Reliance on violence: why gaming needs to buck the trend and expand its audience

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After another year of violent games storming the headlines, this gamer is aching to try something new

Last month I reviewed Doki Doki Universe, a game made unique by its emphasis on nonviolence and feel-good antics. It comes just before the reboot of Thief, due for release in late February, which the developers are keen to point out can be completed without killing any other character. It made me think about why this is such a sticking point in modern gaming. Games which don’t encourage – let alone necessitate – murder are such a rarity that when one does come around it’s considered a major event. It made me think about the scarcity of games that don’t force hostility from the player to proceed.

2013 was arguably one of gaming’s most successful years. Let alone two brand new consoles that shattered all previous sales records, games like Grand Theft Auto V, The Last of Us, and Assassin’s Creed IV all stole the limelight as defining a generation. What they also have in common, though, is constant graphic violence. Assassin’s Creed gets its namesake for murder-driven gameplay, The Last of Us unnerved players with its unflinching brutality, and Grand Theft Auto…well, is Grand Theft Auto. The Last of Us alone won over 200 GOTY awards, a testament to the widespread acclaim it received after releasing last June, but also an indication of the bloodlust game developers instil in gamers – an assumption that is far wide of the mark.

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Just because gamers enjoyed a violent game doesn’t mean that violent games are all that gamers enjoy. If we look elsewhere, we see titles that managed to catch the attention of players without the compulsory quick-time death scene. Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored are esteemed for allowing the player to complete them without killing a single soul, something gamers eagerly attempted. Other than that, LittleBigPlanet, Portal, and Minecraft come to mind as games which don’t require the player to be a murderer to complete them. It’s hard to think of many more without resorting to racing games and Guitar Hero.

Skyrim sells itself on the freedom it gives players but it’s a superficial freedom. Try to play Skyrim as a pacifist and you won’t get far at all. It’s the biggest barrier from furthering the so-called cinematic essence of gaming. The two mediums are oft compared, but are there any rom-com games? Any musicals? Mainstream gaming through and through is just various shades of Michael Bay and Quentin Tarantino.

On PlayStation, small titles like Thomas Was Alone and Journey have established a following, but they’re not given the same system-selling treatment by Sony as Killzone or God of War. It’s even worse on the Xbox. Whereas on PC we have Surgeon Simulator, The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, Papers, Please, and a whole lot more. The list is nearly endless when it comes to the low-budget labours of love put out by indie developers unafraid to buck the trend.

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On consoles, though, it’s a one-horse race. Nintendo boasts an entire generation of games suitable for all ages in the Wii (apart from the odd third-party title like Mad World), while Sony and Microsoft’s family-friendly titles are pushed aside. Nintendo’s entire mode of operation revolves around games that the entire family can enjoy. First-party classics such as Mario and Zelda might require the player to defeat enemies but it’s so tame it becomes a non-issue, while acclaimed 3DS hit Animal Crossing: New Leaf is arguably the pinnacle of mainstream, nonviolent gaming. This real-time mayoral-simulator has you planting trees, fishing, and socialising with townsfolk without an enemy in sight. It also sold six million copies. People are hungry for these kinds of games and Nintendo are the only ones making an effort to deliver.

Now though, we have next-gen reboots of games like Thief which struggle to even stay true to the game it’s based on. Since its first iteration almost sixteen years ago, Thief is one of the few game franchises to actively deter the lethal approach. Killing enemies in the original is cumbersome, and the resulting mess actually impedes the player’s progression in the game. Despite the new instalment allegedly maintaining this trend and encouraging a non-lethal play-style, the fact that it is something the developers have to point out betrays the game’s actual intentions. The series’ origins lie in avoiding combat and encouraging the stealth approach, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that the new game would be built faithfully around that premise. However, given that the developers have also confirmed that there is no penalty for killing characters in the game, the promise of endorsing a pacifist play-style is a hollow one. It’s an indication of the current state of game development, where a game with a lineage as rich and enjoyable as Thief’s still cannot resist racking up the death toll unnecessarily.

AAA games will always bank on violence and murder, but with the ever-increasing spotlight on Indie developers daring to break the mould, with games like Octodad: Dadliest Catch and The Witness, perhaps there’s hope yet for a wider repertoire in gaming. Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone, is soon to release Volume, a stealth game which explicitly prohibits you from killing. Some would say it’s a better Thief game than Thief. With Sony’s promise to increase support for Indies on the PS4 and Microsoft’s self-publishing [email protected] programme, perhaps this is the renascent generation for nonviolent gaming. One can hope.

Images: Sony Computer Entertainment, Eidos Montreal, Imgur

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