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Can there ever be a big-budget action game without violence?

September 19,2018 11:17

But in some ways it's a shame that modern video games tend to include photography only as an optional side mode, rather than as the central interactive component. Taking photos is an interesting game mechanic because it has the one-button immediacy of ...


Watching all the enthusiasm about the newly released Marvel’s Spider-Man game on social media last week, one of the most interesting things is how much people enjoy the parts of the game that aren’t about fighting bad guys. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets along the lines of: “I just like swinging through the streets; I like the sense of grace and freedom; I’d do that all day if I could.” But they can’t, of course, because there are bad guys to punch.
The game does, however, have a photo mode and that has proved immensely popular. My Twitter timeline is awash with images of Spider-Men taking selfies in front of the Statue of Liberty, hanging out near pride flags and somersaulting past the Chrysler building in the glorious sunshine. As with GTA V, Tomb Raider, Horizon: Zero Dawn and a dozen other big-budget adventure titles, people love photo mode because it gives them a chance to be creative on their own terms within the game world, and it allows us to exercise our now almost instinctive desire to share imagery online.

It feels like we have the talent, the tools and the technology to think about satisfying interaction in different ways

But in some ways it’s a shame that modern video games tend to include photography only as an optional side mode, rather than as the central interactive component. Taking photos is an interesting game mechanic because it has the one-button immediacy of firing a weapon (it even shares the same verb: “to shoot”), but it asks the player to engage with the aesthetic environment, rather than merely utilising the surroundings as a venue for slaughter. You can take photos in Spider-Man but it’s mostly used as a side activity to tick off markers on the game map – your central role is bad-guy thumping, which is fine because you’re a superhero after all.
The triple-A games industry has struggled to find a satisfying central mechanic that is not about hitting or shooting people. Beyond sports, puzzle and driving games – and especially in the narrative action-adventure category – there is rarely any serious sustained alternative to pounding on waves of computer-generated victims.
This was understandable for much of the history of video games. Killing is a binary action – you hit the fire button and make contact with your enemy: this is the perfect interaction to program and design around when you have limited graphical and spatial fidelity. But now we’re in an era of vast, visually astonishing 3D environments, populated by character models that utilise performance capture and advanced animation physics – places look like places, people look like people. We have vast expressive depth at our disposal. But the killing continues. Look at Shadow of the Tomb Raider – Lara Croft has basically become industrialised as a purveyor of death in this game; the concept of her being a functioning, rounded human being sacrificed to the mechanical bloodlust of action-game design principle. What about the sheer wonder of stumbling on a hidden tomb?
We’re seeing from the independent sector – games such as What Remains of Edith Finch and Tacoma – that there is a desire for visually rich game experiences that don’t involve combat. PC Gamer has just run a fascinating feature on the PC game modders who are producing versions of big, graphically imaginative action games like Alien: Isolation and Dark Souls with the enemies removed, so players can just explore and drink in the lavish, painstaking work of the art and design teams. There’s also the GTA Online stunt community, a large group of people who utilise the beautiful environments Rockstar creates to choreograph complex stunt sequences.
There is an increasing number of players who seek quiet contemplative experiences within triple-A game worlds; people who want to explore the intricately constructed streets of Watch Dogs 2 or the collapsed wreckages of starships in Destiny without enemies or HUD (head-up display) prompts or side quests popping up. So why not at least provide an equivalent of Minecraft’s peaceful mode? Why not release games like Uncharted and Tomb Raider with a conflict-free option? It seems Ubisoft caught on to this appeal with Assassin’s Creed Origins, introducing an education tour mode, which not only stripped out enemies but also provided context and historical information. What a cool idea. The Dishonored and Hitman titles also offer combat-free routes for careful players.

But beyond all this, surely the appeal of photo modes, enemy-free mods and guided tours shows that there is a desire among players for new ways to interact with worlds and stories. Can there be a big-budget blockbusting narrative game without violence? We have expressive characters, we have huge worlds, we have great dialogue systems, we have great stories – can those things be combined in new ways? Even if it’s just limiting the number of fights or their deadly outcomes? Perhaps your character has a few punch-ups; perhaps they kill only one or two people in the whole course of the game. Wouldn’t that add massively to the emotional impact? Wouldn’t that make the character seem more real?
Don’t assume the games industry itself isn’t worrying about this. Five years ago, Richard Lemarchand, the lead designer on Uncharted 3, gave a great talk at the GameCity festival in Nottingham. Right at the end, someone put their hand up and asked: “You’ve made Nathan Drake into this sensitive funny character, but yet, he kills hundreds of guys …” This was his response:
“We do think about this quite a bit. In fact [Uncharted designer] Amy Hennig has a name for this: she calls it the uncanny valley of narrative. Her theory is that because the performances have gotten really good, it kind of makes this issue of the game-y parts of Uncharted stand out. In fact, if you play Uncharted 2 to the end, you hear Amy call out to this issue when Lazarevic, the main bad guy, says to Nathan: ‘You’re no different to me. How many lives have you taken today?’ We’re always thinking of new creative ways to address this issue’.”
And they should be thinking about this, because how can we buy Nathan Drake as a sensitive, funny, awkward hero, when he’s also a sociopath? But then, look at the Last of Us 2 demo during E3 and the giant wrenching disconnect between the emotional scenes of Ellie and Dina and the action sequences of throat-slashing, face pummelling violence.

And please, this is not about censorship – I love violent video games. They’re always going to be with us: we seriously don’t have to worry about that. But it feels like we have the talent, the tools and the technology as an industry to – once in a while – think about satisfying interaction in different ways, to broaden our vocabulary of input verbs. Surely, given how people have enjoyed just swinging across the gorgeous Manhattan skyline in Spider-Man, there is room for an alternative: for big-budget action adventure games filled with puzzles and characters and things to explore, but where the central means of impacting on the world isn’t through combat. Photography is an example (and it has worked in titles as diverse as Polaroid Pete and Fatal Frame), but so is conversation, diplomacy, subterfuge, parkour, romance, kinship and investigation. When you think of all those, violence is actually a rather crude and inexact way of extracting joy from an environment. Violence is the fracking of game design.
Years and years ago, I wrote a feature for the Official PlayStation magazine, where I posed as a young game designer and sent out a series of offbeat, idiosyncratic game design proposals to a number of major publishers. One of them was called Country Life and it just involved wandering a lusciously detailed natural landscape, taking photos of wildlife, stopping at little pubs and inns for refreshment, swapping notes with other walkers and just taking in the peace and beauty of the world.
Only one publisher got back to me. I received a letter – an actual letter – from a senior member of the company’s design team. It said they loved the idea, that one day they felt a game like that would work beautifully and that, although they didn’t have any design positions available, I should not give up hope of working in the industry. That company was Rockstar.
Honestly, if the creator of Grand Theft Auto can see the potential in a completely non-violent, big-budget exploration game, surely such a thing is possible.

Games,Culture,PlayStation,PlayStation 4,Xbox,Xbox One,PC

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