Crispy Gamer

The Questionable Ethics of Brütal Legend

If you had to choose, would you rather die by gunshot or melting?

This is hypothetical, of course. Because I never asked the people I murdered what they would prefer. I just went right ahead and gunned down a prostitute in one game and melted the faces of a bunch of dudes in another. Because nothing ever really challenged me to think about the consequences of my actions, asked me to think about right and wrong, or pointed out it actually takes some real effort to even consider the question of ethics and videogames.

But I am going to try, starting with shooting and face melting.

If I stopped to think about it, I'd have to say that melting faces is a much more hideous crime. Not that shooting people is OK. It's just that portraying a very real kind of violent inner-city crime in Grand Theft Auto seems tame next to the kind of malice it takes to conjure up a demon force in Brütal Legend that melts away someone's face like it was made of wax. You just stand there and gloat, watching as the victim falls to his knees, in pain, crying out, only to topple over and then disappear.

Funny thing, the prostitute disappeared after I popped a cap in her ass too.

This, my dear students of philosophy, or theology, or media theory, is what passes for moral thought in videogames.

Kill or be killed? If only games operated by such an elevated moral code. The average game is a thin veneer of cause lacquered over a fundamental sadistic delight in ending life. Any life. Lots of life. Preferably ugly, mean life. But life, nonetheless.

Brutal Legend Feature
Is Tim Schafer praying? I wonder why...

Before you send my name and number over to Jack Thompson so we can have drinks, I'd like to stand up and defend the average run-and-gun fantasy churned out of the videogame manufacturing plant, because I think that games are fundamentally about emancipation. If you don't know what that means, hoof it downtown to talk to your local dirty communist and ask. But until that day, just think of it as this: Games are about sticking it to the Man, about feeling powerful, about freedom; even if that involves killing fake people and/or their creature equivalents.

Like it or not, the main line of ethical debate in games, then, comes down to the question of killing. Whether Fallout 3, Grand Theft Auto or so many other games that ask you to kill, all this pretend mayhem always polarizes the issue into two camps that I like to call the "games are not real" and the "they are real enough" sides. In either case, the argument is essentially the same -- either the fun in the game is getting to do something you would never do in real life, or the tragedy in the game is doing something you should never do in real Iife. As far apart as the ban-violent-games and enjoy-violent-games sides can be, in the middle sits the simple idea that both sides agree on: Something is going on. What, exactly? This is the realm of ethics, the philosophy of right action, the science of learning to sit up straight and fly right. And whether you have a graduate degree in the topic or just rely on talk radio to tell you the difference between right and wrong, the fact is, a discussion about good and bad behavior is a conversation worth having.

Which is a long way of saying this:

Yeah, you kill stuff in Brütal Legend and you kill stuff in lots of other games. And as much as this might be moral choice or moral issue, that's not the itchy ethical ambiguity at the heart of this popular and celebrated game.

The cancer in the flesh of Brütal Legend's ethics is the cultural phenomenon that game genuflects toward. You got it. The moral conundrum in Brütal Legend is nothing less obvious than metal itself.

Brutal Legend Feature
Seriously, I'm just a roadie. I help people. I like to stay behind the scenes.

Which means this:

Not only does this game honor the interactive wit and wisdom of Tim Schafer, introduce the umlaut as a legitimate design element in games, and provide a thunderously righteous musical soundtrack, it also pours a sticky black cloud of ambiguous evil over the entire notion of games and ethics. You think killing prostitutes is immoral? What do you make of a game that turns you into a kid in Satan's service?

If you haven't been paying attention for the last, oh let's say 30 years, then perhaps you have missed the subtle sublimation of metal from counterculture rebellion to satan-soaked riot to in-your-face revolt. In other words, with metal, enough was never enough. In a relative short period of time we went from loud volume as a form of nonconformance, to biting off the heads of bats, to demon worship, to a serial-killer-level love of the grotesque. Metal has always felt a need to align with the dark side, and as the spotlight of popular culture moved closer, Black Sabbath wasn't dark enough -- so we had to invent Cannibal Corpse.

To really understand Brütal Legend is to understand the wonderful, weird and wanton era of metal that spans between Led Zeppelin and the rise of the hair metal bands, or about the time that people started to take Twisted Sister seriously. During this historical sweep, metal turned from a classic rock-and-roll interest in sex and sound to a more philosophical contemplation in shaking loose the hegemonic shackles of Western, Christian culture. Or as I pointed out before: sticking it to the Man. As the genre evolved, God wasn't so much as dead as he was reincarnated into a pagan force that we've been brought up to think of as evil. If rock was founded on Catholic roots -- party on Saturday night and confess on Sunday -- metal was channeling Odinism: old horned gods, rising up, smiting, hosting wild bacchanals, chopping off heads, sacrificing virgins. Classic devil-worship fun.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this particular line of thought is not an indictment of metal. Far from it. Confined to a sonic prison of anger/hate/loneliness/alienation/boredom, it's as hard to deny metal its thematic palette as it would be to suggest that painters should use less blue in their work. Ugliness is just a popular hue in this particular mode of expression.

And that's why we can scoff when a kid's parents want to sue Judas Priest because their kid blew off part of his face while listening to "Better By You, Better Than Me." We say, "And yeah, whattaya gonna do next? Ban blue paint?!" It's an aesthetic argument, and one that makes a lot of sense.

The trouble is, once you make metal the moral imperative of a game and not just some form of artistic expression, you walk onto some pretty thin ice. The whole idea of killing in a game has always been framed by the important point that you were the good guy killing the bad guys.

Brutal Legend Feature
Just because the hero has devil wings doesn't mean he is a devil. Right?

So whether or not there is something wrong with canonizing metal in general, the issue at hand is this: Metal is about evil. That's pretty hard to debate. If you make a game about metal, you have this tricky issue of how to maintain the artistic heart of metal without animating some immoral Frankenstein when you bring it to life in a game. This is essentially the same problem that faces a game like Grand Theft Auto, where perfectly rational people objected to the idea of glorifying a life of crime. Of course, in GTA, you were not expected to love crime, just to see it as a wry commentary on life in a consumerist society.

But in Brütal Legend, you are supposed to love metal. Even more, you are supposed to save metal. And who asks you to do this? A demon. Demons are bad, right? And how the hell can a good-guy videogame hero be the same guy who is going to save metal? This game asks us to think of evil as good and another evil as really evil; and if it gets confusing, hahahahahahaha, we are supposed to laugh. As if people dying in a concentration camp was a good chuckle in the right context.

Ironic contexts that make you do the wrong thing for the right reason may be the primary tool in Quentin Tarantino's toolbox. And perhaps we just live in an ironic age. But isn't it an oxymoron to suggest a good guy can serve evil? Aren't we in jumbo-shrimp territory now? Sure, it's very ironic and rich and postmodern. But it's also ultimately sloppy and confusing.

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Now I can see the counterargument here. We are not supposed to celebrate evil. Metal music and a game about metal music let us touch the darkness without becoming consumed by it. Within the bookends of the song, or the game, we can suspend the rules from the outside and revel in an internally coherent moral system. Eddie Riggs may have sympathy for the devil, but inside the world of metal, he acts with honor and integrity, etc. We get to be bad in a good way.

And that sounds a little suspicious to me.

For example, we usually don't tell teens to watch porn in hopes that it will help them "get it out of their system."

Brutal Legend Feature
Does this logo make this game look demonic? I mean, is the blood too much?

You don't have to study ancient religious texts to figure out that whatever moral behavior is, it ought to be somewhat consistent. Relative ethics just means no morality at all, at worst; and anything goes, at best.

Nope. This game is up to something else.

From the first moments of Brütal Legend, it's clear that my character has been summoned by a demon to act out a demonic plan. My character, as rakishly charming as he is, smokes, leers at women, swears, and sets about killing things without so much of a thought as to why. It's pretty clear from the get-go that the only reason he decides to help what we must assume are the good guys is because he's hoping to teach the little hottie Ophelia how to French kiss.

Which, comedy aside, is a pretty shaky basis for a story. At the very least, it's a thin premise to go forward on if you want the player to feel any sense of righteous action or do-gooder intent. Usually, in a game, we assume that our character is the person who is right and has a reason to shoot, stab, kick, bump, and bazooka everything in his way. What happens when we start out evil? Are we supposed to become less evil?

In this pot- and Jack Daniels-fueled descent into adolescent debauchery, we find a glorification of everything that Tipper Gore and company had in mind when they suggested that rock music was bad for kids. Tell me that the Brütal Legend story is one of redemption and freedom and I'll tell you that you've simply described a copout not too far from Son of Sam stating a devil dog made him do it. It just sounds a little too convenient. Really, I don't need to go any further than the authority of IGN to make my point, whose strategy guide for the game sums up the plot:

"It's up to Eddie to build an army and fight the forces of evil -- you know, the not-cool kind of evil."

Cool kind of evil?

Exactly.

And where does this leave us, the gamers?

Brutal Legend Feature
Seriously, this is the car and the guy you don't want your daughter dating. Then again, you don't want Ophelia to be your daughter.

On one hand, we might have to admit that we've gone too far. We've let the antihero stereotypes of Snake Pliskin and Mad Max degenerate before our eyes into an interactive version of nihilism. Games have inched toward the abyss where good tumbles over and evil falls in line as a plot device, and we've become so accustomed to killing and maiming and torturing and dominating that we just don't notice it when we get sent on a devil's errand.

Or, put it this way: Was there a Brütal Legend that could have been made which stayed faithful to metal but managed to find some ethical ground to stand on? Could you write a story where a good guy saves mean old metal?

On the other hand, maybe it doesn't matter.

Maybe games are about playing around and not about grand narrative. Maybe, hopefully, games are about fun rather than meaning. Which is to say, maybe games are just not about ethical matters in and of themselves at all. Sure, we can talk about the moral structure of Tetris, or Brütal Legend for that matter. Then again, we can talk about the psychological basis of "Gilligan's Island" too (you know, the island as a metaphor of the mind, with Gilligan as the id, the Skipper the ego, the Professor the superego, the rest of the cast as the various passions -- you get the idea). But that doesn't make games about ethics any more than sitcoms are about the mind. Ideas are just pretty elastic.

Having played a lot of games, and killed my far share of hookers, demons and innocent bystanders, I'm hoping that games are about this fun thing and not about the big questions: life, the universe and everything.

Because if they are, we might be in a massively multiplayer world of trouble.

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