I love violent movies. Though they made me squeamish at first, I quickly overcame any debilitating shock of seeing people killed on screen. In high school my Friday nights were devoted to Monstervision with Joe Bob Briggs. A friend and I stuffed ourselves with doughnuts while we watched The Ice Cream Man and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. But for some reason, my bloodlust has never carried over to videogames. Even when I broke from my usual cutesy fare to play Capcom's gladiator-themed action game Shadow of Rome, it wasn't the game's goriness that attracted me. As a "recovering" classics major, I was intrigued by its setting: ancient Rome in the tumultuous period between the Republic and the Empire. Nevertheless, the game's brutality made me more uncomfortable than fictional violence has made me in years.
In Shadow of Rome, Julius Caesar has been assassinated and Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa's father has been convicted of the crime. But the elder Vipsanius is innocent, and he'll be executed by whoever wins the gladiatorial games being held in Caesar's honor. Agrippa must renounce his social standing as a general and become a gladiator—one of the most reviled, yet beloved people in all of Rome. And his friend Octavianus must find out who really killed Caesar.
Combat is easy to learn; the challenge comes from using it creatively. As Agrippa, players can perform any act of carnage with the left analog stick, the X button, and the Square button. But simple button-mashing won't get Agrippa into the finals. To be the best gladiator in Rome, he needs to win over the audience. That's where the fun begins.
Performing an especially gruesome or unusual special move earns Agrippa a bonus called a "salvo." He gets salvos for striking the first hit of the round, knocking someone off a ladder, flinging someone over his head, and countless other depravities. If the audience like what they see, they'll throw food and weapons to their favorite gladiators.
At first, the explicit gore in the gladiatorial combat bothered me. While I'd seen many films in which people hacked each other to bits, I'd never done it myself. The carnage was only virtual, but I identified so well with Agrippa that when I sliced off a man's arm, I was appalled by my own ruthlessness. Could I really be this monster?
These feelings were vivid for me, like snapshots of a crime scene. But like the discomfort I felt watching my first R-rated movies, those feelings didn't last long. After slashing, gutting and dismembering people for a couple of hours, my actions no longer shocked me. "I stuck your butt!" I shouted, slitting a guy's throat in cinematic, slow-mo close-up. Anything in my environment became a salvo-spewing weapon. I enticed groups of people to chase me just so I could crush them with huge presses. I catapaulted rocks at tigers, doused people in oil and lit them on fire. And in chariot races, I preferred to kill my competition rather than outrace them.
Eventually, I liked the gory gladiator games so much that when it was time for Octavianus's fact-finding missions, I couldn't come down off my bloodlust high fast enough to enjoy them. These missions require lots of observing, waiting and keeping quiet. But climbing rafters, creeping along walls and knocking people unconscious (Unconsious? Dude, just kill them!) can't compete with the thrill of making a guy wet himself and then cutting off all of his limbs.
Part of the problem with Octavianuss's missions has to do with the game's camera. It's fine for the arena, but when I needed to move quietly yet swiftly, or know where my enemies were in advance, the camera couldn't keep up with my demands. It often got stuck behind Octavianus's head, usually when I was trying to turn a corner or jump off a high ledge. In one room guarded by soldiers, Octavianus got trapped in the doorway repeatedly. His body would tremble as the graphics stuttered, the heartbeat sound signifying suspicion would thump faster and faster, and I'd start cussing like one of the kids in South Park.
Even though they weren't my favorite parts of the game, there's a chess-like beauty in Octavianus's adventures. After being turned away from the Senate meeting room again and again, I ducked into a small room and saw a dress draped on a shelf. Later, I came across a kerchief and a wine jug. I put on these handy props, and the guard, thinking I was a servant girl bringing drinks, ushered me into the room.
Playing Shadow of Rome has made me more sympathetic to people who argue that killing fake people can lead to killing real ones. I came to accept Shadow of Rome's violence fully. In its tiny, not-real space, mutilating people was not only okay, it was good, as evidenced by the bonus points those actions earned me. If a player is too young or too mentally unstable to see the constraints of that space, he or she could easily transition from virtual violence to the real thing.