I rejoiced at many of the announcement of upcoming games at E3 2017. Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus provides more opportunity to delve into the unbelievably brilliant world created by MachineGames; a new Assassin’s Creed, where you play a man of colour, in ancient Egypt looks like Ubisoft benefited from a year off the franchise. My list is wide: Far Cry 5, an updated Shadow of the Colossus, a stunning open-world version of for the Metro franchise, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War with its incredible Nemesis System, more Uncharted 4, a Dishonored game starring Rosario Dawson, a sequel to the beautifully weird The Evil Within – all this excites me.
Yet I noticed that these titles, despite their different themes, characters and genres all anchored themselves in violence as the main method of interaction and problem solving. To me, this is severely limiting on what the medium can and should focus on. We’d easily be bored if films or TV shows or books were all about characters solving problems or progressing with combat alone.
This isn’t about not being able to stomach violence: as indicated, I’m genuinely looking forward to these brutal games. I get starry-eyed thinking about the new Doom.
Instead, I’m disappointed that so much time and effort goes into only allowing players to interact with these fascinating game worlds with weapons. This doesn’t mean I want The Evil Within to be a hugging simulator or Far Cry to become (only) a fishing adventure. Rather, I want more games, from the ground up, to negate violence or combat as even necessary to solve problems and progress.
As I’ve written before, this was my second major problem with Fallout 4 – Lovingly designed environments created solely as background for blood. As Bethesda’s Todd Howard told the Guardian in 2015: “I can’t tell you that you can play the whole game without violence.” There’s no other way to interact with so much of Fallout 4’s world – all of it is combat (pacifist runs are almost unheard of and tend to actually break the game!). You can barely solve any problem through clever dialogue or peaceful options. It’s all violence, all combat, all knives, all the time.
Consider 2017. This is a year where confronting Nazis and radical conservatives isn’t fictional catharsis or a sub-standard plot to a video game. It’s reality. This is a year where Wolfenstein’s villains, the Nazis, was deemed offensive to Trump supporters and those displaying similar ideals. Far Cry 5’s decision to focus on Americans as radicals, rather than foreign – i.e. not white – people was also deemed offensive by some, despite numerous experts pointing out white terrorists are the bigger danger to Americans. The fact that games are offending Nazis in 2017 is both welcome and shocking: The point of Nazis as villains was to allow for basically indisputable “bad guys” from history. But in a year where a WWE performer and game show host can become the President of America, it’s not surprising Nazi beliefs are not only around, but loud enough to be heard.
This makes it all the more important to think about what games’ priorities are now and for the future – especially for minority people.
It’s often said that games are a form of power fantasy. A way to escape and become someone better than who we are: bigger, stronger, faster, sexier, smarter. This always seems tied to violence and combat, however: Powerful people inevitably display these fantastical elements in a ballet of bullets or dance of death, when they’re not (violent) sports games. Think superheroes and how it’s the exception for them to solve problems with brains and compassion, rather than fists.
We should be encouraging alternative, more grounded forms of problem-solving.
For me, a power fantasy isn’t a super buff, neckless soldier with giant guns: it’s the normal person who smartly, creatively and bravely finds ways to fight back against powerful systems designed to oppress them.
Give me a Harriet Tubman or a Walter Sisulu over some muscle man in a cape any day. When you have actual systems to fight, your heroes aren’t fictional and your power fantasies aren’t written by Joss Whedon. I think there’s so much space here that games can explore that they simply don’t.
Let me give you an example of the kind of game I’d love to see one day.
Let me first state I don’t even pretend to know how to make a game nor am I trying to underestimate issues like budgeting. Instead, this is merely a broad conception to drive home how a game could be more interesting if you remove combat as the main or only form of progress.
Let’s take a common reason why violence is used: because you’re fighting against an overwhelming force bent on destroying you.
For marginalised people, their existence is often precisely this. There’s no need to imagine it, when, for example, their daily lives are punctuated by the realisation that they have to fear police as much, if not more, than violent criminals. To fight against such systems, violence and combat is often not the answer.
So how else could you do it? Well, imagine a first- or third-person experience focused on toppling such a monolithic, oppressive regime, but instead of guns and bullets, you use creativity, intelligence and a variety of non-lethal game mechanics.
Designers could create systems focused on influence or propaganda, to galvanise an exhausted or apathetic population to take up the struggle – for those who match your identity, whether race, gender, nationality, etc., your influence on them is easier but their power to act is less. If you can convince those of a different identity, you gain bonuses – perhaps their reach and influence is further than someone who matches your targeted identity.
What should be apparent is that this is not really fiction, but history. The South African apartheid regime fell not because of big men with large guns took on racists, but passionate, vocal, intelligent ordinary people never gave up. Those positioned below the boots of the oppressors rolled away and rose up to toppled legalised white supremacy. Racial progress around the world happened this way, as did gender justice. These are the heroes we need to hear about, not BJ Blazkowicz or Doomslayers.
Why not create forms of infiltration into the various branches of government: recruiting a law or politics student because they’re more inclined to be critical of the government, then having them rise through the ranks? Albie Sachs, who became one of our country’s most respected jurists, was exactly this. Other countries, too, have had supporters who belonged to the oppressive groups.
Think of Monolith’s Nemesis System in the Middle-Earth games: you can find ways to remove the those in power, only to have their positions replaced with those on your side. Make this a system focused on toppling regimes but without having to murder anyone.
Watch Dogs 2 came closest to this in several side-quests, where no combat was necessary at all. Here, a smart, passionate group grew their power to help toppled a giant corporation. Their message resonated and more hands joined. But Watch Dogs 2 still focused heavily on combat and violence.
Why not remove combat and violence entirely? Imagine how much more interesting, diverse and engaging you’d have to make a game in order to keep a player engaged? Imagine how much more this resonates, especially with those of us confronting such horrific systems every day.
I spoke about how Mafia 3 let me take on white supremacy, but that is one of the most violent games I’ve played. While it felt good toppling white supremacy, a game where this can be done using non-violent, non-lethal, non-combative talents would be even better (no, I’m not saying this is what Mafia 4 should be about). This would resonate precisely because I know first-hand stories about people, some my own family, fighting oppressive regimes, toppling white supremacy, using their intelligence and creativity.
This also helps reiterate a larger point: That these oppressive systems exist, they’re not fantastical or alien. By putting a gun in the player’s hands, you’re telling them all this is fiction, since there are not many of us fighting robot Nazi zombies. While naturally the specific story is fiction, we should be emphasising how much of real, government sponsored oppression is not.
Creative media is a powerful way to communicate reality. Fiction doesn’t mean everything in the story is not true, only large parts of it. Concepts like freedom, oppression, love, triumph, success – these are true, these resonate, even in fiction. Otherwise why would anyone bother reading? But the price for communicating is that we are responsible for the story told.
We are telling too many stories that either give a thumbs up or shrug at combat and violence as problem solvers. Instead, we should be fostering a varied range of approaches in games as a way to solve problems, as we do in life, as other creative mediums have done for ages.
We need to start asserting: Combat is a cop out. Games can, have and must do better.
Tauriq is a law student, unprofessional critic, and has written for the Guardian, Polygon, The Daily Beast and elsewhere.