Frank had seen them coming a few blocks away. Their unmistakable black sedans hummed along Main Street and stopped outside Juliani’s Pizzeria. Frank continued tending to his hot dogs, but kept one eye on the situation. Those were government cars, and Juliani’s was mobster central. Suits poured out of the second car, all of them wearing sunglasses; then a tall man in a grey pinstripe emerged deliberately and glanced up and down the city block. Frank could see he had short, grey hair and a scar that ran from his ear to the corner of his mouth. Pinstripe stood for a full minute, staring at the pizzeria door, before it opened and three people came out. Frank recognised Tony the Shoe and his morbidly obese offsider, Patty Cake Jake, while the third was a small black woman with bloody bandages wrapped around her hands and arms. They all pulled out their guns and a lot of people died in a shootout of no particular note.
Variety and imagination are not the prized commodities in video games that they perhaps should be. The idea of sticking to a formula is rather helpful when you’re solving a mathematical problem or curing AIDS, but the gaming industry clings to proven ideas with fevered desperation. Violence is one of those memetic standbys, appearing as a conflict creation and resolution helper monkey in almost every game you might think about. Not to say that violence is bad, exactly; in the right context it’s a powerful tool and a sad fact of human existence. But surely with the collective minds of all the game designers and writers we can come up with more reasons to interact with a vast and unexplored fictional world that don’t involve a bunch of people shooting a different group of people from behind a waist-high concrete wall.
Certainly. Let’s just take away their guns and imbue them with the liberating power of dance.
Open-world action games are a fantastic idea: put the player in a huge, meticulously detailed world (usually a city) and let them do whatever they want. The possibilities for exploration, discovery and interaction are potentially endless, so it’s a shame it usually boils down to a big damn fight. And it’s an even bigger shame that those fights are so often carried out with guns — the most efficient, and therefore least interesting, way to inflict death upon a person. Sleeping Dogs, to its credit, focused more on melee combat than filthy, passionless gunplay, although it did resort to shootouts more than once, and that has been noted as one of the weaker aspects of the otherwise brilliant title. Watch Dogs also seems to be taking a less travelled route, pushing technological interaction over direct combat. But again, it does seem to fall back on those pesky projectile weapons when the going gets tough.
A story still needs conflict, of course. You can’t simply replace all the guns with flowers and happy feelings. So imagine a new open world setting, an urban area with tens of thousands of citizens, shops, businesses, attractions and vehicles. This society — be it in the future or a fantasy world — has eliminated violence completely, made law by the Powers That Be and enforced by a very complicated electro-magical field which removes the ability to punch another human being in the gonads.
Instead of fighting, differences are settled with dance battles, which are closer in spirit to gentlemanly duels than modern shootouts will ever be. The aim is to either intimidate the opposition or curry favour with the surrounding citizens, thereby winning whatever it might be that you’re trying to win. Once dry exchanges of bullets and knuckles are now glorious expressions of character and intent. Players would have access to a wide variety of moves, each with their own potential effects. Certain enemies would be vulnerable to aggressive movements, but these same moves might merely make a more formidable opponent twice as eager to fight on. Other dance styles might be more suited to turning a watchful crowd to your side of things. Think of Space Channel 5, where saved citizens would join your burgeoning troupe and march through the levels with the enthusiasm of the cast of Rent before everyone remembers how poor and sick and obnoxious they are. Now imagine leading such a crowd of loyal musical followers through the streets of your very own metropolis, throwing down sick moves to fend off rival gangs.
If, at this point, you are screaming “God no! So many quicktime events!” then please put away those pitchforks and duck scales. The game would play more like Skate crossed with a pacifist Street Fighter than some terrifying amalgum of Heavy Rain and Asura’s Wrath. Dance moves could be programmed in like any fighting move might be, just without the need for contact. Attacks, such as they are, would depend more on the amount and disposition of people who could see you pull them off, and could be strung together into a chain of balletic actions. There is potential for a combo system as deep as any Devil May Cry but without any need for the violent content.
The narrative possibilities opened up are also potentially fascinating. I love Grand Theft Auto as much as anyone, but it’s hard not to notice the creaking archetypes as yet another story about gangsters, drugs and corrupt police is wrapped around a city of some description. With a shift in the means of conflict resolution, all those previously placed to collect power through unlawful means would be put out of a job. Their skillset worked for a world thick with guns and explosions, but without violence a whole new collection of personalities could potentially rise. Power in this hopping, skipping, jumping world would lie with those who could dance the greatest dances — or those who could secure the services of such people. The lack of violent crimes would place a spotlight on other aspects of society that are, rightly or wrongly, frowned upon, such as drug use. Each encounter with a foe would be a battle of will, rather than a question of who has the better hardware.
By removing the weapons and replacing them with a system that rewards creative expression over force, you’re giving meaning to conflict. Most people don’t give a second thought to any random gun battle in GTA or Saint’s Row, nor is there any reason to; it’s simply a piece of gameplay designed to entertain and distract. The dancing mechanic (or whatever non-violent alternative you prefer) provides the same, but also broadens the scope of any one conflict to encompass the setting itself. Suddenly you might be asking how this breakdancing battle is going to affect the street politics in the area, or whether you’ve garnered enough public support to challenge this particular troupe.
There is a scene in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series where the titular character challenges a demon to The Oldest Game so he can win back his helmet. The game is a simple one, merely requiring one side to assert that they are an object, idea or concept, and the other side to counter this. For example, the demon becomes a snake and Sandman responds by stating he is a snake-crushing ox (which the demon counters by becoming deadly anthrax). The specific back and forth is unimportant to this discussion, but the scene represents what I would like encounters in video games to be: thoughtful expressions of intent and character. Sandman himself states to the reader “There are many ways to lose the oldest game. Failure of nerve, hesitation… lack of imagination.” Intelligence and creativity should be vital parts of any conflict, violent or otherwise, and games should provide the tools for the player to truly interact with such situations beyond pulling a trigger.
As I said, I’m not suggesting that violence be removed from all games, nor am I saying that existing franchises need to change their modus operandi. Violence is a part of reality and society that fiction should certainly tackle; and GTA would cease to be itself if there were no more bodycounts and grotesque overuses of lethal force. But there is a richness of human experience which is lost when we focus only on what makes for the simplest gameplay. Guns as they are generally used in games remove the personality, choice and art from a life. They are often the easy way out, and in our hurry to get right to that entertaining violence we’re missing a whole universe of other possibilities. I hope to see a game where a Daft Punk-style electro gangster is overpowered by the raw crowd-pleasing power of Freddie Mercury in our future.