Back in mid-2012, for four minutes and six seconds, I thought the coolest big-budget video game I'd seen in years didn't have guns. I was wrong.
I don't mind guns in games. I mean, I don't want them in my Zeldas or my Donkey Kongs, but guns can be fun in plenty of others: from Borderlands and BioShock to Bastion and Bulletstorm.
I understand what guns can do in games. I believe that they are great at connecting one player to another player or one player to a computer-controlled character. I appreciate how they let me have an impact on another player—or a character in the digital world—in the simplest my-pixels-negating-your-pixels kind of way. For better or worse, shooting a gun in a game is still the purest—and easiest—way to feel that a video game is interactive. The people who make games know this. They've known this since before Space Invaders. It is one of the reasons why shooting in games works so well.
There's something disappointing about guns in games. There's something disappointing about how the presence of guns often brings in an entourage of tiresome, dreary tropes: the badass hero, the glory of obliteration, the expression of excellence and power through the shooting of someone else.
Think about it.
Think about what having a gun in a game usually means.
Having a gun in a game seldom means that one shot gets fired. It means that thousands do. It means that, when we play in these gun-filled game worlds, we live in places where our heroes are merciless, where we/they aim for the head, where everyone we see is defined, at first glance as 1) a person to shoot or 2) a person to spare. There's a heat to these worlds and a hostility. These gun-filled game worlds feel cynical, angry and, worst, reduced. So little feels possible. When two people see each other in these worlds, most likely, one will shoot the other to death.
It's not always a problem to have a video game world where shooting is pretty much all that you do. It's often all that a game needs. It works for Halo. It works for the kind of adventures they make for Call of Duty. It works when the enemies are zombies or Nazis or other players with guns. It works for simple worlds where there is no complicated story to tell or anyone interesting to meet.
And in the more interesting game worlds? Maybe we can find an Ellie or an Alyx or an Elizabeth in one of these gun-filled game places. Maybe we can find a computer-controlled character who is there for us to talk to or hang out with, a character who is programmed to help generate feelings other than fear or anger or vengefulness or superiority or whatever it is you experience when you look back at a lawn you just mowed.
If we cock our head and think about how these gun-filled game worlds are made, we'll recognize how much harder it always seems to be for game makers to make that one character we can sort of talk to or emote with than it is to make all those characters we can just fill with lead. Guns and shooting... they're the easy path.
So, really, I get that games often need to have guns. Again: interactivity. But all that baggage they come with? All of that kill-or-be-killed hostility they bring to their gaming worlds? It feels so limiting.
Back on June 4, 2012, however, I experienced those four wonderful minutes. For four minutes I thought I was seeing a game world that would normally have guns in it but for some excellent reason didn't. Or maybe it did but it wasn't contaminated by them.
For four minutes I thought I was seeing a wonderful, gun-free expansion of ways to interact with people and things in a video game city. There were four minutes of so many possibilities. Maybe, just maybe, no guns were needed for this new game to seem appealing and for the game to be fun.
Let's go back to those four minutes and what everyone who was watching Ubisoft's E3 2012 press conference saw displayed on a massive screen.
At first, I didn't know what this new game was:
This wasn't a new Assassin's Creed or Far Cry. What could it be? Some Tom Clancy thing?
It probably wasn't a racing game. It didn't seem like a first-person shooter.
I saw this guy. And I saw the first sign of interactivity. He didn't pull a gun. Instead, we got a circle of options. Trains? Cars? Hacking? What could we do in this world?
What kind of people were we going to be meeting here? How would be interacting with them?
And why wasn't there any shooting?
Wait a minute. I don't see any guns in this game. What the hell?
— Stephen Totilo (@stephentotilo) June 4, 2012
But four minutes in, we got a gun.
Of course we got a gun.
At least our hero didn't shoot the gun right away. Instead, he hacked...
He disarmed the bad guys...
He shut off traffic lights using his phone!
I was loving this. It felt so fresh.
It was a shooting game, after all. So much for that. The game still did look pretty cool.
That was two years ago.
Like many other gamers, I've been eager for Watch Dogs to come out. I've been looking forward to it and am eager to finally play through it this May.
I'm excited to play an open-world game starring a hacker who can use his phone to raise drawbridges during a police chase and who can snoop through webcams to gather important information. Watch Dogs seems modern and unsettling, fertile and relevant—an interactive adventure tuned to the age of Edward Snowden, the NSA and urban terrorists who use phones to set off bombs.
I've seen a pre-release version of the game a couple of times and, each time, I've been excited about the Watch Dogs' potential to be a Grand Theft Auto of hacking. I've been disheartened whenever it devolves, before my eyes, into an open-world shooter, a Grand Theft Auto of guns. We already have that. I've already played and enjoyed that.
Each time I see Watch Dogs, I can't help but think about what I briefly thought the game was going to be. I remember how broader my expectations were, how excited I was to interact with a gritty urban video game metropolis with something other than a gun as my primary tool to touch a virtual world.
Yesterday, the makers and marketers of Watch Dogs released a new trailer for the game. They also gave some interviews. The game's producer told a colleague that the heart of the game is still hacking.
Hacking has always been our core focus. We always made sure that most of our missions could be done through hacking and stealth. Obviously you can always take a violent approach if that's the way you want to do it. There are a lot of gamers who want to play with a very aggressive approach, who want to rush in guns-blazing. And when they did that hacking, became less useful. Especially if you were on the ground. If you weren't in cars, for example, or traveling through the city. We had a lot of ideas for that. Some were there and sometimes we just needed little hooks to connect certain systems together. We did that in a couple of weeks and all of a sudden we saw the best players were now the ones who could mix combat with hacking.
But again the game teeters. It tips and tilts under the weight of those guns and their baggage. One gun leads to many guns. Shots fired everywhere in a city of nastiness and hostility.
Look at the scenes from the new trailer. What do they tell you? They tell you that you are a hacker, that your daughter was killed, that you are angry and that you are not necessarily a nice person in this game. You will defend yourself.
But why isn't one shot enough?
Is it cooler to shoot twice? More exciting? More badass?
Isn't a phone a more interesting weapon?
Isn't a phone more interesting, for once in a game, than a gun?
This is the Watch Dogs that excites me...
This is the one that feels liberated from the same-old, same-old ways of video game gun violence...
The Watch Dogs trailer nearly ends with this...
I'd be thrilled if it really did end there. I can black out a skyscraper? I think I'm sold!
But the makers or the marketers behind Watch Dogs decided that that wasn't exciting enough. You can do that in a video game? Sure, the trailer seems to say. The trailer won't leave you with that. There's a final image to show, a piece of punctuation.
The trailer ends with this...