That is the question.
Whether it tis... ok screw that, I won't bore you with a bad Shakespeare joke! XD
But I thought I'd ask the question which seems to be getting more and more pertinent in gaming today:
Do we really need to shoot stuff?
Games for a long time have covered a variety of subjects and activities – from puzzle solving, to sports, to fantasy, to waging wars long since fought and even household chores and pastimes. From it's humble beginnings gaming has expanded out to allow players to adventure, to explore, to hunt, to shoot, to fight, to play, to make decisions and, most of all, to win.
One of the most dominant genres of gaming (atleast as far as the last decade or so is concerned) has been shooters, and a lot of the biggest games of the last decade or so have been shooters in one form or another, and even before the rise of mainstream gaming games where you did shoot were pretty big.
So it's obvious enough that shooters are enjoyable and have wide appeal, but do we need to shoot things to enjoy ourselves? Is that the best way of feeling in control or is it just the 'in' thing at the moment? Will we move forward to a time when shooters don't dominate, where you can play a game like Fallout or Skyrim and never have to face a single threat armed...?
It's an interesting question, with plenty of scope for expansion, but for this piece I really just want to concentrate on that central question of whether or not we really need to shoot or to kill in games to enjoy stuff. Could we see ourselves playing forty hours of a game with no violence, with no destruction or murder? If yes (and without a doubt there are already games like that and people who've spent those hours), could we ever see a game like that becoming the year's best seller and biggest hit?
At this point in the industry, technologically and culturally, I doubt it, but who knows, maybe in the future things will change. If we look at the way games have evolved they've evolved alongside the hardware and technology at work behind the scenes, as what you could create on-screen became more realistic and as more people got involved, the industry (sort of) started to clean it's act up, so for example a lot of the low-polygon obviously skimpy outfits that developers could have put their female characters in in the pursuit of *cough* realistic character portrayal earlier on became less acceptable as the thing on screen started to look more and more human. So too a lot of the more unrealistic aspects of game mechanics have been pushed aside as more and more realism has crept into games.
A good example of this would be to look at old school gaming icons like Mario or Sonic: in the days of 8-bit/16-bit games a plumber who runs around brick landscapes escaping into pipes and fighting turtles that throw boomerangs, or a blue hedgehog that curls up into a ball to go super fast so he race through levels to stop an evil, mad scientist whilst collecting rings made sense (some sense); the art was simplistic, the gameplay simplistic, so we didn't really apply real-world expectations to it - Not like we would of today's games anyway. Think about it, could you imagine a super-realistic game today being released that revolved around the concepts in play in either Sonic or Mario? Perhaps with 8-bit or 16-bit graphics we might not think about it too much but with realistic graphics we'd probably start to question the surreality of what we were watching/playing.
So game culture has changed with the times, we expect a lot more reality from games today than we did 15, 10 – even 5 years ago, because of that shift in culture and technology. Games that 5 or 10 years ago were ground-breaking and looked amazing now pale in comparison to much of what's available today. In short: the gaming world changes very quickly, so just as it's true shooters are big today it's just as possible that something else will take over from them tomorrow.
I think it's important at this junction to point out that although shooters are a big thing, and a very dominant part of the industry, it would be grossly unfair to the rest of gaming, gamers and developers, to say that everything revolves around shooting, killing and destroying things – despite what some elements of the media may believe. Even when a game does involve a lot of shooting and killing it doesn't necessarily end up being what defines the game, more often than not the shooting just fills the gap between story, the 'action' in-between the narrative.
Most of us tend to just take the shooting aspects for granted and instead concentrate on the story or themes at play – for example do we think Mass Effect 2 is a shooter? Do we remember it for the gunfights scattered throughout the game? Because there were a lot of those; no, we remember it for the dialogue, the story and the sense of morality that intertwines much of the game.
Even with an FPS like Battlefield 3 the shooter element often comes second to the team elements or to the competitive elements – we don't sit around thinking intently about what we actually do when we pull the trigger or how 'killed' somebody is once they've been shot, we just think about beating them. We think about our killstreaks, our place on the leaderboard, how well we're winning – in short even in shooting games it's not really the shooting that's key, it's integral to our enjoyment, yes, but no less or no more so than psychics or aesthetics.
This may sound like something of a cop-out considering the whole point of this piece is the relevance of shooting in games - as if just not being conscious of something within a game simply makes it disappear but it's not that so much, rather, it shows that even in games where you do spend a lot of time shooting and killing people it's more about the story or themes that surround the gunplay than the actual gunplay. Which is probably why a game like Bodycount can fail so miserably, because there's nothing beyond the gameplay other than a flimsy plotline.
What does this say about shooting as a mechanic? That really it's only a tool for creating a sense of involvement and engagement with the virtual world and not a end unto itself, showing again that it too may find itself relegated to a niche in gaming someday, should technology advance far enough. Perhaps shooting as a mechanic then is shorthand for player interactivity, it's well-known that people have loved playing out wars, chasing down bad guys and engaging in gun battles, and that sells, so why change anything? It's like exploding barrels in videogames or unrealistic depictions of women, it's not so much that the industry doesn't know it could move on from the misconceptions of the past but that there's that sense of inertia about change, because if they do step too far out of those pre-established conventions and norms they'll feel as though they're taking risks, even when it's not really a risk. Without somebody leading the way it's often easier just to stay exactly where you are.
That said, lots of games do challenge that 'gunplay is necessary' convention, often finding very profitable (albeit relatively small) niches within the industry. Games like Amnesia, Super Meat Boy and Limbo prove that shooting isn't everything – and indeed, that even having weapons isn't everything. Adventure games are also a good example of a niche of games that shows that shooting isn't everything.
A number of larger titles, aswell, eschew violence completely in favour of good writing, puzzles and a general sense of challenge. Portal being a good example of this, keeping to some conventions yet breaking others: it's First-Person, and you do 'shoot', but you're shooting a portal gun, not a weapon, it's practically harmless and only use is as a means of transportation. The game became a success because it was intelligent, funny, and challenging, and it and it's sequel went on to be massive hits. Showing that it's not so much how destructive you can be in a game that makes a game successful but how interesting, how intelligent, how creative the developers can be that creates interest and a desire to play.
Nobody would look at Mario or Kirby games and declare them likely to lead to homicidal rampages (well, I say that, but there are a few people crazy enough to...), neither really contains anything near real violence or shooting yet they sell millions. True, it could be argued they represent the more 'family friendly' side of gaming, so they're more likely to appeal to casual gamers or people who buy games with little or no idea of what they're actually buying but they still represent a portion of gamers who are quite happy not to shoot things, even if they aren't particularly 'hardcore' about their gaming interests.
Still, though, those sorts of games don't tend to bring in the mature audience – and by mature I don't necessarily mean older but rather the gamers looking for an experience, for something new; looking to be intellectually challenged while they play. If I had to say anything hinted at the way games may go in the future then I'd have to say Heavy Rain is probably it, ignoring for the moment the game's failings.
Heavy Rain focuses more on the relationships between the characters, the evolving story and the tension created by the events on-screen (much like a movie or tv program might) to draw the player in. It's more involved, more intelligent, and more engaging than a regular game and doesn't rely on shooting to achieve it; ofcourse it's also kind of fails in some respects – seriously, who want's to press a button to say 'Jason!' or cook meals for a kid? Elements like these remind us why fantasy games have done so well – because they allow that escape. Heavy Rain succeeded despite it's failings as a game (the lack of choice at times and often mundane gameplay aspects) because it appealed to a side of gamers that most shooters can't satisfy, it appealed to people who wanted to play a (relatively) ordinary person.
Though I wouldn't class Heavy Rain as a great game it was fairly original – I won't say completely original because plenty of games have done different aspects of what Heavy Rain tried to do in the past and succeeded, Heavy Rain just managed to do all that in one game. It's achievement was more that it set out to be different and to show that games that were different could be successful, regardless of how dominant some types of games may be.
Which brings me back to what I think is at the heart of the 'to shoot or not to shoot' question: what it is to be a 'games player': Most importantly that's wanting to enjoy yourself, wanting to be somebody else and experience new worlds and new stories. Sure we want to battle evil aliens across the surface of moons or mow down rows of gangsters in old America, but we also want real-life stories, stories that remind us of our own lives but are more exciting. Games have become generally popular not only because they entertain or tell stories but also because they empower the player in ways that a reader of a novel or a watcher of a movie isn't.
Shooting has been one of the go-to mechanics when it comes to gameplay, one of the easiest ways to interest players, but like all things within gaming as the technology evolves and games become more sophisticated it too may find itself relegated to a niche - or atleast garnering less of the limelight - as games mature.
Perhaps the future of innovation lies more with digital distribution than anything, since it frees up developers from having to worry about the cost of putting something on a disc and shipping it round the country (or world) perhaps we'll see more innovation digitally as innovation becomes less risky. Afterall it's not so much that games without shooting haven't existed before or haven't succeeded, but that there's never been that sense that that's where the industry is going. A sign usually predicated by the slew of copycat games that pop up as 'less creative' developers try to capitalise on the success of others.
For now atleast I happy to play the myriad of shooters out there, but I'm hoping we'll get more from games in the future, more experiences, more stories, more innovation.