Yesterday, Sony Europe stared the world’s comfort levels straight in the eye and refused to blink. At Paris Games Week, Playstation’s keynote conference showcased a strong 2018 line-up. Among the new reveals were Spelunky 2, fantasy adventure Oure and Guacamelee 2. It was a good time.
The atmosphere turned sour, however, when the latest trailer for David Cage’s Detroit: Become Human was shown. Without content warning, distressing scenes of domestic abuse were deployed to demonstrate the games’ choice mechanic. It was uncomfortable to say the least.
And this made me uneasy. It cultivated mixed feelings of anxiety and frustration as I tried to reconcile games’ ability and responsibility to deal with heavy subject matter with the gruesomeness of using painful, real experiences to flog a game.
These feelings became crystalline by the time the keynote had closed. By the time the trailer had played for the highly anticipated The Last Of Us 2.
If you’ve seen the trailer, or just watched it above, I’d be shocked to see if you weren’t wincing. The moment where that young woman was held down and had her elbow shattered by a blunt weapon is hugely unsettling. And yet, yesterday, at five o’clock in the afternoon, sitting in the university library, I watched and grimaced.
I watched the stream on Youtube. The content was age-gated due to Youtube’s user parameters but it wasn’t on Twitter. Anyone, regardless of their history with violence, regardless of whether they just wanted to see if the Shadow Of The Colossus remake looked good, bore witness to this.
And herein lies the importance of content warnings. Generally speaking, if you feel as if content warnings baby audiences because ‘real-life doesn’t give you content warnings’, it’s probably because there’s very little video game content that will trigger any traumatic memories or anxieties for you.
Empathy is everything and a failure to understand why watching a young girl being beaten by her abusive father in Detroit or a teenager being held down by grown men violently in The Last Of Us 2 should come with a pre-warning in the stream shows a worryingly lack of empathy for victims of these crimes.
Violence, violence, violence
I want to make one thing perfectly clear: the issue with the Last Of Us 2 trailer isn’t the hyper-brutalised violence. It’s the fact that it is an advert for a product and violence is the hook.
The debate for whether violent video games are damaging was on its last legs 20 years ago. The reason I bring it up now is because people on my Twitter timeline believe that the backlash against this trailer is based on the same grounds as that antiquated video game violence debate. It is not.
Playstation are trying to sell a thing. Prior to the trailer’s debut, global boss of sales and marketing, Jim Ryan described 2017 as “the greatest time to be a gamer”. This led promptly into the hyped trailer a young women was nearly beaten to death.
Now, I get it. The Last Of Us is a violent world. I also get that trailer for the original game featured even more grotesque violence with a man getting his face shredded off by a shotgun blast. However, that trailer was given plot context. It showed Ellie and Joel fending off raiders and climaxed in a gory and stake-raising attack.
This trailer gave significantly less context than that. And that’s why it sucks.
Most of us are familiar with the game-world, granted. But this trailer is meant to curry favour with the consumer to jump on the pre-order wagon. It doesn’t speak well of Sony’s marketing strategy that brutal violence against, namely, women is what the (capital-G) Gamers want. Or, rather, the experiences that they’re willing to part their cash for.
It suggests that hyper-realistic violence is the pinnacle of gaming achievement. That video games at their best are high-fidelity murder simulators played by those that prioritise the needs of a part-autonomous story over the feelings of real life people. It’s also empowering to the toxic members of the gaming community that revel in their hatred for women.
I base this on defences I’ve seen of the trailer that centre on: “if the story demands that level of violence, then deal with it”. Which reiterates the GamerGate rhetoric of equating critiquing games and challenging their norms with ruining the product. It’s a consumer-based argument and Sony seem totally fine with appeasing that demographic.
On top of that, this game comes from a developer that recently published maybe the worst apology in corporate history when an ex-employee spoke out about being sexually harassed and Naughty Dog’s ineptitude in handling the situation.
This is why context is important. When we play the finished game, that violent scene will probably be as uncomfortable but given wider context within the plot. It’ll be affecting because we know those characters, not because Sony want us to sell us their product.
Until AAA developers and publishers start acknowledging that not all content is privy to marketing hooks, video games’ reputation for insensitivity will continue to prevail.