While it’s not exactly difficult to show almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that violence in video games does not cause violence in real life as there is an almost perfect large-scale inverse proportionality between the two, the increased prevalence of violence in video games does bring up some troubling issues when making the argument for games as an artistic medium. Namely, if AAA gaming is becoming so much more sophisticated and respectable as a storytelling vehicle, why do we still feel the need to use it almost exclusively to kill the shit out of virtual humanoids?
This question seems to be on a lot of people’s minds as criticism of games like Bioshock Infinite and the rebooted Tomb Raider contrast the sophistication and nuance of the stories and characterizations with the core action gameplay. Does it make sense for the character that Lara Croft is emotionally devastated upon killing a human being in a cutscene, but then goes on to mow down hundreds more like it’s nothing, essentially breaking the narrative?
Another example I’d like to point out that hasn’t been discussed to death is the climax to Red Dead Redemption (spoilers in the next two paragraphs). In that one, John Marston retires from his life of crime and bounty hunting to his family homestead when the government comes to tie up the last loose end: him. Dozens of virtual souls are laid low for the players’ enjoyment as he clears the way for his family’s escape.
All I was thinking was about how many men the government was willing to sacrifice for the sake of spite just to get at one person, knowing firsthand that Marston was a one man army capable of slaughtering almost any number of opponents sent against him. And indeed, I could have kept killing them indefinitely if the cutscene hadn’t decided to have Marston walk out into the open to greet his death because that was the story Rockstar wanted. I was not impressed.
Despite the universal acclaim the game received, I felt that they could have done better. At least Halo: Reach let the player go out on their own terms. Making a protagonist pretty much invincible and able to easily handle any threat may fuel the gamer’s power fantasy, but it’s becoming a liability on the story front.
I can’t help but think about games where you are every bit as vulnerable as your opponents and have to rely on skill to survive. Way of the Samurai is a good stepping stone here because it is a story-based game that wipes your save when you bite the big one. That makes a duel against a powerful opponent a nerve-fraying gamble and a random assassin ambush something to fear. You don’t have to do away with action to make a better story; just make it seem less meaningless.
In the past, the argument against this sort of thing was that players need stuff to do. Violence is cathartic. We love to kick back after a long day at work and just take out all of our aggression on a bunch of virtual shitheads like the biggest badass in the world. Kneel before Zod, bitches! Die! Die! DIE! I get that, and I love doing it. But at the same time, I’ve been doing it a really damn long time, as have we all. It’s become a cliché. I think we may be ready for a different approach.
Let’s take yet another look at BioWare. Their games are well known for giving players branching story and dialogue choices. But most of the gameplay still involves going from Point A to Point B killing the crap out of whatever is in between.
While I do love the combat, my favorite pastime in their games is inevitably hanging out with the characters. It’s what sets these games apart and makes them unforgettable. The Landsmeet debate was my favorite part of Dragon Age: Origins. After that, the Archfiend just seemed like another paint-by-numbers final boss.
Now what would you say to a Mass Effect or Dragon Age game where instead of playing a Spectre, Grey Warden, or whatever out running and gunning/hacking and slashing, you played a politician maneuvering your way through the vipers’ nest of places like the Citadel or Denerim using agents and alliances to further your agenda with a minimum of actual onscreen bloodshed? If Game of Thrones and House of Cards can spin this into gold, I don’t see why video games can’t follow through on creating more narratives that are based on character interaction rather than big dumb action.
This brings us to the next logical step: Telltale Games. In spite of its low-budget indie roots and distinct lack of typical gameplay, The Walking Dead made its way onto pretty much every Game of the Year short list in 2012. There was a lot of death and violence in the game, obviously, but every bit of it had meaning and plot significance. At no point did the game just turn you loose and have you massacre a hundred shambling zombies just to give you something to do in between story segments. The story was the entire game and every single act of violence was significant to that story. See also: Heavy Rain creators Quantic Dreams.
Is this the future of gaming? As more and more people hop onto the games as art bandwagon, I think it’s likely that a higher caliber of storytellers will be attracted to the many creative opportunities that interactive fiction offers. In the past, the focus has been on creating deep gameplay mechanics then giving players really shallow things to do using those mechanics, but the worm may be turning.
Series like The Sims, Leisure Suit Larry, Myst, and Ace Attorney have seen sustained success without significant combat and we’ve seen numerous other titles from the last generation like Catherine, Gone Home, Mirror’s Edge, and Portal do well. Most of these remain somewhat niche titles when you compare them to the AAA megahits, but I wonder if it has to stay that way. If the industry made a concerted break towards these more creative alternatives to the usual shoot-shoot, punch-punch fare if they could open up to an entire new audience and attain the higher level of credibility they crave along the way.
Video games still have that stigma of being a distraction for children and dumb people. Regardless of awesome cutscenes and involved stories, a lot of people are going to scoff at the idea that a game where you spend most of your time mindlessly massacring a multiplicity of malevolent minions is art. But as developers explore the possibilities of gaming as an emerging storytelling medium, it’s entirely possible that we could be looking at the beginnings of a paradigm shift where the focus swings away from traditional “kill stuff, cutscene, repeat” gameplay to more creative concepts that serve to involve the player in the story and world of the game without treating acts of massive violence as menial tasks to be completed just because.
This isn’t to say that we can’t still have games for pure fun. I mean, that’s why we all started doing this in the first place, right? You can still have your Devil May Crys and Call of Dutys and Grand Theft Autos, but it feels like it’s about time to make way for something with a little more intellectual depth in addition to our fixes of mindless violence. I think when and if it comes, that collective leap is probably going to be the cue for society as a whole to recognize gaming as interactive fiction capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with film, television, and literature as a vehicle for experiencing classic stories.