A promotional still from Assassin's Creed: Unity. Image: Ubisoft
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear