Today I want to take a fresh angle on a topic that by now should have most seasoned gamers running for the hills. I want to explore the concept of violence in video games... but rather than repeating the tired-yet-important arguments about freedom of expression, I want to look at the idea of violence as a design problem.
To re-state my position, I have no interest in going over the debates about whether violent games can turn people into psychopaths. Everyone already has an opinion on this, and if you are reading this then the chances are that you're fairly entrenched in your stance. Instead, I want to consider the idea that the need for violence - or more specifically, the act of killing - is something that can limit creativity on the part of games developers.
If you leave aside sports sims, racers and puzzle titles, almost every game genre relies upon the act of killing. It might be Mario stomping on a Goomba, it might be Master Chief blowing away The Covenant - but whatever the setup, there will inevitably be some variation on the idea of a hero defeating vast swathes of enemies. And you know what? That's absolutely fine. These are games after all, and there has to be some form of challenge. It's fun to take down the bad guys (or sometimes even the good guys) and having an endless supply of targets helps to create a fluid, engaging experience. However, lately I've been considering the downsides to this established format, the things that we lose under this setup.
The most obvious negative effect is that the life (and death) of virtual characters tends to be quite cheap. There's rarely any weight to the death of NPCs, largely because the majority of the things we kill are identikit clones - monsters or villains of a particular type. Now, this isn't a problem in something like a Mario game, where the Koopa Troopers are endless jump-fodder; nor is it a problem in something like Gears, where the enemies are supposed to be a swarming, anonymous threat. However, look at something like Grand Theft Auto and you start to see a few problems.
In the past, the GTA series was all about wiping out scores of faceless gangsters. In the very first game these amounted to little more than coloured blobs that fired pellets at you. The sequel followed suit, and despite its technical innovations even GTA 3 was a rather shallow experience in terms of narrative. But since Vice City it seems that Rockstar has become increasingly interested in telling a decent story alongside its sandbox action. Unfortunately this creates a bit of a clash, since you're still obligated to kill hundreds of people - but since most people don't like playing as a complete bastard, the developer has to make its hero a nice guy. In San Andreas, this occasionally resulted in cut scenes where CJ showed a reluctance to kill character X or Y because it seemed like the wrong thing to do - despite the fact that by that point he'd already murdered a few hundred rival gang members.
Of course, this doesn't matter much in terms of pure gameplay - but as a certain corner of game development heads closer and closer to cinema-quality production values, the problem becomes more obvious. GTA IV actually went some way to exploring this issue, via a main character who obviously bears the emotional scars of a lifetime of murder. In its later stages, the game does a great job of making you question the damaged Niko Bellic and his violent actions. He remains a likeable character, but we still begin to think about what it is that we, as gamers, are being asked to do. Of course, there are other problems here, due to the fact that the game uses death as a way of underscoring its moral points. When we fire at a gangster during a mission, it takes them a good five or six bullets before they die - but if a gun should go off during a cutscene, you can bet that someone's going to die. Permanently. How does that make any sense?
The funny thing is that for the most part, we're happy to tolerate this bending of the rules. Gamers who don't care about plots are content to keep blasting, while those of us who do like stories are largely willing to overlook the inconsistency - after all, it's pretty rare for a game to have a story that makes even vague sense, let alone a narrative of the quality of GTA IV. In other words, the issue is not a critical one. And yet if video games are to progress as a medium, surely this is an obstacle we'll have to deal with at some point. Okay, so sports sims and more abstract genres will never have to face the problem - but what about those titles that aspire to a level of cinema-like production? As technical advances push graphics ever-closer towards photorealism, the limitations of video gaming are further exposed.
So, what am I suggesting as a solution? I'm certainly not saying that the industry should abandon the established trend for mass-slaughter, but what I would personally like to see is a greater degree of innovation on the part of games designers. Instead of something like Dead Space that pits you against thousands of mutants, imagine a game horror that sticks you on a spaceship with just three or four aliens - aliens that are, shock horror, really hard to kill. You desperately search for a way to battle them, perhaps using makeshift weapons - initially succeeding in doing little more than driving them off. And when you finally manage to kill one, it feels like a real achievement. How good could that be? Or what about a GTA-like game that sees you completing small, shady crimes in a world of minor criminals. At a late stage, you have the option to kill someone - but if you do, you have a major challenge on your hands. You have to destroy the evidence, hide from the police - and if your victim's friends find you, you're done for.
Of course, deviating from the norm is a huge risk for developers who rely on the financial success of projects that can take up to three or four years to complete. People do try to buck the trends - Shadow of the Colossus is one example, and the forthcoming Heavy Rain looks set to be another. But if no-one ever buys these games, then fewer studios will dare to try new ideas in the future. Of course, innovation is only a good thing if the resulting game is actually worth playing. All I'm asking is for people to give a chance to those unusual releases that have the guts to do things differently.
To conclude, I ask you to consider the music industry. Where video games largely rely upon violence, a huge swathe of popular music is devoted to singing about sex and/or love. A lot of these songs are totally generic in their themes and imagery, yet they remain popular because they have something else going for them - great guitar solos, a killer bassline or perhaps just a singer with a big pair of tits. In our industry, we similarly have games that have a kill-em-all story but that excel in other areas. But for all the talk about a lack of originality in popular music, there are still hundreds of artists who explore new ideas in their lyrics - or who manage to find fresh poignancy in the oldest of love-based themes. Are there many equivalents in contemporary video gaming? No, there are not - and unless we support the innovators, there never will be.