If you’ve been involved with any sort of political conversation surrounding video games for the last twenty years, you’ve probably heard a lot of people harping on about violence: specifically, that violent video games lead to violent behavior in real life. While that claim has largely been debunked by research, there’s no denying that violence is an integral part of most high-profile titles. A tight and fluid combat system is a major selling point for a major release from an AAA studio, and a game with poor combat is lambasted with bad reviews. For better or worse, combat can be how players define a game: it determines how we view its quality (sometimes privileged over other concerns like graphics and narrative), and how fun the process of violence is in a game is the point by which we decide whether or not to play.
This is true, at least, for AAA titles: the indie scene is wonderfully diverse in its approaches to play, and Sidequest has covered a plethora of games that don’t rely on combat at all and still have seen critical and financial success. But it’s still a very important point to consider that the studios with the most money and power, the farthest reach to the consumer, still near-universally implement a combat system as one of, if not the, primary means of play, even when they try to make points about the violence the game contains.
I don’t intend to rehash the age-old ludonarrative dissonance debate, nor to discuss whether the message of the game conflicts with its mechanics. What I’d like to talk about instead is the way in which our expectations for AAA titles limits the ways in which games can be made. Players of major releases often expect to use combat as their primary way of interacting with the world of the game—often, as with many shooters, it is the only way we get to leave our mark on the digital world. Even games touted by devs and critics for their narrative structure and roleplay elements like TLOU2 still have robust combat systems. So it becomes a little hard for a lot of players to conceive of a major release without combat, because of how baked into the idea of a mainstream video game violence has become.
Warning: The rest of this piece contains spoilers for The Last of Us Part II.
I just finished playing The Last of Us Part II. The original game is one of my favorites of all time, and so I was really excited to pick up the sequel and see things from Ellie’s perspective. And the game was, in all ways, superbly executed: it was visually stunning, the voice acting and story were tightly focused, and the combat was perhaps some of the most well-done I’ve ever experienced. I’ve killed a lot of things in video game space, but I’ve never felt the visceral connection between the buttons I’m pressing and the violence that takes place on screen as much as I did in this game. As with all repeated experiences, however, the effect eventually began wearing off, and by the hundredth enemy kill, I was doing it mechanically, more concerned with my progression through the game than the implications of my actions.
And this is a bit of a problem, because The Last of Us Part II is a game all about the mental and emotional toll violence has on us as people. Ellie’s journey is motivated by vengeance after a group of former Fireflies from the first game finds and brutally murders Joel in front of her. Ellie travels to Seattle expressly to find and kill these people. But as her journey continues, Ellie finds herself more and more shaken by the violence she enacts upon these people: after finding and beating one of the Fireflies to death, there is a close-up on Ellie’s hand shaking. Later, after finding out that one of the people she killed was pregnant, Ellie becomes incredibly distraught. Even after returning to a peaceful home in Wyoming, Ellie is unable to settle into a life with her partner and child, and is driven out again to complete her quest while suffering from some form of PTSD. The player really gets to see the toll this violent quest is taking on Ellie, and the game ends with her having lost everything in pursuit of her violent ends.
All of which would have been very impactful if the sections the player controlled weren’t dominated by mindlessly murdering nameless AI people. By the time the player has even gotten to the first emotionally significant murder for Ellie, they’ve gruesomely killed dozens of people to get there. And while the first few kills made me feel it in my bones, the game simply can’t sustain that level of feeling over a prolonged period of play.
When combat was presented as an option, or as the natural outcome of the player’s choices, it felt warranted.
While The Last Of Us Part II has been my most recent experience with being left cold by the implications of combat, it’s not actually the first time in gaming memory this has occurred to me. I spent a lot of time with The Outer Worlds last year, and came away with a central feeling amongst all the positive things I had to say about that game: I really wished there was a way to toggle off combat. Obsidian did such an amazing job of building a vibrant world and building nuanced characters that you could spend hours digging into that every time I had to pause my exploration to mindlessly murder some bandits or alien wildlife, it earnestly felt like a distraction. The combat was, while not out of keeping with the setting or story, so divorced from what to me were clearly the most interesting parts of the game that I soon became frustrated every time I was presented with a set of enemies to blast. In a game where so much was determined by what you consciously chose, combat was still a given. And I think that design choice, which could have been determined by a market where games are made or broken by their combat, did an incredible disservice to the game as a whole.
So, what does a AAA game without combat look like? We have, admittedly, seen popular entries eschew violence in the past: Life is Strange is a particularly good example. But while that game presents a very particular mode of combat-less gaming, with player determination over pre-scripted narrative encounters taking precedent in gameplay, I think we can think more critically about how a lot of games can happen without combat, or at least, making combat more meaningful for us as players. This in turn will allow us to be more mindful of our consumption of AAA titles and games in the indie-sphere, and of perhaps enacting in some small way with our wallets a shift in the expectations for what a AAA game can be and do. Here are some specific things for players to consider:
How is violence used when it’s supposed to have consequences?
By the hundredth kill, I was doing it mechanically, more concerned with my progression than the implications of my actions.
The main problem with combat in TLOU2 was that it cheapened what were supposed to be really emotionally impactful moments, because Ellie was a stone-cold killing machine right up until she needed to suddenly have conflicted feelings about murder. Because Naughty Dog assumed that combat was how players wanted to interact with the world, we are forced to use violence as a given, which is the very thing the game wants to make a point about. (So, maybe this is a little bit about ludonarrative dissonance.) But it’s also about what it would look like to play a game that’s still about violence, but that doesn’t use violence as the primary means of players impacting the game world. Instead of prolonged murder sessions, most of the encounters in TLOU2 could have been stealth puzzles, utilizing things like the cover system, destructible environments, and non-lethal distractions. This would mean that when it came time for Ellie to enact her vengeance, the brutality of the violence would still carry weight for the player.
Does the player have a choice about whether to engage in combat?
One of my main problems with The Outer Worlds was that the game was based entirely around player choice, except when it came time to shoot things. Random enemy encounters and missions filled with shooting felt like they were in direct contradiction to the ethos of the game, because the player had no choice. However, when combat was presented as an option to solve a problem, or as the natural outcome of the player’s choices, it felt warranted and organic. If combat is framed as a choice, players who value a combat system in games can still play and enjoy engaging with the world in their preferred manner, while players who are more interested in the non-violent aspects of the game have the option to opt out of gunfights.
How can combat indicate expected play?
Some AAA games already engage with combat as a form of indicating improper play, to a degree. A lot of stealth games like Dishonored and Metal Gear Solid present combat as something that happens when you fail to play the game properly. The combat is still enjoyable, sure, but it serves to indicate that the player has not fulfilled one of the primary tenets of a stealth game, and it’s presented at least within the narrative as an undesirable outcome. Combat in these games also often places the player at a distinct disadvantage, because your moves and skillsets in the games are much more optimized for being sneaky than being violent. Thus, while some players might choose to buck the system and always go the ultraviolent route, combat can be used as an effective means of communicating that some of the goals of play have not been met. If more games were to attempt this model of play, players could more freely use combat as merely one tool in a set, and not always the optimal one for the job. This could then lead to more open discussions of when combat is truly necessary and viable in a AAA gaming space.
Combat has a long and storied history within gaming, dating all the way back to the analog days of tabletop war gaming and continuing into the digital sphere as games become more and more technologically advanced. But as games continue to tell sophisticated stories, we have to be sure that the ways in which we are allowed to interact with those stories aren’t stymied by expectations of a AAA title and corporate demands upon developers to create more of what they know will sell. While I’m pretty sure I don’t have the ear of the creative teams at Ubisoft or Naughty Dog, I hope that this will inspire readers to think more critically about the way that AAA games demand we interact with them, and maybe explore more fully the independent gaming scene, where combat is not nearly so prevalent. If we want to enact change upon the industry in any meaningful way, it starts with our habits of play.