Note: Because of the length and nature of this article, I am choosing to split it into two parts. You can read the first part here.
All well and good, but Deception III’s presentation of these systems and aesthetics can run counter to its own intentions. Maximalism entails an odd excitement toward the carnage it would otherwise condemn, for instance. “Try out all these different combinations of murder weapons”, the game giddily blurts out. “See how you can fit them together. Watch these traps, emblems, orbs, and rings combine like a deadly LEGO kit.” This is to say nothing of the voyeuristic delight the game seems to take in presenting to us the death pangs of our victim’s last spasms as the life slowly bleeds out of their body. Far from condemning the tragedy of violence, Deception III goes out of its way to celebrate that violence in all its gory detail.
I don’t mean to say this hypocrisy in itself is worthy of critique. One could just as easily defend that celebration by arguing that while the game recognizes the corrupting effect torture exerts on its practitioner, it’s also not afraid to acknowledge the darker parts of our own being that we would otherwise shy away from. Yet this only returns us to the same moralist/anti-moralist cycle we’d intended to avoid. Deception III may more thoroughly articulate that (anti-)moralist stance, but the fact remains that analyzing the game on the terms it presents us with risks lapsing back into that cycle.
Let us then introduce new terms upon which to approach this game. Deception III’s criticisms of violence, or at least its criticisms of violence as practiced by those already possessing power, comes down to a criticism of people acting on individualistic animal emotion: greed, hatred, etc. If they were more careful to act on reason, the game argues, then they wouldn’t be so quick to cut others down but would instead establish a more equitable world were such horrors would never happen. It’s a very Enlightenment-esque argument; one that interprets empathy as a by-product of the human capacity for reason.
Regardless of whether or not empathy actually works like this, there’s something reassuring about the idea that it does. It undermines the hierarchies that wrong us by reversing the terms on which they’re founded. The personal, because it models that more equitable world empathy would lead us to, becomes something worth protecting and whose violation constitutes the gravest of offenses. And power, being more strongly linked to emotion than reason, becomes worthy of contempt. In other words, we have made power both easily understood and subject to so powerful a moral criticism that merely invoking its name is enough to right the world’s wrongs.
Applying these ideas to Deception III, we see a clear link between this fantasy and the narrative the game tells. At least in the ending I chose (there are four), Reina brings justice to those who wronged her by the end of her story. Many die by her hand; many others die as a result of their own scheming. King Frederick, the man responsible for Reina’s capture, dies at the hand of his own assassin. That same assassin is erased from the pages of history during the ending. Most tellingly of all, Queen Margareta’s daughter, who her mother treated as a pawn to enact her own schemes, kills her mother for all the abuse she’s heaped upon her. Through their deaths we learn that justice will always be delivered, no matter how long it may take. Those who would ignore it in the pursuit of power seal their doom in doing so.
As compelling as these arguments might seem on the game’s part, they are also shot through with naivete. They assume a clear dichotomy between victim and perpetrator that Reina’s character refutes. Likewise, between the reverence for the personal and the critiques of power, we preclude the idea that both are founded on the same violence, or that the former can perpetuate violence by removing certain populations (but not others) from it. And while the message of “the truth will set you free” at the heart of Deception III may seem a powerful one, we live in a time where such thoughts fail to apply. In fact, they may never have applied at all. It could be that the deciding factor in affecting change isn’t knowledge of an intolerable situation or something as abstract as an absolute morality, but the people’s ever growing unwillingness to tolerate an oppressive state of affairs.
All of this is dancing around the core issue with Deception III. Everything we’ve seen the game develop so far, from the psychological effects of violence on its practitioners to the moral critique through Enlightenment logic, hinges on the person responsible for that violence exercising their capacity for empathy. But why should they do that? The game provides no such answer. Indeed, while the game is far from justifying an oppressive status quo, its methods of criticizing that state of affairs have limits that, from that status quo’s perspective, provide no meaningful reason for its change. The double consciousness that weighs so heavily on Reina (and therefore the psychological damage it causes her) wouldn’t apply if she had the wealth necessary to truly see the lavish mansions and castles she occupies as an extension of her own being.
And for as much as Deception III may condemn the pursuit of more power than one already has, those condemnations are of little use when applied to the power one already has. Beyond our earlier argument that simply invoking morality is insufficient for affecting change for the better, if you believe that power is naturally granted to you, whether by your station, your efforts, the divine right to rule, etc., and if, following that, you see those without power as inferior to your own being, there ceases to be a moral problem with your torture. By contrast, the game ends up problematizing Reina’s acts of self defense. She is the one who experiences a split in her consciousness; she is the one who must pursue power to ensure her own survival. Despite whatever pretenses Deception III might put up, the obvious moral failings of a corrupt elite are not subject to the same level of scrutiny as their victims who exist in an unjust system against their will.
As Deception III identifies with its captors, even as it recognizes and laments the harm of doing so, so do we. In other words, its fantasy, the comfort the game offers us, lies not in the actions we’re allowed to take but in the worldview we can justify to ourselves as being beyond our ability to fix. There is some overlap between this fantasy and the earlier more idealistic arguments. In letting us act out against these powers, Deception III lends a face to our worries where they might otherwise remain abstract. Then again, one rarely attacks power directly in Deception III. More often, the victims of your scheming are proxies for that target; others roped into an unjust world just like you, but made victims because your true target remains always out of reach.
So if this new fantasy repeats previous arguments, then it also extends them in a new and dismal direction. Once you’ve admitted to yourself the impossibility of removing even the most severe and conspicuous injustices from the world, the next best thing is to turn the tables and, for a brief moment at least, occupy a position of power within that world. We transform the world through a kill or be killed individualism. Everybody becomes an enemy in waiting; an obstacle or stepping stone toward that slim hope of a better life for one’s self. True, this perspective ensures one’s own powerlessness by precluding any kind of collective action, but as we’ve said, the hope for a truly better world has, by now, vanished.
I will admit that these arguments may oversimplify Deception III. The quiet personal moments between Reina and those she values suggests a genuine desire for things to improve that would complicate (if not completely refute) the bleak nihilism from before. Yet if we return to the topic of violence in mainstream video games, we find that what we’ve said applies there reasonably well. We would do well to remember when and where the medium emerged and when its major milestones were: the birth and popularity of video games during the Cold War; the emergence of a self-understanding a year after Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history; the rise of blockbuster game studios before, during, and after the collapse of the American economy. All video games have ever known is a world that has closed off all other options. Is it any surprise that, as products of that world, they would find some way to justify it?