Sunday, February 1, 2009

Violence doesn't have to be destructive

I would like to encourage everyone to read a recent entry at Man Bytes Blog titled a lego orange, in which Corvus Elrod lays out his idea for a LEGO game (in the same vein as "LEGO Star Wars" or "LEGO Indiana Jones") based on the Anthony Burgess novel/Stanley Kubrick film "A Clockwork Orange." Elrod's basic idea is to take the simplistic, escapist fun of the traditional LEGO games, but to turn the game from a fun romp through your favorite adventure film into a postmodern examination of the effects of violence in society.

I was especially struck by this entry because it sounded very similar to a game that I've been following closely for a long time: Super Columbine Massacre RPG! by Danny Ledonne. As you may be able to gather from the name, the Columbine game puts players into the role of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as they plan and carry out the deadly school shooting of Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. on April 20, 1999. But despite what many people think at the outset, SCMRPG! is not meant to be an exploitive, gory shoot-em-up, but a documentary-style exploration of the events of that day, and how violence in media (especially videogames) was scapegoated by the press as being a cause for the shooting.

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I still remember the first time I sat down and played SCMRPG! a few years ago. I was utterly unprepared for what I would experience, and how it would change the way I viewed videogames. In the game, each student you kill doesn't blink away and disappear like the "enemies" in most games. Rather, they stay there, bloodied and lifeless, forcing you to confront the fact that you just gunned down a high school student. The game is presented in the style of a crude, 16-bit roleplaying game, requiring players to use their imaginations to take the images on the screen and make them real. The game is not meant to be fun or entertaining. It's meant to be informative and confrontational.

I still have yet to play any videogame that portrays violence the SCMRPG! does, by using real-world violence to communicate real-world consequences. Virtually every game that comes out these days uses violence as a consequence-free cathartic kill-fest that lets players act out their sociopathic fantasies and let off some stress. SCMRPG! does just the opposite. The more violence you create as a player, the more uncomfortable you feel. I've played lots of games with truly gruesome violence in my life, but SCMRPG! still has the distinction of being the only violent game that actually made me sick to my stomach.

Ninja Gaiden IISuper Columbine Massacre RPG!
A typical scene from Ninja Gaiden II for Xbox 360, compared to SCMRPG! Because of the way Ledonne portrays violence in his game, the scene from his game is much more effective.

But I want to stress that this type of reaction is intended by the game. It's meant to be an answer to all the games where the hero cuts down bad guys by the truckloads and the player thinks nothing of it. The difference between violence in SCMRPG! and violence in other games is like the difference between "Rambo" and "City of God." In essence, it takes the usual notion of what we think of videogames and turns it on its ear.

That's why I couldn't help but be reminded of Ledonne's game when reading Corvus Elrod's idea for "A LEGO Orange." Elrod says, "It is clear that while this game’s mechanics reflect the careless disregard for life and property of the protagonists, the visual cues and content are meant to make the player very uncomfortable with their actions." This describes the actual experience of playing SCRMRPG! perfectly.

I've said on this blog several times that I want to spread the idea that games can be serious art, and more than shallow entertainment. When others say this, they usually put forth games like "Portal" or "Braid" as examples of what games are capable of as a creative medium. For me, I put forward SCMRPG!, because it was the first game that put the idea into my head. I recommend everyone reading this to go to, download it, and give it a try.


  1. As a longtime fan of LEGO and "Clockwork Orange," Elrod's design fascinates me. It raises some of the same issues of representation and abstraction as SCMRPG or another of my favorite films, "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story" - told entirely with Barbie dolls. I am glad to see the broader metaphors and methods of interpretation I employed in SCMRPG being applied in other work, as well.

  2. I do, indeed, strongly put forth Braid and Portal as excellent examples of artistic sensibilities in games, but both of them are still designed with the ultimate goal of being FUN. SCMRPG! is not, and I don't think A LEGO Orange would be either, because that's not the purpose.

    I think there are two different problems in the game industry here, and people conflate them.

    First, games that legitimately try to be art are rare at best, almost non-existant at worst. Many people don't think of games as anything more than idle amusements, roughly on par with the worst of the Power Rangers series.

    Second, people who don't think that games can be anything other than entertainment.

    Spirited Away or Chinatown are both artistically stunning entertainment, Waltz with Bashir walks the line... Why can't games?