A Place Where Violence Doesn’t Fit

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There’s been a lot of talk about video game worlds where the specter of aggression seems to clash with artful ambitions. Some have said that these high minded visions are spoiled by violence. Others have risen to defend the less imaginative elements – arguing that the combat against this backdrop brings new meaning. I hate to be that guy, but I’m going to pitch in my two cents on the subject. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing about this subject, but I think I have something new to add to all the hype.

Spoilers ahead:

So let’s talk about Lego City: Undercover.

[pullquote]We’re talking about Dukes of Hazzard levels of mayhem.[/pullquote]

I have been playing this game obsessively, really digging exploring the intricate game world (I am super serious about this, no more joking I swear). It is, essentially, Grand Theft Auto for kids. You play as disgraced cop Chase McCain who is out to bust the super-villain who ruined his career. So there are good guys and bad guys, but everything is handled with kid gloves. The mobsters never make threats of violence. They’re just sort of tough guys. The worst criminals do is threaten to break stuff.

Chase doesn’t have a gun. He has a grappling hook. When the guy needs to jack a car he’s always sure to remind the startled driver that this it’s a police emergency. The game’s plot even goes so far to assure players that the city police department will be reimbursing ever single driver and private property owner for all the stuff that Chase breaks. And man, Chase really does trash the place. One of the main things that Chase can do is bust apart all the Lego props all over the town and collect their bits to spend later. Sometimes (rarely, really) these things can be rebuilt into a new object that help open up a secret. So you really are encouraged to roam the town and break everything you possibly can.

Apart from one misstep, Lego City: Undercover is proof that you don’t need capital “v” violence to make a big action game work. Sure, there’s lots of car crashes and vandalism in the game – but we’re talking about Dukes of Hazzard levels of mayhem.

I had nearly finished the game’s story when my niece and nephew came to visit. They’re five and eight. To keep them occupied I reluctantly passed my Wii U controller to them. I say reluctantly because I’d much rather play this rad game than watch somebody else play it, but since the game keeps them relatively quite for hours at a time I relented.

And what strikes me about the game is how close it is to Grand Theft Auto and how benign it feels. If I were to fire up Grand Theft Auto IV in front of my mother she’d have her arms folded, brow furrorwed and tongue a clucking in moments. This game, so similar, but so different in very specific ways, didn’t even raise an eyebrow. She gamely watched her grandchildren play and even offered advice as she came to understand the ins-and-outs of the game world.

I mentioned a misstep earlier. Lego City: Undercover doesn’t completely eschew violence. There are bits every so often where a gang of thugs will jump out and want to brawl with Chase. He can grapple them when they come close or dodge their lunges with a well-timed button press. This guy is like a practitioner of Akido, dispatching his opponents with minimal aggression, but I wish these fights weren’t in the game. It’s not that they’re offensive or anything. The game simply doesn’t need them. There’s so much going on – car chases and races, building climbing, puzzle solving and treasure hunts galore. I’m not a prude, by any means. It’s just that Lego City: Undercover id so damn close to being the poster child for the non-violent, big-budget videogame. Even with these misguided melees Lego City: Undercover ought to serve as the guiding light for developers who hope to do something more. Maybe its not so weird that the proof of concept for the next, more enlightened wave of videogame blockbusters should come from a kid’s game.

That said, my nephew Arthur did find himself a little bored at times when exploring. His reflexes aren’t quite to the task of driving. And he’s still a way off from developing the fine motor skills needed for scaling huge Lego buildings. So the kid got his kicks in Chase McCain’s farmer disguise.  In a hayseed hat and overalls he stalked the streets with a chicken under his arm, squeezing the bird so that eggs erupted from the poor thing’s cloaca. “I want to shoot somebody,” Arthur said.


Pretension +1 is a weekly column about the intersections of life, culture and videogames. Follow Gus Mastrapa on Twitter @Triphibian.

Games, Pretension +1