Whose Line Is It Anyway?

I haven’t really ever considered that I would draw a line when it comes to a game or games.  These things, I perhaps naively thought, were for extremists and Daily Mail reading parents.  But not so long ago, I discovered to my surprise that I have one too.  While others may baulk at the violence of Crackdown or gore of Resident Evil or the ultra violence in GTA, mine is based on a lone woman.  Her name is Violette Szabo.  The game is called Velvet Assassin – a stealth based action title in which the heroine’s life as a WW2 assassin is told and played in flashbacks as an ailing Violette lies ill in a hospital bed.

Ever since I first read about the game, it has bothered me.  Violette was a real woman.  She was captured, tortured, hideously abused, and then executed.  She was 23.  Why should I care about this being the subject of a game?  When I first read of Violette’s true story as part of the blurb in a games magazine, it moved me to tears which quickly became disgust, shock, and then anger.  Anger at her horrific suffering, at the evil that is done not just in the name of war, and then at whoever decided that this would be a good idea to spin into a game.


I shut the magazine, vowing never to play the game as a reflex decision, but like so much of the things that I fear or hate, it flitted between shadows in my head as I taunted my inner hate with more information about the game as it was slowly revealed.  Nothing, no game has ever got under my skin quite like this one has.  Nothing has ever presented me with the dilemma about drawing a line; about what I will and won’t play and why, but Velvet Assassin has.  I don’t want to play it, I don’t want to support a game that has ‘sexed up’ the historic Violette, I don’t want to play a game based on the true life of this tragic young woman.  In arguing with myself I can imagine the voices of others, arguing that I’m being unreasonable, or over sensitive, that it’s a game, and that what makes it different than other horrific games about war…after all, isn’t this just one of those?  I say to the voices, with growing decisiveness, “go to hell”.

War is horrific but the much fought battles in gaming land, as in reality, are fought by the many and games when depicting these battles either conjure a sea of faceless/nameless soldiers to die and have a fictional character as their centre, however real the situation in which they are placed.  Even when you have comrades in arms who die, perhaps in dramatically upsetting circumstances, they are still fictional, therefore, perhaps this is why they are more acceptable; more palatable.


War and it’s battles are a bigger picture, a large, bloody, violent conflict of many.  Velvet Assassin, by nature of being a stealth title is small, intimate, and personal, and it focuses on one very real person.  If we take the wider picture of war in a game setting again and this time apply the idea of Velvet Assassin, it is suddenly, for me at least, quite different and maybe then, even a general war game would become more unsettling…take a body of England’s – a real young soldier whose life you can paint a picture of through his poetry and letters home… he was real, he lived, and he died.  Imagine his pain, his injuries and suffering, the terror, the sickness, his friends dying around him.  Imagine the horrors of war that we have come to accept through the media so much so that we have become blasé, suddenly with a real-life centre – the colour is more vivid, the horror more so, and the unsettling nature of a game based on this life and death so much more real.

I think that is where Velvet Assassin gets me.  It isn’t a faceless or fictional assassin on some mock game-stage of war.  She lived, breathed, suffered, and ultimately died and try though I might (and I have, truly) I can’t find the idea of a game based on her short life anything but completely unsettling.  I have never felt this moved or disturbed by a game and it bothers me, and it truly gets under my skin.  For some people it will be a case of, ‘ffs, it’s just a game’.  Well ffs, this is my line.  I’ve never had one before and I’m trying to come to terms with it and figure it out.  I never wanted or expected one and I am still struggling to understand it, to overcome it, and rub it out.  Perhaps ultimately, though it is faint, shaky, and tentative, I should let it be, because it belongs there.


Perhaps we all have a line, just that few of us discover it?  Does that make me lucky or unlucky, stupid, silly, or smart? I believed myself untouchable when it came to games, I’d play whatever – after all, they are just games.  But with the haunting reminder that Violette’s life was very, disturbingly real – something that touches me on an emotional level, I realised in a shocking and sobering moment that I wasn’t beyond being affected and so my line melted into being, much to my horror.

Ultimately, perhaps the game itself presents me with a better shield to justify my avoidance of Velvet Assassin to those who may criticise my suddenly stopping where they would happily pass on by, and that is that the early reviews are very shaky, that there are bad checkpoints rather than manual saves – a true crime in a stealth title, and that it simply isn’t that great.  That’s a relief.  For a moment I thought that the game would be stunning and I would have to stand by my line on it’s own, still shocked at the existence of said line, and perhaps fight to justify it to a scornful majority.  Luckily, the game has saved me, but the line however, stays.  It’s real and it’s mine and it’s a sobering reminder that even an open, blasé, care-not gamer can be ‘got to’ in a very stealthy surprising moment.







9 responses to “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

  1. John.B avatar

    It’s the problem of strictly speaking gaming can be used as a medium to explore social theme, people’s lives etc etc but it’s rarely used as that and as such serious stories used as entertainment can feel iffy.

  2. The Rook avatar
    The Rook

    I tend not to buy magazines anymore, and therefore have not read much about Velvet Assassin. So until I read this blog, I was unaware that the story of the game was based upon a real person.

    A friend of mine had played the game and told me how horrible it was, so I have had no interest in checking it out.

    The only line I think I have drawn in my gaming interests is the Japanese game about raping women. Not played it, but it is one that I wouldn’t want to even check out.

  3. MarkuzR avatar

    Lines are funny things. I didn’t think I had any semblance of “line” until a few years ago, and the emergence of that line certainly forced me to internalise and wonder if I had been wrong in NOT having a line.. or wrong in now HAVING that line.

    Either way, it’s important that we understand our true nature and what evokes particular emotions in us, whether the scenario is based in reality or fiction.

    I hadn’t known anything about the game until just a few days ago… and if I hadn’t found out that it was based on the real life of a woman who was tortured, raped and ultimately killed… I would have given it a shot as I much prefer the stealth approach to games. Unfortunately, out of principle (whether misguided or not) I won’t allow a single penny of my cash to go towards the conceptualists, developers or publishers of a game that glorifies her despicable ordeal. Others may disagree with that stance, as you said, but it’s our stance to have.

  4. Tiq avatar

    I can see why you’re having a difficult time with this one, Lorna.

    On the one hand, if we as gamers really want gaming to mature as a medium, then we have to encourage developers to create games around stories like Violette Szabo’s.

    However I also think you’re being a little too harsh on yourself, as you, I and all the other gamers out there with even a modicum of common sense all know the industry well enough to realise that there isn’t really any game developer out there yet who have shown themselves mature enough to make a game like this and do it justice.

  5. Michael avatar

    Why have you tried to find it anything other than unsettling, Lorna? Some sense of fair-mindedness?

    I have occasionally read about this game and am aware of the story behind it – yes, it’s distasteful but I admit I haven’t gotten angry over it. I just haven’t entertained the notion of buying it.

    Why should we encourage developers to use real people’s stories in games? Are games not built on imagination? On escape? So, yeah, they’re increasingly being used to explore things but, well, should there be a line drawn?

    Great thought-provoking post Lorna! 😀

  6. Tiq avatar

    We should be encouraging them, because that’s what it takes for a medium to mature. The best art is thought provoking, and that’s exactly what this sort of game would be, if it was done properly… a thought provoking experience, that serves to make you think because of the touchy subject matter.

    Unfortunately, we’re definitely a long way off from seeing a game like that. That’s why I’m so thankful for a game like braid, as it takes baby steps towards a direction that I would really like to see gaming move into

  7. MarkuzR avatar

    It’s not the fact that it’s based on reality that is the issue though Tiq, it’s to do with the fact that it’s based on ONE person’s reality… someone’s daughter, roughly the same age as you, who was tortured, raped and murdered. It’s the difference between realism and exploitation and I think maybe you’re confusing the two. Art reflecting life is acceptable as long as it doesn’t exploit it, then it becomes distasteful.

  8. Lorna avatar

    Yes, Michael – fair mindedness did very much come into the internal argument 🙂

    As to Tiq’s remarks…I disagree with the notion that the best art is or should be thought provoking and that we should encourage devs to push the envelope – any envelope for the sake of it. The term ‘art’ in any medium is oft abused and risks being viewed as an untouchable talisman the second it is pinned to something.

    Risk taking is fine but it comes down to context and handling along with the question of ‘is this really necessary? Does this need to be?’ As far as real art goes,’Experiment On A Bird in the Airpump’ could be deemed thought provoking and yet the infamous portrait of Myra Hindley created out of the handprints of children was largely rounded upon as highly distasteful and unnecessary.

    Should we find a Japanese rape game acceptable or palatable if someone pins the art badge to it? Should the developers of such a game get a round of applause for ‘being brave’ or’groundbreaking’ because it hasn’t been done or it is a taboo subject? In terms of the Japanese rape game, it is a fantasy enjoyed by a small niche but given the glorification rather than the true tackling of issues like this in a proper, character story based, sensitive, or appropriate context it does nothing for the flag waving gamers who want the medium accepted as mature.

    Given gaming’s relatively young roots, I think that perhaps hasty attempts are being made to shove it into ‘growing up’ or maturing, some of which seem counter productive, i.e. by leaping into shock-horror extremes or, (bringing it back to Velvet Assassin) unsettling and perhaps ill-thought-out nudges at real-lives…rather than producing anything genuinely of merit which may provoke thought or discussion without the risk of glorification or disrespect.

    A personal feeling is that until this changes, gaming won’t be perceived favourably by the wider world, it will just make some of us wince and hope that the wider world continues to ignore us until mature heads rather than adolescent fantasists make games which explore, convey, teach, and sensitively handle the few taboos left.

  9. Pix3l avatar

    Not that I’m defending the game in any way but films have been taking horrific, true stories and turning them into “entertainment” for years but they’re just accepted.

    As tiq said, game developers haven’t reached the same maturity as modern film makers but who’s to say that in the future, games about true events will become common place. I think the main issue is more about the lack of thought applied to the story more than the story itself, making a stealth/action game about a woman who went through such horrible things is stupidly tasteless but Eternal Sonata, a game that’s losely based on the true story of Chopin dying in agony from TB was a beautiful game and handled in a much more appropriate way.

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