The Hatred trailer was pushed into the world last week prompting a flurry of discussion over its subject matter: a nihilistic, trench coat-wearing, angst-ridden protagonist gunning down innocent civilians and poorly trained/highly incompetent law enforcement in the most gratuitous fashion possible, all the while writing nihilistic Goth poetry on the Trapper Keeper of life.
Critics have come out deriding the violence while the game's defenders have railed that the game has every right to exist. Both sides make interesting points about video game violence, which is fine, since that's the focus of the trailer and the game, but no one is discussing the real problem – this trailer fails to sell the game itself. It's selling us on the shock value, it's stirring up controversy, and maybe it's doing just as well as most "teaser" trailers purport to do nowadays. Except this isn't a teaser that gives us a hint of what the game may actually be like given a tenuous grip on a subject. This is an actual gameplay trailer. This is the developers giving us a taste of the game and promises us that there's plenty more where that came from.
Do we, as an audience, want much more though? According to the developer's website, we're being offered SEVEN free-roam levels! Non-linear structure with lots of characters on the screen! We get to spread "Armageddon" upon society!
The problem is, we've played those games before, at the dawn of the medium. We played them because we didn't have the technology to do more than construct arenas and let players go wild with their trigger fingers. We have Steam accounts backlogged with tons of games that are clamoring to be played, plenty of them just as mindless, so as refreshing as it is to not have another zombie shooter queued up, what's the selling point of this game? The power fantasy that we're killing helpless people?
Okay. The Duck Hunt ducks didn't fight back either, but I don't think I lasted more than five to ten minutes before I itched to go back to smashing turtles into their shell as an Italian Plumber on a mission.
The developers proudly state that their game was made as a protest, they're fighting against games "…trying to be some kind of higher art, rather than just an entertainment", going so far as to proclaim that theirs is a game about killing people, "…and the only reason" that the protagonist is doing so is their deep-rooted hatred.
Ignoring the atrocious grammar that would normally trigger all sorts of red flags regarding the quality of the product, this is basically taking us back to the days where the entirety of the plot for a video game consisted of a one paragraph write-up tucked inside the manual, after the controller layout. And again, let's pretend that this kind of narrative shortcut isn't as dated as manuals are, the premise here is fundamentally flawed.
Games are not trying to become some form of art – we just have artists right now for whom video games are a medium. We also have cash grabs, soulless creations cranked out for a quick buck, works that pander, annual franchises, and tons upon of tons of content being created that will be summarily forgotten.
What the Hatred developers are protesting against is really change. Sure, games were once upon a time seen as a toy that was somewhat more elaborate than a yo-yo. So were films and comic books at one point. Now they're a part of everyday life for the average, non-technical consumer. We have people from all age groups and social strata being seen not just as an audience, but as different target audiences.
And that's great, because that means that the developers of Hatred have the freedom to delve into the themes they claim they want to explore. They want to portray the point of view of a mass murderer, to titillate and fascinate their audience with experiences they would never contemplate of even dreaming about? To dissect the nature of evil?
That's an amazingly ambitious goal, go for it! This is something that books and films have plumbed to great effect. Seriously, we need more American Psychos and Natural Born Killers in the world.
Except the developer of Hatred don't really want their game to have any of this depth. At least, not according to the trailer or the developers' manifesto. They're giving us just another dated, vacuous shooting gallery. They claim that they're fighting against trends, but what do they offer us in exchange? Even the "shocking" games of the past gave us more.
Mortal Kombat? It pioneered digitized actors, effective use of hidden secrets, and one of the first interactive stages in a fighting game (whose mind WASN'T blown the first time they were punched off the bridge into the pit of spikes?). It was a gladiatorial pit fight in an alternate dimension.
Doom? The Doom series pioneered level design in first person shooters, and even twenty years later there are people – yes, even young people – who play and create levels for it, hoping to capture some of the magic and learning from it the language and grammar of pacing, placement, tempo, and encounter control of shooters. And before anyone even begins to say that it's not art, I sincerely believe that someday in the future college courses will look back and study the work of John Carmack, because the man is a programming genius and what he does with code is pure art.
Is Hatred trying to be Postal? The first Postal was a forgettable mess, but by the second Postal, it was clear that the developers had something to say all along – and were pushing the medium in new places. Here was a game that saddled the player with a lousy life then forced them to perform the banal chores that define our existence: going to the store, going to the bank, etc. Worse, it made these chores hell. It made you stand in interminable lines, with people cutting in front of you and the world trying your patience to such a degree that when you snapped, it wasn't the game telling you about it and why. It was you, living in a trailer home, fed up with everything and wanting nothing but release, a break from the monotony. The developers were using the medium to convey to you the frustrations of the protagonist. Yes, the game had a piss button, but that's not an accident – the game was the Calvin and Hobbes Calvin taking a piss and flipping the world the finger, grinning at you not from the funny pages but from the rear window of a pickup truck. It's a crude cartoon that still has fans and support to this date.
Sorry, but right now Hatred isn't fit to carry Postal's jockstrap. Hatred promises to have a narrator spew exposition at us while we kill things, which will make this the game that a number of people pick up on release, a second wave grab on sale, and all play just long enough to show it to someone or to be able to say they played it before moving on to something better. Critics will give it low scores, and no, it will have nothing to do with its subject matter (just ask Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, whose respectable Metacritic score didn't even blink at the civilian massacre level). The best this game can aspire to right now is to occupy the same niche as Christian movies or political dystopian novels – works made with an agenda firmly rooted in the moment, destined to be swept aside and forgotten when people stop caring. And that's a rather sad waste of hours, money, and manpower, but hey. The medium accommodates.
Hopefully the developers of Hatred will prove me wrong, because as it stands, the only trend they're bucking is that of making interesting games, and good luck giving me "pure gaming pleasure."