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The kids aren't alright

Dead Island Screenshot

The recent trailer for Dead Island, an upcoming zombie actioner from Techland, brought about a realisation that there's been a tendency which has been increasing within the media recently; the use of children to elicit emotion.

Whilst there's a small contingent of dedicated developers striving to produce the most provocative and enthralling stories gaming has to offer, within mainstream gaming it appears that the narrative is more of an afterthought eclipsed by explosions, motion controls and large breasts. With the Dead Island trailer came the hint that one of the few taboos left within gaming was about to be traversed; that in the search of a compelling narrative, Techland was willing to go the next level to get the audience emotionally involved.

The point of contention here is exactly what should be classed as "sacred" as far as gaming is concerned? Can't the children be left out of the violent fantasies we like to play out within gaming? Can anything or anyone be classed as "fair game" in the name of a good story, or do we really have to ask ourselves if there are some places where gaming simply should not go?

The Dead Island trailer begins with the body of a little girl lying limp and bloodied, the brief clip telling the story of an island holiday in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. The viewer learns that the girl had been bitten by a zombie and thrown out of a fourth-story window by her father who she had just tried to kill. The trailer's poignancy was linked to its use of family and the zombification of the little girl; not only do you see her die, but learning that it is her father who has to kill her makes the sequence all the more harrowing.

Heavy Rain Screenshot

Dead Island's trailer shows one of the strongest uses of children in this way, but it was not the first. Self-proclaimed narrative-design master David Cage makes one of the first attempts in mainstream contemporary gaming to use children to pull on parental heart-strings—in Cage's Heavy Rain, any parent's worst nightmare is realised as a son goes missing.

In this game, the player has to search for the lost boy in a busy mall, the only sign of him a small red balloon bought only moments before. After several tense minutes which feel more like hours, the player catches up with the boy just in time to see him outside the mall, straying into the path of a fast-moving vehicle. Two years later, the main character's remaining son is kidnapped, and to rescue him the player has to successfully complete a host of tortuous challenges.

What's key here is not the bonkers premise or the uninspired game mechanics, but how David Cage employs these family tragedies. Many have protested that Heavy Rain's writing is flaccid and unmoving because of its ridiculous Swiss-cheese narrative. I would say that Heavy Rain isn't a tour de force of interactive storytelling, although I firmly believe that Cage's confidence in his storytelling ability comes from somewhere other than his own imagination. Clearly some to people "got it", but who?

I'm not a father, but I can well imagine that the prospect of losing a child in a car accident or having one kidnapped would be two of the worst conceivable experiences as a parent. Clearly Cage is hoping that people will empathise with his main character; that they'll feel that pang of horror the moment he notices his boy has gone missing and that they'll weep when they realise what has befallen him and his family.

Where Heavy Rain differs from the Dead Island trailer is that Heavy Rain's use of kids is indicative of the type of story Cage is trying to tell, whereas the Dead Island trailer is only that, a trailer. The creative use of cinematography, non-linear storytelling and harrowing subject matter do not represent the gameplay, they just "set the tone" of the game. The feeling of tragedy will clearly feature heavily within the adventure (one would hope) but was the death of the child necessary to meet that end?

Heavy Rain Screenshot

Emotions are an abstract thing, and the skill which goes into invoking an emotion, (sadness, for example) is a rare one indeed. Empathy is key to players finding themselves in that situation, however, the protagonist's plight will always lose some magnitude in the journey from the screen to the mind of the player. To combat this, writers and designers have had to target some of the largest anxieties, complexes and uncertainties in order to elicit that all-important emotional intensity.

Using a child, or any family member for that matter, will most likely be the most provocative scenario possible. As I mentioned earlier, my paternal engagement may not be as high as men who are already fathers, so my nearest equivalent would be anything involving a girlfriend of spouse.

As an example, The Darkness, a graphic novel adaptation by Starbreeze, sees the player looking on helplessly as their girlfriend is shot dead by the gloating antagonist. Having just begun a serious relationship at the time, this scene was heart-rending for me. What would happen if I was presented with the same situation in real life? I'd rather not even consider it.

At this point I must ask, why is it different to use a lover or other close family member (a choice which is relatively accepted) while children remain as a no-go area? Limbo, PlayDead studio's indie hit of 2010 graphically, I believe, shows us why.

The premise of Limbo is much humbler and less convoluted than Heavy Rain's. Quite simply, the player awakens in dark, foreboding forest and all that's needed to know is that the character is a lost boy who is vulnerable. Very vulnerable.

In the journey to escape this strange world, many a dangerous obstacle lies in the player's path. Completing the game will most likely require being impaled, crushed, electrocuted, decapitated and more besides. In the general scheme of things, this level of violence isn't significant within gaming, although considering the protagonist must be a child of around eight years old, it becomes more poignant.

Heavy Rain's tack was investing a lot into characterisation of the player's virtual family before the many tragedies occur. In contrast, Limbo has no characterisation, none at all. However, I still persist that Limbo is considerably more provocative.

Limbo Screenshot

In showing players only a silhouette, it's clear that it's a boy being controlled, but it's impossible to see who the boy is. If anything, this blank character enables a higher level of empathy as is it could easily be anyone's child. In addition, the lack of characterisation leaves further room for a player's own projections of childhood and innocence. Rather than being a son being put in peril, it can be the player's own child self, or it can represent many things. However, the most important of them is that it's a child who doesn't deserve the ordeal he is forced to go through.

Children become a symbol of innocence and hope, the sort of person they may become has no bearing to what they are now. Watching a child forced to navigate his way through a hostile world is tragic, and doubly so since the light in his eyes is one of the only sources of hope within the game world. Watching those eyes blink shut after a fatal mistake is a truly frightening experience.

As a player, what I want is for a game to make me feel, to make me cry. I want a game to make me care so much for its characters and their plight that it makes me shed a tear or two. I want to become that emotionally attached to it.

Dead Island's use of a child, whilst extremely effective, feels like a kind of emotional blackmail if considered as part of a wider picture. Setting the feeling of family tragedy could have been done in many ways, and most of them don't involve the death of a child. Even though Heavy Rain also shows violence towards children, it functions as part of the player's narrative, something that couldn't have been created had the player not become acquainted with the children or been witness to the tragic event. Limbo's stylised aesthetic stops the gratuitous exposure of the child's fragility from becoming gratuitous by turning it into a visual allegory or metaphor rather than focusing on the character being someone's child. It is everyone's, yet it is no-one's.

We should ask ourselves if the use of children in this way is either right or not. Clearly such sensitive matter should be treated with some sense of delicacy, but from what we've seen so far I can't say that I'm angry about it. Violence against kids and loved ones isn't exploitative or gratuitous if it serves a clear purpose, if it contributes to a narrative and strengthens a game. However, I fear it's only a matter of time until the taboo has been overcome and we see violence towards kids as spectacle; it is a precipice we may find ourselves standing at the edge of sooner than we may think.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Series: Heavy Rain   Dead Island   Limbo  
Articles: Editorials  

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In defence of the 'trailer'

So if I'm reading this right, you're making two points here: 1) that the Dead Island trailer crosses a line by exploiting children as a short-cut to getting an emotional reaction or just stirring up controversy; and 2) that in general may be trending towards this strategy if only because children have been subjects of violence in some recent and commercially successful games.

I think you're overreacting in both cases.

First of all, your appraisal of the Dead Island 'trailer' completely misses on what it is that made it so popular. You said:

'the Dead Island trailer is only that, a trailer.'

Actually, that's not all it was. And this is the real reason why it went viral. It wasn't simply because of what they did with the daughter.

Bear with me for a moment: there are numerous films that involve similar material and plenty of games as well. You know, parents losing a child as they watch on powerless, that sort of thing. That in itself fascinates us in stories like many other primal fears. But if you were just to mix together those scenes from those films to use as a trailer, barely any one would watch it and those that did would probably resent you for wasting 3 minutes of their life.

Why don't people react like that with Dead Island? Because it is NOT a trailer. Or at any rate, it doesn't have to be. It is a stand-alone, bite-sized story. You watch it and you get the whole story and that makes it far more satisfying than any ordinary trailer that hints at a story and says: 'Buy the game to find out the rest'.

Then, of course, you have the dual-direction narrative technique which is really a stroke of genius - and, again, this only works because it is a self-contained story - and only then can you explain why it has struck such a chord with many people.

I know a few of the guys on the podcast ripped on the technique because they'd 'seen it before' in the movies, but that's a pretty harsh criticism. Not everyone has seen 'Irreversible'. I have, incidentally, and it is WAY more emotionally exploitative than the Dead Island trailer, so much so that I stopped watching it out of disgust AFTER I'd already managed to sit through all the gory stuff and then realised the twist with about 10 minutes to go. Also the comparison to 'Irreversible' doesn't do just to the Dead Island trick which has both forward and backward direction. The closest comparison I know in a film is 'Memento'. Even then I don't think that stands as a criticism of the trailer because, being only 3 minutes, and not to mention wordless, makes it necessarily more of a mood piece than any full-length film can be.

At any rate, whether you think it's any good or not, the Dead Island trailer stands alone as a little story and that's the main reason people have responded to it. I honestly don't think it's got to do with getting off on violence against children.

In general, I don't think you can make a rule about whether or not the treatment of violence against children in any given artwork is moral or is in good taste. It's something you have to judge on a case by case basis.

The use of children in a game like Heavy Rain IS exploitative of the player, but only in so far as any dramatic story must exploit some fear in its audience in order to be effective. The fact that Heavy Rain has a rubbish story has to do with other things, like characters that over-stretch our suspension of disbelief.

Considering that the really gratuitous and tasteless kind of exploitation of violence against children has not exactly been a recipe for commercial success in books or films (only in some isolated cases), I really think you'd be wasting your emotional energy by being worried about that happening in video games.

I know I keep coming back to the film analogy, but it is kind of appropriate. After all, if you talk about wanting a game to 'make you cry' then, as far as I can tell, you're really talking about the story aspect of games and not anything that is game-like, and this is exactly what games share with books, films, etc. After all, no game mechanic can make you cry (except perhaps from frustration!). It's just not what they do.

Thanks for the article.

So kids are inhuman and can

So kids are inhuman and can not meet the same fate as adults?

Just think about that for a bit from FO3 to BS and other games that either do not have them or make them invincible. Its good to see that games are allowed to be normal again...tho I bet the game will be censored to have less children in it or some other BS...

Children in Peril

This is an interesting and thought-provoking article (and an excellent response by Tutorial Boss) but I feel the author is overstating the significance of the 'child-killing' theme.

Yes, I agree that having children in peril could be construed as some writers pushing the boundaries because they're creatively bankrupt. But I don't think that's the case in the games mentioned.

Dead Island is likely going to earn the 'Most Misleading Trailer' award - having seen screenshots, it appears to be your standard zombie masher, and it doesn't look like children will be involved at all. So one of the examples given is a teaser trailer and not an actual game.

Heavy Rain had the death of potentially several children, but it was aimed at mature audiences and was trying to be a mature story. Should we say that the subject matter is off-limits to all interactive drama?

Limbo, I haven't played. However the child looks more like an 'avatar' to me than someone I'd perceive as a real kid - "this blank character enables a higher level of empathy" makes me think more of an avatar or a character removed from reality - like Mario - and the avatars in platform games are well used to meeting gruesome ends.

It's true that we could eventually go down that road, with some developers looking for cheap thrills even outrage. However they are doing ok so far. I think that companies that want commercial success won't step over that line.

It's interesting to note that where kids can actually be killed, they are generally possessed by demons or something like that (so that's ok then!) as in Dragon Age: Origins, and that companies like Bethesda make their children unkillable so as to sidestep the issue. Come to think of it, that Limbo character looks quite demonic to me...

But as Tutorial Boss says, "Considering that the really gratuitous and tasteless kind of exploitation of violence against children has not exactly been a recipe for commercial success in books or films (only in some isolated cases), I really think you'd be wasting your emotional energy by being worried about that happening in video games."

I don't think there's any need to worry about it.

I agree with this article

The use of the little girl in the trailer was an immediate no-go for me. I saw that and thought, no way in hell I'm buying that.

The commenter tries to say that it is OK to do this in the same way it is OK to do so in films. Wrong, but not for the reason you might think. The analogy fails because it is not OK to be unnecessarily, callously exploitative in films either. I would feel the same disgust and immediate distaste for a film that had such a trailer.

Thanks for writing on this topic; it is a feeling I definitely share.

I think the movie analogy

I think the movie analogy holds. But even still, it's a tad exploitative as an individual story. Though, if we replaced the little girl with the wife, would those roles really be more suitable? Certainly the reaction would be more universally positive, but it would still be equally "callous" and "cruel."

I think this article actually answered the reason as to why a child was used: because we immediately associate innocence and purity with children. It's a knee-jerk response, and that's effective when you want to deliver a brief story on the horrors a zombie apocalypse places on a family. What's scarier than losing your daughter?

It's really heart-breaking, but yes, a little exploitative. I do think, though, that children and violence -- especially when videogames are involved -- carries a large stigma that needs to be at least partially euthanized. There are tasteful ways to present violence in the presence of or upon children, and then there are movies that are so unabashedly indifferent to violence, like Hostel or it's sequel. In no way would I pair the Dead Island trailer with the cheap tactics those movies resort to.

As far as tasteful goes, watch "Grave of the Fireflies." It's painful and achingly sad -- maybe a bit exploitative too -- but it's damn good. It stars children too. If you want to cry buckets, have a watch!

Clarifying my earlier post in short

I didn't realise my first post was so long! No one is going to read that.

Just to clarify, my point was not to excuse the 'exploitative' use of violence against children in video games because there are films that do it. It was that the depiction in Dead Island is not exploitative.

The depiction of violence against children in fictions does not equal exploitation. Violence against children is a reality, from bad domestic situations to wars. Why should our stories, which don't actually harm any children, be restricted from exploring this phenomenon, this horrible truth about our world, in appropriately contextualised ways?

If there was a zombie apocalypse, children would die along with or even more so than everybody else else.

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