Games are combat. Be it football, Uno or chess, the goal is to defeat your opponent in a battle of brains and/or brawn. But despite the nomenclature, videogames are more than just games.
That may stir up Gamergater-types who maintain their reductive view of the art form (not that they would ever call it that, because eww, art) but games are the equivalent of movies, TV and books. Yes, there are violent ones — which are often the most popular — but other narrative genres also exist.
And as gaming continues its inexorable march toward "peak graphics," the rise of photorealism has made all the ol' time killing sometimes feel too real, at least when that's the only way you're allowed to engage.
Don't get me wrong, most of the best recent games — from Far Cry 4 and The Witcher 3 to Arkham Knight and Bloodborne — involve hitting your enemies with swords, axes, fisticuffs and firearms. But there's strength in diversity, and game makers not named Nintendo (which has always been family-focused) really need to start seeking it out more. Some already are.
Critically acclaimed indie thatgamecompany — whose 2012 classic Journey recently arrived on PS4, joining their earlier triumph Flower — was an early pioneer of the fight-free form. Journey has a goal, but doesn't feel the need to mar its world with war. There are enemies, too, but they are to be avoided, not slain. Exploration, emotion and atmosphere, bolstered by an unspoken connection with other anonymous online players, are enough to push you toward that distant mountaintop.
Vancouver Island-based Hinterland Studio, which bills itself as being "passionate about expanding the boundaries of the medium," is similarly experimenting with nonviolent game mechanics. The Long Dark, their first-person, Arctic-set post-apocalyptic survival sim, recently hit Xbox One as part of its new Game Preview offering, after being previously available via Steam Early Access.
Though still in alpha — the episodic story mode isn't yet available, but will be free for early buyers — curiosity seekers can play in the sandbox mode where you're stranded in the Canadian wilderness after a "geomagnetic disaster" knocks your plane out of the sky.
There are no fur-clad soldiers or cold-impervious zombies here. Instead, your enemy is winter, and you must maintain your body temperature, forage materials for fire and shelter, keep your caloric intake up and find medicine and weapons. Speaking of, there is killing here — be it hunting deer for food or fending off hungry wolves and bears — but the goal is to stay alive, not deal death.
Death has already been dealt in the recent PC-to-PS4 port The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a 1970s-set, H.P. Lovecraft and Raymond Chandler-inspired, first-person horror adventure. Arriving in the strangely empty, but evidently murderous, small town of Red Creek Valley, your paranormal private detective must solve the titular mystery.
There is some violence, at least there was before you arrived, but you don't participate in it. Polish developers the Astronauts have purposefully kept combat out of their game mechanics in favour of discovery, exploration, atmosphere and "the essential humanity of our characters." They won a BAFTA award for Best Game Innovation for their efforts.
The Chinese Room's similarly empty PS4 exclusive Everybody's Gone to the Rapture takes violence (and traditional "gaming" for that matter) completely out of the picture, as you set off to find out what made everyone in the quaint British village disappear. It's not really a mystery to be solved, per se. Despite indications of a flu outbreak and quarantine, the game does boast a titular spoiler. So it's less "what" than "how," part of the indie studio's goal to push the interactive storytelling of their breakthrough Dear Esther even further.
With no explanation of who you are or why you're there, the player is left to wander, discovering both where the villagers went and what their lives were like before they vanished. By chasing sparkly echoes of the former residents — hearing temporally displaced snippets of their conversations and confessions — and examining the remnants they left behind, the game becomes a meta puzzle as slowly piece the nonlinear narrative together in your own head.
Other games, ranging from the interactive story Gone Home and arts'n'crafts platformer LittleBigPlanet 3 to the girl-powered point-and-click Life Is Strange and the millions-selling, self-explanatory Farm Simulator series, are also following nonviolent paths.
Mainstream games may be heading this way, too.
Bethesda's Tom Howard recently told PC Gamer that despite Fallout 4 being a first-person shooter, "You can avoid [killing] a lot. I can't tell you that you can play the whole game without violence — that's not necessarily a goal of ours — but we want to support different play styles as much as we can." Deus Ex: Mankind Divided director Jean-François Dugas similarly tweeted that the game will allow for non-combative "ghosting," even in boss battles.
Quebecois designer Patrice Désilets — who created Assassin's Creed, which is literally all about killing — told Game Informer that his upcoming episodic open-world game, Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey, won't be combat-based. "Our ancestors back then weren't that violent. They weren't fighting each other. Cooperation and compassion are really part of the reason why we survived."
This ongoing expansion of what a game can be will likely only continue in the years ahead. After all, while the modern gamer may have grown up on shooters like Doom and Call of Duty, the upcoming generation is coming of age in the Minecraft era, where the name of the game is creation, not destruction.