Three Things That Novels Can Learn From Computer Games

Well, although I was originally going to write another opinionated article about how, unlike computer games, books don’t have system requirements and how this means that modern novels are open to a much wider audience than modern games (which often require an expensive modern computer), I thought that I’d turn things round and look at some of the things that novels can learn from computer games.

So, let’s get started:

1) Series: These days, book series seem to be all the rage and there are a lot of reasons for this. Not only does it give readers something to come back to whenever a new book comes out, but it also means that an author doesn’t have to create a totally new set of characters for each book (which means that further books can be quicker to write etc..). Series also allow for deeper storylines, characterisation etc.. too.

However, if you’ve ever played a series of computer games, then you’ll know that you can almost always jump into a game series at any point. After all, games are expensive to make – so, each instalment of a game series has to be made in a way that allows new players to pick it up and enjoy it without having played the previous games. This is awesome 🙂

Whilst some genres of fiction, such as the detective and thriller genres, are pretty good at this – with each new novel in a series usually featuring a self-contained mystery for the main character to solve, this isn’t always the case in every genre.

Seriously, there is nothing worse than discovering a really cool-looking/cool-sounding book that turns out to be the fifth in a series and then deciding not to get it because it might require you to buy four other books first.

So, even if your series is telling a continuous story, you need to be aware that each book might be the first one that a new reader picks up. As such, you need to write it in such a way that people can start with each book. Although most authors do include recaps these days (which is good), you also need to think in terms of story arcs too. In other words, there should be a few points in your series where a new sub-plot or story arc starts and new readers can jump into the series from there.

2) User experience: If there’s one thing to be said for games, they are focused on the audience. A lot of game design revolves around planning and structuring games in such a way that they are fun, intuitive and compelling for the player. Game designers will do things like using subtle visual cues, including clever limitations/rules etc… to ensure that a game is a really enjoyable experience. Likewise, game studios will often rigourously playtest games in order to see how actual players react to them (and modify the game accordingly).

But, what does this have to do with writing? Simply put, it means that you have to keep the reader in mind at all times. Whenever you write something, you have to ask yourself “how will this make the reader feel?”, “how will the reader experience this?” etc…

And, yes, this means that you’ll also have to edit ruthlessly too. For example, whilst a brilliant description, sub-plot, scene or background detail might have been really fun to write and might really impress you – if it interferes with the pacing, readability or flow of your story, then it should probably be shortened, reworked or removed. The thing to remember here is that your story is meant for the people who will be reading it.

3) Length: This is a bit of a cautionary example. In games, length has often been seen as a virtue (in part, due to fact that new games are expensive). And, in some cases, long games are a good thing. But, most of the time, longer games also mean that most players never actually finish the games they buy.

Annoyingly, within the past couple of decades, this “longer is better” attitude seems to have seeped into books, publishing etc.. too. And, most of the time, it is a bad thing.

Not only can a giant tome-size novel put people off (with the thought of “I don’t have time to read all of this!”), but it can also sometimes result in lower-quality writing too. When a book is short, the author has to make sure that every page matters and they have to find ways to cram as much storytelling as possible into a limited number of pages. This results in a more well-written, focused and streamlined novel.

In other words, shorter books will often be more compelling than long ones. Yes, there are obviously exceptions to this, but if you want a satisfying story that remains consistently compelling and can be finished within a reasonable amount of time, then short is good.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Writing: Creativity Via Limitations – A Ramble

Although I’d planned to write a different article for today, I saw something shortly before writing this article [Edit: Which was several months before I got a vaguely modern refurbished computer] which made me think about creativity and the limitations of the written word.

It was a trailer for an upcoming computer game (called “Cyberpunk 2077”), of all things. For a few seconds, I really wanted to play the game until I suddenly realised “The system requirements will be sky-high. It would melt my vintage computer if I even tried.” This then morphed into the forlorn thought “If this was a novel instead of a game, I could actually enjoy it“.

After all, in English at least, writers only have 26 letters that they can use. Pretty much everyone is trained to read from a young age. Books don’t really have system requirements. And, whilst this means that we can do things like read books from literally over a century ago, it also has a lot of limitations too. After all, there are only 26 letters to work with.

Yet, these limitations are one of the main things that makes prose fiction such a creative thing. After all, writers can’t rely on fancy new computer graphics or anything like that in order to impress their readers. They have 26 letters and a pre-made system of grammar to work with. As such, writers have to get creative in order to make something astonishing within these old limitations.

And this produces some truly spectacular results. For example, when I was watching the modern game trailer I mentioned earlier, one of my first thoughts was “Oooh! A cyberpunk city during the daytime. This reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash“. Now, for comparison, “Snow Crash” was published in 1992. On the other hand, the best computer game graphics from 1992 looked a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992).

So, yes, novels have been using spectacular “graphics” for much longer than computer games have. Using just 26 letters.

This limitation has spurred writers to do things like find their own unique “style”, to think of interesting locations, to come up with brilliant characters, to tell new types of stories, to use things like grammar and chapter length to achieve particular effects (eg: short sentences and short chapters in a fast-paced thriller novel) etc….

In other words, it has forced writers to be creative. After all, every other writer will be using the same letters, words etc… so, what matters is how a writer uses them.

Interestingly, there is a little bit of a parallel with computer games here. After all, there’s a lot of nostalgia for games from the 1990s – and with good reason! Back then, computer technology was a lot more limited. So, like writers, game designers had to be creative within these limitations. Since they couldn’t rely on flashy photo-realistic graphics, they had to set their games apart from the crowd through the use of things like imagination, clever design, innovative ideas etc…

But, I digress. The point of all of this is that if you want to see a perfect example of how limitations can actually make people more creative, then pick up a book.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was interesting 🙂

Are Games Art? – A Ramble

First of all, the answer is clearly “yes!“. But, I recently happened to read some online articles about this tired old debate and felt like giving my opinions about why games are art – in addition to giving some of my thoughts about the medium in general. And, yes, today was something of an uninspired day.

Leaving aside the obvious point about how games contain visual design, music and things like that, I’d argue that games are art because of the role they play. Whilst things are often only seen as “Art” when they are placed in galleries (as if they are sacred relics of some kind), this goes against the whole point of art. Art is there to enrich everyday life. Art is there to make us imagine. Art is there to contribute to the shared cultures that we all live in.

Art is, in the best possible way, the background to all of our lives. It’s like the bass line in a rock, punk or heavy metal song. Most of the time you don’t even hear it, but if it wasn’t there, then it would probably be very noticeable. So, yes, art is something that surrounds us all.

That song in the background? That’s art. That poster on the wall? That’s art. The design on that T-shirt? That’s art. The desktop background on your computer? That’s art. I could go on, but art is something that travels alongside us as we go through life, making the world seem more interesting, allowing us to make more sense of the world and providing material for our imaginations, thoughts and daydreams.

Whether you make it and/or are a part of the audience, art is an essential part of being human. It’s why even the earliest humans painted pictures on the walls of their caves.

If, like me, you’ve grown up with games, then you’ll know that they clearly fit that description.

For example, when a cloud of dust from the Sahara turned the skies above Britain an ominous shade of grey-orange last year, my first thought was ‘Oh my god, this is just like one of the early parts of “Silent Hill 3‘. This is exactly the same sort of thing as when I’ve seen the view from the top of Portsdown Hill at night and thought ‘Cool! This looks just like the opening scene of “Blade Runner‘.

Likewise, if I’ve been playing “point and click” games for a while then, in the few minutes after I stop playing, I’ll sometimes find my thoughts filled with sarcastic descriptions of everything I see (in a similar manner to the main characters in these games) – in exactly the same way that a novel with a distinctive narrative voice will sometimes briefly shape the tone of my thoughts after I finish reading it.

If I get nostalgic about certain times in my life, then the games I was playing at the time will be a part of that nostalgia (in the same way that the music I was listening to at the time will be). I could go on, but games fill the same role as things like music, films, books etc… do. Therefore, they are art.

One of the arguments, made by the art critic Jonathan Jones in 2012, against games being art is that they don’t reflect a single artist’s vision. Or, as Jones puts it: ‘A work of art is one person’s reaction to life. Any definition of art that robs it of this inner response by a human creator is a worthless definition.

However, this argument falls apart when compared to other artforms like film and theatre. Yes, one person might have written the script. But that script is interpreted by a director, and then further interpreted by the cast. There’s no one individual who has absolute control over how a film or a play turns out. Yet, not even the most old-fashioned of critics would deny that film or theatre should be considered part of “the arts”.

But, one area where games do fall down slightly is the topic of easy accessibility. In short, it’s less intuitive for beginners to dabble with game-making.

Unlike picking up a pencil and doodling, picking up a camera and taking some photos or picking up a cheap guitar and following a piece of tablature, it’s more difficult for a beginner to dabble in making games. Even though there are “game maker” programs out there, most of these either have a steep learning curve and/or severely limit what curious novice game developers can do.

I mean, I’d love to make games. But, I’m a visual artist and a writer instead for the simple reason that these artforms have a more intuitive learning curve. Likewise, the tools needed to make drawings/paintings, comics and prose fiction are cheap, open and widely available to all. So, even though I’ve dreamed of making games ever since I started playing them, I’ve gravitated towards these other artforms instead for the simple reason that they were more welcoming to beginners..

In addition to this, games are perhaps one of the only artforms where there are additional barriers to entry for the audience. If you want to watch a film and you don’t have a DVD drive, Blu-ray player, VCR, television or internet connection, there’s always the cinema. If you want to listen to music, then you just need a cheap radio, MP3 player or CD player (or you can go to a concert, or pick up an instrument, or just hum a tune). If you want to read the latest novels, then the hardback editions might cost £15-20 each – but they’ll probably be in libraries (if the government hasn’t under-funded them into oblivion) and/or second-hand bookshops after a while. I could go on…

Games, on the other hand, have system requirements. In order to even play a popular modern game that might cost £40-50, you also need a piece of technology that could cost £300 or much more. And it will probably become “obsolete” within 5-10 years.

Yes, there are obviously retro games and some low-spec modern indie games (eg: the games I play these days). Plus, there are mobile phones (that have games on them). Plus, there are probably a few old arcade machines (anyone remember those?) languishing in a dark corner somewhere.

But, can you imagine not being able to read a novel because you haven’t paid to upgrade to the latest version of the English language? Or not being able to see a film because your television is out-of-date etc…

Games are an artform, and they should damn well act like it! In other words, they should be open to everyone.

Yes, this might mean that games don’t have the latest ultra-realistic graphics. But, this is where the “art” comes in. If a novel can render a vividly realistic scene in the audience’s imaginations using just 26 letters, then games can get by on lo-fi graphics (that will run on even the oldest or cheapest of electronic devices). I mean, the “art” in games doesn’t come from the realism of the graphics – it comes from the story, the visual design/art style, the atmosphere and/or the experience of playing the game (eg: the gameplay).

So, yes, games are art. But, they should really take a few lessons from other artforms about being more open to both potential audience members and to those who are vaguely wishing to dabble with game-making.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Here’s Yet Another Thing Computer And Video Games Can Teach Artists And Writers

Well, I thought that I’d look at the topic of gaming and creativity yet again, mostly because of a mundane experience I had when looking online for a desk chair for the backup computer I recently installed.

I was comparing all of the chairs on a website and sorting them by price, when I suddenly thought “This reminds me a little of an upgrade screen in an early-mid 2000s action game.

If you’ve never played these games before, then they often tend to feature bonuses etc.. that can be collected in-game and then used to “buy” upgrades and items for your character. There’s a degree of skill in choosing what to buy with the resources you have. The upgrade screens look a bit like this:

This is a screenshot from “Alien Shooter” (2003), showing the game’s upgrade screen.

This is a screenshot from “X-COM: Enforcer” (2001), showing the game’s upgrade screen.

So, what does any of this have to do with creativity? Well, it’s all to do with how creative works can make mundane experiences (eg: shopping etc..) seem much cooler and more dramatic.

This provides lasting value to the audience, by both making everyday moments seem cooler and by immersing them in the game/story/comic/painting etc.. more by linking it to common, everday things.

Because games are interactive, they often tend to contain the best examples of this sort of thing. For example, if you’ve ever had to find a way to re-arrange your stuff in order to make more space, then “Tetris” can spring to mind.

This is a screenshot from “Techlogica TechTris” (2006) – a “Tetris”-style game.

This is a game that revolves around quickly fitting tessellating shapes into a limited space. And, thinking about re-arranging things as “a live-action version of Tetris” can be a way to inject some fun and/or humour into what is basically an arduous and tedious task.

But, other things than games can also evoke this feeling too. For example, if you’re looking at or editing a picture on your computer and you zoom in on it, then you might possibly think about the ESPER machine from a classic 1980s sci-fi film called “Blade Runner”.

If you’ve never seen this film before, the ESPER machine is a photo-enhancement machine that plays a brief, but important, role in the film. It’s this hulking, whirring analogue thing that still somehow looks really futuristic. And, yet it does the same thing as a basic photo viewer or image editing program does these days.

This is a screenshot of the ESPER machine from “Blade Runner” (1982). In the 1980s, this was a cool piece of sci-fi tech. These days, even the most basic computer programs will do more than it can.

In conclusion, finding ways to make mundane tasks seem cool, interesting or exciting can be one of the easiest ways to ensure that your creative work lingers in your audience’s imaginations – since experiencing everyday things can remind your audience of the things that you’ve made.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Five Reasons Why Artists Should Be Gamers Too

Although I’ve talked about computer/video games and artistic inspiration more times than I can remember (and apologies if I repeat myself in this article), I thought that I’d look at this subject from a slightly different angle today. In particular, I’ll be talking about why artists should be gamers too.

1) Thinking in 3D: I vaguely remember reading that there was actually a scientific study about this, but most artists who are also gamers will know about it anyway. I am, of course, talking about how playing 3D computer/video games can actually help you to think in three dimensions.

What I mean by this is being able to visualise the things you want to draw or paint as if they were 3D objects.

This is one of the most essential skills for making art, since it can help you with things like realistic perspective, realistic shadows, copying from life etc… Being able to see the things in your drawing or painting as three-dimensional objects (converted into a 2D drawing or painting) is an incredibly useful skill- and playing lots of 3D games can really help with learning it.

This is especially true if you play older 3D games with less realistic graphics. Because these games look less realistic, it is easier to see all of the various 3D shapes. Older 3D games also provide simplified interactive examples of things like one-point perspective (eg: any first-person shooter game will use this perspective), 3D shapes seen from different angles etc…

This is a screenshot of “Rise Of The Triad: Dark War” (1993). Although not technically a “3D” game, this screenshot shows how one-point perspective (eg: the bottoms of the two walls beside the player converge towards one point on the horizon) is an essential part of the first-person shooter genre.

This screenshot from “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (2004) provides another example of one-point perspective, albeit from a third-person perspective.

2) Having fun with a creative work: If there’s one thing to be said for computer/video games, it is that most of them are meant to be fun. Yes, I’m aware that this is something of an old-fashioned simplification these days. But, historically at least, fun has been the primary concern of most game developers.

Having fun with games is important if you are an artist for the simple reason that it can remind you that the goal of creating things is to make something that the audience will enjoy. To make something which will impress them, make them think, evoke a particular emotion and/or inspire them creatively in some way or another.

Playing games also allows you to see pieces of artwork “in action” as part of a larger creative work (eg: as backgrounds etc..), which can remind you of the value of art.

Because games are such an immersive and interactive medium, they are a perfect way to remind yourself of the power of creativity. To remind yourself of how fascinating creative works can be and how creating things is a meaningful and important activity.

This is a screenshot from a hidden object game called “The Gift” (2012?), it’s a paranormal “film noir” style puzzle adventure game that (aside from one repetitive segment) is quite relaxing to play. As you can also see, it also contains some cool-looking art (which uses one-point perspective) too.

3) It makes you appreciate how “open” art is: This one is a bit more cynical. But, you may have noticed that all of the game screenshots included in this article are from older and/or very low-budget games.

This is mostly because the computer I’m typing this article on isn’t exactly a modern gaming machine (it’s a low-end computer from the mid-2000s, and I love it 🙂 ). Simply put, it isn’t powerful enough to play many popular contemporary games. If I didn’t love old/ low-budget games so much, then I’d probably feel like I was missing out on something.

This is a screenshot from “Blackwell Epiphany” (2014). It is that rare thing, a “modern” game that will actually run on pretty much any computer.

Of course, art doesn’t really have these problems. As long as your eyesight is ok, then you can look at any piece of art you want. You can look at everything from old paintings from the 15th century on the internet to the latest works of contemporary digital art on DeviantART. Seeing the technical restrictions that games place on their audience can make you appreciate how “open” art is by comparison. How it is something that is instantly accessible to a much wider audience.

Likewise, if you play a lot of games, then you’re inevitably going to think “I want to make a game!” at some point. Of course, even a small amount of research will show you that making a “proper” game is a complicated thing that often requires a team of people, a budget etc.. (it’s kind of like making a film in this regard). Making art, on the other hand, is something that you can do with just a pen and paper if you want to. Again, the barrier to entry is a lot lower.

4) Trickery and limitations: One of the really cool things about old games is that the designers had to make enjoyable games that would run on the low-powered computers and consoles of the time. This meant that they often had to use all sorts of clever trickery in order to make their games seem more visually-impressive than they actually were

Sometimes, designers would actually turn a technical limitation into an important feature. A good example of this can be found in the older “Resident Evil” games from the mid-late 1990s.

These are horror games that create a suspenseful atmosphere through, amongst other things, the use of fixed “camera angles”. Not only does this give the game a more “cinematic” look (and allows for more artistic compositions), but it also allows the designers to occasionally hide monsters just off-screen in order to create things like jump scares etc..

This is a screenshot from “Resident Evil: Director’s Cut” (1997) – note the unusual “camera angle” in this scene. By leaving part of the room out of sight, the game’s creators can create a sense of suspense. Likewise, notice how the stag’s head and candelabra in the close foreground help to give the room a sense of depth. Not to mention that this screenshot is a good example of three-point perspective too.

Of course, these fixed camera angles weren’t a completely deliberate choice. They were, in fact, the developers taking advantage of a major technical limitation. The reason why the camera doesn’t move is because the game’s locations aren’t actually 3D. They’re just a collection of two-dimensional pictures, with 3D characters super-imposed on top of them. It was a really sneaky way to make the game run faster and look better on the technology of the time.

Yes, making games and making art are two very different things. But, seeing game designers turn limitations into features can be a great learning experience if you’re a more inexperienced artist and/or you don’t have time to spend months on a single piece of art. Being impressed by games that use technical trickery will put you in the mood for finding time-saving tricks for your own art and/or sneaky ways to make your art look even better.

5) Worldbuilding: Finally, one other thing that makes games so useful to artists is that they immerse the player in a fictional “world”.

What this means is that everything in a game has to look like an organic part of the game’s “world”. If something seems out of place or poorly-thought-through, then it it will be immediately obvious to the player. So, good location design and worldbuilding is very important in sci-fi, fantasy, horror etc… games.

This is a screenshot from “Shadowrun: Dragonfall” (2014). The location in this screenshot is an anarchist micro-state in a futuristic version of Berlin. This is signalled to the player through the futuristic neon lighting/gadgets, some German text on the buildings in the background and the fact that the streets and street lighting look a bit more “makeshift” than usual. These are all organic elements of the game’s world that have emerged from the idea of “an anarchist micro-state in futuristic Berlin“.

As such, games contain numerous perfect examples of how to come up with more interesting or convincing locations if you are painting or drawing from imagination. Even less-perfect examples of this sort of thing can show you what sorts of mistakes you need to avoid when coming up with backgrounds for your paintings or drawings.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

What 1990s Computer Games Can Teach Writers And Comic Makers About Why Humour Is Important

Although this is an article about writing fiction and/or making comics, I’m going to have to start by talking about computer games for a while (again!). As usual, there will be a good reason for this that will become obvious later – and it’s not just because I’m going through a bit more of a retro gaming phase than usual at the moment.

Anyway, at the time of writing, I’m playing two games from the 1990s that – despite many superficial differences – have one thing in common.

One game is a fiendishly difficult sci-fi first-person shooter game from 1998 called “SiN” that features a tough action hero called John Blade who fights hordes of henchmen. The other game is a fairly non-violent fantasy “point and click” adventure game from 1993 called “Legend Of Kyrandia – Hand Of Fate” which is about a magician called Zanthia who has to go on an epic quest to stop her world from disappearing.

On the surface, these two games seem very different. Yet, they have something in common with each other. It doesn’t come across that well in these screenshots, but see if you can spot it:

This is a screenshot from “SiN” (1998)

This is a screenshot from “Legend Of Kyrandia – Hand Of Fate” (1993)

Yes, you got it! Humour! Even though these are games from five years apart, in radically different genres (both thematically and in terms of gameplay), with very different graphical styles, with different characters and different target audiences – they both include a lot of humour! Both games are filled with hilariously sarcastic and/or witty dialogue, silly background details and the refreshing sense that they aren’t meant to be “100% serious“.

And, the surprising thing is that this seriously improves both games in so many ways! Whether it distracts from the constant cheap difficulty and occasionally terrible level design in “SiN” or whether it distracts from the fact that “Hand Of Fate” is (if my memories of playing about half of it during the early 2000s are correct) filled with frustrating early-mid 1990s adventure game puzzles, the humour does a lot to cover up the shortcomings of both games.

It also makes the audience want to keep returning to the game, just to see what funny things will happen next. In addition to this, it lends both games a lot more personality. Thanks to the narrative humour and character-based humour, both games seem like distinctive and unique things that were actually made by people – rather than designed by committee or anything.

So, what does this have to do with comics and/or fiction?

Aside from all of the benefits that I’ve already mentioned earlier, another great thing about including humour in the things you create is that it makes your stories and/or comics as much about the journey as they are about the destination. In other words, the main events of the story you’re trying to tell aren’t as all-important as they might be in a more “serious” story.

This focus on enjoying the journey (or making the journey enjoyable) rather than racing towards the ending, lends creative works that are sprinkled with humour a much more relaxing tone. They are something where your readers won’t be frantically turning the pages to see what happens next, but will actually sit back and take the time to savour the thing you’ve created.

So, yes, whether it’s masking problems, adding uniqueness or just making your story or comic more relaxing, humour can be a surprisingly useful tool for writers and/or comic makers.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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 🙂