Killing Monsters

[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.

There.  I fixed it.

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.

Sweet kill, bro.  LOL

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.


11 Responses to “Killing Monsters”

  1. 1 Reynevan
    August 18, 2013 at 9:07 pm

    You should play the Witcher 1 and 2 then – the depiction of the world in the trailer fits everything that was estabilished before by the books that the Witcher series is based on and by the CDPR. Very low, very dark fantasy setting.

    First of all, you talk out of your ass as you basically know nothing of the world and the characters, not to mention that the only one talking [well, besides one sentence] is Geralt, the protagonist.
    He doesn’t talk about being better – he talks about the fact that basically there is no lesser evil and all he wants to do is to be neutral, to not meddle, not to have to choose – which falls in line with his character and the world. Hell, the other Witcher tells him to just let it go and to not intervene. It’s just that Geralt often acts on impulse, which is what happens when the soldiers decide that instead of hanging the woman they will knock her teeth out first [since she bit one of them]. And the thing is that this woman… was probably guilty. No Man’s Land is a war zone where people are trying to survive under occupation – it is very reasonable to assume that she could in fact have killed wounded soldiers, looted their bodies and perhaps, due to hunger, engaged in cannibalism. It isn’t unheard of, hell even in the modern times [Leningrad, WW2]. Would you show sympathy to someone like that if you were them? And if you ask – well, ok, but should the violence towards the woman be used as a way to generate sympathy towards her ? To which I say – you missed the point. It’s primarily to establish what kind of world this is to the viewer, who probably never came in contact with the Witcher series. You are a living example that it can be interpreted in different ways, but even you have to acknowledge that you got something about the tone of the game [and especially about No Man’s Land, which will be one of 3 areas in the game].

    The main hook of The Witcher series is not only the world that is brutal in its depiction of racism, sexism and hypocrisy, but also because you often make decisions while not knowing the full picture. [Just like you did, when you wrote article]. Sometimes you choose between evil and evil and sometimes you think you do good when in fact you do not. That’s the point. The stuff with the woman is not the most “unsettling” thing about The Witcher – hell, they tackled multiple times the subject of rape, incest and such. And no, there was no controversy.

    You chose to only see a woman getting beaten and that’s fair. That’s what it is. But then you built up your whole story around it, you start seeing things where there are none. If you only see the gender then you miss everything else that is going on in the trailer. It could have been a man. But it wasn’t and nothing would have changed. I’m not denying that they went a little too far with the action bits, but it’s CG so I can’t really blame them. That’s what this kind of trailers are usually for unfortunately.

    • 2 Scornwell
      August 25, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      “they tackled multiple times the subject of rape, incest and such. And no, there was no controversy.”
      …in the context of the game, which was provided by the rest of the game. Not the same thing as a 5-minute trailer, which exists only in the context of itself.

      “You chose to only see a woman getting beaten and that’s fair. That’s what it is.”
      Exactly! The trailer chose to only show a women getting beaten. All the previous story and hypothetical scenario context you provided is irrelevant justification for brutal imagery intended to provoke the exact emotions that the author of this piece already explained.

  2. August 26, 2013 at 12:24 am

    From what I’ve played of the first Witcher game… yeah, I’d guess that your reaction probably was exactly what the people who made the trailer were going for. The games are pretty darn bleak.

    • August 27, 2013 at 2:24 pm

      I tends to fall to Raynevan’s side. The game is describing a story in some ways : A cold man who is with a fellow but that one decides to react and help the “poor girl”.

      – The character could have launch a debate why….. but players want action.
      – He could have disarmed the enemies but they would leave her alone.

      The character says the girl to not look at, but she did and had no reaction, and remains stoic to the end of the trailer. She’s probably guilty and get rid of the last guy.

      – The characters acted despite knowing circumstances and even she’s guilty he act. Maybe the CG team missed a large smile over girl’s face when the character leave. And if so, would you’ve been focusing on violence.

      Ok violence is a pretext but it’s also a context and the game is in an heroic fantasy universe. If you only put Care Bears (i don’t know if you say that in English but that sounds clear in french (Bisounours)) and violence abstinence by controlling a priest wanting to prevent fighting, people probably won’t give a look. It’s like “Last of Us”, without potential violence, there’s no fear and a very limited action, if you also allow the player to avoid it all along the game, will you obtain a cool player’s feeling? It’s your choice.

      People must see beyond violence and do not think “utility ?”, but “why” or “is that fair” or even “that character is a brute”. Without that sequence, all possible reflexion over “was that really fair” would have fallen and that the point with “The Witcher” serie.

      Think violence has a context, not a row input of free violence. But sure, i would better have watched inversed genders. And so sexism wouldn’t have been the point but unfortunately it’s physic, women are physically weaker than men and in a medieval context… That’s a choice, focus on violence and appearances to hide the point (because i’m pretty sure there is).

  3. August 27, 2013 at 10:32 pm

    Don’t know much about The Witcher, but I thought the trailer was pretty fantastic. Unless I saw a shortened version of it, most of the violence toward the woman was implied via vocal threats which weren’t carried out do to the protagonist’s intervention. Try watching Hostel or any of its low-budget friends if you want to see women being explicitly tortured for the viewer’s pleasure. Not really my cup of tea, and I don’t see any of that in this trailer. The violence toward the women was mostly in the viewer’s imagination and as such was very effective without being exploitative.

  4. August 28, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Solid analysis. Thanks for sharing it!

    • August 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Thanks to be a comprehensive guy.

      Everybody is pointing out violence and sexism. But not much are thinking beyond. Just take a look a tomb raider. brutalized ? yes but this is not about the scene but the whole context : that made her a powerful girl who is getting rid of hundreds of bad guys, but everybody pass beside. That’s like design : often, each design point is taking separately but the important is the whole. Ex : Splinter Cell : Blacklist VS Chaos Theory and Pandora Tomorrow. And that makes me sad to have the actual results :'(. But there are Indies and new ubi AAA vision by example.

  5. 8 Batou Kovacs
    August 30, 2013 at 6:25 am

    Having been a big fan of Witcher 1+2, keep in mind the time period the game is set in. We’ve only had feminism for 40 years or so. For thousands of years the life of most men was poor, nasty, brutish, and short. In many places it still is. While we whittle down our beta males in the west, the east is rising. Look to China, Korea, Africa, and the Middle East. As the legions of Uruk-hai pour out of Mordor, in the west the beta males are told they must work harder for their jewish banker masters. Your fiat dollars must pay for independent single moms raising the next generation of illiterate thuglets. The fatties in human resources must have their double lattes.

    We were raised to believe that we could follow our passion, and make money doing something we love, but we can’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. Not everyone can have a location independent, passive income, muse funded, 4 hour a week dream job.

    You see chivalry in ads. Because even in the lowest beta male there is a warrior who thirsts for victory. And when the orcs are at your gates, your leaders will light that fire. As has been done for centuries. If you can, spend some time living in Russia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary. It will change you.

  6. February 3, 2014 at 7:28 am

    Hello there! This is my first comment here so
    I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I genuinely enjoy reading your articles.
    Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that deal
    with the same subjects? Thank you!

  7. 10 Kupradix
    January 12, 2016 at 7:36 pm

    I never thought that I would have to write this awfull cliche moral, but I just have to: Don´t judge him, you don´t know his story.
    And I´m serious. With every single sentence, you only show further your lack of knowledge of Geralt.
    The ending is a bit dark, but otherwise, its quite an emotional moment.

    “The violence depicted is used as justification to show off this man’s power.”
    What is supposed to be the point of this whole paragraph? Using force to help is wrong?

    The witcher hasn´t shown any sympathy, and….this is so hard to write when you haven´t obviously read any of the books. He kills monsters that would otherwise kill people, risking his life every time for some money – and for that, he gets no gratitude, only shame and is on the edge of the society, which would have him happily exterminated is he wasn´t of some use now and then. Witchers are basically on the same level to people as the monsters that they kill.
    Communication between the witcher and the woman just isn´t happening, it two isolated worlds, it would be weird, at the very least. He doesn´t expect any gratitude, and he possibly doesn´t even have any sympathy for the woman. This scene is happening every day in the war and has happened many times over in is life.
    He lived quite a long life and seen the worst of humanity, and seen that no matter what, people will always kill each other. So its not like one life really maters, when you´ve witnessed hunderds pass away, realised that war never change, that justice is non-existent and how cruel the order of the world is.
    This is really hard to explain…perhaps read the book to understand how he never mingles with wars and such, okay, never is not the right term, but he doesn´t feel a part of the society, of the kingdoms and has no reason to involve himself int eh endless conflicts and just isn´t mercenary.
    If he wasn´t over it, he could just go insane. Or at least in constant depression. And besides Yennefer and Ciri, he doesn´t really have anything to live for.
    And his Codex, the Witcher Codex. No such thing exists, but it gives some moral background to what he does. Not to that he kills monsters, but to what he doesn´t kill. Like sentient monsters (Dopplers, Succubi) and people, unless they endanger him.
    And now, he makes this decision. That he won´t let this go. It won´t change anything. He´s got no obligation to do it, but he decides that this is a moment that involves him, that he´s adding horrible people on the same list as monsters. That he has the same obligation to kill these people as he has to kill the monsters that endanger people. That´s quite a commitment. And its not like some ethics are driving him to that. He makes justice by his own way.
    Its incredibly hard to explain this, because there is just so much story behind this, so much context. I could go listing things for a long time.

    “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”
    What? How would you dismantle that hierarchy? Isn´t the ending actually overturning that hierarchy? Or how else – have the woman gain super powers and free herself?

    Also, what your issue with violence being used to end violence. You may of course repeat the cliche that violence isn´t the answer to violence, but how do you propose to have this situation solved then? Invite them to a beer? Sue them that they are misusing their powers? Appeal on their empathy?

    Perhaps its just the way you needlesly use complicated and confusing sentences and I might have totaly misinterpreted what you mean to say, but to me it seems that you are simply whining that Geralt isn´t a hippie feminist that would use the power of love and the ideas of universal brotherhood to solve the situation.

    Also, if you get embarased and offended by seeing a non-existent, fictional woman being beaten and humiliated, then I suggest you don´t play the game. You might not have realized, but Wiedźmin is one of those cruel, depresing stories, full of sex, brutality, evil people wining all the time, pogroms, racism, murder, pointless slaughter, no justice, it shows the true nature of humankind. Though its still not as brutal as the Bible.

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