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Game Violence Undermines Storytelling Potential

I love videogames. There I said it. I’m absolutely passionate about the future of the medium. But something bothers me about the vast majority of the games on the market today: they’re redundant, shallow, repetitive, boring, derivative of a better game and most often violent. There I said it.

For every AAA title, there are a few dozen badly acted and poorly produced knock-offs that prevent the market from evolving as a storytelling medium. A large number of games feature extensive amounts of combat for no discernable reason. Does a game’s character need to kill to tell its story? Does Shrek really need to three-button-attack his way through hordes of candy-cane enemies to tell his tale? What about Dante, Nico and Gordon Freeman? Is this good game design? Is it good for the medium?

The more-difficult question to be debated is why games are all about fighting. Is this medium simply violent by nature? Videogame violence is a hot-button issue, and most of you have read various articles complaining about in-game violence corrupting our youth. You will not read that here. Instead, I question the use of fighting in this interactive medium. Developers are often too quick to rely on combat as a central mechanic. Besides simulations, sports and puzzle games, there are few genres that don’t rely on combat to drive their story. I’d like to think videogames are capable of evolving into a medium that evokes the emotion of literature and film. But are they?

Games are generally not respected as an art form; we can all agree on that. I believe this is because of game designers’ overuse and over-reliance on combat. Hand-to-hand melee attacks, sword-based combat, gunplay … to a non-gamer, many games look and control similarly. “Where’s the innovation?” they ask. As gamers, we each have an opinion about what makes combat fun. But to the uninitiated, a light attack, strong attack, lock-on button, shoot button and combo or two describe every game out there. The only difference to them is the story. And that’s where this medium’s use of combat falls short.

Some players might fawn at cut scenes, but the true center of storytelling is conflict. In the current marketplace, most developers are only capable of exploring this meaningful conflict in cut scenes. Few games create visceral emotions within combat that also advance the game’s story. The best combat gives players a feeling of victory and reward that also add to their immersion in the game’s universe. The worst combat feels hard to control, out of place and unimaginative. In these instances, developers rely on repetitive combat sequences to get to the next bit of story, throwing a series of cloned enemies at you and giving you few options to fight them. Does this make sense? Is it good game design when so many characters are street-fighting, pistol-wielding high-jump masters? When all main characters are proficient with weapons, they’re only given one option to cope with antagonism: Violence.

Bungie claimed to repeat the same 10 minutes of combat throughout the Halo trilogy, yet they built a multimillion-dollar franchise in the process. But lazy game design like this will not serve to progress games as an art form. I’m looking at you, LEGO: Back to the Future Trilogy. (No, this is not an official game. But when it is, I totally called it.) Such game design will also hamper the game industry’s ability to overtake Hollywood one day (which I believe it will). Games are violent. Most games are about fighting. But there is a reason: Combat is — thus far — the most effective way to get an emotional reaction from a player. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Combat is the physical representation of conflict. Although it’s not necessary for games to be violent to be rewarding, combat is an effective gameplay tool to offer short-term resolution. But combat is most effective when adding to the common themes of a game, not only offering a short-term reward but also reflecting the character and his or her game world. Controls become a reflection of the character’s abilities, and mastering them encourages greater immersion in the story.

Survival-horror games are some of the best examples of immersing the player in a story through their use of combat. Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Fatal Frame feature a main character with limited power-ups and weaponry, while enemies have the ability to attack without warning. The combat and mechanics echo the players’ feelings of loneliness and isolation, feelings that aren’t isolated to cut-scene storytelling. By these criteria, the survival-horror genre is a very good demonstration of effective combat design; enemies and combat make sense within the frame of the story and fiction.

In other genres and games, say God of War, Final Fantasy and Halo, players are offered hordes of enemies who are individually incapable of damaging the player’s superhuman character. Difficulty and specific abilities notwithstanding, the emotional reward is the visceral feedback of conquering the onslaught and achieving victory — that’s why they’re called “Achievement Points.”

But if gamers experience a similar feeling of accomplishment when solving a puzzle game, why is fighting so important in video games? On the basic level, fighting provides a gameplay mechanism to resolve conflict and advance the story. The themes of love, sadness, jealousy and joy are told in other media through static methods, but film, TV and music are not interactive. In-game combat is a choice made by the game designers and players because combative emotions are viewed as the most persuasive in gaming. This does not give gamers the emotional credit they deserve.

When enemy NPCs maintain the thematic structure of a game, their interaction with the protagonist should not feel like pointing and clicking, locking-on and firing repeatedly or a series of the “same old” moves. The interaction must reflect the protagonist’s situation, history and abilities as a character, thus tying the combat directly into the story and in-game universe. Otherwise, a game’s theme is compromised, and the combat’s effectiveness is dulled.

If games are to be taken more seriously as an art form and a storytelling medium, then combat must be taken more seriously. Thus fat, top-tier titles have used combat to elicit a superficial emotional reaction; violence as art, if you will. But good video game combat must inspire emotion beyond simply “I kicked his butt.” This is among the biggest challenges to modern game developers, and the lack of sufficient connections between story and gameplay is why most games today focus those “same 10 minutes” of combat.

I love videogames. I’m passionate about the future of this medium. But I’m also passionate about its storytelling potential, and if videogames are really going to overtake the film industry, game developers need to treat story elements not as the brief pauses between combat sequences, but as central components of game design itself.

— Sivan

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