We live in a golden age for video game criticism. What was once believed to be a childish and novelty medium is now open to fantastic discussions about politics, gender, class, etc. Earlier this week one of our writers took the question of torture and gender to reveal sudden inconsistencies in a recent controversy. Today, two writers look back and discuss the thin line games tread when representing death and violence.
Art imitates death. Actors have practiced “dying” for literally centuries, since the dawn of civilization. For as much as it frightens us, we’re fascinated by our own mortality. Death is, after all, the great unifier, the one common denominator we all share. If you’re very lucky you’ll die peacefully, in your sleep or surrounded by loved ones. But sometimes dying is lonely or painful or both. And sometimes it’s gory.
I never finished playing the Tomb Raider reboot, but I remember that death scene vividly. Lara Croft, impaled through the neck on a stick, clutching her throat, her blood mixing with the water as the screen fades to black and white. It bothered me too, which I found immensely surprising.
I’m no stranger to gore, real or otherwise. As a lifelong gamer and horror movie enthusiast, I’ve seen my fair share of violent, simulated deaths. The two that immediately come to mind, respectively, are (BioShock spoiler) when you bash Andrew Ryan’s skull in with a 9-iron and when, in Alien, a baby xenomorph bursts out of Kane’s chest. So why did I find Lara Croft’s death(s) so upsetting? Graphic violence doesn’t bother me, which leads me to believe that it’s not about gore, per se. Like you said, it’s all about context.
Sometimes graphic violence and gruesome deaths serve a narrative purpose. For instance, films based on real life atrocities (Thin Red Line, Pan’s Labyrinth) necessitate a certain degree of realistic gore. How else does one depict, say, the horrors of war, or genocide?
Other times the violence is so preposterously exaggerated as to defy realism (Evil Dead series, Kill Bill Vol. 1/2). The gore in these movies has an over-the-top, campy quality that negates any mixed feelings one might have about the violence itself.
This got me thinking about the difference between gore and torture porn. Whereas pure gore is just that, bloody and violent but nothing more, torture porn as a sub-genre is perversely sexualized. Like you said, is exploitative. You know what I’m talking about when I say “torture porn,” movies like Hostel and The Human Centipede. They’re gory, to be sure, but that’s not the problem. What’s more troublesome is how they encourage the viewer to voyeuristically watch, and in a sense be complicit in, the sexualized torture and murder of a fellow human being.
Torture porn is hardly better than snuff films. Yes, I know, no one actually dies in torture porn, but the motivation is the same: deriving pleasure, or at any rate entertainment, from someone else’s suffering. In other words, fetishizing another’s pain. We have a term for that in the psychological community. It’s “sadistic.”
I’ve been talking about films, but torture porn is just as prevalent in videogames. To clarify, I don’t mean the outrageous violence in games like Mortal Kombat. Hell, I don’t even mean killing cops and prostitutes in GTA. Although these tend to be the games that people, politicians included, blame when some kid decides to shoot up a school, I’d argue that by comparison they’re relatively harmless.
It’s torture porn that we really should be worrying about. So what makes Lara Croft’s death(s) torture porn? It’s not because Lara Croft is a woman, although that’s a logical conclusion. After all, the victims in torture porn tend to be female. Rather, it’s how the game treats her death(s), as spectacle. They’re elaborate and drawn out, long enough to be cutscenes. It’s almost got the sadistic pageantry of watching someone be executed. I’d feel just as disgusted if we were talking about a male protagonist.
The worst part isn’t even how she dies, but how she struggles to survive. Desperately, she pushes against the stick impaling her, trying to get free. In her last moments she is terrified, helpless, and alone. And here we are, watching the spectacle of her suffering. If it weren’t so upsetting, it would almost be funny. The reboot we all had such high hopes for, a Lara Croft who’s more than just a pair of tits in a turquoise tanktop, ended up a character study in torture porn. Even Conan understood how fucked up that is.