Lay Down Your GunsS

Writer Fraser Allison thinks a few games could be improved if they contained a little less shooting. We're reprinting the case here. Read on and see if you agree.

I love violent games.

I love shooting. I heart punching. I make "brrrm!" noises when I move tanks around, and cackle gleefully when I make those tanks demolish other tanks or buildings. Who cheers for war? I cheer for war.

If it's done well.

Luckily, violence is one of the easiest things to simulate in a videogame. People both inside and outside the culture of games wonder whether the popularity of realistic warfare simulators is a sign that today's youth are becoming brutalised (as though people haven't always been fascinated by war), but sit Jack Thompson, Michael Atkinson, Hillary Clinton and Joseph Lieberman down in a Basic Game Programming 101 class and I guarantee you they will all start by making a 2D shooter (if they think nobody is watching).

Sometimes, though, game developers seem to forget that combat still takes a bit of work to get right. Plenty of potentially good non-violent games have been hampered or outright ruined by the unnecessary addition of violent combat, often for no apparent reason except that it must seem like the safe option. When developers think of combat as an easy feature they can quickly add to their game at the end to round it out, like tutorials or music or writing (cough), they're risking more than the cost of implementing the shooting or brawling mechanics: the whole experience of their potentially awesome climby/jumpy/buildy game can be dragged down by the addition of half-baked fighting mechanics, which ultimately only distract the player from the game's central pleasures.

Great games know what they are, and don't try to do more. To illustrate my point, a thought exercise: what would Canabalt be like if it let you stop and shoot the deathbots? (Hint: the answer is not "totally sweet".)

I'd like to suggest that game developers think hard about the purpose of violence in their games, and don't just include it in the design out of habit. If it's going to be an important part of the core experience, great; if not, you may find you can save the cost and make a better game by simply leaving out the violence.

A few recent examples of games that could be improved by toning down the violence:

Crackdown 2

Lay Down Your GunsS

The original Crackdown is a great game. Jumping about, collecting orbs, lifting ever-heavier objects and tossing them around, blowing things up in ever-greater explosions; these are blissful in a way few other games have matched. The assassination missions are really just a cheap cement that holds the experience together and gives you a way to level up your character's skills. The missions never shine, because they have to be completed primarily by methodically shooting a lot of dudes in the face; however, as there's only one gang leader you have to kill in each mission, it's possible to apply your athletic, driving and explosives skills to find shortcuts into their inner sanctum – by climbing up a cliff face from the ocean, say, or ramming through a back door in your supercar – which gave the missions a pleasing puzzle-strategy element.

Crackdown 2, to its credit, doesn't spoil most of what is good about Crackdown, and it makes several improvements that have been unjustly ignored by those quick to call it a microwave reheat of the original. However, it botches the core mission structure by making it all about shooting. Although there are a wider variety of mission types, they all require you to kill a large number of marked enemies in a confined location, without leaving the immediate area. This completely removes your ability to approach these missions in the style you find most fun, and forces you to grind through each one as a common or garden man-shooter. The game passively prevents you from taking advantage of the best part of the game – jumping and climbing – for the duration of the missions.

This limitation was reflected in many of the game's reviews. Christian Donlan's review at Eurogamer was essentially a plea to stick with it through the combat missions, it will get better:

Only with the campaign behind you will you start to get a true sense of just how good this game can be… it's the game waiting for you after the end credits that provides the most fun.

For "campaign", read "structured combat".

Mirror's Edge

Lay Down Your GunsS

Mirror's Edge is a fantastically promising game, but it's not without flaws. It is, in fact, probably more flaw than game, even though it comes close to greatness. The basic design of continuous free-running through a starkly colour-coded obstacle course is inspired, and although the level design and finicky controls often fail to allow the player to maintain a smooth flow, the one element of the game that never supports the player's experience is the combat. Being chased by gun-wielding cops is a great motivator; having to stop and kickbox or shoot said cops is a frustrating, joyless, disorienting waste of your time. Perhaps if it was easier to take out a police officer mid-run, without breaking stride, it would all click into place and the flow of parkour would be enhanced, but as it is it only detracts from the game.

A sequel has been announced. [Note from Kotaku: We've heard it's been considered; not announced.] If DICE can fix up the parkour mechanics a bit and strip out direct combat entirely, Mirror's Edge 2 will be something to look forward to.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Lay Down Your GunsS

As in Crackdown, combat in the GTA series is solid enough for general hell-raising, but becomes tiresome in the way it's used for story missions. Random brawls with police, civilians and criminal gangs are thrilling, and require no more complexity from the gun combat than the game already has: depth in these situations is provided by the interaction of many gameplay systems at once, unbound and unpredictable. However, each of the scripted missions usually turns into a pitched, stationary shoot-out over the top of a car or some crates, which quickly drives home how shallow the gun mechanics and the enemy combat AI really are. These missions narrow the focus down to just the combat elements of GTA, which is like playing Concentration with only two cards. By itself, it doesn't have the depth to stay fun for as long as the game needs it to.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix / Half-Blood Prince

Lay Down Your GunsS

You may be surprised to learn that the two most recent Harry Potter movie tie-ins are perfectly decent games. They're not bad; I'd rate them above, say, the LEGO games in terms of variety and appeal, if not general polish. The games provide exactly what most buyers of a Harry Potter movie game would want: they give you the sense of hanging out at Hogwarts, accompanied by all the familiar characters, and let you play through the stories in a fairly engaging fashion.

There's exactly one thing the games do even better than the books or films: allow you to explore Hogwarts for yourself. The rooms and courtyards are all immediately recognisable from the films, and in playing through the game you learn how each place is positioned and connected to the others by the confounding rabbit warren mess of tunnels, hallways and moving staircases (the in-game architecture was drawn up from the same plans and models used in the films, so you could follow the paths the characters took from scene to scene… y'know, if you were into that kind of thing). You may scoff, but these games are the closest thing I've played to Warren Spector's famous "one city block" RPG concept.

Of course, because these are mainstream videogames, it was not enough for them to be simple adventures through a familiar world; they had to include the mandatory gunfights "wizard duels". The magic battle scenes are already the weakest parts of both the books and the films, which survive primarily on their strong characters; there's even less to recommend these scenes in the games. The Order of the Phoenix contains, I kid you not, a mopping minigame that manages to be more fun than the wizard duels.

(The next Harry Potter game is reportedly shaping up to be a Gears-of-War-esque cover-based sparkly-shooter. This is… interesting.)

Fallout 3

Lay Down Your GunsS

This one could be controversial. I'm convinced that Fallout 3 would be a better game if it just dialled the combat down a bit. The frequency of combat isn't really the root of the problem; it's that, to me, the time-stopping VATS system never feels like an engaging enough gameplay mechanic that I look forward to using it. It has a subtler and deeper problem than the rest of the games in this list: the combat is competently designed, but feels oddly meaningless in a game otherwise packed full of meaning.

The only battles that productively absorb my attention are those fought directly in service of a larger and more interesting goal, or against an enemy who has a name and a personality. The generic radscorpions, raiders and super mutants that attack the player on sight cease to be interesting opponents after the first couple of encounters; if I knew a bit more about the individuals I was fighting, the combat might not feel so aimless. ("If only you could talk to the monsters!")

Steve Gaynor wrote about the aimlessness of videogame violence in a recent blog post, which perfectly captures my problem with Fallout 3:

Violence in film, literature or on stage can either be meaningful or meaningless. When it is meaningful, it resonates with the audience; when it is meaningless, it is largely (and rightly) derided. Consider the death o Shakespeare's Hamlet following a duel, or of Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, or of Evelyn Mulwray at the end of Chinatown, versus, say, the nameless mooks mown down in Rambo II or Commando or Hard Boiled. The killing by the protagonist of those without identity devalues human life in the work, and thereby robs the violence of meaning (it being perpetrated upon human forms with no value.)

And so a metric for games comes to mind: violence performed by the player in a video game is only legitimate if the victim is a unique and specific individual.

(Emphasis in original.)

I'm not sure exactly what Gaynor means by "legitimate", but if he had said "meaningful" I would agree wholeheartedly. That's not to say all games must have well-developed enemy characters to be worthwhile; I'd be happy if the violence in Fallout 3 (or any of the other games in this list) was simply more interesting on a tactical level.

For another recent take on this issue, see Michael Thomsen's article The Case for More Violent Games, at IGN. He makes a similar point to Steve Gaynor: that violence in games is not necessarily bad, but should be more meaningful. Both are great articles, and I agree with both. Right now, I'd just like to present the implied alternative:

If you aren't going to make your game's violence well-designed or meaningful, consider not doing it at all.

Republished with permission.

Fraser Allison is currently writing a thesis at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology on how video game mechanics create meaning for players. He writes about this, and many other game issues, at redkingsdream.com.