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Making violent games in a violent country

Making violent games in a violent country Exclusive

August 3, 2012 | By Eric Caoili

When decapitated victims and bullet-ridden bodies are familiar stories in local news reports -- not just highlighted features for the latest shooter -- how does that affect the way game makers approach violence?

Video games are often more than just showcases of the latest graphics and design ideas; for many triple-A developers, they're also opportunities to flaunt the latest advancements in virtual violence, new ways to show how the human body crumples from a close-range shotgun blast, or how a whole person can be turned into a limbless torso with a few slashes.

When you live in El Salvador, though, where that kind of terror is real and happening on the streets, those games and their gore might not seem so appealing. The small Central American country has the second highest per capita murder rate in the world due to its pervasive gang violence, and killers there often carry out executions with the utmost brutality.

"We see things differently," says independent developer Sergio Rosa, who has grown up in that environment. His exposure to so much violence hasn't compelled him to create games devoid of blood, but it's had a considerable impact on the tone of experiences he hopes to convey at his studio The Domaginarium.

"We can come up with different ideas on how to portray violence in games, and also figure out ways to make other people understand [our experiences]," Rosa explains. That's what The Domaginarium's hoping to do with Enola, one of nine games looking to pick up funding from Kickstarter as an indie bundle.

Enola is a horror/adventure title that has players following the trail of a serial killer who tortures his victims. Rosa wants players to "see what this person does and say, 'Oh my God, that was sick,' not 'Oh my God, that was cool.' I want the exact opposite to what violence is in games most of the time, where you think it's cool to kill people."

Screenshot from an Alpha build of Enola

To invoke that disgust in players, he believes it's imperative for Enola to have a human antagonist, not a monster or alien creature without the same morality or value for life that people are supposed to have. And as a horror game, he says there are few things scarier than what other humans are capable of doing to each other.

"[With some of the violence here], everyone in this country goes, 'It takes a really sick person to do that,'" he adds. "When people are found inside plastic bags without their heads or limbs, everyone says, 'It takes a really sick person because it wasn't enough to kill someone. The killer wanted to show us how brutal he was.'

"So I came up with this idea of having brutal games, but not in the sense of you are the tough guy beating up everyone, rather you are the innocent guy seeing other guys doing all this bad stuff. From that change of perspective gameplay-wise, the way you react to the world will hopefully be different."

Humanity and The Last of Us

While growing up in a country fraught with vicious crime has left Rosa not wanting to celebrate killing in games, he's not out to condemn Western shooters and other games filled with blood, and he's made personal exceptions for some of the most violent titles.

"My biggest problems with violence in games may come from those that focus on violence on humans rather than those that focus on violence on zombies or things that don't actually exist," he explains. It's one thing to dismember a person, and it's another to do the same to a necromorph in Dead Space.

He wasn't incensed over the game many took issue with at E3 a few months ago, Naughty Dog's newest project The Last of Us -- the action/survival title's demonstration at the expo seemed to glorify savagery, eliciting cheers from conference attendees as human enemies were stabbed, pistol-whipped, hit with bricks, choked, set on fire, and finally, shot in the face point-blank.

Rosa points out that The Last of Us' premise is you're guiding and protecting a 14-year-old through a post-apocalyptic world full of desperate and dangerous survivors. You have to take the lives of others to do that, but he argues that the feelings it evokes could be very different from typical shooters: "I don't feel good about doing it, but I have to do this because if I don't, they will kill me and will kill this young girl. I have to protect us from these guys."

He contrasts that experience with another game shown off at E3, Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist. "It focused on violence as well, but that's a different kind of focus because you're a soldier, and you're killing all these people because you were trained to and you're the tough guy, and you are capable of doing it just because," he says.

It's a different approach that Rosa thinks developers should be mindful of, if they want to show violence that's more than just a way to satisfy players' bloodlust and power fantasies. "If you design it well, you won't feel like 'I am so tough because I killed a hundred soldiers,' but rather, 'Man, I have to do this because if I don't my family is going to die. It connects with your mind in a very different way.'"

[Sergio Rosa, along with other game makers in perilous countries, shared more of his thoughts on what it's like to create games amidst so much violence in Gamasutra's recent "Wartorn Developers" feature.]

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