We should value games that make violence uncomfortable to experience

One scene in 12 Minutes is especially disturbing. In this dark time loop thriller, you’re stuck in a repeating cycle in which you – an unnamed husband – return home from work and start spending the evening with your wife, until a mysterious cop arrives, ties you both up, accuses her of murder, and strangles you to death. Sooner or later, you realise that to gather the information you need to break the loop, you need to hide in a closet near the front door before your wife knows you’ve come home, to witness the encounter between her and the cop play out in full. In short, you arrange to leave your unsuspecting (and pregnant) wife alone with a cold-blooded killer.

When you’re inside the closet, the game switches from its main top-down view, where you feel a Sims-like detachment from the characters, to a first-person perspective that aggressively places you in the scene. As a kind of forced voyeur, you spy through the slats in the closet door as the cop handcuffs the wife, then kicks and beats her until she tells him what he wants to know, and finally shoots her in the head. Nothing else in the game, including your own strangling, has the same intimacy. You don’t get to look away.

The question with a scene like this is whether it feels justifiable or exploitative. Is it challenging or plain nasty? There’s often a fine line between the two. In this case, I think it serves a purpose, as part of a story about diving into the darker corners of the psyche. It works because the game doesn’t push you into it, even though it’s necessary to advance the plot, but provides space for the cowardly plan and its repercussions to ferment in your consciousness. Making you watch with that Hitchcockian view switch then becomes a form of punishment. It wouldn’t have the same impact if it was edited, nor if there had been a content warning.

12 Minutes
12 Minutes. Credit: Luis Anotonio

Also, there’s something to be said for a game that tries to take violence seriously in a medium that mostly sees beating and shooting as fun things to do. I enjoy a good action game as much as anyone, but should thrill and spectacle still be the default modes of presentation for violence in games? Should our most common emotional reaction to violence still be satisfaction at its skilful performance? Isn’t it odd that even games simulating war are rarely willing to dwell for long on the horror of their situations?

Some games have grappled with these issues, of course, with the likes of Hotline Miami and The Last of Us exploring the implicit selfishness or sociopathy of being an action game character, and the devastation it causes. Or, in Grand Theft Auto V, the character of Trevor is the grotesque embodiment of the way we tend to play the game – impulsive, reckless and devoid of empathy. But games like these are exceptions to the rule, which work to the extent they do because they contrast against the norm. They’re also quite limited in scope, relying heavily on the shock value of extreme brutality to make their point, which is far from the only way to give violence a sense of gravity.

Another recent game, Road 96, offers one alternative. In this road trip adventure, you play a series of runaway teenagers desperate to escape from a fictional oppressive dictatorship. Each time you approach the secure border crossing at the end of a journey (if you make it that far), a wrong move can see you captured or killed instantly. It’s a tense scenario, only made more sickening by its clear real-world parallels with severe immigration policies and detention centres in the US, and their border wall with Mexico. The various means of crossing you may have to attempt – hiding in a truck, bribing guards, climbing a dangerous mountain trail – mimic the experiences of refugees.

Road 96
Road 96. Credit: Digixart

Like 12 Minutes, Road 96 also walks a fine line between justification and exploitation with its threat of violence. In this case because it risks repackaging real struggles as trivialising entertainment. It comes close at times, because the crossing is a neatly climactic way to round off a rollercoaster journey – Road 96 can be entertaining, sad, exciting or perilous in quick succession – with a tense emotional twist. It seems to gamify the concept of crossing a hostile border, turning it into a final challenge where survival results in a win state.

However, it doesn’t present these sequences as heroic escapes. Succeed or fail, each is contextualised as a single story among many within a political situation that’s largely outside your control. Road 96 avoids merely turning border crossing into a game in part by creating a bond between you and each character over the course of their journey, but also because it upturns the usual sense of fairness in games by making its rules and events unpredictable. You make choices, but you’re largely at the mercy of the state, hoping for a lucky break. The point isn’t whether you win or lose, it’s the injustice of the situation itself.

In this way, Road 96 reminds me of a pair of visual short stories, The Night Fisherman and The Outcast Lovers, which are supposed to spark anger over modern British attitudes and policies relating to immigration. But that comparison also highlights something missing in Road 96. Whereas The Night Fisherman and The Outcast Lovers specify the racism underlying immigration politics, Road 96 focuses on teenagers, who aren’t explicitly marginalised or persecuted, so there’s much less sense of the bigotry and hatred that accompanies the reality it draws on. Its political scenario is too vague to make its violence as horrifying as it might be.

Road 96
Road 96. Credit: Digixart

Similarly, in 12 Minutes, there’s an undercurrent of possessive misogyny in its two male characters that’s never brought to the fore. For the most part, the wife remains an object of contention and manipulation, whose main role is to reveal how damaged they are and how toxic their notions of love prove to be. It’s more their story than hers. To justify this treatment of the character, it feels like the game should have something heavier on its mind, something which presents the wife’s murder scene not only through the lens of a warped psyche, but in a wider context of systemic patriarchal abuse.

Violence in games should be uncomfortable for us more often, without falling into cheap ‘edgy’ titillation, and to a great extent 12 Minutes and Road 96 manage to walk that line. But both of these games, and others, perhaps should go further, tangling with the social psyche and the deeper ideological compulsions motivating the acts they depict. In that sense, they aren’t yet disturbing enough.

Road 96 and 12 Minutes are out now.