Iím just going to keep punching you in the face until I win. Failing that, youíre going to get shot in the stomach. Itís nothing personal, thatís just how we do things around here. Okay, we can talk a little first, maybe even negotiate a peaceful solution. Then Iím going to punch you in the face.
You might have noticed that thereís a lot of violence in video games.
Iím not referring to the usual macho bloodfests which come up in these discussions - the Gears of Duty: Call War Splatterhouse Electric Chainsaw Boogaloo Bullet Edition type of game that appeals to the repressed, psychotic 12 year old boy in all of us - because we all know those are stupid. Theyíre over the top and way too violent and thatís why they exist - so people can do stupid, violent and anti-social things they normally arenít allowed to (or donít want to) do. Iím not opening that can of veiny man-worms. No. This is about misplaced violence. Sometimes youíre happily playing a game - running, or building, or talking to NPCs - when suddenly youíre fighting. Fighting for your life. Fighting because someone didnít like your shirt. Fighting to get from A to B. And it feels weird, because just a moment ago you were playing a game about dispelling political tension in a medieval city-state. Or maybe itís much worse. Maybe you didnít even notice, because youíre so used to every game kicking and punching that you just expect it now, to hell with context.
Mirrorís Edge suffers badly from this deplorable personality disorder. The game bleeds unrealised potential from every orifice, but itís the combat that really stands out. Because itís there. Because it shouldnít be there. A relatively new type of game was promised - first-person running. Translating parkour into a video game seemed like some sort of developer black magic, especially in the first person. Didnít they realise that perspective is for shooting dudes? But when it came out it was fucking amazing. Nailing a full-tilt leap off the side of a skyscraper, sliding down a drainpipe and rolling perfectly onto a balcony only to wall-jump off a nearby billboard and slide down a glass roof to freedom without breaking stride is up there with the best of the best gaming moments.
Then more and more soldiers turn up, so naturally you try to run away, since this is a running game. But Mirrorís Edge doesnít want you to run, it wants you to stop and fight, maybe grab a gun and shoot someone. Itís possible to perfect your technique to a point where you can slide-kick your way past a foe or two, but the game just keeps throwing them at you. By the end, your memories of soaring majestically through the clean, white jungle like a nominally-Asian bird are tainted with the mind stink of awkward counterattacks and tacked-on gunplay.
So a game hyped on the idea of completely bypassing combat is full of forced combat - and it's not even very good combat anyway. Why?
One possibility is that the developers were terrified of their own creation. Gaming is the most fickle of all beasts, and gamers react to new ideas by grinding them into the dirt with a big, heavy boot of indifference. So it isnít a stretch to assume the people in charge shit themselves at the idea of a game in which the pervasive mechanic is running like a girl. But just imagine an alternate universe version of Mirrorís Edge, where a lone courier speeds along the rooftops of an oppressed city, thumbing her nose at authority. Imagine if you could deftly dodge The Man instead of kicking him in the balls. It could have been a white-knuckle speed run from start to finish, twitch reflexes being the only thing standing between you and a messy death.
Obviously, not every game should try to take out the fights. The Dragon Age series, for example, rightly has you cutting through seemingly endless waves of evil scum, their blood-soaked corpses spraying bodily fluids all over your totally awesome sword. Bookending these mass murders are the talking bits RPGs tend to have, but somewhere along the line the developers decided to be lazy. As you play (and this is much more prominent in Dragon Age 2) you start to get the distinct impression every conversation, one way or another, is going to end in you fighting sixty well-armed men. The first time a negotiation goes pear-shaped you can brush it off, but after the fifth straight peaceful compromise turns into a screaming showdown and a pile of bodies, you start to wonder. It's as if Bioware couldn't think how to make up the content, so they just shoehorned in a thousand battles. The game tries to convince you it is simulating the knife-edged world of politics in a fantasy setting, but even when you make a great argument, or diffuse a heated situation by calling someone a sexy beast, you'll still end up in murder town.
Things get really stupid during one particular Dragon Age 2 mission, when Hawke is asked to help a socially awkward guard captain gain the attention of Corporal Sexy Sideburns. It starts well, with a hilarious exchange of poorly-thought-out gifts and comical misunderstandings. Then they go on a date, disguised as a guard patrol (audience laughs). At this point, your job is to run around the map like a psychopathic Benny Hill killing bandits, all so some woman can have her position filled. And just like that, a quite funny companion mission becomes just another fight.
Even presuming it is a case of laziness, a lack of creativity or a fear of new things, what do you do about it? Games have to give you something to do, because they're games.
Combat is the easy option, since it requires conflict - which is the basis for any story - and also translates easily to pressing buttons. Hit A, pull trigger, bullets hit thing. Press B, fist hits nose. Other options require some thought, but they're far from impossible. The aformentioned running-and-jumping genre is going strong in its own way, with games like Canabalt, Mirror's Edge and Prince of Persia. Stealth games are always popular, but usually can't commit to the idea. People these days tend to complain if shown a game over screen, so your average Metal Gear Solid or Splinter Cell has a safety measure: if you suck at stealth, just murder the shit out of everyone. It would be nice to see more games willing to cast you as a totally helpless pile of flesh instead of a sneaky tank. On another front, titles like Portal replace fighting with puzzle solving, but place it in a real world context. It's like shooting problems with your brain!
Talking is the other big one. Communication, more broadly. Talking to other characters, creating relationships, making enemies, conducting commerce. Lots of games already have speaking weaved into the game, with varied results. Games like Mass Effect and Oblivion erect a laser barrier between talking and acting. You're either in battle or you're choosing a response from a list. And the responses don't really matter, they determine how you play, not whether you win or not. LA Noire takes a leaf from ye olde adventure games and gives weight to your responses, meaning there is actually a right answer, you may actually fail due to being the world's most stupid detective and consequences will never be the same. Personally, I hope to see investigation and exploration make a comeback in modern gaming.
The possibilities are endless, if only developers can muster the guts required to take the scary, less-trodden path of innovation. Maybe a GTA-style open world game where all the personal differences are sorted out via the medium of dance. A stealth game where you are an escaped human prisoner in a world of giant robots. Or maybe youíre a giant robot, and you have to help a tiny set of people rebuild their shattered world.
Okay so maybe I just want more games with giant robots.
The point is that we shouldnít be looking to force feed violence to everyone in every video game. At the risk of sounding like a flaming hippie nancy girl-pants, there are options. Some games could stand to tone the bloodshed down a little, replacing it with other types of gameplay, and plenty of games would work fine without fists and bullets if given the chance. Combat is only one tool in the gaming toolbox. We donít need to always play the role of the death-dealing mother fucker.