline Miami I was so caught up in the beauty of the power-trip that I had nearly forgotten a question the game asked me early on.
“Do you like hurting people?”
The truth is, I do.
Maybe the aestheticization of violence in not simply a cultural issue, but a broader human one. After all, we’ve found ways to make sport out of violence for quite some time now.
True, it’s not all bad, but some of the things we’ve done, some of the things we still allow in the world, are very, very bad.
Though many of us have learned to see violence as beautiful, perhaps we might re-learn to let it move us. And though many of us have learned to live helplessly, recognizing problems while denying our ability to do anything about them, perhaps we could somehow re-learn responsibility.
Let us trace the pointing of the accusing finger. Let us find the demons where they lie.
“A fire, a fire is burning! I hear the boot of Lucifer, I see his filthy face! And it is my face, and yours, Danforth! For them that quail to bring men out of ignorance, as I have quailed, and as you quail now when you know in all your black hearts that this be fraud—God damns our kind especially, and we will burn, we will burn together!” — John Proctor, The Crucible