March 3, 2008

Stop The Cycle Of Violence, I Want To Get Off

Designing Conflict Resolution without Combat was almost an extremely interesting session. A roundtable is a great forum for raising questions but a poor one for providing answers, and thus ultimately unsatisfying. There's no structure or argument, so others are left to pick up the pieces and assemble a coherent thesis. Not to mention my faith in this particular session was shaken when moderator Gordon Walton secretly whispered to someone standing nearby, "Hey, what's the name of that GameCube/DS game with the trees and the houses...?" and the other guy thought carefully and said "Oh. Ohhh. Uhh, uhh... I know the one you... uh... uh, oh, Animal Crossing." Then Walton turned back to the person who had been speaking and casually asked him to consider the example of Animal Crossing.

Something didn't click in that hour and I think it's because while the participants were all concerned with the same goal nobody was quite able to articulate what exactly it was and why it was important. Walton was interested in the idea of multiple solutions -- but not puzzles, because, as he put it, puzzles suck if you're stupid. Chris offered that the least enjoyable part of Mass Effect was the combat and that he would have preferred a version of the game based on its conversation mechanics. Michael pointed out that gaming has yet to really tackle themes like human suffering and empathy: premises which, obviously, are readily incompatible with typically empty video game violence (and that's a good thing.)

Are we tired of combat because it's a turn-off to a potentially large audience, or because the mechanics are familiar and dull, or because we are after a wholly different model of game? Too much of the discussion focused on the second, I think: on how developers could produce a typical action game while making the combat optional or removing it entirely.

The player can avoid combat through fast talking, intimidation, bribery, stealth or maybe if their character is at a certain level enemies will simply run away. I felt like these proposed solutions, particularly in this forum, treated the elimination of combat as a hypothetical exercise, like something out of the Game Design Workshop that we do because we can. Take an hour and redesign Call of Duty without fighting, that kind of thing.

Someone from Crytek made the important counterargument that the immediacy of combat seems irreplaceable; it's certainly more visceral than ten-minute conversations. He challenged the room in earnest to suggest a mechanic which could fill that void and, distressingly, no one had an answer.

The rationale for avoiding combat in, say, Thief is different than it is for Chris in Mass Effect and for me in Neverwinter Nights, where the combat is terrible and I hate it. Consequently, the apparent virtues of the non-violent approach ring hollow. In Mask of the Betrayer, a game I'm sure to talk more about eventually, I chose to spare an important and powerful NPC only because I didn't want to go through the tedium of killing her. My apparent benevolence wowed the hell out of my companions, so now the game believes I am relentlessly pious and not, more accurately, a bored coward.

Thief was correctly brought up as a game which made pure stealth gameplay as accessible and intense as any FPS, and if the player found themselves in a straight-forward combat situation it meant they had screwed up and were about to die. On the other hand, the game came out ten years ago and unfortunately didn't leave much of a legacy beyond bad stealth levels in shooters for the following six years. More to the point, the most efficient way to play Thief is to silently eliminate the patrolling guards, which you can do by knocking them unconscious or, wait for it, killing them. There's no difference between these two states other than the label the game uses. I love Thief to death but I don't consider it a non-violent game (which is not to malign it unfairly; that's only a failing in the context of this discussion.) No One Lives Forever was mentioned as a successful hybrid of stealth and action, which I agree with, but only to the extent that No One Lives Forever at its best is about sneakily killing people, and not a choice between combat and stealth. The strict stealth levels are arguably its worst and the game's primary villains are dispatched by shooting them in the head.

On Thief's harder difficulty levels, the player isn't allowed to kill anyone, though they can use their blackjack liberally and again, the effective difference is negligible. However, this still positively reinforces leaving enemies alive, which is a topic the roundtable discussion hit upon frequently. Deus Ex operates on a similar mechanic but abandons its positive/negative feedback early on, rendering the players' action in this regard meaningless. Exposing the player to truly realistic (i.e. horrific) violence was a popular (if impractical) idea in the room. My suggestion, which I didn't say for some reason, would be to rework BioWare's good-evil metrics, which currently define "good" as being a saint and "bad" as being a jerk and killing dudes and align them instead with violent and non-violent action.

It's become kind of trite to bring Planescape: Torment up as an example of anything, and also kind of sad since whatever case you're arguing, after Torment you can't give any other examples. Nonetheless, most of Torment's conflicts could be solved or had to be solved through dialogue and their resolutions were still hugely satisfying. But like Thief, it's an old game and no one picked up its lead.

Thief and Torment are the exceptions and not trailblazers pointing toward a reinvented genre. The roundtable discussion existed at a primarily superficial level and explored only the path of least resistance, where creating a "non-violent" game would require the least modification to current gameplay models. I believe that the kind of game that we want to see; that would actually solve the problems which concern us -- accessibility, desensitization, genre saturation -- is not going to look anything like a toned-down Mass Effect or World of Warcraft. We have to think deeper. There has got to be a radical restructuring where we actually think about what we want our games to say, whether action means more than fighting and if perhaps defending the inclusion of violence behind market concerns is not actually a massive cop-out. The Sims sold, Nintendogs sold, that game with the trees and the animals sold. There is a market out there. We can and should get action games to say something other than what they've been saying for twenty years. That's the kind of Game Design Workshop exercise that wouldn't be strictly perfunctory.

I am aware that this conclusion is also sort of a cop-out.


Michael Abbott said...

I've been waiting for someone to respond to that GDC session, and you're the only one I've found to have done so in a thoughtful and critically astute way. For me, you nail it exactly here:

"We have to think deeper. There has got to be a radical restructuring where we actually think about what we want our games to say, whether action means more than fighting and if perhaps defending the inclusion of violence behind market concerns is not actually a massive cop-out."

I hoped we would go there in the session, but we got bogged down, and the format wasn't conducive to this kind of conversation. My observation was offered, but it basically died immediately. About halfway through the session, the conversation devolved into a series of unrelated points offered by people waiting 20 minutes each to be recognized to speak. Frustrating.

I'm encouraged that so many people apparently believe the issue is worth considering, but we've got to move beyond replacing violence with clever well-intentioned proxies for violence.

Thanks for insisting that we move this forward in a meaningful way.

Duncan said...

Hey Michael,

If I'm remembering right, Walton responded to your point almost immediately with his long conceived-of Auschwitz game, where you have to play as both sides. It was met with shocked laughter but it showed that he had been thinking about the issue in much deeper terms than the general tone of the roundtable for quite a while.

I think everyone there had their hearts in the right (and in the same) place but as you say the format kind of choked off any real debate. I imagine it must have been especially frustrating for Walton, who had to repeat this twice, presumably starting from scratch each time. No progress at all.

My next post, by the way, is about another GDC session that I've just realised was oddly similar to this. That'll be up in a day or so. I keep you in suspense.

Michael Abbott said...

I'll wait in trembling suspense. :-)

And you're right about Walton's Auschwitz game. Thanks for reminding me. Now *that* would make for a very interesting roundtable conversation.