Violence in video games may be as old as video games themselves, especially since few games have been as influential as Doom (1993) and its aesthetic. The game’s muscular, ultraviolent protagonist, commonly known as 'Doomguy', is illustrative of the hypermasculine action hero of American cinema. Doomguy utters only a short, raspy grunt when the demonic monsters rip into his flesh, whereas he smirks while indulging in violence, and flashes an even wider grin upon obtaining a new instrument of death.
But besides his enthusiasm for violence and weapons, Doomguy shows very little emotion. He’s either incapable or unwilling to talk, and instead expresses himself through action: that is, killing.
Killing is what Doomguy does best, or rather, that’s the only thing he does. Each shootout ends in a bloody mess, because even his weakest weapon, the pistol, is capable of tearing enemies to pieces. But the gruesomeness of violence becomes muted by the sheer amount of it. Otherworldly monsters and zombified soldiers come in droves. The player must zig-zag between them to take out the most threatening enemies first. The large open spaces reshape the encounters to be about movement and positioning, while the varied room layouts force the player to take advantage of the large selection of weaponry.
The spectacle of gore fades into the background to give room for the kinetic engagement of moving and shooting. Yet, by tying character feedback – that is, Doomguy’s gruff demeanor and constant grinning – to player skill, the game transforms violence into expression of macho dominance. It’s either kill or be killed, but not to the end of survival, not solely, but to perform the massacre in a stylish manner, to the sound of metal music.
However, Doom’s core qualities do not transcend the typical aesthetics of the macho protagonist and the masculine traditions of metal music.
Doom presents the game-world’s inhabitants as obstacles to overcome. It’s a scenario that emphasises performance. Doom’s player character is an indestructible force who can fend off multiple attacks, and just as easily overpower the enemy.
At its core, then, Doom is not so much about violence as it is about power. Doom bestows the player with power and asks her to act on it according to the game’s rules. But Doom has no narrative elements to recontextualise the violence or to give motivations to its protagonist. The player character can only move and aim, aim and shoot, shoot and move, and so on. We define our relationship to the game-world’s inhabitants through these actions — expressing our dominance by mowing down hundreds of demons with inhuman speed.
Doom was influential: games following its footsteps were called 'Doom clones', before settling on the first-person shooter genre descriptor. Doom’s limitations are best exemplified by games it influenced, one being May Payne (2001) from Remedy Games.
Max Payne is a policeman whose family is brutally murdered at the beginning of the game. The player witnesses the tragedy through the character’s own eyes and sets out to enact vengeance on the killers. It’s a tragic tale of self-destruction, where the protagonist is caught between bureaucratic manoeuvring and organised crime. Yet, the game’s core mechanics frame the player character as an indestructible force, who must kill hundreds of enemies, like in Doom. Instead of inhuman speed, Max Payne can slow down time to carry out the killings more effectively. But the slow motion only magnifies our destructive handiwork, emphasising our dominant status.
The situational dialogue, also known as barks, work to a similar glorifying effect. The monsters in Doom always give a sound in advance to warn the player about their presence. The mobsters in Max Payne don’t hesitate to yell out the player character’s name — “Hey, it’s Max Payne!” — to a similar utilitarian purpose. Their exaggerated American-Italian accents, however, portray the gangsters as ridiculous goons.
It’s no wonder shooters haven’t been able to say anything meaningful about violence for a long time. Even games aiming to depict the horrors of war has been thoroughly entrenched in notions of dominance and control: indulgence in violence is an empowering experience, and the player can easily take down hundreds of foes.
While the reason behind the lone hero has been technological in nature, these games often share characteristics beyond individualism. In Doom, the protagonist is created to the image of an US marine who’s tasked to stop the invasion from hell. Max Payne is an NYPD officer, whose personal revenge gets intertwined with tackling government corruption and organised crime.
This US-centric view is also present in games set during the World Wars, even though the American entry came years after the initial conflicts. The portrayal of US special operations captures the exceptionalist outlook best. Because these games may tackle conflicts as complex as war or terrorism, the depiction of US special forces always signals one singular message: solving these issues takes an American individual’s effort and determination.
This exceptionalist outlook even permeates games like Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (2010) and Max Payne 3 (2012) that otherwise manage to locate violence in a meaningful context. Kane & Lynch 2 tells a story of two irredeemable mercenaries who have been completely twisted by violence; Max Payne 3 follows up the story of a broken man, whose only refuge is violence. Yet, these thoroughly corrupted American individuals had to go far away from the idyllic motherland — to Shanghai and São Paulo, respectively — to indulge their violent impulses.
Rockstar North’s Manhunt (2003), by contrast, opens in a domestic setting, with an announcement of a state execution. This opening scene does two things: it locates the game in the (fictional) United States and ties the act of deadly violence to the American criminal justice system.
Manhunt puts the player in the shoes of the man from the news, James Earl Cash, a convicted criminal condemned to death. But instead of a lethal injection, he was given a sedative. Cash awakens to a man’s menacing voice crackling from the loud-speakers, saying that he’s been given a second a chance. But to get back his freedom, he must do as the man says.
We find ourselves in a scenario where the state has abandoned one of its citizens, leaving us exposed to the whims of a wealthy individual, known as 'The Director'. We’re being filmed and tasked to carry out the murders in the most cruel manner possible. But it’s all done for the sake of entertainment, to make The Director’s film possible. We see the world through his eyes, where the poor, the mentally ill and white supremacists are the same: puppets for The Director’s amusement.
It’s no coincidence the game’s oppressive force takes the shape of a disembodied voice of a man. The Director represents wealth, privilege and lack of care for anything but his own pleasure. It not only reflects the status quo, but bears close resemblance to the typical macho power fantasy’s outlook, where everything revolves around a white male protagonist’s domineering existence. Which is why Manhunt’s framing of the player character as just another puppet feels so subversive.
In Manhunt, one short level follows another, like in an arcade game or akin to set pieces in a film. The Director orders us, with menacing glee, to play the role of the aggressor. We have to creep up on an unsuspecting target and hold down the attack button while targeting their head. The target may walk around and stop occasionally, but we must remain focused. Releasing the attack button takes the control away from us to show the player character carry out the murder in an extreme close-up shot.
A single press of the attack button shows Cash deliver two deadly swings to the head with a baseball bat. Holding the button down a bit longer incapacitates the target with a swing to the abdomen, then, when the target tries to get up, Cash delivers a swift blow to the back of the head. When the attack button is held down the longest, Cash suffocates the target until they fall on their knees, then steps back casually to take up a steady posture, and smashes the target’s head like a watermelon.
If we fail or refuse to indulge in the game’s voyeuristic violence, then we’re forced to duke it out in close combat. Most enemies, however, are as strong as the player character, and the sound of fighting with makeshift weapons tend to attract even more foes. We have little choice but to engage in the premeditated act of murder.
Unfortunately, Manhunt is not exempt from blunting the effect of its expressive qualities by falling back on typical narrative conventions and genre trappings. Firefights become more frequent by the last third of the game, to the detriment of the tactility of the slow, repulsive butchery. Simultaneously, the game’s narrative flashes out the characters and shifts to portray a typical conflict between protagonist and antagonist.
But up until this point, Manhunt’s subversive elements point towards something resolute. The player is greeted with a scoreboard at the end of each level. It rewards her performance with stars, depending on the speed she carried out the deed and on the viciousness of the murders.
It’s a clear allusion to videogames’ arcade roots, where violence was typically expressed in numbers: the more violent, the higher the score. But the player was forced to churn out quarters to continue and improve. In a sense, the ultraviolent arcade games recreated the relationship between capital and violence. Except videogame violence is purely perfunctory, done for the sake of masculine entertainment.
Today’s shooters and action games may have more sophisticated ways to express themselves, yet so often they glorify the player for indulging in excessive violence just the same. Manhunt is no different but, by reframing the player’s role in it, the game portrays violence as something else, something other than an empty power fantasy: a senseless, unpleasant act, carried out for the amusement and benefit of the wealthy.