Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Combat Addiction

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.


Anonymous said...

There's also a gameplay question of how can you make a non-violent conflict (say, a debate, or a seduction attempt) as exciting for the player as a combat?

It's something RPGs have been wrestling with for years. And interestingly, some of the more thoughtful efforts use similar mechanics for both combat and non combat competitions. If you get a chance to read the Dying Earth RPG, do it, because they have quite a clever system. It wouldn't work on a computer game, but it takes a lot of the dice out of the combat in favour of just describing what you are doing in a witty manner.

Or there are the social combat rules in En Garde, which are more like a card game.

Sara Pickell said...

I do wonder how games can and should deal with the more subtle parts of life. Conversations are somewhat more evolved now, but still not organic or scalable. How do you deal with love in a system of binary flagging for instance? Complicated emotions that eventually wind up having to be simplified down to do x get y.

Non-combat game play isn't technically that hard, we have plenty of sports and abstract games which don't handle it at all. The harder part is getting down to our preferred level simulation without falling back on it.

I remember once, positing the idea for an mmo where the basic core activities were political activism, tagging, and music. One of the first things someone took exception to was that there wasn't fighting to handle conflict resolution. This was actually one of the major sources for my paradigm shift theory.

scrusi said...

I've commented on this in the other post, so I'll keep this short. Especially gameplay that is focused on character interaction instead of action, (As a more generic term, as there are many games out there that don't directly include combat. I don't think a sports game, for example, is fundamentally different from combat, however.) is very resource intensive to create. Interactive story telling (cf. Crawford) is almost always scripted. We don't have the technology (yet) for an AI that can tell believable stories.

The same goes for puzzle games to a degree, figuring out puzzles that a human invented can be a lot of fun, but their creation takes a lot of work and you only ever get to solve as many of them as the designers created. (Also, solving them again usually isn't fun.) Brian pointed me at Spelunky a while ago as an example of excellent computer generated puzzles. I tried it but can't say that I like those puzzles as much as handcrafted ones. (i.e. those in Braid, for the obvious comparison.)

You are right that violence is a cheap teaser for your game, but that's hardly the only reason combat (and combat-ish mechanics) are so popular in games. You can't blame it all on bad writing, the medium as it exists today isn't advanced enough yet for all the alternative methods of story telling that we know from literature, at least not without turning games into choose your own adventure books.

Brian 'Psychochild' Green ( said...

Combat is also used because the abstractions are pretty easy to grasp. People might complain that hit points are "unrealistic" or that someone shouldn't be able to be stabbed with a sword hundreds of times, but most people grasp the concept pretty quickly even if they're not familiar with it. Of course, over the years the tropes have become self-reinforcing with newcomers having to pick up the systems.

I think this also works because most people don't get into real combat anymore. Getting dressed up in plate mail and swinging a sword, then going on about the fine details makes even the geekiest people roll their eyes.

Now, consider conversations. As Sara points out, most things boil down to "do X to get Y." You can't abstract it out too much because most people do get into conversations and how how they're "supposed" to work. Hammering buttons to move a conversation bar doesn't match expectations. Providing a more "realistic" simulation requires better A.I. than we have today.

I've always wondered if you could do a game where combat was rarer and more meaningful and not be completely niche. Most combat ability comes from training, and veterans are something to be admired since combat is rare and really dangerous. Related to this, one of the complaints I've seen about STO is that they made combat so common, which seems to go against the grain of the source material. Would a game about disabling ships be as exciting?