Heroes don’t always kill; what’s wrong with video-games

‘Badass’ is not a word usually associated with video-games where you rescue people. I’m sure that there are countless examples to prove me wrong (and by all means, please let me know what they are in the comments) but just taking a look at the top-selling video-games on the market at the moment shows that the most popular games (outside of sports) are about armed conflict in its many forms (and yes, also Minecraft, which is encouraging). Looking for games about emergency services or ‘helping people’ brings up few titles, and even fewer that are critically acclaimed.

I will start out saying that the purpose of this exercise really isn’t to undermine the value of violent games. If it was, a quick perusal of my own video-game collection (and the fact that I’m writing a novella series about a private military company) would prove my hypocrisy in any arguments against depicting violence in mainstream media. I’ll also to outline that with the advent of platforms like Steam, independent games are starting to explore different methods of gameplay and as such, the supporting narrative frameworks. My concern is centred on the bigger-ticket games though, and with what appears to be a systemic laziness and reluctance to innovate any new narrative techniques when designing triple-A video-games.

In the past weeks I’ve been thinking about this a lot and many of the reasons I’ve come up with for why the scenarios in big video-games all follow similar trends point towards something of a creative-hesitance in exploring the genuine possibilities of a large-budget ‘rescue’ game. Read on to see, in this week’s post, what I consider to be the contributing reasons such games don’t exist and then, next week, some ideas I’ve had about writing a ‘rescue’ game which could offer much more of a rewarding and exciting gaming experience.

  • Ease-of-writing
    It’s easier to make games which involve armed-conflict: the story can be as simple as framing another set of characters as ‘bad’ in some way, and then constructing the gameplay to offer players creative choices and exciting set-pieces about how you go about doing that. Even the most complex and visually impressive games fall-back on this as a mainstay. If defeating an enemy isn’t a specific objective – many exploration games have enemies which you can skip around, for example – it’s incentivised by way of pickups and/or character progression. I understand that it’s a very useful technique for exploring dramatic conflict, but there are so many other ways of building engaging dramatic content which just aren’t getting any attention.

    I’m well aware of the ouroboros tendencies the gaming industry has when it comes to innovating the gaming experience; a game is popular > more of the same games are made to take monetary advantage of this popularity > gamers demand even more of a popular game. My issue is with companies being unwilling to take a risk and be creative about how they frame the dramatic conflict on their titles. I’m starting to feel that, however cleverly the armed conflict in narrative-driven games is concealed, it’s still quite lazy writing in terms of offering fresh new dramatic situations to players.

  • Excitement vs Morality
    Gamers are generally happier to spend more of their excitement-bucks on destruction than on resolution. Resolving situations or saving people forces the gamer to assume responsibility, whereas a GTA-style rampage is largely responsibility-free. This, in relativity, makes it easier to make games about player-dictated armed-conflict more ‘fun’. Getting down to brass-tacks, an NPC killed by your failure or inaction is a downer; an NPC who you’ve killed yourself is somehow not. I’m not going to get into trying to unravel the psychology of that, but I do appreciate that this is a very real consideration when designing games. Usually, in missions where you must rescue a certain amount of people, you fail if you don’t meet a certain number and are required to replay the mission; this makes it frustrating. If there are too many situations in a game where the player is left with this feeling of frustration, then they’re likely to just stop playing. Bad reviews > bad sales > bad financial investment. However, as I was saying above, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case if some imaginative writing was employed when designing a game’s mission objectives. It’s also important to note that when I say ‘rescue missions’ I don’t mean ‘go to a location, kill the oppressors and free the oppressed’ missions – that sort of mission is covered in my Ease-of-writing point above.
  • Preconceptions about audience
    There seems to be an undercurrent of feeling that games where you help people are more suited for a younger audience, mainly by the fact that most of the popular games for a more mature audience incorporate violence. Even in writing this post, I’m aware that my advocating ‘rescue’ or ‘helping’ games sounds faintly like I’m decrying the lack of prevalence of family-friendly games, which I’m not. What I wonder is how triple-A game developers are continually passing by the whole host of narratives – potentially very engaging narratives – which a ‘disaster’ situation could offer, let alone the multiplayer opportunities. The increase in co-operative board-games are already highlighting how these sorts of mechanics not only work, but can also inspire avid audiences; could a video-game written with maturity, thought and measured narrative not do the same?
  • Sensitivity
    This is definitely a justified concern. Making a game which handles rescue situations in a bad way could be downright offensive to the families and friends of people affected in similar real-life situations. Obviously making fun out of a real-life tragedy is very wrong, but making a gritty, true-to-life game about a natural disaster would also fail to be appealing to the largest demographic of gamers (who, in a generalised sense demand some form of badassery they can wield and quantify). One thing that really does puzzle me too, is that games depicting hyper-realistic versions of warfare and even civilian violence – man-made, real-life and very accountable conflicts – are popular, whereas games where a player takes on a character seeking to help people out of a natural disaster situation are almost non-existent. It bothers me that it’s more acceptable for audiences to play a game where they’re an aggressor instead of a rescuer. Maybe it’s that they’re given the illusion of control? Could it be simply that the sense of achievement is generally greater when overcoming an ‘enemy’ instead of rescuing someone? I guess the badass-quotient is higher for the former, but I do have a few thoughts on how this could be addressed.
  • Scenario
    This is tangentially linked to the Sensitivity point, but I think it deserves it’s own discussion. It does baffle me that with all the vibrancy and imagination incorporated into video-game design, none of it has been applied to a game which depicts rescue scenarios. Perhaps, because there is so much reluctance to even consider a serious attempt at a big-ticket ‘rescue game’, the high-value creative energy is directed more towards repackaging popular titles.

  • Technology
    This is another, very restricting factor – possibly the most limiting factor. There are certainly engines out there that would enable a ‘disaster’ game – to name three, Geo-Mod for dynamic environments, Euphoria for character AI and Dunia for realistic weather – but having them all in a single package that offered gameplay outside of a linear, set-piece-driven game would demand processing power which would tax even the current generation of consoles. That’s not to say that a ‘rescue’ game which offered linear set-pieces would be inherently bad, but it could lead to ‘save x number of people’ scenarios, which may snag issues with the Excitement vs Morality and Sensitivity points outlined above.

I consider these points as starting blocks to consider. Some of these issues are ingrained habits in the way big-budget videogames are made, and others are genuine technological constraints. With a little thought though, the groundwork for a ‘good’ rescue game might be laid, and this is what I’m going to explore next week using examples from where other video-games have succeeded in the past.

But what do you think? Would you play a triple-A videogame if the sole philosophy behind it was to help and rescue people? What would a game like this need in order for you to play it? Did I miss any glaringly obvious constraints, or even overlook any titles that already incorporate rescue as its core gameplay? Let me know in the comments!

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One comment on “Heroes don’t always kill; what’s wrong with video-games
  1. Neil says:

    Spec Ops: The Line was a really good narrative-driven war game that was actually anti-war. It played like a good shooter – tense, dramatic, grim – but was increasingly harsh and showed whatever decisions you made, innocent people were killed. (It’s based on Heart of Darkness too). And then it did badly with no chance of a sequel: http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/07/21/dont-expect-a-sequel-for-spec-ops-the-line

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