PAX Australia And The Strange Catharsis Of Video Game Violence

It’s the end of the second day of PAX Australia, I’m on the train home. I am having a panic attack.

My breathing starts getting irregular and I suddenly feel like I’m underwater. I need to stabilise myself. I lean forward. My eyes are bulging in my head and I start to lose feeling in my legs. There’s only about ten seconds of warning before it hits and that brief period is just as horrible as everything else. The guy in the seat next to me senses something and starts looking at me with suspicious eyes. Perhaps he thought I was about to start vomiting. Sorry fellow train passenger, no such luck. I feel much stranger than that. What the hell was happening? I hadn’t had one of these damn things in months. And why the sudden urge to go home and play a violent video game? Oh Christ, let me off this train.

Wait. Let’s back up a bit.

The amount of innovation and excitement on display at this year’s Australian edition of Penny Arcade Expo in Melbourne was astounding. From the booked out VR booths, the amazing ideas littering the indie section and constant popularity of the massive tabletop area, PAX 2015 seemed to once again cement its place in the Australian gaming landscape with supreme confidence. For its third year running, PAX had also added plenty of new panels discussing romance, classification, Deus Ex and trivia contests. Every genre you could ever desire is at home here. The Expo Hall caters to every taste of upcoming game, hardware, streaming platform or merchandise.

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In the Ubisoft area, one game stood out to me as more exciting than the others: Tom Clancy’s The Division. All signs point towards this game being a post-apocalyptic Destiny-style loot-focused extravaganza. Layered with a heavy dose of ruined despair, The Division drops players in a disaster-ridden New York with survival and discovery being your two main goals. The PAX demo placed twelve people into the Dark Zone, the sole PvP area where teams of three battle to secure rare loot and defend their extraction points. It was a tense, deep experience that depended on teamwork. Different players have varied abilities and items to help balance out a squad. You can set up a turret while someone else on your team sends out a radar ‘pulse’ to detect other players. And preferably, your third team member has their medic skills ready to go.

Largely dependent on cover-based gunplay, there’s a tangible frenzy to the battles. A sharp edge to every encounter that makes you wary of every step. By the time the demo had finished, one moment in particular stuck with me for hours afterwards. When firing upon another player or NPC, they don’t go down for good every time. After suffering a hail of bullets (which feels like an eternity if you’re giving out the punishment, but mere seconds if you’re receiving), a player drops to all fours. Bleeding out, you then have a choice to try to get medical help from a team member. But if you fail, your attacker has the choice to finish you off. They can simply walk up to your crawling, half-dead body and put a few rounds into your head. Good night.

It was this moment that grabbed me. These meagre seconds to make sure your enemy wasn’t getting up again. Delivering this final victory upon a wounded enemy was the satisfying cherry on a grimy, bleak dessert. I’m hesitant to admit it but it felt right. It felt necessary. It was also part of the reason I went back for another crack at the demo the next day.

Violence has accompanied video games from the beginning. It has been a constant and sometimes detrimental bedfellow. But there’s different flavours of violence in games. A variety of strains. When you’ve had your fill of passive Mortal Kombat fatalities or wave after wave of military shooter death, violence with even the slightest emotional baggage begins to seem more impactful.

Back out on the show floor, Star Wars Battlefront blared. Lines stretched out for the Fallout 4 and Rise Of The Tomb Raider booths. Crowds yelled with excitement at exhibitors handing out free stuff. So many sights and sounds. So many different things to experience.

The indie game area was different. It had a razor sharp focus. Small development teams putting everything they had on display for anyone who wanted to try their wares. I had been told to check out a game being made by Melbourne-based developer Bandit-1. Inspired by Sierra’s SWAT series, Tear Through is a game all about moment-to-moment tension. From a top-down perspective, you (and a friend in co-op) traverse a series of levels to subdue criminals in siege situations. With lethal or non-lethal takedowns coupled with breach-and-clear or silent lockpicking, Tear Through is filled with careful planning followed by on-the-spot decision making. Situations can easily escalate into standoffs that end in inevitable violence.

Despite players being represented by basic, differently coloured icons, the immediacy of Tear Through’s gameplay pulls you in. One scenario found me and another player trying our best to arrest a criminal in the bathroom of a house. My taser was having no effect and I had no choice but to open fire. Suddenly, there was blood everywhere. It was a split-second, regrettable decision and it was only then did I look back at our trail through the level to see it littered with destruction. I moved my icon out of the bathroom and was surprised to see bloody footprints follow me out into the hallway. The evidence of my failed mission permanently staining the floor.

There was that particular kind of violence again. The chaotic yet necessary type of violence that you can’t help but be invested in. Far removed from the kind of detached mass-murder held up by so many first-person shooters that have now faded from memory. This stayed with me. Held on like a reminder of something bubbling under the surface.

None of this was clear at the time. It would take a little while longer before I understood completely.

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When the ‘video game’ portion of this video game expo became overwhelming, the theatres of the Melbourne Exhibition Centre had a constant rotation of panel discussions on offer. One I attended was about mental health and wellbeing in games. Six panellists from different parts of the Australian games industry all telling their stories and baring their souls. As someone who has only recently, and briefly, experienced times of heightened anxiety, I was amazed at these people. Their journeys through life and games were significantly more dominating than mine. Most importantly, there was a very real sense of bravery in them facing a crowd.

In terms of games, they talked about how being lost in fantasy worlds or defeating bosses helped them. Either playing as someone totally different or an enhanced, ideal version of themselves. Their love of video games was as evident as the people in the audience were with their support and understanding. You could tell many who had come along to this panel shared similar experiences. Everyone on the stage had their own game of choice when talking about an emotional connection. Whether it was walking the hills of Skyrim or being a strict Paragon in the Mass Effect series, there was a real weight to these games in the eyes of each person on stage. They were important games which had a lasting impact.

It was a extraordinary panel that opened my eyes to not only other people’s stories but also my personal experience. I just didn’t know it at the time. About an hour later, my panic attack arrived. It was strong and horrible and finished just before I stepped off the train. Great timing.

After it was over and I was home, the most overwhelming emotion I had was to play a certain type of game. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I chose The Last Of Us. It was drenched in the kind of necessary roughness that had lingered after playing those games on the PAX show floor. Joel’s barely contained rage and grief explodes at many points throughout his quest to get Ellie to safety. And Ellie herself is driven to violent madness more than once.

That’s when it struck me. I was compelled by this flavour of violence. Characters that aren’t one-person armies dropping one-liners but rather ones that just barely survive. Characters who feel the same level of shock or fear when engaging in brutality. The Last Of Us is filled with messy battles that hold this rule. Joel and Ellie feel scared and anxious. They are amazed after just scraping through a horrible encounter with the most furious of enemies. Isaac Clarke in Dead Space feels the same way when stomping on necromorphs while at the same time barely clinging on to his sanity. There’s hints of it in Destiny, when a Hunter attempts to save their life with a frenzied, last-minute stab to the face of a Fallen Captain.

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Everything started to make sense. It took the better part of two days, but I was only now beginning to understand. It sounded strange and uncomfortable but this was cathartic for me. These situations of audacious bloodshed struck a nerve and made me realise why the scenarios displayed in The Division and Tear Through had left such an impact. This was my Skyrim. My Mass Effect. This type of essential violence in games has an emotional connection that is important. It doesn’t feel disposable. There’s a deliberate style to it that leaves a mark. It isn’t quite as common in video games as some might think and as questionable as it may sound on the surface, it helps.

This year’s PAX Australia had an emotional resonance I never expected. Thanks to video games and the people who play them, I realised something that might have stayed buried for years to come. It will be a difficult thing to explain to people and I don’t anticipate those situations with any sort of glee but at least it has now become a thing that is clear to myself. This brand of brutal storytelling can be vital when delivered with the right kind of intent. There’s a valuable commodity here that I hope more game developers decide to use. It may not be a huge selling point that you can put on a poster but I can tell you this: it can make all the difference in the world to some people.

On some level, this may just sound like I’m saying I enjoy VIDEO GAME MURDER but it’s a different, more submerged thing. I have no devotion to Kratos carving through dozens of pointless enemies but if a character barely scrapes through a single encounter leaving only their guilt and horror then I’m right there with them. I know those emotions well and I suppose placing myself in terrible situations via an avatar makes me think my terrible situations aren’t quite so bad. At least I didn’t have to survive THAT, am I right? There’s a very real sense of connection between what I felt on the train after PAX and an emotional, violent altercation in a game. It’s an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding personal truth. A process that I am now prepared to jump into head first. I just hope I don’t get too much blood on me.

This post originally published on Kotaku Australia November 9 2015.

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