I love shooting things in the face. Monsters, aliens, mice, men – all are equal in the eyes of my trigger finger, which itches with such fervor that I should probably have a doctor look at it. But – even in the ammo-casing-coated world of videogames – there's a time and place for violence. (And no, smartasses in the audience, it's not “always.” Always isn't even a place.) More and more, I've noticed recent games tripping over their own feet because they choose to reign with unfaltering bloodlust instead of reining it in. In some games, it's but a speck-sized sticking point. Others, though, choose to live by the sword, only to fall flat on their faces and die by it in the most gruesome fashion imaginable.
Evidence A: Deus Ex. For the most part, it's an amazing game, but bring up its boss fights and watch as a room full of fawning admirers turns into a torch-flashing, keyboard-smashing angry mob. And why not? The game's bosses are horribly designed strategic dead ends that eat headshots and excrete pure, unfiltered sadness. To me, though, the biggest problem is that you have to fight them at all.
See, Human Revolution also included brilliantly tense wars of words that really forced players to read facial cues and get in each “opponent's” frame of mind. These were full of drama, branching paths, and breath-taking twists. In essence, they felt more like boss fights than the actual boss fights. Better yet, they matched the spirit of Deus Ex far better than Human Revolution's rootin', tootin', hootin', hollerin' shootouts. Ultimately, though, these neck-and-neck verbal back-and-forths were disappointingly under-utilized – almost like Eidos Montreal didn't have any faith in their ability to captivate a crowd.
That, I think, is the problem many games are facing right now. It's not that this medium can't solve its problems without resorting to violence; it's that we've been raised on a diet that's one part spectacle and a billion scattered, charred parts explosion. Developers, then, are afraid to stop screaming at the top of their lungs for fear of being drowned out by the rest of the crowd. Violence is a quick, proven way to engage players. It's easy. It's reliable. It works.
Up to a point, anyway. Technology and development techniques are evolving, and games are picking up new tricks. Developers aren't blind, either. They know this better than any of us. So ambition's prevailing – but just barely. Problem is, those same developers are trying to bring tried-and-true formulas along for the ride, which only slows everything else down in the process.
In the worst cases, clinging fearfully to violence – as though it's some kind of childhood-scented safety blanket – can be the difference-maker between an amazing game and one that's barely even worth a glance. For instance, I was recently charged with reviewing an iPad game called Dark Meadow. Honestly, it had almost everything working in its favor. Excellent atmosphere, Unreal 3-powered graphics, hilarious writing, incredible sound design. I never thought a mid-sized electronic rectangle could so thoroughly draw me in.
So I'd creep around, figuratively sniffing for clues throughout the abandoned Terror Hospital my character had awoken in. The floors creaked. Walls groaned. Lights flickered. My senses were sucked right into another world. And then: an admittedly creepy, capoeira-fighting fox monster struck! “HOLYSHITRUN,” screamed my brain. The game, however, had other ideas. I had to fight. No ifs, ands, or buts.
Just like that, the game world stopped making sense. I was supposedly some Average Joe Forced into An Extraordinary Situation, but it sure didn't seem that way after I'd handily despatched a hundred hellspawn – one-after-another, no less – through a series of increasingly tedious encounters.
Let's contrast that with PC indie horror hit Amnesia: The Dark Descent. It's an admittedly similar concept, after all. You're Just Some Guy stuck in a spooky spot with so much audiovisual atmosphere that it could probably fix global warming. And then: a monster. Somewhere. “HOLYSHITRUN,” screams your brain – as it should, because Amnesia disallows combat altogether. Amnesia, you see, turns a lack of actual violence into its key selling point. Like any other normal person, you can't effectively fight back, which makes the million murderous things that go bump in the night a billion times more terrifying.
On the far-flung opposite side of the spectrum, PS3 indie up-and-comer Journey entirely removes violence from the picture to create a relaxing, contemplative experience. In my experience, the lack of baddies breathing down my neck/tearing out my throat every five seconds freed my mind to ponder about the expansive, mysterious desert in which the game takes place. What's the deal with these abandoned, half-buried structures? What are these abstract, magic scarf creatures? And occasionally, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That one was mostly unrelated, though.
Point is, the slow, deliberate nature of the game sent my mind in directions others hadn't. My surroundings became the central appeal of the game – as opposed to the glorified hallways between battles seen in so many other, more traditional titles. Journey felt like, well, a journey in that the destination ceased to matter. The experience of simply being there was engaging in and of itself.
A lack of violence, then, is plenty capable of being just as interesting – and even thrilling, depending on how it's used – as a good old-fashioned kung-fu gunfight. It's simply a matter of taking that first step, leaping out of the nest, and never looking back. When you're going for broke with a new idea, half-hearted attempts just don't cut it. If you don't believe your brilliant new mechanic will fly, it'll probably act less like Led Zeppelin and more like an actual leaden zeppelin.
Yes, I'm still a gamer. I love shooting things. But I'm also a grown adult. Via the cumulative magic of countless public service announcements, I know violence isn't always the answer. So think carefully, developers, because you might just be shooting yourself in the foot when you hand me that gun.