I was reading Delany’s About Writing recently when I ran across the following (pp. 408–409):
Excitement, Drama, Suspense, Surprise, Violence
Each of these five nouns names a very different effect. What makes so much popular narrative (especially in films and TV) seem so mindless is that someone, usually a producer, has mistaken one for the other or tried to use one in an attempt to get the effect of another. Most often violence is used in places where one of the other four might have been more interesting or effective.
Consider your response to violence in real life: if you are walking down the street and a stranger thirty feet (or even three feet) away is suddenly injured or hurt, often your emotions lock down. The very shock shuts off any immediate emotional reaction, sympathy, sadness, or empathy. Violence to strangers armors us against involvement with them. The fact is, this is a useful reaction, whether we decide to help the person or simply to move quickly away to escape the danger ourselves, or because it’s not feasible for us to do anything useful just then and we want to make room for someone who can. Clear thinking is necessary in such situations, not emotional involvement and personal identification. That’s probably why we’re wired like that.
Violence can be surprising, but it is not interesting or exciting or involving in itself. What caused it may be interesting. Its effects may be of intellectual interest. But it is not emotionally interesting in and of itself. On the contrary. The psychological use of violence in art is, paradoxically, not to engage our emotions but rather to put our emotions on hold, heighten our perceptions, and get us ready to think. But since so few public narratives—as offered by television and film—give us much to think about, most of it is wasted.
The reason why this struck such a chord with me is my recent experience with Deus Ex. I’m enjoying the game very much, but, as I mentioned before, the parts I enjoy the most are those with the least violence. There are various reasons for that, of course, and many of them have more to do with my personal idiosyncracies than any truth about narrative. But I’m fairly sure that Delany is onto something here: my reaction to violence in video games isn’t to be overcome with sadness, to consider the enormity of what’s happening. Instead, it turns into a puzzle, my brain shuts down sympathetic lines of thought and tries to come up with the most economical way (on strictly personal survival terms) of making it through the situation.
In particular, in retrospect I’ll largely disagree with Corvus’s contention that “the enemies in Deus Ex have a very important narrative purpose. They force you to seriously consider how to approach any given situation and put a human face on the political struggle, emphasizing that the true cost of these sorts of schemes is the little guy, the grunts, and the innocents.” If the game were designed differently, with fewer enemies and more getting to know them first, perhaps that would happen. And, actually, that did happen to me to some extent: I didn’t want to kill my brother and I didn’t want to kill UNATCO troops because the game had given me experience with them before I had the chance of killing them. And the Naval Base level starts out with people who might be considered as enemies but who are actually on your side, and throws another one in later on (if you take the appropriate route through the level); largely because of that, I suspect, I actively avoided killing some of the other enemies later on in the level. But, in general, the enemies were just another puzzle to get through over the course of the levels, and not a puzzle that I happened to particularly enjoy.
In fact, Delany also has something to say on how violence leads to intellectual puzzles: the bit that I excised in the ellipsis above is the following (ellipses in the original this time):
Numberless times now I’ve been handed manuscripts by young writers that begin in the darkness with a shout, a scuffle, a thud, followed by the sound of breaking glass, whereupon people rush in to find Colonel Mustard (or his equivalent) dead in the sitting room. Alost immediately the writer follows with the life story of Colonel Mustard, under the impression that, because Mustard has been killed, the reader is now interested in him. But this is to confuse a strategy from the genre of the analytic detective story (where it can indeed be quite effective) with that of general fiction—usually because so many film and TV producers have already made the same mistake, and simply through unexamined exposure it comes to them second nature.
What’s interesting about Colonel Mustard’s murder is not, of course, Colonel Mustard. Rather it’s the twisted iron bar, red paint at one end and blue at the other, which is lying on the floor, beside the mantelpiece, three feet from the body. One end of the bar was on top of a calling card, with no name on it, but which nevertheless showed a golden seven-point star with a black band across it. Now, the bar itself had obviously been used to break three pieces of glassware, which had been sitting on the mantel—the shards were all over the green carpet. Nevertheless, while the side of Colonel Mustard’s head had been beaten in with a blunt instrument—surely the cause of death—there was no blood on the bar! As is the blue on the other end, the red is clearly enamel paint…
In short, the potential for mystery and interest is entirely intellectual—for those readers who enjoy a good mystery. The violence at the beginning is precisely what has closed off the possibility for emotional identification, however, and moved our interest (if we have any) to the intellectual plane: Who did it? Why? And how? Those Sherlock Holmeses, Philo Vances, Philip Marlowes, Jane Marples, or Matt Scudders are ready to investigate…
The details of the effects of violence in a mystery are quite different from those in most video games, but I think the basic point holds very well: when I get shot at in Deus Ex, this serves to emphasize the fact that I have to accomplish something, that I have a potentially interesting puzzle in the choice of path and mechanisms by which I’ll accomplish that, and that the people shooting at me give a certain bite to my choice of path and mechanisms. Which is great, it’s part of the reason why I love video games, but it has nothing to do with emotions.
One last quote from that section, which may be a useful thought for somebody who is trying to heighten the emotional interest in a video game:
What does tend to get our emotional interest and identification is watching someone put out energy to get something she or he wants. But, in an attempt to make “something happen,” don’t confuse that with violence—a murder, a fight, or a robbery.
(While I’m on the topic, by the way, I’ll give a shout out to my fellow Delany-loving VGC participant!)
This post has not been revised since publication.