Kuro the Owl
Yesterday, I finished the video game Ori and the Blind Forest on the Switch, escaping (after many attempts) the wrath of Kuro the Owl, the game’s main antagonist. She is a velvet-dark mega-bird of hatred and revenge who spends the whole game trying to vanquish Ori, the little light spirit you play as. She’s actually pretty terrifying; looming in the background, screeching and keening somewhere off-frame, and if your clumsy human thumbs don’t quite hit the right buttons at the right times and in the right directions, she doesn’t hesitate to cut down Ori in quick-flash swipes of pure terror. Meanwhile, the rest of the game is similarly staffed with nasty creatures, ranging from amorphous slug-like blobs and chittering spiders, to armored rhinos and weird frogs who spit balls of pain. It is the most human-like creatures who are the heroes of the day, while the animals are suffused with unbridled fury.
Which is not to say I did not enjoy the game - I did, very muchly. It was more challenging than the cutesy-arty aesthetic suggests and many of its action sequences had my pulse racing and my breath held. Well worth a purchase and I look forward to playing the recent sequel if I ever get around to it. But it has made me think, not for the first time, about the representation of animals in video games. Ori and the Blind Forest doesn’t do anything remotely unusual in making its non-human creatures your main foes - indeed, that’s been a pretty standard method since the goombas and koopas of the first Super Mario game (and, of course, Donkey Kong before that). It’s also not uncommon for those foes to be the ickier, nastier creatures that we don’t tend to like; spiders, insects, piranhas, crows being the Big Four in this regard, I’d say. These creatures tend to be irritants that get in the way towards the bigger bosses, but many are regularly scaled up to become bosses themselves. The first boss from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is archetypal: Gohma, the Parasitic Armored Arachnid, who has infected the kindly Deku Tree with her offspring and screams at you from the shadows of a webbed ceiling, her one central eye just begging to be slingshot.
In more recent and larger scale games, such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Red Dead Redemption II, and Witcher: The Wild Hunt, hunting animals for health benefits and money bonuses is a common (and increasingly boring) endeavour. Red Dead takes this to the extreme, encouraging you to spend hours tracking animals, setting traps, and buying upgrades for lures and knives to make the process easier or more cool-looking. There is also a massive ‘Legendary Animals’ sub-quest where you are supposed to find and kill various elusive and spectacular creatures, including the Albino Moose and the White Beaver. I did a little bit of this, because the pelts of said creatures fetch a high price at the in-game shops. But man, even in virtual video game land it felt horrible. I managed to bag the Moose, but only after chasing it down across various beautifully-realized prairies and shooting it in the head with a shotgun.
Games like Red Dead cherish and enshrine hunting as a key element of the American mythos, and fine; its set during the Wild West times and, sure, people probably did lots of hunting back then. But the vanquishing of animal foes in gaming feels so natural as to be embedded in medium’s DNA. Violence, of course, is a mainstay of gaming across the board; it is rare in games beyond those classed as ‘sports’ to not be killing something, whether that’s a seemingly meaningless blob with eyes, or hoards of anonymous bad guy soldiers. As a defender of games as an art form, I used to bite back with defiance whenever non-gamers complained about the violence of the medium, but lately I’ve been swinging the other way. Post-Gamergate, when the art-form did some serious and painful growing up, I do now look at the extremes of gaming violence as blueprints of a certain generational psyche; as fueling and emboldening the disaffected bros and lads towards justifications of reprehensible words and deeds. Someone recently said that the tooled-up police in America who have been clashing with protesters look and act like they’ve learned all their moves and ethics from years of playing Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. I can't deny any more that such an opinion rings true. Gaming does have a violence problem.
Fortunately, of late it certainly feels like gaming has entered something of a more mature golden age, where indie sensibilities are rubbing off on larger blockbuster games and the medium is starting to face up to the embarrassments of its very white, male, violence-fantasy adolescence. It is still a violent medium, and still overwhelmingly male-orientated, but things are turning towards brighter horizons. Indeed, not least in one of my favourite games of the last few years, Horizon Zero Dawn created by Guerilla Games. This fabulous open-world sci-fi adventurer sees a post-apocalyptic earth returned to tribal living, but where gigantic robot dinosaurs and animals roam free across the plains. Following suit, the game-play requires you to regularly battle against these robot creatures, who will absolutely turn on you if you get too close. But, cleverly, the plot reveals that these cyborg-animals were not designed to be fearsome antagonists, but have been infected by a man-made virus to render them evil. Your quest, therefore, becomes one of redeeming the cyber-animals from the machinations of humans by seeking out and destroying that virus. Yes, there is death and destruction along the way, but there is a purpose and a reason to it all beyond the challenge of keeping your avatar alive (and the endless ascendancy of humans as the 'master species').
Without giving away too many spoilers, Ori also finds a way to soften Kuro the terrifying Owl and she does get her redemption at the end which is neither red nor wholly dead. But, despite this nice nod, the rest of her nasty crew are utterly obliterated in favour of the more cuddly creatures who often pop up at the end of these sorts of games to signify peace and harmony - the squirrels, the garden birds, the rabbits. It would have been nice to make peace with the spiders and tentacles, but perhaps that would have been a stretch too far. I very much doubt video-gaming will ever shake off its violent tendencies because the very nature of challenge is to remain alive in the face of danger, which remains the gaming starting point. But I hope for more games like Horizon that take seriously the endless destruction of fellow-feeling creatures and what such repetitive death means for our living souls. We have a climate catastrophe to answer for, after all. Anyways, for my next bout of gaming pleasure, I’m heading to Two Point Hospital where I will no doubt badly mismanage various wacky epidemics which, of course, feels painfully apt. But at least here the idea is the saving rather than the taking of lives, and the furious owls and spiders can live to fight another day.