Theoretically, there’s nothing holding back games from being an excellent vehicle for satire. Because they require the player to simulate a behavior — rather than just view that behavior performed by someone else — games should be in a great position to illustrate how ridiculous or destructive certain behaviors are. I say in theory because there are so few decent video game satires worth noting.
Seven Psychopaths is the second feature length film by Martin McDonagh. It’s a smart dark comedy with a terrific cast and a great script. It manages to be a satire of pop culture violence without turning into the thing that it is making fun of. It also manages to be metatextual without being obnoxious, a difficult line to tread anymore. The film follows Colin Ferrell’s Marty, a screenplay writer who’s trying to write a movie about seven psychotic killers. The catch is that he wants it to be “life affirming.” Marty’s neighbor Billy and his friend Hans (Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken, respectively) run a dog-kidnapping scam and mistakenly kidnap an obsessive gangster’s (Woody Harrelson) Shih Tzu. Marty winds up getting roped into Billy and Marty’s scam and the three flee the from the gang into the desert. It’s in the desert that the three characters try to find an ending to Marty’s movie (the one that the audience knows they’re watching).
Billy pushes Marty to end the film with a bloody shootout with all the ludicrous, unironic misogyny and violence that inundates action movies while Hans and Marty struggle to end the movie bloodlessly. The film’s third act starts with Billy torching the trio’s car and calling the gangster and telling him where they are, insisting to his friends that “this movie ends my way.” Marty and Hans don’t run, and they have to be as assertive and resolute in their pacifism as Billy is in his bloodlust to end the conflict in a “life affirming” way.
Drive is a film by Nicolas Winding Refn about a nameless getaway driver’s love affair with his neighbor. It’s a pitch-black, homage/critique of eighties action movies. Ryan Gosling plays The Driver, a handsome, gruesome thug who is constantly teetering on the line of psychosis. Drive is structured like an action movie, it has all the tropes and cliches that audiences have come to expect from the genre (Bryan Cranston is the driver’s mentor and father figure, Alan Brooks is the crime lord with seeming good intentions, Cary Mulligan is the virgin madonna, Oscar Isaac is the unworthy husband, Christina Hendricks is the bad girl), but they’re shown in such a realistic light that we see what an action hero’s behavior might look like stripped of Hollywood romance.
The relationship between the Driver and his love interest is the same one that plays out in every action film: a demure, troubled woman (bonus points for being a single mother) needs help from the hero and becomes instantly and inexplicably attached to him. But without the swelling music, the quick jump shots between action and the one-liners that rush to establish the relationship, the audience can see just how unnerving the typical action romance really is. Drive strips the glamour from the violent engagements as well. The Driver is in constant control, even as he holds somebody down and shudders with rage. He’s able to be as cavalier in his use of violence as he is when he’s tinkering in his machine shop; violence is just another tool for him to get what he wants. As soon as the Driver is finished fighting or killing someone, he returns to the frozen apathy that defines him. He’s indifferent and emotionless and completely disregards life as he goes through the motions of an action movie: his good friend and mentor is killed, the gang lord he trusted turns on him, his lady love is threatened, and he’s wounded (perhaps fatally) in the final confrontation. All with no reaction save for one important blink.
I bring these movies up because they’re both excellent satires that effectively comment on a tradition in filmmaking. They dissect the action film formula and illustrate just how insane it is to celebrate a type of entertainment that so thoughtlessly disregards violence, gender politics, and morality. Both movies are critically respected, but they’re difficult movies. Neither saw huge box office numbers in spite of generally favorable critical reception. Both suffered from poor marketing (the marketing for Drive was so misleading that a woman actually tried to sue the producers over it) and both of them, quite frankly, are kind of weird. I liked both of these movies. Seven Psychopaths and particularly Drive have what it takes to go on to be cult favorites. They are able to use the conventions of their genre to criticize the fundamental operations of it. I bring up these movies because they’re great at doing what video games have been trying and failing to do, especially recently.
Whenever a game tries to draw on its own history to illustrate a problem, the game often as not just ends up being a part of whatever problem it’s trying to deconstruct. In Hotline Miami, the player serially kills his way from room to room. The game leaves the question, “Do you like hurting people?” lingering for the entire game. It doesn’t matter what the answer is because, to play the game, the player has to be a constant participant in its violence. You have to endorse violence to play Hotline Miami. The game occasionally chastises the player for having fun while pretending to kill people, but continuing requires more of the same violence. The bloodshed is not changed, challenged, or looked at from a different view. It’s just there, called attention to, and then amplified.
The same thing happens in 2009’s Mad World. The player is followed by a pair of disembodied commentators that applaud the creativity in how they murder other people on screen. In essence, the game is a reality tv parody where the characters are encouraged to kill one another for audience approval. Points are rewards granted for more elaborate and stylish kills. Ostensibly, it’s a look at how cheap and empty the thrills of television are. But it also rewards the player for killing people cheaply and emptily. The game doesn’t examine what it’s asking the player to do. It just points its finger and reminds the player how bizarre, unnatural, and “mad” its world is while screaming, “more, MORE!”
These games aren’t like Seven Psychopaths,which treats violence as pointless and absurd, or Drive, which treats violence as terrifying and gruesome. These games treat violence as a game. They point to the extreme violence that is omnipresent in the medium and say nothing. They call attention to an unhealthy recurring trope and then they try to outdo their precedent. And this doesn’t just happen when games approach violence, either.
Bayonnetta is a game that follows a hypersexualized woman in a position of power over other hypersexualized women. Bayonnetta is tall, thin, lithe with an hourglass frame. She fights using pistols strapped to her feet and magical powers that when activated remove her clothing in strips. In the opening cutscene enemies slash open her skintight bodysuit near her ass and her tits (her outfit is technically made of her own hair; that doesn’t really change anything but not mentioning this has been a point of contention in the past). The game shines a glaring light on how exploitative games are designed from the perspective of the male gaze and then does nothing. It shows us sexism but doesn’t offer anything other than more sexism.
Games are smart. Developers are smart. Game audiences are smart. But when a game tried to satirize material, it often seems that the execution is so ham-handed that the game just ends up being an extreme instance of whatever it was trying to criticize. Games are in at least as good a position to deliver punchy satire as film, but there seem to be far fewer successes. Whether because audiences are unwilling to consume a game that critically comments on its own tradition or because developers are unwilling or unable to compose a sophisticated satire, it’s becoming a bigger and more noticeable hole in the canon of yearly releases.