Indiscriminately Valuing Non-Violent Games

Starting with the 1980s arcade games Galaxian and Missile Command, games and combat became nearly synonymous. This was only exacerbated in the 90s by the advent of wildly popular shooters like Doom. The choice to focus a game around antagonism, combat, and violence was not a conscious design decision, but a necessity of the industry and environment. There were abstract games that didn’t contain violence, but in general the highest-profile games were about, in essence, murder.

Doom screenshot

Doom: you shoot things. Dead simple.



Then a renaissance occurred in academia, and suddenly games were art. Nobody really knew what to do with this fact or what it meant, but it was revolutionary, and regardless of anything else, games were definitely art. To support this, a number of innovative (perhaps iconoclastic) non-violent games — games like Journey and Gone Home — were foisted up as evidence that games are art. “Games are art, they can convey aesthetics beyond violence.” Good, great. Innovative games that are fun without using violence in their designs are awesome.

Journey screenshot

Journey is one of the seminal games in the recent wave of “artistically-valuable” indie games.



However, this easily morphed into a reactionary movement. Since these games without violence or combat were touted as being somehow better or “more elevated” than your run-of-the-mill murder simulator, it became obvious that a game that was violent was inherently less.

Obviously, this sort of indiscriminate valuing of non-violent games is a terrible idea. A game that doesn’t use violence can be poorly designed and not-fun (Dear Esther, Mountain), just like a game that uses violence and combat can provoke deeper aesthetics (Hotline Miami, This War of Mine). Part of the problem is that nobody has developed the proper critical skills to analyze these non-violent, pacifistic games. Those that could view the design choices evenly and rationally are too busy climbing up their own assholes and praising the games for not using combat. On the other side, core gamers are immediately turned off by the lack of combat and write it off as boring.

This War Of Mine screenshot

Refugees have said This War of Mine accurately conveys the constant fear of living in a war-torn region.



One result of this dysfunction is the proliferation of so-called “walking simulators”. These are games whose main play involves walking around consuming either written, visual, or aural media, perhaps with light puzzle-solving mechanics (or similar accents). Many enterprising developers, whether they realize it consciously or not, have seized on the fact that making such a game guarantees some measure of success. They will be praised by academics and critics interested in furthering games as a legitimate medium, and have their game purchased by the small-but-steady audience of non-core, non-casual gamers (most of whom probably chafe at being called gamers).

Some walking simulators are great; I actually enjoyed Gone Home, in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if it had been a movie. They do a good job of immersing you in a focused, meaningful experience. Others are scattered or diluted by dissonant design decisions — like Corpse of Discovery. But nobody cares, because these games aren’t being evaluated on their merits as a game. They are either praised for being a game without combat mechanics, or they are ignored because they are a game without combat mechanics. Little else tends to go into the evaluation process.

Gone Home screenshot

Gone Home gives the player a meaningful experience despite being limited to looking at rooms and listening to audio.



A student game at USC, Chambara, got changed during development to be “non-violent”. The game originally saw samurai dueling in a starkly colored world. Now instead of blood, hitting an enemy produces a burst of feathers. Apparently this one tweak now qualifies it as “a transcendently beautiful and artistic entertainment game with a pacifistic outlook”. That is a direct quote from a faculty member at the school. You may see why this is troublesome to me. First of all, changing blood to feathers doesn’t change the fact that your game is about sneaking around and hitting other people with sticks before they hit you. That seems a far cry from a “pacifist outlook”. Second, this change actually hurts the game aesthetically. The blood splatters beautifully complemented the dichromatic nature of the game’s world. I consider the stark look of a blood splatter to be more artistic than a burst of feathers. Yet the game’s devs decided to make this tweak. Did they do it because it would benefit the game? No. According to the devs, “we were uncomfortable with the violence the game displayed and did not feel like it accurately reflected who we were and what we believed.” In other words, they value a game that contains bloodshed differently than a game that does not. Are they allowed to make this decision based on their personal beliefs? Absolutely. But isn’t it absurd to pretend that this tweak lends the game a “pacifist outlook”, and that it in turn allows the game to transcend to the angelic ranks of non-violent video games?

Blood Splatters

Blood splatters…


Feather Splatters

…and “feather splatters”.



I would urge critics and academics to judge pacifistic games on their merits as a game, not on their merits as a non-violent game. I would urge developers to treat the presence of combat and violence as just one among a countless sea of other design possibilities. If it aids your experience goal, you should include it and tailor it to the needs of your game as an experience. If it doesn’t don’t include it. But don’t decide to make your game non-violent or exclude combat mechanics just because it means your game will be valued as inherently better by a specific set of people.

Burn

I’ve been aiming to make a post about this for a while. Here is one preliminary design document I made a while ago. It calls for something similar to the situation described in A Deepness in the Sky.

Game Beginning

You start out as a young man, fleeing a vicious civilization collapse. As the member of a wealthy Qeng Ho family and son of a fleet leader, you are in charge of the only ship that escaped. You are powered down in orbit of a gas giant, watching the aftermath of the Fall. A lot of your archives have been corrupted, so you need to find some other traders or find a world to raise up.

The very first thing you do is name your family branch. Then you figure out how to take inventory of your ship systems, and how to scan surrounding space. You learn about light-lag. You have just enough fuel to get up to operating velocity. You can choose a target system.

Your aim is to become the leader of the Qeng Ho. This is not an easy feat; the Qeng Ho is a diffuse trading race, with no clear organizational hierarchy. There are several trading “families”, each with large offshoot branches (e.g. Vinh 2.0.3). The objective is to gain enough influence, and then call a meeting of the Qeng Ho. At this meeting you either convince all the families to follow you, or perform a hostile takeover.

You have as many years as are in your life to do this. Note that if you meet a civilization with hyper-advanced medical technology, this means a time bonus. You do have cryo-freeze for the time in transit between stars.

Personal Mechanics

Throughout the game there are personalities on your ship and on other ships that you can talk with. What you say affects what they think of you. If they hear bad things about you from others, they will enter into relations with poor expectations. Reputation influences the trades you can get, as well as favors you can ask.

If you gain a high enough reputation and interact enough with a person, you may become friends. You are not notified whether or not they consider you a friend until you bring it up. Friends will vouch for you or join in on a plan. Friends are much more likely to answer a distress signal you put out.

Traders that are well known often have available profiles. When you trade for someone’s profile, you can see their reputation with others, their personality, and most of their history. By gaining enough reputation with a person, you can find out what they think of other people.

Interstellar Travel Mechanics

A Bussard ramjet is used to travel quickly between star systems. A ramjet can only go so far before the mechanism breaks down. A ramjet needs to move at a certain fraction of the speed of light in order to scoop up enough fuel to continue operating. While flying above that threshold, your fuel tanks fill up. When decelerating, accelerating, or maneuvering, you burn fuel without regaining any. It is only possible to accelerate up to 30% the speed of light; a lot of energy is spent accelerating floating interstellar hydrogen up to your speed.

Ramjet engines can not be repaired on the fly. In order to fully repair an engine, you need to trade with a civilization that has the requisite technological level. This means that you may have to raise a civilization to high-tech in order to continue flying.

If your engine breaks down mid-flight, you will very slowly lose speed (from colliding with interstellar particles), and continue to drift until you either exit the galaxy, crash into a star, or are picked up.

Note that different regions of space have different interstellar medium densities. For instance, our local cluster lies inside a relatively sparse region, making ramjets less feasible. One aspect of choosing a destination in the game is navigating around low-density “bubbles”.

Choosing your target is important. Since you can only hear transmissions from the past, you have to judge whether or not a civilization will be as advanced as you want it to be when you arrive. Flying to a system that is at a peak level of technological advancement will probably have collapsed by the time your fleet arrives. This just means you have to spend time (although you have cryogenics, you still usually come out of it every so many months to make sure the fleet is still on track) helping them get back up to a sufficient level to repair your fleet.

Trading Mechanics

Planetary civilizations rarely want materials. They can mine almost everything they need from their system, and the price of lugging raw materials across interstellar space is too high for you. The exception is high-tech equipment. Civilizations will pay dearly for technology that they either cannot physically manufacture (as with Beyond relics) or are nowhere near the technological sophistication needed to synthesize the tech.

Civilizations value information more than anything. A faction will pay a grand sum for anything that will let them dominate their opponents. Advanced secrets help advanced civilizations keep their expanding infrastructure under control. Usually you can broadcast such information ahead of you, as long as its encrypted. This gives the civilization warning that you are coming, and when you get there you can trade away the keys needed to decrypt the information (on this note, the Qeng Ho constantly broadcast a certain amount of information for free to make sure that civilizations they meet have similar measurement standards, language, etc.).

Conversely, traders have a huge store of knowledge, but lack the infrastructure or resources to maintain themselves. Spacefleets will often bargain limited pieces of technology in order to buy volatiles, fuel, and new equipment. Sometimes civilizations will provide these for free to weasel better deals from you.

Occasionally a civilization will become exceedingly advanced in one area of technology. They will invent something truly revolutionary. If you get your hands on one of these pieces of technology, you will have leverage over all other Traders. You may have to bargain hard to wrest the technology from the civilization at hand.

Combat Mechanics

Be warned. Consistent use of weapons will cause other traders to shun you and make civilizations bar you from their systems. Someone might even try to hunt you down if you destroy their civilization but leave even part of a defense fleet.

Space combat is a fickle subject to approach. It is best summed up by these two pages on Atomic Rockets, although every page there provides good insight.

Interplanetary Flight

This will probably be some sort of simplified KSP-like interface. That is, you initiate maneuvers to change orbit. The problem here is balancing technical details against flexibility and realism. Optimally, players should be able to identify their desire to conserve fuel against time constraints, and let the computer select the best orbital maneuvers to transfer between planets, space stations, Lagrange point colonies, etc. However, because players may want to do wonky things in orbit during a battle sequence (establish oblique orbits, do hard burns, etc.)

I guess you could distinguish between normal navigation and battles. Battles would probably happen around one central body, unless there was a moon involved. However, battles would probably happen really fast (over in minutes) or really slow (taking months).


And that’s as far as I got in describing it.

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