Violence in video games is quite a controversial topic. Ever since the days of Doom and Mortal Kombat, this industry has been under attack by concerned parents and authorities for corrupting the minds of the youth and normalizing violence. But I personally find that debate uninteresting. I follow the philosophy of Cormac McCarthy when it comes to this discussion. I believe the seed of violence has been planted in the heart of every man since the days of creation, and there’s no escaping from it. The worst kind of violence happened in a time when no violent media existed, let alone video games. Video games provide a safe outlet for expressing violent desires, so they are a great way to contain them. That’s why my concern with violence in video games is not an ethical one but a creative one. There is a world of possibilities out there. Why do video games -especially AAA ones- rely on violent gameplay? Why not try something else? Because, at this point, they all kind of look like clones of each other.
It is common knowledge that conflict is at the heart of any standard story. The most extreme kind of conflict is the one in which death is on the line. The desire to stay alive is something anybody can relate to. So, it’s only natural that many conflicts in stories are about that.
However, movies, tv shows, and novels have the freedom to portray conflicts that are a lot more nuanced than just a “kill or get killed” scenario. They can portray the emotional conflict between family members, the internal conflict of a tortured man with himself, the conflict between different ideologies, or basically any kind of conflict that is considered deep or artsy.
Video games are at a disadvantage because gameplay requires the player to always do something and this necessity for doing stuff prevents this medium from catering to more nuanced forms of conflicts. Even when developers try to cater to nuance, they end up making interactive movies. There might be a lot of emotional details in the cut-scene, but in the game-play sections, you go back to killing like a maniac. This is a problem that Naughty Dog faced when they were making Uncharted 4. They realized that Nathan Drake is supposed to be a lovable rogue, but during gameplay, he is gunning down people like a psycho and his body count would send shivers down the spines of war criminals. It just didn’t add up. So early on, they had the idea to make the first half of Uncharted 4’s gameplay melee only, just to show Drake can change his ways. But this idea was ultimately abandoned. There’s really no easy way to get rid of guns and the flashy action they bring.
In his video “Can We Make Talking as Much Fun as Shooting?” Mark Brown provides a great example of why alternatives to combat are underwhelming. Some RPGs promise the player that they can avoid combat altogether if they put enough points in “Charisma” and “Intelligence” because these attributes turn them into silver-tongued devils that can turn any situation in their favor through dialogue options. For example, there is a mission in Fallout New Vegas in which you are supposed to take care of a guy called Chavez. You can either kill Chavez and his crew or convince him to make himself disappear if you have enough points in the speech attribute.
This might seem like a good example of respecting a player’s freedom of choice until you realize the combat option involves active gameplay with challenge and the possibility of failure, while the speech option is all about pressing a button.
This example shows why violence and combat dominate gaming so much. It’s difficult to make any other action as interesting and engaging as combat. Mark Brown provides examples of some other games that have tried to make dialogue options more interesting and engaging. For example:
- LA Noire forces you to pay attention to body language and facial expressions to realize if people are lying.
- Life Is Strange demands that you pay attention to environmental details to make the right dialogue choices when the time comes.
- Some turn-based games like Undertale and Griftlands, in which you have to choose actions from a menu, turn dialogues and peaceful approaches into turn-based game-play elements, same as combat options.
While these approaches are definitely better than a simple button press and a stat check, they’re still a long way from becoming substitutes for combat. LA Noire’s facial recognition system is a gimmick; sometimes it’s so exaggerated that it becomes ridiculous. Life is Strange is an interactive movie and doesn’t use the potential of video games to its fullest. And finally, Undertale and Griftlands might replace violence on a thematic level, but from the gameplay perspective, their system still relies on beating or dominating an opponent; the only difference is that the “attack” command is replaced with “persuade.”
In his video “Why We’re Wrong about Violence in Games“, Adam Millard makes an excellent point about how we should view violence in games. He argues that violence is not necessarily about watching someone get killed, but it’s about the dynamic of domination and “beating” your enemies or opponents. So in his view, Mortal Kombat is just as violent as FIFA 23. I like to quote what he says because I couldn’t explain it better myself:
Games should absolutely cater to a variety of tastes, but I also need to make it clear that games containing violent themes, and games that feel violent to play aren’t always the same, as we’ve seen violence can be used in games that feel quite chilled out and relaxing, and adrenaline pumping combative games can be entirely pacifistic. We need to be able to distinguish aesthetics from how we approach and engage with games if we’re going to get to the bottom of this burnout feeling. […] Whilst violence is a huge feature of storytelling in general, this aggressive, combative focus in games is unique and stems back to a variety of sources, from Nintendo marketing exclusively to boys in the 80s to high-score chasing and tabletop dungeon crawlers being a foundational element of the earliest games to the simple capitalistic reason that people like power trips. Whether violent or nonviolent, the supremacist approach defines too many games to count, particularly amongst AAA developers. And it leads to that feeling of emotional burnout I was on about earlier, as well as more worryingly, giving the impression that this is all games have to offer.
As you can see, he makes the distinction between “games containing violent themes” and “games that feel violent to play” because games in which domination is not the central goal provide a different experience altogether. Therefore, they provide a lot more room for creativity and innovation. These games could feature all the violence in the world, but they wouldn’t “feel” violent. For example, Return of the Obra Dinn is a unique detective game in which you have to look at a still-shot of a murder scene from different angles and determine who was the victim, who was the murderer and how they died. The murder scenes are grisly, and the game’s atmosphere is dark. It’s by no means a game you would call non-violent and family-friendly. But competition and domination don’t exist in the game, even in the form of artificial progress barriers that usually existed in classic adventure games. If you already know the names of the victims and murderers, you can finish the game very quickly.
Despite not being your average video game, Return of the Obra Dinn is definitely not an interactive movie. Its brilliance is not borrowed from other art forms like cinema or novels but is unique to video games. The game is challenging, very engaging and there’s nothing gimmicky about any of its elements. It relies on your intuition to motivate you, not external rewards, and that’s why it provides an experience, unlike anything you might find on the AAA market.
The question is: why can’t the AAA market make such games? Why can we only find non-violent games – according to the definition above – in the indie market? Well, the thing is, this was not always the case. Back in the PlayStation 2 days, developers could make a highly experimental and innovative game like Katamari Damacy and expect to see it receive the same treatment as other AAA games. But nowadays, the industry is ruled by algorithms. With the arrival of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the cost of making games became too big, so the gap between AAA and non-AAA games became wider.
There is a lot of pressure on AAA game devs to deliver something flashy and jaw-breaking. Every teaser and trailer should showcase something energetic and action-oriented with high stakes. This is why intense shoot-outs, epic sword fights, car chases, and other larger than life actions dominate whatever you see from the AAA market. It’s tough to create hype around something that doesn’t look like it came out of a Michael Bay movie.
The state of the gaming world right now is like a society that is on the verge of a communist revolution: the disparity between the rich and poor is too high. On one side, you have AAA developers that soak up all the money and attention to themselves but are not allowed to take any risks because they have dozens of stockholders with a gun against their temples to make them money. On the other side, you have indie games that are highly experimental and innovative but get less attention than the class nerd at the school gym. As a matter of fact, every time these less well-known indie games receive any kind of headline – like becoming free on Epic Game Store – the responses are nothing short of vicious. The sad truth is that the taste of gamers has been shaped too much by franchises like Call of Duty, Halo, God of War, Resident Evil, etc. Basically, any game that doesn’t resemble any of these big franchises and dares to do something new that doesn’t revolve around domination will be treated harshly by the gaming community. Considering how hard it is to make games, what kind of masochist would want to go through with that? That’s why some indie developers might even prefer to stay outside of the limelight and just cater to their limited audience.
However, all of this can change in the next big paradigm shift in the gaming world. Yahtzee Crowshaw, in his video “Why I Think Cozy Games Will Be the Next Big Thing” argues that the success of what he calls “Cozy Games” in the indie market might mean that these games can actually become mainstream in the near future because every time the AAA market needs new ideas to steal, it can always count on the indies.
According to Yahtzee, Cozy games are the kind of games in which the gameplay is reliant on collecting stuff and doing tasks rather than overcoming skill-based challenges. This idea made a lot of sense to me because when I was playing Among Us, I found doing the tasks more enjoyable than finding the killer, and I was annoyed every time someone called an emergency meeting (although maybe that’s because I played with total strangers). This kind of gameplay can have appeal if it’s matched with substance.
Yahtzee points out “Stray” as one of the games that could signal this change. It’s true that Stray is not precisely a “cozy” game according to his definition because it’s basically a cyberpunk action-adventure game, but the reason it stood out was that you play as a cute cat in it. Stray was a semi-AAA game, so the positive feedback it received could encourage more developers to make more games where the main appeal is not domination but something cute and cozy.
Another reason why cozy games can become more mainstream is that for a long time, gaming was dominated by the testosterone-fueled masculine taste and anything that didn’t live up to this ideal was shamed, bullied, and ignored into irrelevance. Cozy games in the past like The Sims, Harvest Moon, and Viva Pinata, were considered to be girly or childish and were an exception to the rule. But this stigma is slowly fading away -at least in the west- and the idea of playing games for the sake of living up to some sort of power fantasy is being challenged. It’s also worth noting that as people’s lives get harder because of financial and social pressure, the demand for cozy stress-free games increases. Maybe the AAA industry notices that desire and starts catering to it by the laws of supply and demand.
But then again, maybe it won’t. The problem with the AAA industry is that it’s structured in a way filled with impossible deadlines and excruciating crunches. As Yahtzee brilliantly puts it, “Five hundred people being worked to death in crunch time are in no position to make a stress-relieving game.”
The violence and domination inherent in AAA video games reflect what AAA game devs go through to make them. So unless the industry is not reformed in a way that doesn’t represent modern slavery, I guess the people who work there can’t make games that are not based on killing, maiming, and butchering enemies. Maybe secretly, that’s what they want to do to their boss.