One of the first exercises we did in a fiction writers’ workshop I attended involved writing a story in which no one died. It seems like an easy constraint to work around, but through doing the exercise you realize that we rely heavily on death to dramatize events, even in everyday conversation. Removing such a tool from a writer’s repertoire complicates the process of building drama—you have to use more intricate characterizations to allow the characters to establish relationships that reverberate beyond the simple binary of life and death.
Death is cheap and overdone. Violence is the easiest and most dramatic way to kill—death confers its gravity to violence. Nothing is flashier, scarier, more engaging sans-context than violence. Cheap fun is violent fun.
The “explicit” culture of the west loves to show everything in brutal, washed-out, overacted detail. Flashy content draws eyeballs and eyeballs mean ad money. As movies and TV grow flashier, people grow accustomed to the flashiness and want more. Games follow the same trend.
Now that technology allows great special effects, directors and game developers no longer need to be inventive and implicitly communicate with their audience—they ship off a work request to 3D artists and animators who put together an explicit, flashy scene leaving little to the imagination.
Games default to being about combat because violence is the easiest way to give meaning to actions. It's the cheapest way to draw attention. Creating game mechanics to model combat also makes the most sense, because combat is the simplest and most dire form of dramatic conflict between two people. Conversations between characters are destined to be boring in games focused and fixated on combat, because a scene where someone’s death is all but guaranteed will make any conversation but the most interesting and well-written seem bland.
Read a great writer's work or watch a great movie and you won’t see rampant action and impending death as the focus of every scene. Good movies do not flag in the “boring parts” where guns are put away and characters engage in negotiations or simple conversation. Well-executed storytelling can include violence, but often doesn't need it--only the threat of violence or the tension of the interactions between well-defined characters.
The storytelling in so many videogames is so awful because of this overreliance on violence. It’s the easiest way to draw eyeballs and create drama, though, so we’re bound to see combat as the focus of the majority of games in the future.