Puzzles Not Projectiles: How Video Games Will Move Past Their Violent Delights
Ever since one of the very first video games, 1962's Spacewar!, featured two pixelated space ships firing missiles to see who could obliterate the other first, violence has existed in video games. Whether it's stomping on goombas in the Super Mario Bros. series, performing a fatality in Mortal Kombat or commanding troops to lay siege to a city in Civilization, and whether its photorealistic gore or a cartoonish knockabout, it's all still video game violence.
It's also no surprise why these games are so popular and compelling. Even if you don't have an innate bloodlust or yearning for mastering challenging combat, the combination of slick animations and clear audiovisual feedback makes these interactions instantly gratifying.
"I think we enjoy accomplishing things, and it's really easy to theme that kind of accomplishment around combat," says Moo Yu, co-developer of upcoming indie action-adventure Knights and Bikes. He was previously at Insomniac Games working on titles including the Ratchet and Clank series, featuring cartoon violence aplenty; and said studio may be best known for the post-apocalyptic first-person shooter (FPS), Resistance: Fall of Man (pictured, main) and the series it spawned (at least before last year's Spider-Man, anyway).
"It's really easy to convey a very clean win or lose condition [with combat]," Yu continues. "It's also very easy to scale, so you can say there's 10, 20 or 50 enemies. We can then also make adjustments to difficulty, like change a few hit points here, or have a damage multiplier there."
Yet are games just too over-reliant on violent game design? A recent study from gamesindustry.biz would suggest so, with just 17% of the games shown at E3 2019 considered non-violent. Even the International Olympic Committee have deemed esports too violent to be included in the Olympic Games, and when you start thinking of the most popular competitive games like Dota 2, Overwatch or Street Fighter, it gets embarrassing that there aren't many alternatives. Do we really rely too much on getting our kicks out of video games from hitting and shooting stuff?
But just how much does combat matter? Would games be fun if you ditched the combat?
Of course, for an FPS or fighting game, that would compromise the core mechanics, and appeal, of the game. But think of something like Uncharted, a series most memorable for excellent performances and perilous traversal setpieces. It's not hard to imagine a game that keeps all of that but doesn't have you killing enough men to make up a small army by the time the credits roll.
Japanese detective noir Judgment is another game that has you falling back to street brawls all too often. It could have spent more time delivering on its crime drama potential, but seems content with teasing a few investigative elements before throwing a load of thugs or a boss fight at you.
But to provide a similar sensation of accomplishment, besides resorting to combat, requires some significant creativity on the part of game developers - not to mention acceptance from the games-playing audience.
Knights and Bikes is about two childhood friends going on make-believe adventures around their island town, but it still involves battling with inanimate objects that come to life in their imaginations. However, after toying with an early build featuring a lot of combat, the decision was made to cut it down and replace it with more varied features, designed to engender similar player responses to fighting.
"We added little challenges and mini-games between the girls, but it serves the exact same purpose as combat," says Yu. "You always want to try and engage people on multiple levels, whether it's something very primal, something more cerebral, or something more emotional."
Likewise, as much as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had inventive combat, what made it so compelling is its sense of discovery - from creatively using its physics to do incredible things, to finding another of the hundreds of Korok seeds scattered all over Hyrule.
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Upcoming game Sable, first trailered at E3 2018 and yet to receive a release date, takes a lot of influence from Nintendo's Zelda series in terms of exploring vast landscapes while learning about the world around you. But what's particularly distinct about it is that combat is not one of its gameplay pillars, at all.
"From the very inception of the game, we knew the sort of feeling we wanted to evoke, and the atmosphere we wanted to create," says Dan Fineberg, Sable's technical director. "Combat just didn't really fit into that."
You can imagine how the tranquility of an introspective game can be ruined if you were to just drop in enemies to fight, just because that's expected of video games, or worse. "With that sort of gameplay, there really is only a limited kind of story that you can tell," says Fineberg. "Any game that features a protagonist that likes to kill people or is at least very good at it, you're limited to the kinds of stories that you can tell, and the kinds of characters you're going to be looking at."
We're already inundated with games about warriors, super-soldiers, ninjas, assassins, superheroes and gangsters, but there's potential for far more diverse stories. "Action films are popular, but they're by no means the most profitable genre," says Yu. "I think the market for story-driven games, if we invest in them, will be larger than then the appeal of violence."
It doesn't mean making games only suitable for children, although Splatoon and its sequel are great examples of recontextualising a team shooter, with an emphasis on controlling the map with your paint rather than eliminating the opposition. (Although it should be noted, you can do that, too.)
Mature games with mature themes don't have to just mean they feature sex and violence. Imagine the Hitman games, but instead of a world of assassination, its glamorous locations and enthralling sandbox of stealth and diguse could potentially work as a heist game. Horror also remains a popular genre, and titles such as Until Dawn and Outlast shift the usual power-fantasy dynamic of violent games, putting the player in a position of peril rather than casting them as an agent of violence.
Sometimes it's not even about trying to find a non-violent substitute for combat. Sometimes, you just want to relax with your game. After all, one of the most anticipated releases for Nintendo Switch right now is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which is all about chilling, picking fruit and catching bugs, while building your dream island.
"There are enough people out there that want something different, and I think that they can exist in parallel," says Fineberg. "You spend so much time in the world of a game, a lot more time than you do in the world of a film or book. So when you've got the space to just kind of exist, wander around, meet the people, and take your time, I think that's the type of story that is particularly suited to games."
That doesn't mean the Doom Slayer needs to lay down arms and talk to the monsters - and from what we've seen of DOOM Eternal, he's definitely not about to change his tried-and-tested approach of punching his problems to death - nor would established franchises like Halo or Gears of War ever ditch the combat mechanics their fans have come to expect.
But there is a huge chance to do more here, especially at a time when Google, with Stadia, wants to broaden the gaming audience to all the billions who have access to a phone or a web browser. As the technology and audiences change, the biggest game-changer in this industry can be the games themselves. Games that don't rely on combat as an absolutely crucial selling point have to become more popular - but to achieve that potential requires a shift in how games can engage their players in the first place, and for developers to take risks and create experiences that don't use combat as a crutch when there's an opportunity to do something else.
Words: Alan Wen
Featured Image Credit: Sony Computer Entertainment/Insomniac Games