It was Jason Statham that did it.
Until his appearance, I hadn’t realised how much it fucking bothered me. But don’t people fucking swear all the time? I’m not some motherfucking prude, I can swear when the fucking mood takes me. And oh boy, does it. Now it wasn’t because Spy was a film about gals and I can’t stand fucking women swearing. It was every fuck in the movie, especially Jason Statham. As if inserting the word “fuck” into a sentence would autofuckingmagically make it hilarious.
It succeeded in making the dialogue sound like it was written by a fucking kid who has a hard-on for profanity because it sounds real, man, fucking real.
Oh, hello, videogames.
The cheesy, simplistic plots of games have always had a rocky marriage with the great effword. Most games came across as if trying too hard to sound earnest and important. It was as if someone went through the dialogue with the opposite of black censorship marker. I don’t know what that is. A verbal diarrhoea pen?
SOLDIER: They’re coming through the walls!
No, this is serious. We need the magical power of the diarrhoea pen.
SOLDIER: They’re fucking coming through the walls!
I said serious.
SOLDIER: They’re fucking coming through the fucking walls! Fuck!
(SOLDIER gets killed by a motherfucker)
My most recent fuckwince was during repeated playthroughs of Intra-System: Trust Issues (Smoke Some Frogs, 2017) which I wrote about last month. The German who you work with says he does not speak good English and makes up for it through the liberal application of the effword. “This place is creepy as fuck,” he told me. He later named me “you fucking damn bastard,” after I got his hand cut to shreds. I guess you would say that instead of “ouch” but, meh, it doesn’t quite gel even though the voice acting is fine. The cluster of fucks doesn’t add much.
Spec Ops: The Line didn’t bother me as much because that game was striving for some conviction. I don’t recall my reaction to GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar North, 2004) – I just didn’t buy into any of the characters so it’s possible I had an allergic reaction to the swears as well. The cutscenes of Saints Row 2 (Volition, 2008) perfectly captured the authenticity of a script written by someone who’s seen a lot of Hollywood crime drama. And at this point I’m waiting for an interjection about Saints Row: The Third (Volition, 2011) but I haven’t played it so whatev. Nor Bulletstorm (People Can Fly, 2011), which is well known for its potty-mouthed and amusing script. I’ve even got a copy of the latter, still sealed in Steam’s digital shrinkwrap.
Perhaps I don’t like it because the effword is ground into meaninglessness with endless repetition. A new series about time travellers, Travelers, uses the effword, but it’s applied so sparingly that it jolts whenever it strikes. I believe the first citation was in the second episode when Kyra Zagorsky mutters under her breath “for fuck sakes”. I asked Netflix to replay it because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I then asked Netflix to play it once more, with subtitles, just to be motherfucking sure.
This was a pattern that repeated for the rest of the series. Without warning the writers would drop in a quick fuck. Definitely not casually. It always had a heightened significance, instead of being diluted to flavourless wordmush through overuse.
I find games too often emphasize the effword because Imma Big Boy Now, This Some Real Adult Gamez Shit. But that’s precisely when it sounds dull. We said the word FUCK, did you hear it? I just can’t bear listening to half the swears of House of the Dead: Overkill (Headstrong Games, 2009). During the opening menus, you get “Critics said it’s fucking good.” I know it’s meant to be parodying grindhouse, but… the effword often gets enunciated with an emphasized eff, which is like this little runway for the FUCK to take off. It just sounds stilted and written instead of dynamic and spoken.
It’s the opposite of The Wire, where the effword is part-dialect, part-poetic. Game scripts often creak at the seams and adding the effword and seeword doesn’t cover up the flaws but rather highlight them. Using the word fuck liberally is not, in itself, a problem. There’s a craft to it. The famous “fuck dialogue” scene with Bunk and McNulty brought a grin to the face of this viewer.
Even Tarantino sometimes gets a bit much for my ears although I still love that Pulp Fiction banter between Jackson and Travolta. Perhaps my beef with swears in games isn’t just down to the skill of the wordsmith. Perhaps the effword is a little too real, gently prising away the illusion of a game with health bars and inventory tetris, of war or violence warped into fun. That it’s a juxtaposition that doesn’t quite fit, which recalls Jonas Linderoth’s application of Goffman’s frame theory to games suggesting that a frame of play can be an ill-fit for a serious subject. Works of interactive fiction are less afflicted because in addition to hearing the words in your imagination instead of from a voice actor that can’t quite pull it off, interaction fiction doesn’t always present itself as fun.
The last twine I played was Hatred: Or, The Last Temptation of Richard Goodness (Richard Goodness, 2017) and the effword is well in evidence here. This was the second time I’d played it. I had a different reaction the first time I played it, two years ago, as part of a feedback gathering exercise. Back then, my response was: I don’t think you should release this because the shock and awe of its contents drowns out anything nuanced it is trying to say. Today, the new version frames the story in a way that lends it a more thoughtful tone and the great presentation work by Mathew S makes for a sharper, more nuanced impression. Yet not once ‘twas I ever bothered by a fuck in either incarnation. It fits just fine and there was no tsk, tsk, come on now, tone it down.
But maybe the holy effword gets on my nerves because there’s more than enough swearing around videogames in the real world. Like when when I fail to make a Veni Vedi Vici run and out it comes, that reflexive “fuck you, Terry Cavanagh”. Or during an online game where players abandon the use of nouns and verbs and dissolve into a puddle of turbo-powered expletives. We call this language colourful, but I can’t think of anything more grey for the ears.
If you’re in the mood, let me know in the comments of some infamous swears in games, both good and bad.