[TW: rape, graphic violence]
Growing up in an American suburb, I have experienced more than my share of gratuitously violent media. I’ve always watched movies and played videogames, and, for the most part, they have not affected me too much. The violence in The Usual Suspects didn’t faze me more than any other action movie– in fact, a lot less than most. Over my years of viewing violent movies and TV shows, I’ve learned to distance myself from the things happening on screen.
The following scene explains Keyser Soze’s background, and is one of the most violent in the film.
This scene contains objectively horrible things: Keyser Soze’s wife being raped while her children are in the room, children being killed, and gun and knife violence. These horrible scenes of violence are undercut by their presentation. The incredible violence strikes the viewer as a story rather than an experience.
The presentation of the scene encourages viewers to put some distance between themselves and what is happening on-screen. This distance is created in layers: a main character, Verbal Kint, is telling a story about a different character, Keyser Soze. The visual effects in the scene create a dreamlike quality. The frame is blurred, the actions are not taking place in real time, and the colors are different than in the rest of the movie. All of these things combine to remind the viewer that this is not taking place in the diegetic storyworld and is instead a blurry retelling.
In The Walking Dead, there are a lot of smaller, violent scenes. They are too numerous to recount here, so I will just focus on one moment that has visually stuck with me. Early on in Episode 1, Lee must kill Clementine’s babysitter-turned-zombie.
This particular death affected me so strongly for two main reasons. One, the most obvious, was that I could not divorce myself from the fact that these were my actions. In The Usual Suspects, I felt a clear and obvious separation between myself and Keyser Soze. In The Walking Dead, I was inhabiting the character who was enacting violence.
The second reason was that I physically could not look away. Since the game requires such precise clicks, it is impossible not to look at the violence that you are enacting. Even linking the video here feels inadequate, since it really is a completely different experience to have to carefully line up your aim and press the button. At the very end of the scene, notice how the camera lingers on the (former) face so that you can see the results of your actions.
In The Usual Suspects, or other violent films, if the graphic nature of the violence becomes overwhelming, one can always look away. The viewer knows that the film will continue rolling. In a game like The Walking Dead, you must keep enacting violence in order to advance the narrative.
This is the biggest difference for me across media. In films, you merely observe or spectate violence. In games, you embody it and enact it. I consider films to have violent “scenes,” whereas in The Walking Dead I as an avatar am performing violent “acts.” I think that my strong, visceral reactions come from this distinction. Does anyone else experience similar feelings, or am I really just overthinking this?