ROBOCOP And The Morality Of First-Person Shooters

RoboCop’s violence is equal parts sinister and thrilling.

Hardcore Henry comes out this weekend (you can buy tickets here), and to celebrate, we're going to spend the week looking at films that share some element of its first-person, video game inspired aesthetic.

Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop is many things: a vicious satire of Reagan’s America, a pitch-black comedy, a defining exploitation action film. But at its core, it’s the story of Murphy, an idealistic cop who’s murdered and brought back to life as the titular RoboCop - an all-powerful, benevolent Frankenstein’s monster. RoboCop is a film that’s fixated on the act of seeing, with a protagonist whose eyes are covered by an inscrutable metallic helmet. As RoboCop struggles to reclaim what humanity he has left, Verhoeven tells the film’s emotional arc directly from his point of view.

When we first see through Murphy’s eyes, he should already be dead. He looks up at a hospital ceiling, surrounded by doctors trying to save his life, his blood and their instruments just out of sight. Visions of his family and his death - the only memories he’ll retain with his resurrection - flash before his eyes. Then suddenly, it’s over. Fade to black.

The screen flashes with static, as if turning on a TV screen. We’re surrounded by a new set of scientists, gawking at their creation. Murphy’s become an object, a science experiment. His vision’s gone from analog to digital, criss-crossed by the horizontal lines of a CRT screen, and the green text of system commands. This is his new life, and it’s anything but optimistic.

What separates RoboCop from so many other ultraviolent ‘80s action films is how Verhoeven turns the camera back on the viewer. Casual images of violence are all over the film’s fictional newscasts; Murphy imitates the Power Rangers-like gunslinger from his son’s favorite TV show. Once he becomes RoboCop, he no longer feels pain - nor does he register the physical impact of the violence he inflicts. We see through his eyes as he dispassionately shoots criminals, and it’s thrilling - but distressing, too. At one point, RoboCop tracks down Clarence Boddicker, the man who “killed” him, and Boddicker spits blood onto RoboCop’s digital eyes. But really, it’s Verhoeven spitting blood on us, daring us to continue cheering on our hero. It’s as if he’s asking, “Is this the action you wanted?”

It’s ironic, then, that RoboCop was a predecessor to first-person shooter games, where we’re typically allowed to play out our violent fantasies unchecked. RoboCop predates the likes of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom by half a decade, but its digital targeting system and onscreen objectives were a clear influence on the heads-up displays of FPS games. RoboCop’s biggest spiritual successor might be Sega’s 1994 Virtua Cop. An arcade game played with a lightgun controller, Virtua Cop combined human hand-eye coordination and mechanical inputs in a way that was instantly intuitive, even to those who’d never played a video game before.

Like in RoboCop, your character’s virtually invincible - at least compared to the hundreds of faceless criminals you dispatch. Nor are there any real consequences to the enormous property damage you inflict over the course of the game. There’s only one thing that keeps you from going full rogue cop - if you shoot a civilian, you lose a life. In video games, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes, the only way to impose morality on the player is by force.