Three Ways To Reduce Or Increase The Emotional Impact Of Fictional Violence

Well, I thought that I’d talk about the subject of fictional violence today. This is mostly because a few of the computer games that I’ve been playing recently have handled the subject in subtly different ways and this made me think about how creative people can choose what level of emotional impact violent scenes have on the audience.

And, no, I’m not one of those idiots who thinks that violent games make people violent in real life. In fact, a lot of the reasons why fictional violence gains or loses it’s emotional impact depends heavily on the audience not being emotionless sociopaths or sadistic criminals.

Depictions of fictional violence depend on the audience having both pre-existing moral standards and the capacity for empathy – since low-impact fictional violence finds various ways to bypass the audience’s empathy/ moral standards (in order to evoke more positive emotions), whereas high-impact fictional violence doesn’t do this (in order to evoke a sense of horror or disgust).

So, that said, how can you reduce or increase the emotional impact of fictional violence in any stories, comics, games etc… that you create?

1) Individuality: Whilst playing a first-person shooter game from 1998 (that I plan to review sometime in the future) called “SiN”, I suddenly realised why the fictional violence in the game comes across as thrillingly dramatic rather than disturbingly brutal.

Many of the generic evil henchmen your character has to fight are pretty much clones of each other and, as such, the game feels considerably less “brutal” or “disturbing”. But, how does this lessen the emotional impact of the events of the game?

Yes, occasionally their uniforms change, but the character models, voice actor etc… are identical for each low-level henchman.

It is because part of the horror of violence is the destruction of individuality. This is why, when one of your favourite fictional characters dies, it is a genuine shock for the simple reason that there’s no-one else quite like this character. However, when generic identical henchman #72 dies, it causes much less of an emotional impact because the audience know that they will soon meet generic identical henchman #73.

So, the more individuality and characterisation a character has, the greater level of emotional impact any scenes of fictional violence involving them will have.

2) Moral context: Moving away from games for a minute, a couple of weeks before writing the first draft of this article, I happened to watch a really great episode of “Supernatural”. This episode partially concludes the dramatic story arc that has played out through the season and it is also one of the most action-packed episodes of the show that I’ve seen in a while. And, yet, when I watched it – I noticed something.

This is a screenshot from season 12, episode 22 of “Supernatural”.

Virtually all of the violence in the episode seemed to follow some kind of unspoken chivalric code. For example, even when one of the show’s more unprincipled villains finds that one of the show’s heroes is unconscious, he insists on waking him up before they both have a fair and evenly-matched fist fight with each other. Yet, despite the episode being one of the more violent episodes in the season, it’s a thrilling, dramatic and uplifting episode.

This made me think about how moral context affects the emotional impact of fictional violence. I mean, one reason why many “violent videogames” aren’t disturbing is for the simple reason that you are playing as a heroic character who is often clearly shown to be fighting in self-defence (or in the defence of someone else).

Even though the adversaries in many violent games are often considerably weaker than the player character, their increased numbers give the player the impression of being one person against hundreds. Of being David, even though they are actually more like Goliath.

All of this is designed to tap into the idea of “good vs evil”, or “weak vs strong”, or “victim vs aggressor” and the long-standing moral codes surrounding these things.

Of course, when any of this is changed, the emotional impact of fictional violence in games is increased sharply. A good example of this is a game called “Hotline Miami“.

In this game, you don’t play as a heroic character – but as a deranged criminal who attacks other criminals. The game doesn’t present the player character as being even vaguely heroic in any way. In fact, even a scene where he rescues another character (who it is implied has been held prisoner by gangsters) comes across as more of a kidnapping than a rescue.

Likewise, the game’s health system heavily encourages the player to attack the main character’s adversaries before they even so much as think about raising their weapons (and to do evil things like killing unconscious adversaries etc..). Plus, the violent events of each level are always shown to be initiated by the player, rather than by the other characters. All of this means that you don’t really get the sense of fighting in justifiable self-defence either.

Even though this game features generic “henchmen” characters who are literally identical to each other, the violence in this game has a much less thrilling and a much more disturbing emotional tone to it for the simple reason that it is presented in a more “immoral” way. So, yes, the more “moral” fictional violence is, the less emotional impact it has.

3) Speed and consequences: The emotional impact of fictional violence is also heavily affected by the speed that it happens and how the consequences of it are presented.

For example, the classic 1993 computer game “Doom” is an incredibly fun action game where you fight against hordes of monsters. Yes, the game includes some mildly grisly death animations, but they are over swiftly and the only “consequence” is the player’s survival and eventual victory.

This is a screenshot from “Doom” (1993) [Played using the “ZDoom” source port] .

However, there is a very famous fan-made mod for this game called “Brutal Doom”. Although this mod is intended to make the game more “badass”, it often just serves to make playing the game feel incredibly disturbing. Why? It takes a sadistic relish in showing the horrific, drawn out, grotesque, painful consequences of the original game’s “quick” and “clean” violence. And, no, I’m not going to include a screenshot of this. It’s pretty gross.

In “Brutal Doom”, the player is given time to see the suffering and misery that they have wrought. And, as such, you can’t help but feel sorry for the game’s monsters. A similar mechanic is used in “Hotline Miami”, where – instead of a victory screen after each level – the player has to walk back to the entrance of the level whilst gazing upon the grisly carnage that they have caused.

Moving away from games, one reason why the violence in many modern action movies is often “thrilling” rather than “disturbing” is because the consequences of it are rarely presented in a realistic way. For example, the “baddies” will often die quick and bloodless deaths, and the protagonist is never shown defending their actions in court afterwards, spending months recovering from the injuries they sustained in battle etc…

So, the emotional impact of fictional violence depends heavily on how quickly it happens and how the consequences of it are presented.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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