Hatred is a game about the wanton slaughter of people fuelled by nothing but pure, well, hatred. Its trailer came out this week, and many people found it to be upsetting, even deplorable. Video games, however, frequently revel in over-the-top violence. So why is everybody talking about this game in particular?
First off, here's the trailer. Fair warning: it's exceedingly graphic and depicts the slaughter of horrified people who scream and plead for their lives. It's not pretty.
It has, of course, received a crazy amount of attention, which makes sense given that its entire announcement campaign smacked of a thinly veiled grab at publicity. "Bring [the trailer] everywhere and let the haters hate! (And they will, oh they will...)," the developers wrote. They proudly trumpeted their alleged lack of "political correctness" or affiliation to art/any kind of message—despite, in doing so, making a very pointed political statement—and generally leaned on how different they thought they were being.
Thing is, they really weren't. This is just a footnote in a book with many, many chapters. The Postal series—which is about killing everybody, aka "going postal"—centres around this exact kind of scenario. Grand Theft Auto can be just like this if you choose to rampage around or merrily skip down the pavement except, you know, in your car. Blood snaking and pooling, innocents scattering and screaming until their lungs cave in. In some ways, it's even worse in GTA, if you think about it. In a world that offers you all sorts of other options—from stunt driving to tennis—you choose to treat (virtual) human lives like ants in a pesky anthill. Which is not to say I think playing that way is wrong. I'm just pointing out how it looks on paper.
The short version? This is not new territory for video games.
Hatred, however, struck a nerve. It's been tweeted about countless times. Its debut trailer is fast approaching a million views. More importantly, a lot of people have decided to draw their line in the sand and say this—not GTA, not Postal or what have you—is too far. This for a game that handles its subject matter with all the subtlety, nuance, and emotional resonance of teenage metal band's first hit single, "Kill Fuck Strangle Scream (ft. DJ I Saw This On TV While My Mom Wasn't Looking)." As Polygon points out, it's limp, wetly-thudding "shock" schlock. It's a barking dog with no teeth.
However, I think the wider reaction to all of this says a lot about how we view violence in video games. Foremost, people like pretences. Grand Theft Auto is often a parody—delivering many of its lines, if not its bullets, with tongue planted firmly in cheek—while Postal is a cartoon, albeit a sometimes tasteless one. Hatred, if nothing else, pretends to do away with all aspirations toward anything except violence fuelled by senseless rage and hate. That is its creators of definition of pure "entertainment." Death and misery.
Point number two is fidelity of the game's graphics/animation and what they're used to achieve. Hatred's trailer lingers. In multiple instances it revels in the moment of the kill as the main character, for instance, sticks the barrel of a gun down a screaming woman's throat and pulls the trigger. It details every element of that, each portion of the struggle, every feeble flail of arms and legs.
Video games have a habit of making violence seem "awesome" or "crazy" and upping realism in pursuit of that, but Hatred doesn't only focus on the "coolness" of the kill. Rather its trailer shifts its gaze slightly to glorify fear—fear instilled in helpless victims, no less—and the power one person can exert over another with it.
That doesn't feel quite so good or palatable. Humans are empathetic creatures. Very few of us enjoy seeing another person beg and plead for their life (some even prefer more abstract enemies like aliens or zombies), but Hatred asks us to feel good about that. Going by the trailer, at least, that's supposed to be part of our reward.
All of this is compounded by context. Hatred's trailer brazenly depicts—among other things—multiple mass murders. Given that a) the number of these sorts of tragedies has tripled in the United States since 2011 and b) people in the gaming industry have recently received threats along these lines, everybody's (rightfully) on-edge. Hatred manipulates that imagery—and tries to claim it's only entertainment and shouldn't be viewed in a negative light—during a time when many are pretty sickened by it. Further, the game uses that to garner attention.
This all actually makes Hatred's juvenile teenage fantasy approach more upsetting to me, not less. As a former angry teenager, I could imagine a more messed up version of myself fantasising about this sort of thing on these terms. Nothing too complicated. Just blind rage. To the right person, this game could make it all seem almost attractive in a tangible, low-stakes way, as opposed to being something you merely imagine to vent pent-up anger. That's not to say I think Hatred or a game like it would make someone want to kill other people. It could make someone feel a bit less revolted by these things, though—even though they are things I think people should absolutely always be revolted by.
Now the usual disclaimer: I DO NOT THINK GAMES CAUSE VIOLENCE. Nor, for that matter, do I think this game should not exist. It has every right to. I'm merely discussing why I think it struck such a nerve and why I find it to be, frankly, pretty gross even though it's almost comedically over-the-top.
That said, full disclosure: I'm of the opinion that a culture where violence is super pervasive does influence us as people (that's unavoidable; humans are, in part, products of their surroundings), but influence does not always equal action. Rather, as I've written extensively in the past, I think it's important for us to constantly self-examine and consider where we draw the line between fiction and fact on a regular basis. We understand ourselves and our hobby better that way, and ultimately we make and do better things as a result. Anyway!
I've now gone through some semi-obvious reasons Hatred is getting under people's skin, mine included. But I think there's something more to it. Now, this is just me speaking from a personal standpoint (because really, as a single human being that's all I can actually do), but I think this also shines a light on how close some entertainment I really love is to being deplorable even to my own sensibilities.
At first I couldn't figure out quite why I was still upset by the things Hatred depicted when I discovered how dumb/schlocky they were, but then I realized that—for me—the game served as a kind of mirror. Because as I said at the start of this article, Hatred really isn't all that different from other games. It only turns a few dials a couple notches further. In other games I have senselessly killed people who couldn't really fight back, laughed and taken great joy as others fled, and done so in contexts only slightly less relevant than, say, a mass murder. I've nearly enacted Hatred in other games. Biggest difference is, Hatred makes it a bit more explicit, both in terms of player objectives and its depiction of them.
Still, my reaction to Hatred made me realise that the line I draw between perfectly entertaining video game violence and upsetting video game violence is increasingly arbitrary. Or if not arbitrary, then rooted in an increasingly specific set of criteria that mainly add up to "too close to home" versus "oh, well that's only an issue over there/away from me personally."
That doesn't make enjoying games that fit that description wrong at all, but interrogating that part of myself—never becoming complacent, especially when it pertains to actual human suffering that takes place all around us—is incredibly important to me.
People frequently discuss the fact that humans are, by and large, able to tell the difference between real life and fiction. It's why video games don't turn us into killers or whatever, obviously. We rarely, however, talk about the process of doing so—that it's not entirely automatic. It's not like breathing. We're not specifically built to do it. We do have to consciously consider this stuff and meter out what goes where in our heads.
There are times when we choose not to think about the media we consume. I worry that my sudden revulsion at Hatred but quiet approval of other games with similar themes means I haven't been thinking enough, or else I would've noticed what actually informs my views on violence in games a lot sooner.
That doesn't mean I'm now not shocked, saddened, and horrified when real world tragedies occur, but I don't want to take them even slightly less seriously as a result of the entertainment I love. I'm worried, then, that I might not have noticed a small change for the worse happening in myself despite that. If nothing else, Hatred provides me (and whoever else might want to) a chance to revisit the process, to think more deeply about these things again. Because separating entertainment and elements of the real world is a process. Because it's necessary and important, at least to me. Dark cloud, meet silver lining.