Video games have tackled all sorts of deep philosophical questions — stuff like whether or not it’s cool to explode creatures with air pumps (it is), or kill men with dodgeballs (it is), or do anal with minotaurs (it super is). And while some games can indeed be art, remember that said art is ultimately meant to be controlled by clumsy psychopaths in their underwear. So sometimes a video game’s attempt to tackle the more delicate issues just plain falls short. Here are some of those times.
Filled with prostitutes and violence and violent prostitutes, each Grand Theft Auto game has pushed the limits a little more. Mangling a sex worker’s body with a bulldozer is almost a default video game feature at this point. But GTA V broke the truck nuts ceiling of poor taste by including one of the most graphic and disturbing scenes in any game ever made. At one point, your character is being blackmailed by corrupt FBI officials who are using you to “interrogate” a Middle Eastern man in an “enhanced” manner.
In this specific scene, you play as Trevor, the psycho of the group. But even for him, this is fucked up. The only real input you as a player have is choosing between a variety of torture devices and completing timed button presses to rip teeth out of the victim’s head. Oh, and it’s explicitly made clear that this guy is completely innocent.
After he desperately lies to get the torture to stop (like torture victims do), you are tasked with getting rid of him. But Trevor breaks with the plan, drives the man to the airport, and lets him escape, all while lecturing the player on how pointless torture really is. He drones on about how “torture is for the torturer,” and how “the media and the government” trick us into thinking it’s a necessary evil. You can practically hear the “Bush Did 9/11” shirt the writer was wearing.
The game writers probably like to tell people this was all satire, but if that’s the case, then why is there a goddamn achievement for torturing the guy with every tool?
In the Middle-earth games, you play an absurdly powerful ghost who bullies orcs with a limitless combinations of insane moves. Beyond merely stabbing them to death, your character also has the option to “dominate” the orcs, which is less about fetish gear and more about brainwashing them to fight for you against their will.
It will obviously occur to you over the course of hundreds of hours of enslaving these living, thinking, feeling creatures that perhaps this is all a little fucked up. In case it doesn’t, some of them beg for death to really drive it home that you’re a bad person. Yes, orcs are awful, but when you’re twisting someone’s soul with the end goal of making them your slave, the best you can hope for in a morality contest is a tie. Plus, the domination process doesn’t exactly look like it tickles.
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Middle-earth: Shadow Of War comes close to making a statement about all this. It’s clear that Celebrimbor (the elf ghost living inside you) and his love of enslaving orcs is morally questionable, but the gameplay encourages you to do it constantly. Beating the game without an army of slaves would be like trying to build a pyramid without an army of slaves — not impossible, but you’ll probably die before you finish.
Even after you become an ultimate Nazgul superghost, you never stop to say, “OK, we made some tough choices to get to this point, but maybe we should stop doing slavery now.” Instead, the game sort of ends with you walking off into the sunset, and that’s when all the endgame fun starts! Log onto your PlayStation Store account and use the microtransaction system to buy even more slaves! Nothing weird or uncomfortable about that!
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
In Beyond: Two Souls, Dr. Nathan Dawkins (played by Willem Dafoe) is a scientist with the Department of Paranormal Activities. During the events of the game, he loses his wife and daughter to a disastrous car accident. So he attempts to build a miniature “condenser,” which is a device that can speak to the dead. He succeeds, but using the device causes the spirits of his wife and daughter immense pain. This information is revealed by the game’s protagonist, his surrogate daughter Jodie Holmes (Ellen Page), who can speak to the deceased Dawkins family spirits. If you want, you lunatic, you can watch Nathan’s dead wife beg him to let her die:
It seems like an easy choice to stop torturing your dead family, but Dawkins accuses Jodie of lying. He ignores their pleas for mercy and decides that, even if it hurts them, it’s all worth it for the joy and comfort of their company. This game is very strange, and it gets stranger when it’s revealed that Nathan is destroying the world by merging with the spirit realm, and soon all life on Earth will end. Again, if you want, you can watch all of that crazy shit here:
So Nathan has a history of dealing with grief very poorly, and he continues that tradition when he shoots himself. Yes, you go through all this apocalyptic drama and ghost torture, and the bad guy just commits suicide. And several seconds later, he becomes a ghost, and the spirits of his dead wife and daughter — whom he was torturing in exchange for idle chitchat moments before — run over and embrace him. So suicide instantly solved all this guy’s problems. That’s both lazy writing and a troubling message.
If the moral of this story isn’t “After you kill yourself, all debts are forgiven, you’ll be reunited with those you lost, and there are no consequences,” then we have no idea what it’s supposed to be. Don’t talk to ghosts, but if you do, they ultimately don’t mind if you torture them a little?
Far Cry 3 may be a great game, but it is thematically … problematic. The entire plot is built around the tired “white kid saves the savages” trope, but equally disturbing is the part when one of the major characters is raped for no reason at all, and no one ever talks about it after the fact.
One of the big baddies in the game is Buck, an American expat who forces you to run around doing missions for him in exchange for information on your kidnapped brother. At the end of this story, it turns out that Buck had your brother tied up in his basement the whole time. Oh, and it’s subsequently revealed that Buck repeatedly sexually assaulted him. There’s pretty much no reason for this reveal, as we’ve never met the brother character before this scene and it’s already established that Buck is terrible. It seems like literally any second pair of eyes on this script would have given the note “So this guy you already dealt with did rape earlier? What’s the fucking payoff for that?”
Sony Computer Entertainment
When a game journalist for Rock, Paper, Shotgun confronted the writer of the game about this, he tried to claim that the scene was glossed over on purpose. You see, it was actually commentary on how we brush off sexual violence against female characters, and the scene was meant to … make you uncomfortable? Maybe? Probably that, sure!
The rest of the interview is mostly the writer excitedly explaining his own clumsy references. He seems to think that every gross cliche in his story is secretly a commentary on gross cliches. If only you were sophisticated enough to decipher all of the game’s Kubrickian puzzles while also crafting its many wallets, you would have gotten this. If you’d like to learn more, please enroll in any prestigious university’s senior-level Far Cry 3 course.
Bioshock Infinite takes place in a dystopian city in the sky called Columbia. The place is run by the Founders, an ultra right-wing group of people who store all their cash and sandwiches in public trash cans. Everything in the city is built around white supremacy and nationalism: There are separate bathrooms for different races, minorities are mainly servants and janitors, and the first choice your character must make is whether or not to stone a couple who dared to enjoy an interracial relationship at a family carnival. The story is very clear with its intentions. It’s not subtle, like the layered ironic symbolism of, say, Far Cry 3.
The city is besieged by a rebel faction that hates everything the Founders stand for. They are the Vox Populi, led by a charismatic African American woman named Daisy Fitzroy. Daisy is out to end the Founders for good after being framed for the murder of the First Lady. Even though your character isn’t directly involved in the conflict, you encounter battles between the two sides, and are taught throughout the game to sympathize with the Vox.
And then Daisy is shown to be willing to go … a bit far to achieve the group’s goals. And when we say “a bit far,” we’re talking about terrorism and child murder. She executes a business tycoon and holds his child at gunpoint until your partner takes her out to save the kid.
By the end of the game, you’re fighting both the Founders and the Vox Populi. Suddenly the theme changes from “racism is obviously bad,” to “but you know, there are very bad people … on both sides.” It’s worth mentioning that the DLC tries to retcon this into some kind of “I had to do evil for the greater good” deal. Because all art is improved by going back in and adding a convoluted semi-apology for everything you did initially. Oh, and toss in some dewbacks while you’re there. No one ever puts in enough dewbacks in the first draft.
Chris has a new party game called Cheer Up! which you can get right now! (Download it for free here!) Wes Corwin is a stand-up comedian currently based in Dallas. You can like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, or if you live in Dallas and enjoy comedy and alcohol, check out his weekly show at Noble Rey Brewery on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. He also has a Real Rob fan podcast called When Keeping It Real Goes Rob, which has more listeners than it should.