When we talk about realistic visuals and situations in video games, we often relate that to an excellent work of development and game design. Studios bring experiences to us where we get immersed in alternate realities, and sometimes those realities look very close to the real world. But where is the limit in portraying realistic situations, and where’s the limit on how far a studio could go? Recently, I ended up watching a very disturbing scene in Red Dead Redemption 2. Some studios are known for the level of realism they handle in their games, and the results of that kind of game design usually end up delivering excellent experiences.
This time, the experience was entirely different.
The situation starts when you stumble upon a shack in the middle of nowhere, where a guy invites Arthur to have a dinner. If you accept the invitation, that guy knocks you out cold and that’s where things take a grim turn: You wake up with that man telling you that “he enjoyed it”. And then what happened hits you like a punch.
And it’s disgusting. It’s not a part of the plot. There’s no way to know this would happen. After that, the scene cuts and you wake up in the middle of a field. That situation is never talked about again. A traumatic and awful situation as a rape, portrayed as a “random encounter” like it was a sort of funny surprise for the player to have a laugh and move on. No development. No justification.
And that’s how I, a regular dude with ZERO experiences of that kind just felt: I couldn’t possibly imagine how a survivor would feel, or how much this would affect them. Imagine yourself playing an immersive game – as RDR2 is – in the safety of your home, using a new release as a way to relax. Then one of the worst situations that your memory could possibly bring to your head. A situation that marked you for life and something that you would never choose to relive again. It passes that off as a random encounter, something unavoidable that “just happens”. You have no power to change this fate.
Just let that last sentence sink in.
Controversy in games is not a strange subject, and of course, this is not the first time Rockstar has indulged in this kind of scene. In Grand Theft Auto V there’s an infamous, unskippable torture scene. Exactly like the RDR2 example, the torture “minigame” has no influence on the character after it happens, and it doesn’t affect any kind of progression besides that specific part of the plot. The only one who really struggles with this is the player. It’s really hard to play through. I don’t know if the stress of the moment is worth it. I’m not thinking about testing my own capacity to feel empathy for a living being when I play video games.
To be clear, I’m not a fan of censoring games, but everyone should have an option to skip this kind of content. We have some ridiculous gore displayed in games like Hatred or Outlast, where we feel abstracted from those scenes since there are unrealistic settings or more grotesque and exaggerated elements. But when you make an immersive experience close to real life and portray realistic situations, you need to show care.
Another example of this happens in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where the player is forced to take part in a mass shooting at an airport. The difference lies in that even in that setting, the game lets you skip it and you don’t lose control of what you want to see. God, even in Hotline Miami, where a similar situation like the Red Dead Redemption 2 one happens the scene can be skipped. If these games built on pure violence and power fantasy can let us avoid the overly gruesome, why can’t Red Dead? Are these games less fun because of that option? Are they no longer games?
Not at all. Video games are a form of entertainment. A video game can have a relatable character. Stories where we find memories of our lives reflected in the dialogue. Real facts of history portrayed with different points of view (which I find really amusing). But I think studios must remember that their public have different life experiences, and they should handle the content they put into a game with more sensibility.
There are lines that no one should ever cross in a game if the intention behind that game is to entertain. Not every memory and scene is fun for every player—creators would be wise to remember that.