Hatred is one of the most juvenile, pornographic, disturbing games revealed in recent memory. It’s also one of the most interesti— no, wait, come back! Hear me out, sceptics.
To be clear, let me state upfront that I don’t like the premise of Hatred. I find it uncomfortable at best, downright vile at worst. The trailer’s choice of close-up victims is also worrying, given the dev’s alleged political views (more on this in a bit). And if Hatred existed in a vacuum, it’s relevance would be zero. The developers declare it’s a response to video games languishing under some imagined politically-correct critatorship, which seems absurd if you look at the release schedule for next quarter, or the following one, or forever.
Instead, its value lies in its role as a foil to other games, a mirror that reflects rote mechanics, shallow motivations and lazy rationale for the many in-game activities we engage. Similarly, Hatred stands in contrast to the thoughtful and benign approach the industry has taken in the kind of games it puts front and center of the public eye; while the medium is evolving, it still remains a highly commercial enterprise and one where hard-won PR with the general populace is rigorously defended.
Take, for example, the extensive attention Hatred has received based on a sole trailer. Consider Polygon’s “Shock culture is dead” article, an ironic headline given the amount of coverage they’ve given it. Kuchera feels Hatred is immature, powerless, banal — I disagree. Where Hatred is lacking is in even the thinnest veneer of subtlety or artifice.
Heart of darkness
You see, Hatred is about killing people. That’s not usually what games are normally about, despite their primary verb being murder. It’s normally about “vengeance” or “guardianship” or “duty” or “multiplayer”, and it just so happens that you snuff the life out of a few thousand
people speedbumps enemies along the way. Enemies are dehumanised to ciphers — anyone who can be conveniently offed thanks to plot or being the other.
Hatred successfully enthralls (and disgusts) because it asks a question: “When is it alright to kill?” For Hatred‘s protagonist — Dreadlock Grim Angst Metalbro — it’s because he’s selfish, lacking even a sliver of empathy. “I will put in the grave as many as I can,” he hoarsely declares before exiting a typical white-collar middle-class suburban house. He says it’s vengeance, but for what we don’t know — possibly because his Amazon order for the latest Nickelback CD was delayed. I’m pretty sure his life was just so tragic before the incident.
He’s a LiveJournal personified, down to the trench coat and rambling monologue which pinballs between loathing and nihilism. The NPCs, however, are real — more real than most I’ve seen in such games. They’re terrified. They beg, they plead. They’re defenseless. It’s chilling. It makes you extremely uncomfortable about the actions you’re making in-game. There’s no clever twist, none of the careful consideration found in games like Spec Ops: The Line or Metal Gear Solid about the horrors of war, no comment about player agency like in Bioshock.
That’s something, considering the various comparisons I’ve seen made to it so far: Postal, the progenitor of this kind of rampant violence; Hotline Miami — critically acclaimed — which gave brutality speed and a neon coat of 80’s nostalgia; Manhunt, which positioned you as the unwilling agent of a sadistic voyeur generating snuff films. Watch_Dogs lets you act out similar fantasies based on background checks, which resulted in videos where players deliberately singled out NPCs with certain ideologies, hobbies or sexual orientations. Of course, you’re never encouraged to do so, but you’re never condemned suitably, either.
Intent is trotted out as the difference, but the distinction seems a small one when the actual player actions are so similar. Because the mechanics are the same, aren’t they? And no one feels bad about the citizens they brutalise in God of War for health orbs. Of course context matters, but it’s incredible how tiny a shift is required in order for murder to be justifiable. To reiterate on what Nathan Grayson said in his own piece, violence is often lauded, made to be a cool or crazy visual treat for player skill.
Creators versus creations
I don’t think Hatred is exploitative in the manner of, say, the games that were popping up around the intense bombing that occurred a couple of months back between Israel and Gaza. We should be concerned, but if games are an artistic medium for expression, it means that some games are going to come out that we’re not going to like. And it also calls into question whether or not we, as game journalists, have a duty to cover it, and how such coverage might take shape. I think it dovetails nicely with what other writers have been saying on the subject of social criticism in relation to reviews, and the need for games criticism to expand out from a rote list of check-boxes to tick. If Hatred is an incredible isometric shooter mechanically and visually, does it still get a 9/10? What about it’s message?
Take the issue around the dev’s backgrounds. Do we take issue with the creator’s political or ideological stance? Allegations have been leveled that the development team have Neo-Nazi leanings and affiliations with a Polish hate group called Polska Liga Obrony who, amongst other activities, made headlines by patrolling night clubs and threatening Muslim men with Polish women. The CEO of Destructive Creations Jaroslaw Zielinski denies this, explaining that his, “Like” of their page on Facebook isn’t an endorsement of their activities. Hmmmm.
Critics have always questioned whether a work can stand sufficiently apart from it’s creator, and games are no different: recall in 2009, when some suggested that the excellent Shadow Complex be boycotted because of the involvement of Orson Scott Card, who has a very dim view of homosexuality (He doesn’t like it, not one whit). Card’s views on this matter didn’t necessarily translate into the game’s design (short of being set in the same universe of one of Card’s novel) or mechanics, a fact that’s harder to argue with Hatred, which in its very title belies the conceit of the game. It doesn’t help its case that most of the gruesome executions involve people of colour and minorities.
“Do you want to play a game?”
This isn’t a question of artistic freedom, thankfully — I think it speaks to our industry’s understanding of freedom of speech that most of the diatribes I’ve read on Hatred don’t want to censor it, instead lamenting its timing and subject matter for a medium that has had to fight tooth and claw for legitimacy in the mind of the average citizen. A media landscape in which deviant outliers are the ones that get sensational coverage, with news agencies attributing society’s follies to capital Video capital Games as a whole and citing them as the reason for everything from moral decay of our youth to mass killings.
Do games cause violence? Of course not. Alright, then: can games be inspirational? Well… yeeeeessss? Hatred is an ethical challenge to us, who want the legitimacy of art but none of the responsibility. The game’s developers haven’t accepted that responsibility, but we can.
At a higher level – the Triple-A space – a game like Hatred would never exist. But neither would Gone Home. Or Depression Quest. Or Amon26’s attempts to translate his night terrors into games (“It all changed the moment I personified a nightmare as an NPC, took aim, and killed it,” he says). Games that deal with real-world issues are rare; the ones that get more corporate support, like Papo & Yo (a heartfelt game about a child dealing with abuse from his alcoholic father), take on the topics in the form of metaphor, fantasia and allegory. It’s always the soft touch, the gentle wave, the sanding of hard edges.
I’m thankful that Hatred exists. Because I hate it, even now, with so little information available.
I hate its crassness and its creators’ paradoxical statements in relation to its weight (“It’s just a game, bro!”).
I hate its protagonist, and his melodramatic dialogue, and his motivations.
I hate its pleading victims, who strike too close a nerve and aren’t giving me a reason to kill them or doing anything to make the game fun or wacky or imbue me with a sense of awesomeness. I’m not sure they’re even supposed to.
I hate that it’s dull and unoriginal, given that games like Chiller were being exceedingly grotesque as early as 1986.
I hate that, for all its intolerance, we need to be the tolerant ones.
I hate that it might, despite all of this, be a good game to play: well-designed, visually splendid. And that I’ll have to engage with it.
Challenge accepted. Just don’t think I’ll be pulling my punches.