Building A Better World Through Video Game Violence

To cut right to the point, the questions I’ve been asking myself surround the role violence plays in the tone of Clockwork Empires.To start: I don’t believe that violence for its own sake is interesting or desirable because, well, it’s unpleasant. Unpleasantness, however, definitely has a use in the aesthetic and narrative experiences that games explore (- to say that games are just about “fun” misses so much of what is going on in them!)

So let’s dive in.

He shouldn't have eaten the caviar.

Things that can happen.

The Clockwork Empires frontier is not a peaceful, gentle place and it’s important that we express to players that there are terrible, terrible consequences for Knowing What Should Not Be Known, Digging Too Greedily And Too Deep, or simple things like “not planning a stable food supply” or basic colonial defense. Things happen.

I played a ton of iD Software games when I was younger than recommended. Not sure of the effect this had on me. Discuss. Bonus points for use of phrase "Adrian Carmack's Flesh Temple".

I played a ton of iD Software games when I was younger than recommended by the ESRB. Not sure of the effect this had on my future career as game artist. Discuss. Bonus points for use of phrase “Adrian Carmack’s Flesh Temple”.

Clockwork Empires is riding a bit of a weird line aesthetically – it is both adorable and slightly horrifying. Or perhaps it is disarmingly cute, at first, but then people start starving, someone pulls out a butcher’s cleaver, and then cannibalism. It wouldn’t be cannibalism without awful people-steaks and blood spraying, would it?

A dodo, deceased.

A dodo, deceased.

The violence here is about following through on consequences and giving them a visceral (heh) shock to emphasize that, yes, this is horrible. And there’s something interesting in the contrast between taboo-violence and the happy little colonists that look like little painted dolls. (What, these cute little people really do these terrible things? Oh yes they do.)

The cute visual aesthetic lets us go to very dark places without really going to very dark places. This is a game, after all. It’s fun, right? Sure! (Well, honestly I want to make games for more than ‘having fun’, but that’s another blog post.)

I’m getting a little theoretical here so let’s get back to the particulars of art direction: this week I had Sean make a first run of “gibs”. My angle, probably due to playing way too much Quake back in the day, was to evoke the generic meat-chunks of that game. In a way Quake was super violent: you’d tear bodies apart with rocket launchers and nailguns, etc. But in a way it was cartoony, ridiculous, and silly because those bodies were only about 200 polygons and the gibs, what, the low double digits? And tiny textures too, with pixels you could count. These chunks of flesh were total abstractions, symbols of violence rather than realistic depictions of violence. It worked!

The pixels of Doom were arguably more realistic because they depicted particular violence to bodies, however crude: heads splitting open, chests bursting, and so on. I’d argue that Doom was a far more graphic game, doubtless referencing the aesthetic of horror movies that get into violence that’s about the spectacle of violence. And that’s not where I want to go with Clockwork Empires. So my instructions to Sean right from the JIRA ticket were this:

I lean toward not making it horrifyingly specific (as in, not eyeballs, identifiable organs, etc) and more like Quake meat chunks which would essentially be the 3d version of Dredmor’s generic blood/ichor/goo/ectoplasm

Violence in Dungeons of Dredmor. (Shot stolen from Meep, who I'm sure will be very understanding of my use of it?)

Splats of violence in Dungeons of Dredmor

It’s become clear to me in writing this that my approach to how I want to depict violence in Clockwork Empires is absolutely informed by my personal experience with videogame violence. Dude, the 90’s were a weird time in games! I think it was Doom which first horrified me with the specificity of violence. Then I distinctly remember Soldier of Fortune for how it depicted human suffering alongside over-the-top violence. And it was actually pretty unpleasant, as I recall. More unpleasant than the simple unpleasantness I’d like to evoke in CE. Violence was used in these shooter games to emphasize player power fantasy, and in Soldier of Fortune it was actual suffering being used to emphasize player power fantasy. That’s getting creepy.

Maybe it has a place, but should not (in my opinion) be used for the sake of its own spectacle. Certainly in Clockwork Empires we want to explore some themes of suffering plus body horror/transformation along the lines of, ohhh, Victorian gothic horror and arists like Lynch, Cronenberg, and – well, I’d say Geiger is an influence, but you know, maybe with not quite so many phalluses. But we’re doing it not to emphasize how powerful the player is, how they are able to make other people hurt. No, quite the opposite: This is about how dangerous the world of Clockwork Empires is, or maybe how dangerous the people in it think it is in the face of their stubborn imperialism conflicting with things outside of their understanding.

This is about showing the player the consequences of their colonist’s conflicts with the world, each other, and with the will of the player. Players: protect your little people, because they can get hurt!

In other news, we have conjured the Wizard Whitman back from the Realm of Magical Law! He shall assist us in casting Spells of Greater Game Development and Evoking Mystic Energies from the Plane of Elemental Fun. Also, UI programming.

Please enjoy this musical accompaniment to his return.

Posted in Clockwork Empires | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

24 Responses to “Building A Better World Through Video Game Violence”

  1. Bropocalypse says:

    The Punishment Sphere: Standard equipment for any game development company.

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  2. Derek E. says:

    I know I’m not a qualified designer, but I think you guys should include trails of blood that form in various circumstances – say, if raw meat or a bloodied corpse is moved by something carrying it, if someone is wounded but mobile, or if something sails off in an arc after getting hit. I know I’d enjoy (for a given definition of the term) noticing that one of the poets has gone missing in my settlement and seeing nothing more than a smear of blood leading deeper into the forest or into the sea.

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    • I agree. It would really help with determining the progression of any horrifying events that go on off-screen, as well as adding to the sense of consequence mentioned as the aim of the violence.

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  3. Justpassingby says:

    Ultima 7 Black Gate was another game that was exceptionally cute and also had high levels of exceptionally cute horrifying violence. You could draw some inspiration from it.

    Those corpses contorted and mutilated, obviously having died in great pain. Blood splattered all over the screen. Wounded NPC, or allies (or previous allies) trying to flee the battle while crying for mercy.

    Also, no one was spared. From Lord British to the babies on their cradles. From the drakes to the seagulls. All was killable.

    I have never seen another game being even close to how they merged beautiful visuals and a cute atmosphere while at the same time not hiding how horrifying combat and dead could be.

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  4. Davud says:

    I third the motion. Based on the current number of replies, I think we have the majority vote.

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  5. Headjack says:

    Hooray for the return of Whitman! Arcanabulae for all!

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  6. Tyler says:

    What I got out of the article:

    “We want to use violence not to allow players to hurt things, but to allow us to hurt players.”

    I am all for this.

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  7. V says:

    YES! SKUNNY! Those times … wait, that was a squirrel? I ALWAYS THOUGHT HE’S A RABBIT!1!

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  8. Sniperyeti says:

    I think there might be a distinction between how ‘violence’ and ‘death’ should be presented in a narrative game like this.
    I’m totally with you in terms of the violence, as in when people get hurt it should be symbolic and ‘game-y’ rather than detailed and horrible for its own sake. But if we’re going to buy into the lives of certain characters I feel like death should be more individualised and specific (memorable?). Given the game’s setting and focus on things going spectacularly wrong this is also a great outlet for ridiculous creativity. Sgt. Pepper getting lasered by the Squid-fiend of Quaggaroth should be an entirely different spectacle to when his half-brother succumbs to moon-fungus in the street, for example; not just the same fleshsplosion and slumped body.

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  9. Somebody says:

    I don’t comment here that often but I would just like to say love these developer blogs and keep up the good work.

    Also, H. R. Geiger’s artwork had just the right amount of phalluses. That is all.

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  10. VirtuaSphere says:

    Yay, Whitman is back! Great to hear. (^ヮ^)

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  11. BlackDaze says:

    Doom and Quake level violence += 10 cool points

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  12. Dunwich says:

    There will be natives that you can ”civilize” or there won’t, and the indutries will pollute the sky and make someone angry. Finally i want to ask about the nobles can they visit or live in our colony, maybe the queen can visit our colony.

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  13. Osmedirez says:

    “Chairman Yang cares not for your suffering”

    I… am dead. You killed me. Suffering IS merely information before the senses.

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  14. Nicolai says:

    I’m quite happy to see this! For things to be freakish or strange there has to be a status quo to compare them too. And the happy doll-ish appearance of the villagers serve to portray that contrast. If they all were rabid cannibals and freaks it wouldn’t be nearly as intresting. However once you have a seemingly normal sunny community that one midsummer evening decide to eat one of their own, and then afterwards continue merrily like nothing has happened, that is where the horror happens.

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  15. Hannibal says:

    You guys might want to do different blood and guts for the different species in Clockwork empires.

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  16. Wouter says:

    In dwarf fortress, your little ascii characters can persue and mercilessly slaughter other ascii characters, and leave a trail of ascii-body parts in various flavors of red.

    And the horror of a ascii cave crocodile getting into your ascii bedrooms and turning all your ascii children into those same red ascii body parts…

    I can tell you that suggestion of graphical violence can be just as horrific as accurate depictions of such violence.

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  17. Jac says:

    Is it possible for a colony to survive as a cannibalistic society? Will the good people of the empire ever become desensitised enough to it that, in the abscence of food, there is the possibility they take it upon themselves to create a human meat supply chain?

    I guess it might be beyond their scope to do something like that independent of player interaction but would be pretty interesting if the AI could actually lead itself down that path.

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    • Thomas says:

      From what i’ve read about this game so far, that very well can and ‘will’ happen of its own accord if you let things go out of control.
      Where your happy little colonists can slowly descend into madness if you’re not there to guide them properly.

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      • Jac says:

        Certainly hope you’re right. The emergent possibilities are what makes this game so appealing.

        I’m guessing most of the population are made up of the lucky people shipped off from the motherland but if there are colony births hopefully their traits and what they find acceptable and normal will be influenced by the state of the colony they’re born in to the point madness is just normal to them.

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  18. Cutter says:

    Well, the Universe is a violent place. Life IS violent. Something always has to die so that something else can live. Always. If you want to make an omelet you’ve got to break some eggs.

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  19. Jay Sherby says:

    Here’s an idea you certainly don’t have to use, but I present it anyway. What if the blood and gore realistically changes color from red to brown over time? I don’t recall having seen that in any other games. Blood always seems to stay as red as it was when it first splattered forever.

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