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

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser