Violence in games is an oft-discussed and heated topic within the industry. Suffice to say, no definitive conclusion has been made on the subject or its effect on the player. Many games rely on violence, both psychological and physical, in the form of gameplay and story in shooters and sidescrollers alike. However, the way that violence is used or reflected on differentiates titles, as such a nuanced topic cannot be discussed in sweeping strokes. A recent title that goes headlong into violence is Reikon Games’s cyberpunk top-down shooter RUINER, which grounds an excessive amount of violence in a commentary on what lengths one will go to for family, and how the pacing of a game can override the gut reaction of shock and disgust at dismemberment and debauchery.
Taking players to the fictional city of Rengkok to rescue the protagonist’s kidnapped brother, the game starts in a salvo of violence and tutorial, as players cut down gangsters in a search for answers about the brother. As scientists and civilians cower in fear and offer commentary as the player runs by, the unnamed protagonist is immediately set up as a sociopath obsessed with his goal. By throwing players into such a violent character from the beginning, Reikon makes its statement clear: this protagonist will go to any length to find his brother, and will remove any obstacle in his way as quickly and violently as possible. The game’s structure around this central plot allows breaks from the violence between levels
Players can use these opportunities to explore the southern district of Rengkok and interact with a range of NPCs, from cops to bouncers, amid the neon lights and synth beats that are the bread and butter of the cyberpunk genre. Much of what makes the genre so prolific is how relevant the societies portrayed are to time the story is told, with the nearer the future, the more hitting the commentary. Indeed, Rengkok seems a natural evolution from some of the more violent areas of today’s world, where a shiny surface hides the violence lurking in the shadows. Even in these instances when players are not cutting down foes, the threat of violence is an unspoken presence.
These moments of respite are short and to the point, however, as the core of the game is combat—a fast-paced, blood-soaked kind that would be utterly repulsive if not for the frantic pace. Once a fight begins, the player has no time to think about the violence, as the difficulty of the title is reminiscent of Cuphead, with waves of enemies coming from many angles with different weapons and abilities. From dismembering gangsters with swords to burning them alive or freezing them in place and shattering them to ice crystals, a number of options present themselves to deal with the enemies and their increasing difficulty. In focusing on the methods of killing by way of frantically-paced firefight fought in tightly-contained areas, players must worry more about winning the day than how they do so. Boss fights against hardened mercenaries and killer machines allow for more strategic, yet still frustrating, encounters that force the player to make and execute a battle plan time after time to defeat their enemies. The fact that players will die often, but can restart a fight almost instantly, makes the violence on screen repeat many times over, yet attention is drawn to the difficulty of the fight, not the repeated acts of brutality. Even when levels are completed and players are free to explore and interact with the NPCs of the Southern Rengkok district, the bodies left in their wake are still with them, as is the knowledge of more to come.
In structuring the game around these firefights, and having the protagonist embrace and use violence so wantonly, Reikon shows how a psyche can be so single-minded that the idea of “any means necessary” applies aptly. Even in a world as brutal as this one, the commentary of NPCs informs the protagonist that the lengths he is going to are excessive, despite exaggerated standards. One mechanic in particular, later in the game where players must actively torture an NPC to progress into an area, shows the juxtaposition between the mind of the character and the player controlling him. While some players may enjoy ultra-violent stories, reconciling the extreme levels of gore with a character who may otherwise be sympathetic gets harder with the darker and deeper the narrative goes. Dialogue choices mostly boil down to a nod or a shrug—a tacit approval of more violence, and times when players can choose other options still end with the same violent result. This illusion of choice feeds into the general feeling of unease that NPCs are using the protagonist for their own ends, and the player is helpless to fight that control. Highlighting these conflicting feelings is the fact that the hacker who helps the protagonist track down his brother calls him “Puppy,” the closest thing to a name he receives, and that innocent word is jarring to hear in reference to a man committing such unabashed murder to meet his goals. In many ways he does feel more like an animal than a human, a killing machine let off the leash with a simple, straightforward goal and the tools with which to complete the task.
One surprising choice, however, is that the player cannot kill the civilians that appear throughout the levels (even if they try), which seems like a surprising restraint in an otherwise cruel and destructive world. The protagonist is never given instruction one way or another in regard to these bystanders’ fates, but the assumption that players would try to kill them given the tone of the game makes that restraint even more intriguing. Brief moments in levels where these interactions take place are also used to regain health/energy and distribute skill points, showing that the protagonist is always preparing for the next fight even when the coast is clear. Even in these quiet sections the specter of violence lingers, as corpses and mechanical monstrosities left discarded reveal violence done by others besides the protagonist, who looks on without comment. What separates RUINER from other violent titles is exactly this unfeeling protagonist who accepts what others say and acts through his violence. The brutality and swiftness of his bloodlust drives the game forward in that one and only way, and players must accept that reality to complete the story. The richness of the world, the gorgeous visuals of parking garages and underground facilities, and the electronic hymns that give music to the violence all make immersion easy and the experience of the violence so visceral.
Through the screams of the dying, the sound of flesh hit with bullets or sliced with a blade, and the general chaotic sounds of a firefight, Reikon makes clear that this violence is gratuitous for a reason. Without seeing the protagonist commit such actions, his silence would be all his character is—a yes-man for a hacker, and one who butchers in the name of a quest objective. The excellent atmosphere and rich world bring to life a society where this kind of violence is necessary to advance and successful in practice. While a third-act twist changes the perspective on the violence, clarifying the purpose and changing the player’s understanding of the protagonist, it does not take away from the horror of being the cause of such death, and only furthers the idea of the character being a weapon used in another’s machinations. The leanness of the plot, and the wide range of characters feeding into the protagonist with commentary on his actions and the world show that this amount of violence is not normal even by this fiction’s standards, and should be upsetting. Once RUINER is completed, and even at times in those quieter sections, the amount of carnage left in the player’s wake is something that sticks in the mind. The question of whether a player would commit such actions for their own family, and would such violence even be possible for anyone with a shred of compassion, is fascinating to raise, and much harder to grapple with after playing through such violence firsthand.