[Update: Follow-up post can be found here.]
[Trigger Warning: The trailer discussed below is not embedded in the post but the trailer itself includes a graphic depiction of violence against a woman. The post describes the content of the trailer in broad terms and has two images of violence against men from the trailer.]
Like many recent game series, I’ve been aware of the Witcher and vaguely interested in playing it for a little while now. So when I saw the trailer for The Witcher 3,”Killing Monsters”, on my XBLA dashboard I felt like it was a good time to take a closer look. I want to avoid judging games simply based on trailers, but “Killing Monsters” raises some uncomfortable questions for me regarding the creative intent of CD Projekt RED. At the time that I watched the trailer, I had company. The trailer (which I will not be embedding here) begins with the narrator sentencing a woman to death:
By order of the emperor of Nilfgaard, or the murder of the wounded, looting, canabalism, you are hereby sentenced to death by hanging… or torment.
Here’s the individual to be executed:
This woman’s captors proceed to beat her, and this is presented in the trailer in a distinctly upsetting fashion, which appears to have been the point. It’s a point that’s lost though, as I needed to turn off the video before making it even halfway. My company was upset. I was embarrassed. All in all, it made for a pretty dreadful experience. It didn’t really matter what the narrator on the screen was saying, because the images spoke louder. A couple of well dressed men on horseback ruminate on the nature of evil, not meddling in other’s affairs, expressing how they were better than the woman’s captors, so on and so forth. What it came down to was you were going to watch a young woman being brutalized and humiliated.
I came back later to finish watching the trailer myself, finding it hard to believe it would just be left to that. Of course, one of the men decides he will intervene, and kills all but one of the woman’s captors. Presumably, use of such graphic imagery is designed to evoke sympathy from audience for the woman and elicit cheers when the man goes back. In that case we can also assume that the trailer was designed for a male audience. I can only believe that this trailer would make an audience cheer if that audience never had to consider being the victim in a similar situation themselves. Instead, they will focus on being an onlooker where this sort of thing happens to others (i.e. women). If you’re not part of that audience, vengeance isn’t exactly going to make you feel better about the prospect of being helplessly tormented. It’s also worth noting that some may look past this imagery since it’s set is a quasi-medieval setting. And given that setting, this sort of treatment of women isn’t unusual. Perhaps so, but it’s not the idea that women could be treated poorly in this world that can be upsetting, it’s the choice of the creator to focus squarely on the abuse inflicted on a woman.
I can’t speak to having to be afraid of becoming victimized like that. I’m over six feet tall and weigh in around the neighborhood of 200 lbs. But I’m sensitive to how this affects those that I’d like to share gaming with, and I’m more skeptical of just what this sort of trailer insinuates about its prospective audience. I can see how this would be upsetting, and it irks me to think that this could be someone’s impression of what video games are about. Before I go any further, I want to say again that I don’t believe that a trailer defines a game, and that enjoying this sort of game is wrong, but it’s worthwhile to be cognizant of how these games speak to people and how they reflect on their audiences. With that being said, here are some reasons to find the “Killing Monsters” trailer to be gross.
The violence depicted is used as justification to show off this man’s power.
The man who returns and kills the young woman’s tormentors demonstrates extraordinary powers and asserts his dominance over them. Of course, the men he killed had been doing the same to the young woman: establishing their control over her, abusing her when she had absolutely no recourse. By the end of the trailer, that man hasn’t expressed any sympathy towards the woman, hasn’t shown any contempt for what transpired, only a cold indifference to killing others (sorry, killing monsters.) This roughly translates to “badass” for the target demographic. It’s not an attitude that can’t be entertaining, or appropriate in other circumstances, but in this instance it does nothing to dismantle hierarchy of dominance where the hero stands at the top, the monsters sit in the middle, and the woman cowers at the bottom. This is masked by attempting to frame the issue of evil and good (or not evil, or something). Of course, by the end, the young woman is left with the last of her tormentors at her mercy, courtesy of the hero. But I find it hard to believe that this is in any way an act of compassion or sympathy on his part. She is almost tortured to death by a group of men who are then killed by another man. And the resolution to her situation is being able to turn the violence against her tormentor. Instead of this being an empowering moment for her, it’s a hollow moment of acceptance that violence lies at the root of power which she will only realize with the assistance of a man with super-human powers. Perhaps the man isn’t meant to be compassionate. In which case, what the fuck am I supposed to be taking away about this game based on the trailer? Play this game with evil people and be less evil, which is definitely rad. Which leads to the next point…
If this is where CD Projekt RED is focusing their creative efforts, what does that suggest for the rest of the game?
Chris Kohler recently wrote about an interview conducted with some of the creative minds responsible for the Final Fantasy series. One of the topics of the interview was using the female character Lightning to provide fan service to their audience in the form of making her breasts jiggle when wearing certain costumes. The most resounding insight Kohler had (in my own opinion) regarding this interview was the following:
At this point, it’s tough to see a path back to relevance for Final Fantasy, if the caretakers of the series are spending their creative cycles thinking about the particulars of breast physics.
As I stated earlier, I don’t think that a trailer is necessarily indicative of what a game will actually be about, but if you don’t wince (even if just in your mind) when you see these men abusing this woman then I’ve got to wonder if we were watching the same trailer. It’s rendered with such care and attention to detail that it had to be difficult for the people behind it not to wonder if maybe this was too much. And if this trailer is more indicative of what the game is about then no one should be surprised when it’s the subject of the next controversy in the games industry/community. In any case, this sort of sharp focus on violence against women (and in general) doesn’t really help the game in any meaningful way.
This is the sort of strategy you use with atrocity propaganda to inspire people to violence.
“Look at what group X does to our women and children! They deserve to die! You should kill them.” There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that there are atrocities committed during war, and that medieval times were brutal and cruel. But there’s an unseemly quality when those atrocities are used to manipulate others to violence. That’s because encouraging this style of justice leads to more opportunities for further atrocities to occur. When a game doesn’t thematically acknowledge it’s use of this strategy to motivate players then the audience isn’t being asked to reflect on the consequences of indulging in that violence. The result is your game has a cheap trick to engage people in your game. (For an example of how to do this right, see Hotline Miami.) While the men inflicting abuse on the woman in this trailer are awful people, they are still people. Your sympathy isn’t with them, but your skepticism should be aimed at the man killing them. Wait, that man said he was killing monsters though. And in a Christian Bale-style batman voice no less! So they don’t really count.
I don’t want to come across like I’m trying to spoil anyone’s fun, or raining on any parades but the video game industry and community ignore these issues at their own peril. Not only will you be alienating entire demographics, you will be alienating the people who do want to play games like this. You don’t need to go overboard in expressing that there are awful people who do awful things. Engaging the player in the idea of evil and depicting it are two very different things. Abuse and violence are fair topics for creative exploration, but when thrown about carelessly no one will listen to what you have to say. Also, Microsoft, please use a little more discretion with what you decide to push on people with your dashboard.