Violence in games can be great—not to mention really powerful, as we recently discussed. What about the other side of the coin, though? The moments (or even entire games) when bloodshed stops and everyone shows their true colors? Let's sit back, get all deep, and talk about those.
It's tough to pinpoint my absolute favorite non-violent moment. There's not as much of a standout as there was with violence, nothing so perfectly, punchingly punctual as Metal Gear Solid 3's final gunshot. To be honest, I'm not really sure what that says about non-violence in games, but it's definitely not that these moments are somehow inferior. Instead, I think we're dealing with a plethora of factors.
For one, non-violence allows for many more different types of action (or inaction), giving me way more "apples and oranges" style options. They're just too different for me to pluck out a single favorite, give it a gold sash, and sing it a song about how it's more docile than a million sleeping sheep. They're equal in my eyes, but functionally speaking they're not even remotely similar.
Non-violence is often less direct, too. The story of many violent acts (especially in video games) can be told in a single moment. One slice, one shot, one ribcage-rattling blow to the gut. Everything reverberates out from that. Non-violence, meanwhile, isn't quite so direct. It's sometimes hard to distill it down to a single moment as a result.
Also, sad truth be told, it's a less explored area in games than violence is. I think games still have a ton of room to grow with both, but violent games (at least, in the big budget space) have covered miles and miles of ground, both thematically and literally. There are more milestones, I think. More moments everyone can look back on and go, "Oh yeah, I totally remember that one."
All that said, there are some damn good non-violent moments in games, and we're getting more and more standouts by the day. Here are my favorites (SPOILER ALERT):
- Playing fetch with Dog in Half-Life 2. This moment was brilliant on multiple levels. For one, it quietly, unobtrusively served as a tutorial for the utterly game-changing Gravity Gun, and for two I was playing fetch with a giant robot. Every time I fired a box or ball or what have you, Dog would sloppily lope along, pure electric enthusiasm wrapped up in a machine that could crush me with its little finger. Someday I will name a real dog "Dog," and it won't be because I'm the least original person on the planet.
- The couch scene in The Darkness. Chronicles of Riddick and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons developer Starbreeze's darkhorse/secret best game is, by and large, so violent that it's nearly horrific. Main character Jackie Estacado is possessed by a tentacle demon that feasts on hearts, for goodness' sake. You can probably imagine how that plays out. Early in the game, though, there's a moment of such sublime peace that it's downright jaw-dropping. Jackie has a girlfriend, Jenny, and after a rather, um, tumultuous evening he goes to visit her. The two proceed to do an extremely couply thing: curl up on a ratty old couch and watch a movie. The twist? It's the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird, and you—in first-person—can stay and watch it all. A whole movie. Eventually Jenny falls asleep on your shoulder and it's just... nice. That, in turn, makes later events even more chilling.
- One of the last big choices in Bastion, when I had to decide whether or not to help Zulf after he betrayed my tiny ragtag group of Calamity survivors. His own people ended up blaming him for all their troubles, and he was gravely wounded. I could wade into their teeming anthill of an army with my weapon or an unconscious Zulf, but not both. Against my better instincts, I picked Zulf. At first the army opened fire on me the second I staggered into their ranks. Slowly but surely, however, they stopped. Archers holstered their arrows, spearmen stood aside as I passed. They understood what I was doing, and they realized another death wouldn't help anything. The whole event was accompanied by this mournful melody of wounded, beautiful resignation. All the while I just trudged on, one foot after another, to the end.
- Sailing in Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It's not the best video game realization of sailing by any means, but for me Wind Waker was just so wonderfully relaxing. The art style, the sound effects, the visible wisps of wind, the way the boat gently bobbed up and down atop a Crayola-blue ocean—the list goes on. Maybe this one is just nostalgia talking, but it's some really insistent nostalgia.
- Soaring out of the water and doing flips at the start of Echo The Dolphin. Same thing as Wind Waker. Just pure relaxation (tinged with the tiniest bit of exhilaration) and lots and lots of water.
- Befriending a cat in Lone Survivor. This Silent-Hill-2-meets-David-Lynch indie horror game is underrated on so many levels, but the cat does an especially nice job of summing it up. Lone Survivor measures your character's sanity, but not just its slow deterioration like in other horror games. You can—if you eat and sleep well, avoid getting chomped on by enemies—sew your fraying strands of sanity back together. You can recover, and it becomes apparent in the ways your character speaks and acts. The cat is a (totally optional; you've got to work to earn its trust) symbol of this. If you manage to adopt it, though, it really puts a nice, fluffy period on all you've been through, all the progress you've made as a player and a character. You're done desperately struggling to keep your own screws from coming loose. You're healthy enough to take care of something else too. Also it's a kitty! Did I mention that you get to pet a kitty?
Those are only a few of my favorites. Here are a bunch from developers who've made great non-violent games of their own, some of the most gratuitous murder blenders out there, and everything in between.
Veteran RPG writer and designer Chris Avellone (Planescape Torment, Fallout 2, Star Wars KOTOR 2, Pillars of Eternity), like me, couldn't pick just one moment, but his are markedly different, running the gamut from Batman to, er, dad porn:
"There's been a few non-violent games and non-violent moments: narratively, I felt the first time the narrator spoke in Thomas Was Alone and gave humanity to a colored block, and then kept doing it and layering it until I didn't imagine them as blocks anymore but individuals with their own hopes and dreams."
"The first time you get exposed to the fear gas in Arkham Asylum and you find Commissioner Gordon lying dead was chilling... and then the world starts breaking apart was a perfect moment."
"On a minor note, finding your Dad's porn in Gone Home was a great human moment, and I laughed out loud because, well, I could see that being true. This was balanced by the Dad's story arc from failed writer and back again during the end sequences."
"But the absolute best? Saint's Row III when the Sublime song 'What I Got' comes on the radio as you're driving with Pierce and you both riff off of each other (with any combination of the voice actors). It felt like such a human moment and reinforced that you were old friends in an elegant way. Kudos to Volition."
Speaking of Saints Row, Volition writer Jason Blair has a couple of his own, both of which are tied into childhood, innocence, and what it means to gain and lose both:
"Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons sets up a wonderful premise—two boys helping each other save their father—and builds the core mechanics around using the two main characters in conjunction to overcome obstacles and solve puzzles. Late in the game, when one of the brothers is lost and you only have the one left to finish the task at hand, you feel the younger brother's loss because you too are without something you've depended on. You must now, just as the younger brother must, learn to deal with a significant loss. It's so simple yet so incredibly effective."
"While not an excessively violent game, [Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar's] Bully does include quite a bit of mischief and misanthropy. But my favorite moment wasn't stuff kids into lockers or taking on the school bully but the date with Pinky. Wandering around the carnival, holding hands, playing games, winning her prizes, and getting to experience Jimmy as a regular kid—without the manipulation of the various cliques—provided a sweet, authentic moment in the game. And that date may have stopped her from marrying her cousin so that's a good thing."
Indie developer Nina Freeman also drew on non-violent moments associated with childhood experiences, but in a very different way. She cited games that had profound effects on her when she was a kid, something that's become a focus in her own work on games like How Do You Do It:
"That moment when you snag your first successful picture of Mew's face in Pokemon Snap."
"Watching Yuna and Tidus make out in Macalania Woods in Final Fantasy X as a twelve year old girl who'd never been kissed. Seriously, hottest moment in video games of all time."
"When Saria asks if you want to learn her song in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, causing you to realize that Saria and Link are your [one true pairing]. Also, when you run by Lon Lon Ranch and hear Malon singing, and you decide that ACTUALLY Malon and Link are your OTP."
"Gliding over literally any one of the seemingly endless crevasses in the first Spyro game."
"Building your first house at the age of 10 in The Sims."
"The first time you realize there's an extra life hidden in that tree to the left of the castle in Mario 64."
"The inexplicable awe of playing Myst for the first time at the age of 12."
The Stanley Parable creator Davey Wreden made a case for Metal Gear Solid 3 having both one of the best violent moments and one of the best non-violent moments with its infamous ladder sequence:
"Maybe my favorite moment of reflection inside of a very violent game is in Metal Gear Solid 3, the Ladder Sequence. I've been murdering relentlessly for some vague number of hours and I am now underground and suddenly I come to a well leading upward. There is a single ladder leading up, but thanks to the camera angle I have no way of knowing how high up the well goes."
"So I start climbing, and it starts to become apparent that this well is more than a few meters tall. And then I realize it's more than a few dozen meters tall. And then I have no idea how tall this ladder is. And I can no longer see the ground and I can't see the opening and I can't remember how many people I've killed and all I am doing is climbing climbing climbing climbing. And then the music starts to play. Beautiful."
Critic and developer Samantha Allen, meanwhile, found an opportunity to reflect on non-violence after a moment of particularly gruesome murder in BioShock Infinite—a moment we at Kotaku know quite well, in fact.
"Bioshock Infinite opened with some peaceful first-person walking and then instantly forced me to crush someone's skull with a blunt object. Violence in games hasn't felt the same ever since that jarring juxtaposition of beautiful art design and grotesque gameplay. I think we need to stop thinking about violence as the lingua franca of video games, as the common element of everything we play. You don't have to bash someone's head in for a game to be a game."
Robin Arnott of SoundSelf and Antichamber, however, argued that sometimes violence is an inherently human thing, and that violent games are an ideal tool to let us reflect on non-violence because of that. He offered up one of gaming's more unforgettable examples: Shadow of the Colossus:
"The final colossus, Malus, left me with shivers. When I finally climbed to its arm, I gripped onto the fur knowing it, like the 15 colossi before it, would try to shake me free to protect itself. But that's not what happened."
"Malus bent the arm and held me in front of its face. Those glowing eyes just looked at me. With no threat, no effort to protect itself. It just watched. Moments away from it's death, there was no final effort to shake me free. Just a look. Maybe curiosity. Maybe acceptance."
"That gaze left me feeling like a cockroach. Like a nothing. A murderer of something beautiful—more ancient and perfect than I. There's no glory in Shadow of the Colossus—just desperation and the murder of god after god, a trail of sadness in your wake."
"It's not exactly a non-violent moment, but it's a moment that put all the violence of the game into dark, dark perspective. A particularly sad reflection on human nature."
Man. Yeah, so, um... sorry, gonna need a second after that one.
OK, OK, I think I'm good. Anyway, what are your favorite non-violent moments in games? Same as with the violent moments piece—this can be anything: single-player, multiplayer, story, all your own doing, or anything in between. Let's talk about this!
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.