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September 12, 2016

What if AAA Games Were Less Violent?

Confession time: up until a few days before its release, I didn’t know very much about No Man’s Sky.  From what I can gather, I wasn’t the only one; the narrative being spun around it is that the sheer vagueness of what you could do -- to the point where posts and articles had to be uploaded explaining the game -- made for a game that let you do pretty much everything.  I didn’t need that much from it, because the idea of going on a sick space adventure is something that personally appeals to me.  I did want to be an astronaut when I was seven, after all, and that burning desire to see space hasn’t left just yet.

But my desire to see space from the perspective of No Man’s Sky is -- well, it’s diminished.  I’m sure it’s all right, and that it’ll be updated into greatness somewhere down the line.  Likewise, I’m so glad it exists as a potential first step, and I hope some real good comes from it in the future.  But when I see clips like this one floating around, it’s hard for me to get too excited.  And then I remember that I’ve still got infinity hours left to parse through in Xenoblade Chronicles X, the content of which is still providing me with stuff I never even knew I wanted.  (Whenever “Uncontrollable” has its chorus go full tilt, my whole body basically goes “das it mane”.)

Still, No Man’s Sky has gotten me thinking about what games can be.  Of course, it hasn’t accomplished that alone.  I have Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End to “thank” as well.


This is going to come off as blasphemy to anyone who’s new to my word-spews (in which case I’d recommend mashing the crap out of the Close Window button), but I have to be honest.  I hate Uncharted -- A Thief’s End well among them, but the other three console games as well, and the franchise as a whole.  I won’t decry anyone who enjoyed the games, because I can understand why.  Action!  Vistas!  Quips by the barge-load!

But despite trying to give four separate games a fair shake, I walked away disappointed, confused, and furious in a way only the modern Final Fantasy games have managed to match.  It left me so bitter, so disillusioned that I legitimately had a crisis of faith -- a blooming desire to give up video games in their entirety, knowing that that was what was waiting for me.  Knowing that that was what gamers had fallen in love with -- and whose support allowed such a heinous, hateful thing to exist.

…In my humble opinion, of course.


Maybe I was in the wrong state to play through the games.  I didn’t touch a single one of them until some point in late January, and via The Nathan Drake Collection.  So on one hand, I could be irrevocably biased against the game; I’m sure that at the time, the PS3 entries were revelations to gamers all over.  On the other hand, there are three caveats.

So first: older games can still hold up perfectly, given that 2012 was the first time I ever sat down and cleared The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (which is now my favorite game of all time).  Second: even if I were to excuse the mechanics of the UC games as “quirks of the times”, it still wouldn’t pardon the sheer multitude of failures in the story -- and since storytelling has existed since time immemorial, there’s been plenty of time to practice.  Third: I find it hard to pardon any game with so much prestige and so many resources poured into it when it can barely reach par.

I know I’m throwing a lot of shade on a franchise that has made millions of people happy -- and if you enjoyed the games, then that’s great.  As always, I wish I could share that feeling.  But I can’t, because I’m me (and a heel so vile that I’m essentially the enemy of mankind).  I can’t help but take issue with virtually every aspect of the gameplay, the story, the characters, the mechanics, the design philosophy, and the enduring legacy.  And that brings me to the big topic of the day -- because you can’t talk about UC without talking about Nate’s body count.


It’s been a sticking point for years now.  Despite his jovial nature, Nate kills a lot of people over the course of the franchise.  Honestly, he kills a lot of people in Drake’s Fortune alone, given that that game had a disproportionate amount of firefights.  One of the core pillars of the gameplay is cover-based shooting, spread liberally between the quieter sections like the platforming and puzzle-solving.  Given how meditative those sections can be, it helps highlight just how much violence the player is expected to impart.  And sure, it’s not as if games are strangers to violence; if Mario was ever confronted by a well-meaning Goomba about how many he’s taken down, I imagine it’d lead to a very damning conversation

But it’s a bigger problem with UC because of the divide between gameplay segments, and the fact that its graphical fidelity -- and its commitment to realism, or a facsimile of it -- makes it harder to shrug off the murder’s quality and quantity.  Mario usually steps on Goombas to make them pop out of being.  Nate shoots people, snaps necks, pulls men off cliffs, blows them up, slams them into walls, and more -- and all of it is rendered in glorious HD with graphics that keep pushing the hardware to new plateaus.


And it’s not as if these are just complaints lobbed by outsiders looking in.  At the end of UC2, main baddie Lazarevic calls Nate out and asks him how many people he’s killed.  Nate’s response?  Nothing; he just lets a bunch of ancient warriors finish the job he was seconds away from finishing himself.  Unless there was something in Golden Abyss that I missed (and will likely never see), then as far as I know, the subject of Nate’s murders and violence is never really discussed. 

His destruction of remnants of centuries-old artifacts and civilizations does, though -- and it’s played off as a joke in most instances.  His knack for stuff falling apart around him, of course -- which only highlights how hackneyed the bit becomes when attention is drawn to it.  But the killing?  Never addressed.  If anything, the suburban chapter of A Thief’s End implies that Nate misses the gunfights as much as any other part of his past adventures.  Granted that plays out as a tutorial and intro to the gunplay, but A) they’re teaching you how to play a cover-based shooter in 2016, and B) there’s something I find unsettling about a grown man who’d reduce his past, potentially-lethal battles to a bunch of child’s play in his attic.

But with UC behind me and No Man’s Sky fresh on my mind, I can’t help but wonder: what would it be like if the biggest games out there didn’t have to rely on violence as a core mechanic?


Okay, sure.  Given the presence of its weapons and gunplay, it’s not as if No Man’s Sky is devoid of violence.  And even if it’s gotten the marketing of a AAA title, it doesn’t have the same budget or sway behind it (pre-release hype notwithstanding).  Still, maybe that’s entirely the point -- and to its benefit, too.  NMS could be less about gunning down foes and more about seeing the vast expanses the universe has on tap.  That’s dramatically more interesting to me, and the fact that so many people pinned such high hopes on the game implies that the concept alone was a major selling point.

What really gets to me about UC is that I can see it being more than what it is now.  Again, I know that the franchise has fans, and I respect their opinions.  But if I had to guess, I’d say that there ae people who are detractors and, yes, even haters to the 44th power.  Even though I can’t speak personally for those haters, I can voice an opinion of my own -- and say that it’s such a waste to have these sprawling, regularly-breathtaking environments and have them relegated to arenas for rounds of virtual paintball.  I also lament the fact that I have to explore the worlds with a shitbag like Nate, but that’s neither here nor there.


There was one thing about A Thief’s End that piqued my interest: the circumstances behind the treasure du jour.  Even if a pirate stockpile doesn’t have the same allure as a city of gold, it was still intriguing to learn about Avery, Thomas Tew, and the other seafaring crooks involved.  Whether it was compiling their journal entries, seeing their buildings standing tall, or just finding their knickknacks strewn about, I couldn’t help but feel drawn in.  I wanted to explore more.  Learn more.  It was as if I had a chance to uncover some ancient secret for myself -- not just for riches or fame, but to finish a story left unfinished by history.  It was an endeavor for the pursuit of knowledge.

That’s probably not something that immediately appeals to a mainstream audience.  I wouldn’t be surprised if that only appealed to me, given that I’m an S-Class Nerd…and I’ve already talked at length about a combat-light game in the past.  But that personal appeal is still going strong with me; if anything, it’s only strengthened as the years go by.  It’s not as if I have a firm stance against violence or action or combat, but that’s only the case if those elements in a game are actually potent.  Effective.  It’s the difference between something functional like UC and something fantastic like…well…


There were points during my UC4 playthrough where I thought, “Why can’t I just explore these areas and find out the mysteries of the past?”  To be fair you’re already kind of doing that -- but again, I don’t want to do it with the baggage of Nate and his crew.  And more importantly, I think it’d be cool if there was a genuine focus on the areas and giving them the time they deserve instead of treating them as means to an end.  I feel like it’s already enough of a disservice to have trinkets strewn throughout the series -- artifacts that would send any given researcher into a Mach-speed jig -- do nothing besides unlock stuff like new clothes for Nate to wear.  It’s even worse to think that they’re only there to facilitate basic puzzles, basic climbing, and basic gunplay (times infinity).

This is part of why NMS has appeal to me, and why I hope that -- for all its faults -- it helps send a message to the minds behind AAA gaming.  If you’re going to have gunplay and violence, fine.  But you have to be good at it.  And even then, why is it absolutely necessary to orient everything under the lens of violence?  Why are the selling points in one E3 demo after another a measure of how much blood is spilled, or how gruesomely bodies can hit the floor?  The team behind NMS opted to show people the universe, despite having indie-level resources and manpower.  Too many AAA games have gotten into the practice of blowing millions on beautiful visuals, and then giving them the shaft for the sake of gameplay that’s managed to make murder into a lukewarm affair.  How do you accomplish that?

Well, years of repetition and homogenization help.  So maybe there’s a way out of that blood-soaked hole.


In the interest of not turning this into another “Grrrr, AAA games are the devil’s work!” post, I’ll be the first to admit that things aren’t the same now as they were when I last tried to push a non-violent yet big-budget game.  In a world where Minecraft has become a cultural tour de force and Pokémon is still going strong after virtually two decades, it’s hard to get too salty about the state of affairs.  Indie games and niche titles are not only providing, but getting the respect they rightly deserve. 

But really, even AAA games are trying to branch out; we’re still due for more Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, yet the allure of several high-profile games is less about action and murder and more about exploration -- whether it’s with a sprawling world or something a bit more personal.  Another Mass Effect is on the way; in the meantime, I’d bet that a lot of devs are eyeing the successes of The Witcher 3 to try and make lightning strike twice.


Whether you like or dislike where the industry has gone in the past half-decade or so, there’s more than enough proof to suggest that games are capable of change.  Indeed, they are changing -- maybe not all of them, and maybe not all at once, but enough to say “Hey, things aren’t the same as they used to be.”  As functional as it is for games to rely on stuff like shooting (first-person or cover-based), stealth kills, brutal melee attacks, and -- my personal “favorite” -- standing in the middle of a mob of grunts and counterattacking them into oblivion, I’d wager that we’ve reached a saturation point on how long you can use those mechanics without embellishment.

Maybe the solution devs came up with was to crank up the viscera -- a way to emphasize that the player hit a target, as well as a means to inject some style into the game.  But that’s the same solution Mortal Kombat’s had down pat for more than twenty years, and doubled down on with its recent entries.  If the average AAA game tries to top that, then they’ll either miss the mark or risk alienation via controversy (as if the whole “video games are violent” argument wasn’t widespread enough).  If the game doesn’t try to top that, then you end up with something limp-wristed -- something utterly incapable of leaving an impression that’ll last more than five seconds after the console turns off.


So let’s go back to the main question posed in the title: what if AAA games were less violent?  Would it immediately force devs to use their resources more creatively?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I covet the idea of an UC game where Nate is a straight-and-narrow archaeologist who tries to piece together the mysteries of the past via evidence as well as acrobatic skill -- partly because it could make for an angle that could last from start to finish.  But setting aside the fact that there is appeal in violence and combat -- that it can be done well, while appealing to more than just scorned nerds -- it’s not as if it’s a surefire fix.  Forcing droves of devs to step away from one convention could just make them run straight into the arms of another.  If every game tried to be NMS, for instance, then A) it would make the concept that much less special, even when done right, and B) there’s no guarantee that it’d be done right in the first place. 

For as much respect as indie games deserve, they aren’t without fault; left unchecked, they’ll crib off of their own set of clichés and conventions -- retro platformers well among them.  So it’s not hard for me to see a situation where AAA devs would drop one crutch to lean against another crutch.  As a result, they’d somehow manage to make something as inherently amazing as exploring a brave new world into a bore. 


So maybe the key to the best-case scenario born from this “what if” pondering is that there’s no right answer.  I don’t mean that to cap this post with a wishy-washy conclusion; I mean that as a way to say that the ideal state is to have multiple, optimal games instead of one or two.  Do I think that UC would be better if it dropped the combat (and villain, and Hollywood schlock) and focused on exploration for exploration’s sake?  Absolutely.  Do I want every game to focus on sprawling worlds with so much to find?  No.  Some games need structure, and others are strengthened by it; as much as I love Xenoblade Chronicles X, I’ve sunk 75 hours into it and I have no idea where the hell I am in the plot.

Do I think that video games can be too violent -- that is, they’re not doing anything with that violence but using it as a way to cross points off a checklist?  Yes.  Do I think that violence needs to be done away with entirely?  No, because there are some games where there’s artistry in that brutality (like Killer7).  Would I like to see more games like NMS, especially in its most perfect, ideal state?  Absolutely; if I can’t go to real space, then I’ll gladly become a rocket man in video game form.  Would I like to see every game try to tread the same ground as NMS, whether it uses space travel or not? Not a chance.  Setting aside the fact that there are different places to explore -- like the ocean -- you can still get a LOT from the humility of mundane settings and straightforward stories.


I would like to see what would happen if more AAA companies were willing to use their resources to branch out -- to see what they could do when they don’t have to fill a body count quota.  I’m not saying that it would work 100% of the time from a critical or financial standpoint -- especially from a financial standpoint -- but past and present, it feels like creativity has been predicated on doing what others have done before.  That’s no way to produce a work of art.  And if you’re just chasing after trends or predecessors or “what worked before”, then even if you win, you still lose.  We all do.

This post -- and plenty of posts I write from here on out -- aren’t necessarily pushing the idea of what a game should be (even if I imply otherwise, but whatever).  No, I’m more concerned with what a game can be.  What can its creators do to make it special, and optimal, and enjoyable?  How can they deliver on their creative vision while also turning a profit?  That’s what I’m interested in.  I’d hope that’s what others are interested in, too, because there are so many roads worth going down.  Playing through all four UC games made me see the darkest side of video games -- the vices that have gripped the industry for years, and the trajectory that led us to this point.  But those days are over, and I genuinely believe that change is coming.


Better days are ahead, without question.  And whether we see oil drums of blood spilled or every last drop kept pumping through the veins of unsuspecting mooks, I know we’re all going to be in for tons of fun in the future.

I mean, you know how many numbers there are between zero and infinity?  The odds are kind of on our side, if you ask me.

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