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Video game violence at E3: Too much, yet still not enough

Microsoft and Sony packed their E3 press conferences with fountains of blood and shotgun blasts to the head. Maybe that's what it takes to sell games -- but sales figures say it's not working.

I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to video game violence. I cut my teeth on Unreal Tournament, and I am a machine with a shotgun in Halo. But the bloody displays at Microsoft's and Sony's press conferences here at E3 left me horrified -- and depressed that an industry with so many challenges chose to offer so little to its existing and potentially new audiences.

Image: Splinter Cell: Blacklist's main character can kill two guys at once!
Splinter Cell: Blacklist's main character can kill two guys at once! Gamespot

Microsoft's Splinter Cell: Blacklist trailer was a mano-a mano murder fest (you need to enter your age just to watch it online), featuring multiple headshots that were helpfully slowed down, Matrix-style, so you could really see the brains go flying. Plus, carotid-slashing, garroting, and skull bashing, all in amazing new pseudo-realistic style. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was roughly as you might expect, horrors of war-wise; and the protracted "Tomb Raider" trailer, while admittedly mesmerizing, bashed around a vulnerable, prequel-era Lara Croft to such a degree that you kind of wanted to cry.

By the time I hit Sony, I laughed in horrified bemusement as the "God of War: Ascension" trailer showed the main character, Kratos (newly imbued with the ability to turn back time, in case you care) stabbing a giant elephant-man creature to death amidst gouts of blood so cartoonish it looked like he was repeatedly puncturing a water balloon.

That bordered on ridiculous, but my amusement faded as I watched the "Last Of Us" trailer and its roughly eight deaths in three minutes, including the main character shooting a foe point blank in the face with a shotgun. (Watch it for yourself if you're over 17 or so and think you have the stomach. Microsoft's press conference is here.)

Image: "Last of Us" is meant to be a dark survival story. It's dark all right.
"Last of Us" is meant to be a dark survival story. It's dark all right. Gamespot

At first I thought I was just being "old mom," since the audience was inexplicably and sometimes wildly applauding all this hand-to-hand murder, slow motion blood fountains, and shooting people in the face. Up close.

But as the conferences and the tweets wore on, it became clear I wasn't the only one feeling like the gore-fest had gone too far. It became a bit of a sick joke with those around me. Joshua Topolsky, editor at The Verge, tweeted his dismay that, "in all this time, the only thing we can think to put in the hands of game characters is a gun." Wired UK's Nate Lanxon noted the irony that "they'd beep out the swearing in the South Park demo but show someone literally being stabbed through the face in [Resident] Evil."

Nilay Patel, also at The Verge, cracked me up imagining the internal dialogue at Microsoft over whether to close with Usher and "Just Dance 3." He tweeted: "GUYS WE CAN'T END WITH USHER DO WE HAVE ANOTHER GAME ABOUT MURDERS". Oh, they did. Bring on "Call of Duty: Black Ops 2," and about 20 minutes of it.

Image: E3 2012: When in doubt, just go with a blood geyser.
E3 2012: When in doubt, just go with a blood geyser. Gamespot

The violence in the majority of the demos was intense, over the top, gratuitous, and as this brilliant editorial over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun points out, it was also embarrassingly mindless. Is this what it takes to sell video games these days? And if so, it's no wonder video game sales were down 42 percent in April and continue to slide. The industry does have more to offer than the equivalent of ultraviolent summer blockbusters, but it clearly thinks only neck-slicing will sell.

E3 is, in theory, an annual showcase for the biggest and best in the videogame world. And this year's E3 takes place at a time when gamers are waiting impatiently for new hardware and complaining about all the sequels; Sony is decried in the press as "on the brink of irrelevance"; and everyone, even fan favorite Nintendo, is said to face an uphill battle in the face of consistently declining sales -- in an industry once thought to be recession-proof.

Unfortunately, E3 this year has done little to impress anyone who isn't already either a fan or an apologist for mind-numbing game violence. If anything, it's successfully buried the vibrant, creative, nuanced, clever, and amazing games that could help the industry get its mojo back.

For example, Quantic Dream's upcoming PS3 game, "Beyond," has a dramatic storyline, a big-name actress in the lead role, a compelling and action-packed look, and a studio head who keeps imploring his industry to focus less on selling stupid headshots to teen-agers and focus more on crafting good, deep, compelling content. "Beyond" got a decent outing at Sony's press conference -- but was sandwiched in between bloody displays of stupidity. Do better, game industry -- and do it to help yourselves.