Note: Because of the length and nature of this article, I am choosing to split it into two parts.
Few discussions in video games are as old as the discussion of how the medium depicts violence. There are a number of reasons contributing to this longevity: video games have engaged the topic just as frequently as it’s been discussed, from Chiller to Pandora’s Tower, and as recently as this year, questions of the medium’s worth fall back on its depictions of violence. Yet the sad irony is that for all that longevity, the discussion of violence in video games has yet to move beyond its initial appraisals. In fact, those discussing the issue may not even have a solid grasp on the subject matter they purport to understand.
I’m hardly the only person to notice this. As Chloi Rad wrote for IGN earlier this year, the violence in video games discussion follows a pattern of shocking naivete. Both sides quickly collapse into moralist and anti-moralist reactions to the concept, but in their haste, they arrive at an agreement on the nature of that concept. Video games must move toward that sole artistic virtue that is beauty, and violence, being nothing more than the physical assertion of one’s self upon another, can only move us toward a limited set of ends; away from that beauty. Where the two sides diverge is in whether or not video games as a whole can be reduced to the violence they indulge in.
But what is violence? And for that matter, what is beauty? Our definitions of both are immediate (we’ll know it when we see it) and, because of that immediacy, lacking any real rigor; being so broad and abstract as to be impossible to use. Such is the nature of the event at hand. After all, we’re not talking about discussions, but arguments: attempts to establish a dominant position rather than to understand the thing we’ve taken a position on. And because neither side wishes to understand the issue in any greater depth (to attempt this might undermine the position they’re so invested in asserting), they gloss over those questions that would pierce straight to the heart of video game violence: what violence looks like, I.E. whether violence is purely physical; what relationships our media encourages us to have with it; what violence might communicate beyond the act of committing it; what makes violence as appealing as it is; and why violence, whether abstract or material, occurs so frequently in a $100+ billion industry in the first place.
I believe Deception III: Dark Delusion offers a good enough window into answering some of these questions. The third entry in Tecmo’s line of torture-based video games, we might consider the series as a whole a spiritual successor/response to Chiller. Where the mid 80s arcade game takes the gruesome dismemberment of prisoners as an end in itself, the Deception games typically express greater interest in the morally corrupting effect that torture exerts on its execution rather than in the act itself.
That isn’t to say Deception III is especially somber or distinct from its peers. Like Chiller, Mortal Kombat, Thrill Kill etc., Deception III can’t resist taking a grotesque delight in seeing bodies mangled in all sorts of hideously unique ways. In fact, the video game maximalism it subscribes to as a sequel accentuates that delight, even against the game’s own wishes. Yet even these shortcomings are worthy of consideration, I would argue. The game’s inconsistencies and its continuous striving for something more leave violence, that core which lends Deception III its structure, in a very ambiguous position. It is through these ambiguities that the game presents as good a window into the issues surrounding video game violence as it does.
Let us set the scene. Our story begins in a late medieval/early modern Europe. Our protagonist, a teenage girl by the name of Reina, spends her days with the adoptive family she has come to cherish. The idyllic calm she enjoys is soon shattered when two men barge their way into their house, attack its residents and haul each of them off to be imprisoned. There is no meaning for this suffering inflicted upon them. Reina and her family are victims not because of any crime they committed, but because their existence itself is deemed a crime. The King (on whose orders these two men were acting) has ordered the ethnic cleansing of the Burganfadan, of whom Reina and her family are members. The King’s men cut that family down before they can be imprisoned. Reina survives, only to await her eventual execution.
Fortunately, she escapes by awakening to a new power: the power to lay and activate traps in the environments around her. From here the plot branches (roughly speaking) into two parts. The first, happening around and outside Reina’s being, follows the intricate webs of betrayal and intrigue various factions weave as they vie for power. Reina’s story, by contrast, sees her using her ability to protect herself and what little relationships she has left to value. More specifically, each chapter asks Reina to lay down traps within her current location and lure her pursuing enemies into them; preferably in such a way that one trap leads into another. It should go without saying that, in addition to the process of buying and upgrading traps, what I have just described forms Deception III’s core gameplay loop.
It would be all too easy to look at that gameplay loop and deduce that the raw violence of the player’s actions are what defines the game. I will admit there’s an argument to be made that this is the case. Where else does the game’s appeal lie than in catering to the player’s animal instinct; in lending these characters’ deaths a strong sense of immediacy, whether by the weight of an impact against the ground or the blood that slowly pools out of their soon-to-be corpse? That is to say that several of Deception III’s design choices emphasize physicality as core to the game’s appeal. The attention it lavishes upon the characters’ death pangs – pausing time and focusing the camera upon those characters – provides an obvious example, as do the traps. For as convoluted and unwieldy as they can be at times, there’s a certain satisfaction to be had in chaining your traps together just right and watching your victims tossed through the air and into their doom. We can even read the denser narrative and more deliberate use of cinematic language as, in addition to validating Deception III’s status as a video game sequel, grounding the action in something tangible to maximize its effect.
However, we can complicate this understanding, and I would argue that we should. If Deception III’s copious bloodshed truly is what defines it, then it’s only because the surrounding matter contextualizes that bloodshed in such a way that it can define the game. Indeed, it’s in this surrounding matter, not necessarily in the acts themselves, that the game thoroughly elaborates its thoughts on the torture Reina commits. All the thought it asks players to invest into the actions suggests these are as much intellectual crimes as they are visceral ones, and it’s this thread that Deception III is most keen on developing.
Bracketing moral concerns for the time being, the most notable thing about the game is how its third person perspective entails a split in our own consciousness. We identify with the avatar we directly control, but because so many of our actions are embedded not in that avatar’s body in the environment surrounding her, we come to identify with the environment itself as well. We are embodied, vulnerable, and animal; but also disembodied, protected, and rational. As much as we’d like to ignore one of these aspects of ourselves, whether to explain our vulnerability or transcend it, both feel too immediate for that to be an option.
Much of this also applies to Deception III’s predecessor, and for good reason. From an aesthetic standpoint, much of the series’ tension derives from the contrast between these two identities and their inhabiting a single being. Beyond the fact that play entails the navigation of this dual identity, splitting our consciousness like this sets up an expectation that we have control over those wandering the halls of the mansion/castle/factory/etc. At the same time, we are denied that control because it lies outside our own body, further accentuating that body’s vulnerability.
Yet for as much as perspective might add to the action, it also introduces some significant conceptual wrinkles to it. For example, there’s the matter of how it affects the nature of these violent acts and the player’s relationship to (distance from) them. Our avatar acts by reacting to an antagonistic party’s advances, and she’s at least somewhat removed from the deaths they suffer at her hand. Thus embodying her affords us a certain degree of moral comfort by telling ourselves what we did was in self defense. By contrast, my embodiment within the environment around her greatly complicates this logic. While we may not fully trust that environment (its traps being just as effective on us as they are on our enemies), the level of knowledge and control embedded within it lends our actions a far more active and predatory nature than they might otherwise possess. In devoting so much of our thought to how exactly an intruder will bounce from trap to trap and eventually to their death, we commit ourselves more fully to that death than we might if we had simply attacked them ourselves.
And then there’s the matter of where Reina’s identification lies. Assuming her perspective is our own, as the game openly states, what would that even mean for her? We can’t assume anything as straightforward as Deception: Invitation to Darkness, whose first person perspective communicates the protagonist’s moral degradation as they become one with the castle; or anything like Deception II, where both environment and avatar become extensions of the mother character’s evil. Reina’s character is too particular to neatly fit either model. So far, the best we can say is that she’s made to identify against those who intrude upon her space and would do her harm, but this information is of little help. It says nothing about Reina in isolation.
To truly answer our question and get to the heart of Deception III, we need look at the environments themselves and how the player is expected to interact with them. The first thing to notice is that, in spite of being made to identify with these environments, Reina herself never has any ownership over them. In fact, they’re more often associated with the very people would do her harm than with Reina herself. Sometimes, the connection is obvious: the King, the Queen, one of their subordinates etc. own or manage the building Reina lays her traps in.
More often, though, the game establishes that connection by coding spaces as belonging to the rich and powerful, a group to which Reina clearly doesn’t belong. We might even consider this tactic one of the game’s pride and joys. The music, with its deep brass and glassy strings, abounds with over the top flourish, as if to celebrate the highs and lows that such a glamorous life can afford. And the visuals, not to be outdone, echo Berger’s criticisms of oil paintings. The elaborate brickwork, the smooth marble surfaces, the ivy clinging to the walls in a garden, the wrought iron shaped into a chandelier – it’s these luxuries that lend the world its life.
But what manner of life do those luxuries lend? If Deception III’s visual language establishes its world as one of wealth, then that same language betrays its purpose by elaborating on the conditions on which that world establishes itself. Always accompanying the elaborate brickwork is the grime that has accumulated on it, as if to reflect its owner’s moral decay. And whether in the marble surfaces we’re meant to see or the more rugged stone surfaces we’re not, one can’t help but imagine those surfaces as cold to the touch. The logic here is straightforward: in making a single sign code for both wealth and vice, the visual language critiques the former by exposing the bloodshed upon which it was founded; the same bloodshed its upper class civility was constructed to erase.
In a more general sense, the brickwork and carved out stone traps signal to us that these areas were constructed at all, and for a specific purpose. But what could that purpose be if not torture? The spatial arrangements hold no other answer. If anything, they only reinforce our initial assumptions. We find a plethora of torture chambers, and although we see people living in these buildings during cutscenes, it’s hard to imagine where they’d live, given the apparent lack of living chambers. In fact, one of the maps (Castle Hue) offers no possibility of domestic life; every room is a torture chamber! Play elaborates on this even further. Killing your victims earns you money. The more creative and more difficult your method of execution (the more traps your victim falls into without recovering), the more money you earn from killing them. However, you can only ever use that money to buy and upgrade traps to kill people more efficiently.
There are two primary conclusions to take away from all of this. First, wealth – the possession of it, the accumulation of it – becomes indistinguishable from the violence on which it is established and toward which it must work. It is because signs of wealth are also signs of control that they must inevitably manifest as an assault on those deemed outside one’s own being, IE intruders. (We could extend this to a larger critique of capitalism, given the Industrial Revolution setting suggested throughout the game. However, the vague nature of that setting and the game’s lack of interest in interrogating it give me reason to hesitate.)
And in light of these developments, the dual consciousness we are made to adopt takes on a new meaning. The more we practice violence against others, the game reasons, the more we begin to identify with our aggressors. But we never completely identify with them, as we might in Invitation to Darkness; part of us still remains a victim. The irreconcilability of these positions introduces a rift in our own being that eats away at us from the inside, leaving us permanently unsettled and doomed to inflict these same tragedies upon others. In short, what makes these bloody acts something to fear in the game’s eyes, in addition to the severity of the acts themselves, is how easily they reproduce themselves in others. By alienating the practitioner from their own being, violence comes to consume more of that person’s identity. Individual morality and desire hold little relevance here; the psychological corrosion is part and parcel with the system itself.
Indeed, it’s precisely these aspects of violence that make Reina’s character so tragic. They deny her the relationships and intimate personal life she holds so dear; at first forcefully through the sudden trauma of her abduction, which erases those bonds by turning Reina into a piece of property, but later through her use of traps to defend herself. Such defense is necessary, but what life can she establish for herself through it? It can’t protect those she cherishes most, given how many of them die over the course of the game, and as we’d previously established, her new life has no place for domesticity. The pain her use of traps causes Reina may be deeply etched into both her psyche and her body, but that use puts her at such a distance from her former self that, as far as we can tell, all that is left to her is its continued practice in the vain hope that she might one day escape it.