A promotional still from Assassin's Creed: Unity. Image: Ubisoft
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Why are video games so reliant on violence? Because they’ve run out of other ideas

We have reached the point where, for games to progress as an art form, the mainstream examples needs to be about more than just killing things for the sake of it.

Video game design has a problem with violence, and I think we need to address it. The problem isn’t that violence is bad - absolutely not. Video game violence is the sweet, satisfying centre to some of the greatest games ever made. No, the problem is violence being used too much, and as a substitute for imagination, for design and for artistry. Violence has become a crutch, a cliché and, in many cases, it is even becoming boring.

The culprit for this problem is not the games that are traditionally violent. Your Call of Duty-type games, or Assassin’s Creed, or Grand Theft Auto - these games are violent because they are about violence, they are about doing unto others with a big shiny weapon before they do unto you. The violence in these games is where the magic happens, so to speak, it is how they engage and reward us as players, and their tone and mechanics are fully geared towards this.

No, the problem is that games that ought not to have much use for combat mechanics are adopting them by default as the core of the game, seemingly for no better reason that the developers couldn’t think of anything better for players to do to fill the time between cut-scenes.

One textbook example of violence as a gratuitous run-time filler is Bioshock: Infinite, a game lauded for its story and themes, yet which is crammed with battles that seems to serve no purpose in the greater narrative other than to slow it down. Given the lavish world and the potential that this had, let alone the time and money pumped into it, it feels disappointing that the actual business of playing the game involved so many set piece fights against generic, forgettable enemies interspersed with the odd bullet-sponge. This was a problem that earlier Bioshock games didn’t have so much, and their ancestor System Shock 2 didn’t have at all.

It is no coincidence whatsoever that Burial At Sea Episode Two, the DLC extension to the game which relies on stealth rather than shooting, is much more fun to play. Even if those stealth mechanics are not particularly good - built as they were onto a system previously designed purely for stand-up fights - they lend themselves much more readily to exploration and examination of the setting than a game based on run-and-gun. Sadly, it is only in the final curtain call that we catch a glimpse of what the game could have been.

We can see the problem rearing its head again in the later iterations of the Resident Evil series. Resident Evil 4 is a great game, but it was the end of the era of this series as suspenseful survival horror games, becoming in later versions merely third-person shooters with other elements tacked on, and the desire to provide the standard power fantasy supplanting any thoughts of providing horror or suspense. The power fantasy is fine for what it is, but we should not want to see it become ubiquitous.

That is not to say that games should not contain violent subject matter or stories containing violence, but when your game mechanics are built upon standard violent game design elements it can undermine other elements. One instance of this is how it becomes much more difficult to take the human story at the heart of Spec Ops: The Line seriously when your characters have spent hours shooting people by the dozen. The sense of reality in the game world is compromised because you have a main character that is, for all intents and purposes, a superhuman war machine that is able to dispatch almost an entire battalion of soldiers on his own. The angst and the horrors of war lose their bite when nearly all of the people in a game are reduced to hit-boxes.

Spec Ops: The Line redeems itself in part because of the ways that it is messing with the tropes of gaming to tell its story, but it always feels like a game that is more than the sum of its parts. It manages to be good in spite of its relentless, cartoonish gunplay, not because of it.

The Tomb Raider series also wandered into a somewhat more violent place with its reboot. Gone were many of the puzzles and platforms, replaced with quick time events and massive amounts of shooting and stabbing. The game wasn’t bad for what it was, but it had become something very ordinary - different characters and dialogue perhaps, but an all-too-familiar style of game underneath it all.

Behind these design decisions it is possible to detect the invisible hand of the market, shoving the designers towards the safe, proven design choice. Games must be of a certain length, they must have a particular type of hero and they mustn’t do anything too new that might deter buyers. However if games want to be more about story and character rather than killing, then they really need to shape their mechanics to accommodate that. The mechanics required for a combat game tend to demand things like the ability to shrug off serious wounds, even death, and the capacity to kill enemies without any particular misgivings. This makes characters harder to relate to and stories often find themselves making little sense in order to accommodate the internal logic of the game world.

The flip side of this also is that the combat systems provided in mainstream games are never going to be particularly satisfying, because they have to appeal to everybody. Take Skyrim, for example. It’s a wonderful game, but the fighting is so streamlined for the sake of mass appeal that there is almost no substance to it at all. Run in, waft a sword around and chug healing potions until everything that looked at you funny is dead.

There are mainstream alternatives to games built around combat, but these are still rare in the action and adventure genres. One of the best is still Mirror’s Edge, where the core mechanics of the game are movement-based, and it feels in many ways like a racing game on foot. Fighting is rare enough that it never becomes mundane. The main character can handle violence if necessary, but it slows you down and the game wants you to be fast more than it wants you to be lethal. Despite being a stock story of revenge and conspiracy, Mirror’s Edge retains some weight to the actions and its characters by not burying the narrative under hundreds of slaughtered minions.

Fortunately, further alternatives to combat in games are presenting themselves. Survival horror seems to be making a comeback, and recently games based on evasion such as the Amnesia series showed that you can make a game work very well by simply having the main character unable to fight the monsters opposing them. This has also manifested itself in the well-received Alien: Isolation.

Other successful indie games have shown the continued viability of different core mechanics too. The idea of using survival for its own sake as the premise of a game has been growing in popularity thanks to the success of Day Z, and indie titles such as Don’t Starve and The Forest. Tomb Raider hinted at a few survival mechanics, and as these ideas were well received (if horribly underused), with luck the series might revisit them. Minecraft showed us that creation and exploration can be fun in and of themselves and although the myriad instantly forgettable Something-Craft games popping up everywhere might be painful now, with luck we’ll see those ideas reach somebody with a decent sized budget to spend soon. The untapped potential is vast.

We have reached the point where for games to progress as an art form the mainstream games need to be about more than just killing things for the sake of it. They need more than perfunctory stories wrapped around ten hours of arbitrary, mindless shooting. Let the games that want to be about combat and fighting embrace it fully and let the others be free of it entirely, everybody wins.

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

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.