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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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue