When RoboCop, the film, released in 1987, critics centred in large part on its violence. A sibling of the video nasties of its decade, the movie’s gore, like much of Paul Verhoeven’s work, is as attention-grabbing as it is crucial to the thematic thrust that lies beneath its surface-level thrills. RoboCop: Rogue City, a 2023 videogame based on the film, is as gleefully violent as its source material. Sneering punks can be smashed through glass panes and thrown out of the windows of skyscraper penthouses, shot in limbs or head with accompanying bursts of red goop and squelching sound effects, or turned into convulsing silhouettes when electricity arcs out a television freshly broken over their mohawked heads. Modern critics of the game focused their reviews in large part on its visual fidelity, success at adapting a film series, and technical issues.
Videogame violence is so commonplace—so, to put it properly, unremarkable—that it doesn’t warrant much description. The medium’s critics, as a whole, are unlikely to comment on it any more unless, maybe, a game’s brutality is particularly bold. It’s just a matter of fact that videogames are violent. Bullets pulp heads, swords sever limbs, and nobody is particularly moved by the routine bloodletting.
None of this has to imply a troubling lack of morality in digital killing—violence is a subject like any other; a blank canvas for the discussion of the myriad topics that sprout out of it and not a statement made entire in and of itself. It’s definitely an aesthetic issue, though, and like all aesthetics, the presence and stylization of violence is a foundational decision that informs the texture and effect of a work.
Verhoeven’s Robocop understands this (as, again, so many of the director’s films do). What can move the audience, either in shock, revulsion, sadness, or laughter? Show a guy’s flesh sloughing from his frame before getting hit by a car or depict a cop being agonizingly executed by having his limbs blown off with a shotgun and a bullet put between his eyes. Find room in the squib budget for a scene in which a bipedal robot with gatling gun arms shoots a few hundred rounds into a businessman in a boardroom.
Without thinking too hard, Robocop’s exceptionally (and creatively) violent kills pop to the forefront of memory. From them, Verhoeven’s exploration of American culture and politics take on an immediacy far stronger than many more persuasively and delicately argued treatises on the same subjects. (They also do so with an appeal to cheap thrills that keeps an audience invested long enough to figure out what the movie’s saying.)
None of the kills in RoboCop: Rogue City, excepting maybe the first time you realize RoboCop can toss enemies out of high-rise windows, elicits much of any reaction. Unlike the film, the videogame player is anaesthetized—or, more accurately, their tolerance has been raised too high—so that even Rogue City’s routine and fairly extreme portrayals of violence fail to have the same effect as they would in a movie. The kills in the game simply aren’t noteworthy when placed next to others that do brain-bursting, limb-ripping, and other forms of guy-disassembling with more audiovisual flair. (See: Mortal Kombat, The Last of Us, DOOM.)
Barring creative stylization—like the pixelation and swinging cameras of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days; the grainy VHS footage perspectives of Manhunt or Outlast; or the sweaty pacing and matter-of-fact carnage of Hotline Miami—games require narrative context to lend their violence impact. Lower the body count or give enemies personalities beyond moving targets, say, and maybe then their ruthless destruction might feel like something other than a thing to do when moving from one end of a level to another.
Rogue City presents its shooting so similarly to other games and fails to look deeply enough at its violence that it feels, in this aspect at least, just like so many games before it. A movie where Robocop splatters a new room with the blood and crumpled bodies of dozens of enemies would be noteworthy if for nothing else than the amount of attention given to the act of killing. In a videogame, spending an hour gunning down a few hundred goons means nothing if it isn’t portrayed with weight or flair.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Polygon, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.