Mass Effect 3, a rare game with interpersonal relationships between characters that don't feel redundant. Image: BioWare
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The reason video games feature stabbing, shooting and starting fires: it's more fun than talking

The reason so many mainstream games are so violent isn't because of lack of imagination - it's just that, for now, it's the most effective way to create a compelling, competitive experience for the player.

There will come a time when people will look upon the limited options of modern mainstream gaming and be baffled by the appeal of it - much in the same way as we look back on the games of a few decades ago and wonder why anybody would want to hammer their keyboard into bits just to make Daley Thompson run the 100m, or just what the hell was going on in Jet Set Willy. The children growing up on Minecraft or any of its myriad creativity-driven descendants are not going to be satisfied with games that offer a succession of corridors full of mindless bad guys to be shot in the head.

The idea that mainstream games should expand beyond merely being about shooting, stabbing or jumping on people has gained popular traction in recent times, and this is a good thing. Games should expand the array of options available to the player as technology improves and we should be encouraging heightened expectations over complacency.

A problem is going to come, however, when people realise that - for mainstream games at least - these broader horizons won’t necessarily lead to happier, friendlier games. Better worlds will usually mean more interesting people to murder, and more to do will translate into more ways in which murder them.

This limited scope stems from the fact that games still rely on an element of challenge in order to be successful and engaging. While this can take many forms - and beyond simple carnage we have seen both survival- and construction-based games growing rapidly in popularity - one of the simplest is direct competition. The easiest way to manifest this competition in a game, and the one that most embrace, is through some form of violent confrontation.

Maybe this has become the default by laziness, but I would argue that there is a case to be made that conflict and violent confrontation are simply more comfortable in a video game than many other activities. Violence fits easily into the competitive nature of games and also translates very neatly into the mechanical systems that make up their rules.

It is not just that violence fits into video games so readily - there is also a sense that a lot of the alternatives to hostility don’t translate well into games well at all. For example, how do you make a game out of friendship or romance? Attempts by the bigger game developers like Bioware and Rockstar have so far been pretty horrible.

For instance,the Dragon Age series relies on strategically wooing the object of your affection with gifts and saying the right things in order to score points so you can later bed them. There is no chemistry at work, no instant mutual attraction, just presents and saying agreeable things. The Dragon Age games approach their romantic subplots with enough respect that things avoid being creepy, but they’re still not comfortable.

When it comes to platonic friendships, GTA IV gave Nico a cell phone full of people who wanted to be his best buddy, who would phone up and want to hang out. Hang out with your friends enough, they’d help you out if you called on them, shun them and they’d get sad. This mechanic got old so fast a Mayfly could have grown sick of it. In a world where you can steal a car and go chasing through the city, and there’s no consequences to that, why would you want to partake in a really bad facsimile of an activity that you could just do in the real world with other people?

The questions these failed adventures in making games out of human interaction ask us are twofold. Firstly, can human social interaction be made into a game that offers the same amount of enjoyment as games about hurting people? And secondly, isn’t there something inherently creepy about turning human social interaction into a game? The idea of manipulating people in order to win at being friends, or be rewarded in a competitive sense feels quite sinister.

All this is not to say that games cannot have entertaining characters and deep emotional relationships in them. They can happen and they do happen. But when they have done so far they have been the product of good writing. An example of this is the friendship that usually (assuming he doesn’t die) develops between the Commander Shepard and Garrus in the Mass Effect games. There is no game to be played in this relationship, you can do a quest to ensure Garrus is "loyal", but this isn’t a social interaction so much as a simple question of did you do his loyalty mission or not. The friendship grows over the three games in the series and is expressed purely in the writing and how the characters interact. There is no bar that runs from "Bro" to "Foe" that needs to be topped up. And it works extremely well.

At this stage in the history of video games there is no point saying that anything can’t or won’t be done. Not everything is possible now, but that is not to say it won’t be down the road. We’ve already seen with games like LA Noir that people are investigating the potential to make a game of human interaction with a competitive element. For now though the future of mainstream games looks like more games about stabbing, shooting and starting fires, albeit amid ever more interesting settings.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution