Designing Death
May 10, 2019 10:50 AM   Subscribe

What It's Like To Work On Ultra-Violent Games Like Mortal Kombat 11 “You’d walk around the office and one guy would be watching hangings on YouTube, another guy would be looking at pictures of murder victims, someone else would be watching a video of a cow being slaughtered,” they said. “The scary part was always the point at which new people on the project got used to it. And I definitely hit that point.”
posted by gusottertrout (19 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yet another reason why the game industry needs unions.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:14 AM on May 10 [13 favorites]


I read this earlier this week and it was interesting. I have no doubt that working on a project like this for such an extended period of development would have it get into your brain in the way it did for these developers. I mean, that happens with me when I play games for extended periods of times.
““We’ve talked a lot about how the end product isn’t so damaging as people make it out to be, and I tend to agree with that,” they said, referring to the industry’s acceptance of violent video games. “But I think the process of making these things can be harmful for people. It can cause them to burn out, or lose a sense of self, sometimes. I would hope that something, at least, that developers can do with their coworkers is just start talking to each other about these things. ”
The end of the article indicates that so much of this is wrapped up in the work conditions and I imagine it's the "crunch" and the constant development cycle and push to get the game out faster that also causes harm and gets into the heads of these creators/developers.

Also, I hope people don't use this type of article to argue that games are inherently violent and lead to violent actions because that's an argument that's been tried time and time again as a way to censor video-games. This seems to be much deeper than that.
posted by Fizz at 11:17 AM on May 10 [8 favorites]


I noped-out of having anything to do with gaming when the first FPSs came out: something just said no, this is wrong inside me. Seeing the cinematic gore in the article's screenshots makes me glad I didn't disturb myself further.
posted by scruss at 11:21 AM on May 10 [9 favorites]


Agree with Scruss. I remember vividly two events in this area back when I was just out of college in the 90s:

* Mortal Kombat (1992) in the university arcade
* Doom (1993) on PC

My reaction and a lot of people's was "fuck no, what's wrong with you?" but like the Larry Flynt/Hustler story, the specter of ON NOEZ CENSORSHIP convinced good liberals to sort of ignore them. Which begat GTA, etc. and a bunch of adult men styling themselves "gamers" and playing this bullshit with their sons as soon as they can hold a controller (right after they get back from seeing a guy stabbed in the eye with a pencil in Batman Wears Black: The Ensuckening).

YMMV.
posted by freecellwizard at 11:58 AM on May 10 [11 favorites]


Also, I hope people don't use this type of article to argue that games are inherently violent

good to see this reasonable request was immediately and vociferously ignored
posted by JimBennett at 12:06 PM on May 10 [14 favorites]


Reminds me a lot of the article about Facebook moderators (previously on MeFi).
posted by en forme de poire at 12:44 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]


I don't see anyone arguing that "games" are inherently violent, only that that violent games are, um, inherently violent.

Though I maintain that the most inherently violent game known to man is Uno.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:44 PM on May 10 [10 favorites]


Though I maintain that the most inherently violent game known to man is Uno.

You're giving me flashbacks to summer camp. *shudder*
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:55 PM on May 10 [4 favorites]


Though I maintain that the most inherently violent game known to man is Uno.

Spoken like someone who's never seen their friend turn her rings around before dealing a round of ERS.
posted by solotoro at 1:04 PM on May 10 [10 favorites]


But what if it was true? What if we could prove, definitively, that consuming violent media lead to increased violent acts (we can prove no such thing)? Would that, on its own override the basic first amendment protections all creative works get?

If looking at a certain painting made you x% more likely to become violent would we ban the painting?
What value of x do we need before the answer becomes yes?

Your sensibilities are only marginally relevant here.
posted by East14thTaco at 1:33 PM on May 10 [1 favorite]


"Also, I hope people don't use this type of article to argue that games are inherently violent..."
Of course all games aren't inherently violent. But to say that violent games aren't inherently violent, is..well, nonsense.

"...and lead to violent actions because that's an argument that's been tried time and time again as a way to censor video-games."
You'd be hard pressed to convince me that images like this have the same effect on people as images like this or this (or that any studies using the first are effective at determining about the latter).
posted by FirstMateKate at 1:46 PM on May 10


I saw a few finishing move gifs from the recent Mortal Kombat a few weeks ago, and it was a bit disturbing. I played MK like everyone else in the 90s, but the art was so cartoony it was more like the coyote getting blown up in Looney Toons, no real impact. These were genuinely gross.
posted by tavella at 3:26 PM on May 10 [6 favorites]


Part of the thing I don't quite understand is the _value_ in having realistic gore in something like this? I'm down with the violence, but like, okay, it's pretty impossible to rip someone's spine out... so why do we need to see exactly what it would look like if someone could?

I dunno, I guess for me as a potential customer, I don't get why "heavily-researched gore!" would be a selling point.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:46 PM on May 10 [5 favorites]


(and I mean, I totally love, say, GTA or Doom and whatnot. I'm just... I didn't realize there was a pushback about, say, bad guys exploding into cartoony-gross gibs?)
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 3:47 PM on May 10


I remember as a tween in the early nineties that MK was clearly traced images of actual people, as opposed to the cartoons in SF:II. And that was appealing. I would see the appeal now, insofar as dunking on your friends is more fun when it's OTT, and disturbing gore which you find performatively hilarious is still on-brand for certain teenage boys as far as I know.

I guess if you are a specialist game animator interviewing for MK you know what to expect to some extent. But if you are a games publisher that makes the damn thing, you should be aware that viewing genuine images of murder and torture is a cognitive hazard for your workers and offer both compensation and also support for it. If it shakes out in the end that Mortal Kombat games can't get decent talent and be made profitably under those conditions... that's fine. Not clear to me whether or not that's the case in reality.

I guess unions might be able to establish a "No workers were harmed in the production of this video game" stamp the same way we treat animals in films.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 4:32 PM on May 10 [3 favorites]


Disturbing gore which you find performatively hilarious is still on-brand for certain teenage boys as far as I know.

I kinda take issue with this. Mortal Kombat came out when I was in college, and though the game itself seemed kind of shitty (at least compared to the superior action of Street Fighter II) I thought the over-the-top violence was genuinely hilarious as satire. My laughter was not (and is not) performative; I really found the idea of a videogame where you celebrate victory after one-on-one fisticuffs by literally ripping your opponent's brain and spine out of his body very funny as a satirical extrapolation of the ne plus ultra that violent videogames had been inexorably advancing toward. And the "gore" in question was still quite cartoonish despite the "photorealistic" aesthetic; I didn't find it disturbing in the least, though I'm sure some may have. (I feel pretty much the same way about gore in contemporary videogames -- it's all Grand Guignol, computer-generated theater, and it doesn't disturb me.) It's definitely expression, well worthy of First Amendment protections.

It does sadden me, however, to think of latter-day game developers being forced to review real-life tragedy and atrocity footage in order to keep feeding the Mortal Kombat beast and sate a gaming audience that keeps such franchises alive way past the point where they were relevant as satire ... or games for that matter. I don't think people should think they have to look at that kind of stuff to keep their job. It makes me think of the legendary make-up artist Tom Savini, who served as a combat photographer in Vietnam and said that he dealt with some of the horrors he photographed thanks to the lens as a mediating factor between him and the carnage. He got a chance to work some of that stuff out later, making zombie movies and other horror pictures with gore that sometimes echoed and/or was informed by things he saw in the war. For him, it's a net positive. But then he worked it in the right direction -- he was making movies to work out his existing trauma, not traumatizing himself in order to make movies.

I am so grateful, by the way, that his movies exist. A few drops of real blood on screen or a needle penetrating the skin has me twisting away from the screen as quick as I can, but I will watch the work of competent horror filmmakers without flinching because I trust that they are telling stories that matter to them in good faith no matter how disturbing they might seem. I'm glad there are/were filmmakers like Savini and Romero and Cronenberg out there, exploring and contextualizing horrific ideas through their proven artistry and craftsmanship.

Violent videogames have their moments but, to be honest, they generally feel like much cheaper thrills to me. I've played Dark Souls and Wolfenstein and even some of those dreadful Call of Duty numbers, but also I've been playing an awful lot of Fortnite lately, and I actually appreciate the bloodless aesthetic and the reminder that videogame aesthetics can be more pop music, less heavy metal album cover.

Then again, Space Channel 5 is just about my favorite videogame ever, so maybe nobody should care what I think about Mortal Kombat in the first place.
posted by Mothlight at 8:35 PM on May 10 [9 favorites]


sooo they went to 4chan
posted by andryeevna at 12:41 AM on May 11


TL;DR I have not played MK11 and the gore is bad.

Three associations from the OP:
  1. The recent FPP on moderating facebook content
  2. Gore propaganda online: ISIS clips, cartel videos, the Christchurch shooter, and etc.
  3. That clip of Hayao Miyazaki and the AI animations
1. Both the MK11 animators and Facebook moderators are traumatized by what they're seeing on the job. Conceptually, however, what they're doing is very different: the animators are head-down in traumatizing images in order replicate what they see as mini-rewards in a video game, a little bonus if you win especially well.

2. The face-ripping screenshot FirstMateKate linked above reminds me of a specific gore clip that (facebook moderation aside) is one of many pretty freely circulated online.

Of shock content, there's the found footage and then there's the stuff that's intentionally produced. On the former hand you have Rotten.com (or Faces of Death back in the VHS days) where you had autopsy photos and accident reels. You were a rubbernecker on the sidelines: gross, but incidental. On the latter hand you have execution and torture videos where the point is to strip all humanity and dignity from the victims, unto death, in front of an audience: ISIS, Christchurch shooter, etc.. These exist for and with the viewer. The clip the MK screenshot reminds me of is one of those.

(I think it was a mefi comment that pointed out to me that violent propaganda isn't just about sowing fear in one's enemies: it's demanding that the viewer imagine themselves either as the executioner or the victim. You can either be the safe and powerful figure behind the knife, or the vulnerable, suffering person under it, whose individual humanity is simultaneously what makes them vulnerable and what is denied them. It argues: this is what life is, and you need to pick a side.)

Mortal Kombat is on a continuum with 80s slasher films and grainy clips of Bud Dwyer, sure. But when I see MK11 fatalities these days I think of propaganda, not grindhouse.

Think of the Chirstchurch shooting being published to the internet as terrorist propaganda, and governments and international corporations impotently playing wack-a-mole like a 90s cyberpunk. ISIS's online brand is publishing the same. Even the found footage these days is more accessible, varied, and higher-rez. That's both the context in which MK11 exists, and hey, the material from which it was produced:
You’d walk around the office and one guy would be watching hangings on YouTube
3. For those who haven't seen it, that Miyzaki clip is a scene from a documentary. A team of young guys are presenting a neural network to output walk animations... poorly. (Like this video from SIGGRAPH 2013, but bad.) The animation is of a naked humanoid who is not doing so well. It cannot use its limbs correctly, and it "discovers" how to locomote in some unfortunate ways. We cycle through a few different clips of it struggling across the floor. The team is enthusiastic, and say that the AI can "present us grotesque movements which we humans can't imagine."

Miyazaki:
Every morning... not recent days, but I see my friend who has a disability. It's so hard for him just to do a high-five -- his arm with stiff muscle reaching out to my hand. Now, thinking of him, I can't watch this stuff and find it interesting. Whoever creates this stuff has no idea what pain is.
There was a lot of internet pushback when that clip appeared ("those poor guys, he was so mean to them and all their hard work, he's just mad that AI will take his job"), and it spawned some arguments about hand animation vs. CGI, all of which was missing the point.

> a satirical extrapolation of the ne plus ultra that violent videogames had been inexorably advancing toward

Games are really, really bad at satire. For example:
  • Far Cry 3 seems like it's a satire about a white bro going to SE Asia to act out his adventure fantasies, but... it's just the video game version of exactly that.
  • Bioshock isn't a satire of Randian ubermensch fantasies, it's just an ubermensch fantasy that wants points for knowing about libertarianism.
  • Mortal Kombat isn't a satire of over-the-top gore, it's just over-the-top gore.
Games are great at pastiche and homage, and have been doing it well for years. Collectively we're primed to read that as satire, but it's not, no more than Ready Player One or Tarantino films are satire. Satire is Viscera Cleanup Detail, Hatoful Boyfriend, and Achievement Unlocked.

It's hard for games to be satire because satire is about subverting expectations and games are about fulfilling the expectations defined by a set of rules. And because a lot of them are power fantasies.

> I hope people don't use this type of article to argue that games are inherently violent and lead to violent actions

I agree that "these kids can't distinguish between the game and real life, they're being trained to kill!" is a silly concern from people who have no literacy about video games. But people do play games for different reasons, and some are not great.

I used to understand games as a simulacrum of meaningful work. They give you a tight feedback loop on learning and mastery, one of the most satisfying human activities, and let you apply that mastery towards a goal. Within that context there's also games as exploration (of rules, but also plot, terrian, etc.), which I love but which can get derided as a walking simulators when there's not enough meaningful work. You can break that out with games as toys, games as community, etc., but always centered around some kind of task or work or common rules.

But that's not everyone. Some people are in it to effortlessly be the most important and most powerful and if the game doesn't give them that then it's a bad game. If you don't play games this might seem like a duh: in that case, think of the difference between the dork who wears a conductor's hat while he builds model trains vs. the weirdo who passively watches DVDs of actors telling him he's an amazing conductor and thanking him for driving the train so well.

Or as rorgy previously put it:
A lot of games these days are purely pornographic. Even as they claim to tell "morally complicated stories", [...] the gameplay they tell teaches another story, and it’s a story of personal power, absolute control, and choices which mean essentially nothing because you, the player, will never suffer for your choices; all your decisions do is teach the world what to think about you, and never the other way around.
Power fantasies infect gaming culture, especially the self-described hardcore gamers who are the audience for MK11, and are part of what we should consider when talking about games like Mortal Kombat.

> I would see the appeal now, insofar as dunking on your friends is more fun when it's OTT, and disturbing gore which you find performatively hilarious is still on-brand for certain teenage boys as far as I know."

Yeah. But when "dunking on your friends" means "your avatars face got ripped off while he was still alive, and it looks like it was modeled from the victim in this LiveLeak video!" thats... not good. It's also extending the skill contest of a fighting game into power fantasy territory in a gross way. (Not that teen boys are going to cop to the distinction or admit being unsettled.)

This bit from the OP was disingenuous:
"As a mechanic, it’s basically perfect," said Alex Hutchinson when asked about violence in video games. [...] "You have a clear goal. It’s exciting because there’s a risk/reward—you win, they die. You lose, you die. So you’re afraid, and you can lose things."

[...] Hutchinson said he spends a lot of time thinking about how those who don’t game might perceive violence, arguing that the sensory feedback you get from interacting with the game—the thrill of winning, and fear of losing—does a lot of work to make graphic violence abstract in nature. Observers can’t quite understand that in the same way, and might therefore be more repelled by the bloody images they’re seeing on screen.
He's right about mechanics and abstraction, and that people who aren't games-literate have trouble with it. He's ignoring the actual depiction of traumatic images. In fact, the fatalities occur as a pause in the interactive mechanics: they are the reward in the risk/reward. And the effort put into creating those images does demonstrate what the studio expects players to value. Assassin's Creed players want parkour!history, Dwarf Fortress players want to be able to stub individual toes, and Mortal Kombat players want that spine pop to look like it happened to a real person.

Maybe the genuinely distressing aspects of the IRL gore get filtered out through the animators, left behind inside of them along with the PTSD. Maybe they don't. Maybe MK11 is videogaming's ortlan. Maybe I'm just old now.

You can have a gory game without the "traced from real suffering!" tagline. The Shadow Warrior reboot was, like it's 2.5D predecessor, over-the-top bloody. It worked well, and it was a good game.

Anyway, I haven't played Mortal Kombat since 6 (Deception). Here's a video of all the fatalities from that installment. Look at those blocky meshes and hilariously globular blood sprites! It was fun. It was fun in part because I was better at it than most of my friends, so I got to win a lot. We collectively winced and laughed and groaned at the fatalities.

Still, even back then it felt like a bit too much. I've avoided subsequent games in the series. At this point I have to wonder if Mortal Kombat is still getting made because it's culturally grandfathered in as "the extra bloody fighting game". If MK11 were to come out today as a brand new franchise I think we'd be much quicker to draw connections between the gore in the game and the gore we try not to see everywhere else online. That it turns out the one is built from the other is more than enough reason to avoid this one too.
posted by postcommunism at 2:17 PM on May 11 [8 favorites]


But what if it was true? What if we could prove, definitively, that consuming violent media lead to increased violent acts (we can prove no such thing)? Would that, on its own override the basic first amendment protections all creative works get?
It would really work better as a thought experiment if you made it a book. What if there were a book that we could prove led to increased violent acts. Should the government be able to prevent people from reading it? My answer in that case is "no," because I don't trust the government enough to believe it wouldn't put other things in that category. Things that someone found inconvenient, or embarassing, or just yucky.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 2:19 PM on May 11


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