Hurtin’ Protagonists

Film and video games have a visual similarity in that both of them happen on screens. It creates an issue for the way that we think about games, because we it’s very easy to think about them in filmic terms. That becomes a problem when things don’t translate well between the two mediums. For example, suffering. Because film is such a visual medium, watching the hero get beaten up is super gratifying. It’s appropriate to the form. That’s not necessarily true of video games. 

To clarify briefly, what I mean by ‘gratifying’ is not necessarily that it makes us happy. The idea is that it’s got force and relevance and it holds meaning for us as audience. When the protagonist gets beaten up, the visual impact of getting thumped is enough to get us invested. We wince and groan and anticipate the time when the hero will get their own back. What’s provoking this feeling, first and foremost, is the visual spectacle of watching the hero get beaten. It doesn’t even have to be the hero: violence towards any character can be a type of spectacle. It’s one of the strongest criticisms of depictions of sexual assault – it’s not that it’s bad to talk about assault, but we don’t want to turn it into a spectacle or something we quote-unquote ‘enjoy’ (because that’s quite rapey in itself).

Sometimes the spectacle of violence can be transferred into video games. When you’re watching Al Assad get beaten by Captain Price in the original Modern Warfare, it’s a spectacle. It was shocking at the time, because we’d never really seen the ‘good guys’ walk that moral ambiguity before, and part of that shock was the sheer visual spectacle of what you were seeing. It was the visual aspect that really communicated the force of that moment. Similarly, when you’re carrying out violence against baddies, that’s gratifying too. You watch Batman smack the hell out of somebody, and it’s satisfying. However, I’d suggest that watching the protagonist of a video game get fucked up works in a slightly different way.

To clarify here, I’m not talking about when protagonists get beaten in cut-scenes. That falls into the first category of film-violence – you’re not playing ‘as’ the protagonist, they’re just on the screen and you’re a passive observer. No – I’m talking specifically about when the protagonist is beaten, wounded, or mutilated while you’re still in a ‘game’ mode. So it might be functionally a cut-scene, in the sense that you can’t move or act, but there’s a visual continuity between that moment and the ‘proper’ gameplay before. Think of those quick-time events – just as they activate, usually there’s a series of things that happen in quick succession. Your control is taken away from you, the protagonist might look in a certain direction, and then an enemy might jump out of nowhere and stab at you with a knife, and then you have to quick-time or he’ll kill you. That’s the sort of thing that I’m thinking of – when there’s still this technical continuity of perspective, but it’s not really ‘free’ gameplay. Another example might be the way the Half Life games do cut-scenes, where you just can’t move out of a certain area but you’re free to move around within it. Both of those examples would count here, because it’s not a ‘take you out of the game and turn it into pure video cut-scene’ mode. A shaky distinction, I’m sure, but hopefully stable enough to last another 500 words.

So then! When you’re playing a character, and that character gets the shit beaten out of them inside regular gameplay, I reckon that prompts a different category of response to the feeling we get watching the protagonist get beaten in regular video or ‘formal’ cut-scene. In my mind, the distinction rests on the relationship between player and player-character. When you’re in ‘play’ mode, I’d suggest you don’t have much regard for the player-character – because honestly you’re more focused on the environment and whatever your goal is. The ‘wellbeing’ of the protagonist can fuck right off. Nobody cares when the protagonist gets shot or beaten up – if anything, it’s an inconvenience. So when the protagonist gets mutilated and beaten to hell, we don’t necessarily feel ‘for’ them in the same way as we do when we’re watching a movie.

I’m basing this argument off a couple Let’s Plays I’ve watched recently – one of Resident Evil 7, and another of Outlast 2. Both involve significant bodily mutilation to the protagonist, and I felt personally like it wasn’t as significant or even as impactful as the violence committed against other characters in those games. Partly that might be because it was a Let’s Play, and I wasn’t in control of the character myself, but I’m willing to believe that the same would be the case even if I was. I think there’s a certain casual disregard for the protagonist – which is totally understandable, but also possibly makes violence against the protagonist less hefty and serious than violence against other characters.

In some ways Resi 7 is a bad example, because it oscillates between scary and hilarious (I’m thinking the car scene with the father). There are still moments of terror though – like when Mia takes your hand off with the chainsaw. I’d like to compare it to Lucas getting his hand amputated at the dinner table, but to me that scene reads as funny/horror, so it’s not the best example. There’s a strange fascination to watching a player-character lose a hand – or a leg, depending on which part of the game you’re in. It’s a strange disconnect: in some ways you extend your identity into the character, but all of the physical sensations that he feels are alien to you. So there’s this almost uncanny feeling when he’s losing limbs and you’re… not feeling anything. You can see the difference to watching other people get injured – that’s functionally the same as in real life. People get hurt, and you see it, and it looks bloody awful, but you’re not necessarily feeling any particular sensations. And when you’re watching protagonists in films or cutscenes, I’d suggest it’s the same as that second category. You’re watching the hero, and you’re rooting for them, but there’s a clear distinction between you and them that isn’t necessarily there between you and the player-character.

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