We Need More Video Games That Don't Force You To Kill People
Fighting Creative Stagnation
Man, I'm tired. In the course of over three decades of playing video games, I've slaughtered enough faceless goons to depopulate a star system. Move over Galactus, there's a new Eater-Of-Worlds in town.
Can I please do something else for a change?
Now, don't get me wrong, I love violent action games -- they're a great way to blow off steam, and there's nothing quite so satisfying as a well-timed headshot -- but I think it's about time for the game industry to look for a new kind of gameplay.
Sometimes video games feel like a one trick pony. Almost every big budget AAA game, outside of a few sports and racing games, makes me pick up a gun or a sword and forces me to start killing people. It's a cheap tactic -- putting me in a situation where I have no choice but to kill or be killed -- an easy way to get the adrenaline pumping and give my virtual actions direction and purpose; but after a while it starts to feel empty.
What I'd really love to be able to do, preferably in my lifetime, is play a game that lets me save lives instead of taking them.
Doctors, firefighters, and law enforcers come in all races and genders in the real world. More importantly, they're role models. For these reasons, I feel that it's important that developers give players maximum diversity when it comes to the playable characters. The easiest way to do this is to allow players to customize their characters.
Heroes Who Don't Kill
Considering how important doctors, firefighters, and police officers are in real life, and how inspiring, heroic, and dramatic their roles are, there is a surprising dearth of video games that allow you to fill their shoes in any meaningful way. This is even more surprising in light of the fact that cop shows and medical dramas, especially, have always held a powerful grip over the public's imagination and have dominated television drama for decades. I'd love to be able to step into one of these roles, to put my life and my sanity on the line to make a difference in people's lives. At least from the safety and comfort of my own home.
What I'm specifically not talking about is game about a super-soldier who just happens to be a police officer, a firefighter, or a paramedic. Cops aren't all that rare in video games, but most of these so-called law enforcers are just reskinned super-soldiers; real cops don't go around wasting hundreds of nameless thugs with fancy slow-motion bullet time effects. Players should be rewarded for minimizing violence, not escalating it.
There's a reason why shows like Castle, House, Bones, Rescue Me, CSI, and Grey's Anatomy are so popular. While top notch writing, acting, and directing account for a lot of the success that these shows attain, there is an inherent drama in what the protagonists in these shows do. These characters are often pushed to their limits, physically, mentally, and ethically, and their struggles and accomplishments are inspiring to others.
These are the kinds of experiences that many gamers are craving that aren't currently being provided for. With any luck, the games of the future will explore these rich narrative territories more thoroughly.
The kind of game I'm talking about is a dramatic simulation. By that, I mean something very specific: a game that models the most intense action and drama of one of these roles without getting bogged down in details.
Discussions about video games involving police officers, firefighters, and doctors tend to degenerate into discussions about simulations, as if the mechanics of fighting fires, investigating crimes, and operating on patients were the only element of these games that matters; these mechanics are important, and it will require a good deal of ingenuity to come up with challenging gameplay that avoids falling into either vacuous quick time events or realistic tedium, but engaging sims, by themselves, aren't enough.
It's not enough to create game mechanics that simulate putting out fires or performing surgeries. Military shooters don't rely on combat mechanics alone; they employ narratives and characterization to get the player invested and give his or her actions meaning. When thinking about video games about police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other real world heroes, it's instructive to consider them in light of television drama: cop shows aren't all about car chases and shootouts; doctors don't spend all of their time operating on patients. Television drama depends on character development, interpersonal conflict, and wider social issues to give the routine actions of beat cops and ER doctors weight and meaning. Fighting fires and busting drug dealers isn't enough; these games need heroic protagonists and complex narratives. To be successful, they have to engage the player on more than one level.
A common device of police thrillers, for example, is to show the constant tension between doing the right thing, and doing the legal thing. How often have you seen a detective bend the law to get a result ... and then waited tensely for the inevitable reprimand? Doctors come into conflict all the time over different diagnoses and the ethical treatment of patients. These are the kinds of choices that players should have to make, that will give verisimilitude and depth to the experience. Video games are growing up, and players are ready for new experiences and new kinds of conflict.
The kind of game I'm thinking of has enough realism to give players an insight into the lives of these everyday heroes without straying too far into either caricature (doctor saves the world from alien invaders) or tedium (a training video). Basically, the kind of experience that television drama has been giving viewers for years, but with a greater emphasis on "doing" (acting the role) than on drama (following the interpersonal conflicts that make up the bulk of the narrative in television dramas).
Crime Scene Investigation
One type of police-related gameplay that has been modeled to some extent in games like Condemned, Still Life, and the CSI series of games is crime scene investigation.
Crime scene investigation is an intrinsically interesting activity, and there are a lot of people out there who are genuinely fascinated with it, but by itself, like other forms of pure simulation, it has limited appeal. I think for CSI to be truly successful, it needs to be integrated seamlessly into the action and drama provided by other forms of gameplay.
Condemned has some CSI elements, but that's where it's similarity to police enforcement stops. Still Life and the CSI series have some CSI-related puzzles, and some detective-style puzzles, but they're point and click adventure games so there isn't much to get your adrenaline pumping and there isn't much to do outside of solving puzzles. What we need are not more puzzle games, but more action games that integrate meaningful elements of criminal investigation.
Other Games About LEOs
Other cop games that spring to mind are the True Crime series and, more recently, Battlefield: Hardline. BH has great production values, but looks like it's not going to be much more than a reskinned shooter so it's not exactly the kind of game I have in mind. Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit by Quantic Dream also have crime investigation elements but they're more like interactive movies than sandbox-style games.
Idea One: Beat Cop
This is hands down my top pick.
I'd love a good sandbox game that lets me work my way up the ranks from beat cop to detective. Go to the station, get my orders (perhaps an updated Most Wanted list) and hit the streets, busting drug dealers, breaking up domestic disputes, nabbing bank robbers, and tracking down wanted criminals. Questioning witnesses, gathering evidence, setting up stake outs, interrogating prisoners, going undercover, kicking down doors -- always tempted to bend the law just a little to make sure a scumbag ends up behind bars. There could be a reputation system that allows you to develop a reputation as a "by the books" cop with a sterling record, a "hard ass" who "gets results", or even a "bad cop" who's lost his way and who uses his criminal contacts in the underworld for his own benefit.
The kind of game I'm describing is a sort of gritty, real world Fable, but one where you'd have to justify every use of force. There's all kinds of potential for drama here between your superiors at work, your peers, the journalists, your spouse, and the people that you know should be behind bars but that you never seem to be able to catch. Ratchet up the tension with angry mob bosses, dirty cops, and serial killers and you've got a recipe for angsty adventure. This kind of game is a natural for co-op with a partner, and I'm sure you can imagine the possibilities for online multiplayer.
The game that came closest to this was probably L.A. Noire, though the True Crime series also took a stab at it. (Battlefield: Hardline is basically just a reskinned shooter.)
Real Heroes: Firefighter
Idea Two: Firefighter
This is another game I'd love to get my hands on.
Designing the mechanics for this kind of game is going to require a little bit more ingenuity; most of the elements of a good cop game have already made an appearance in one game or another, but firefighting in video games is still in its infancy.
For a game about firefighters, the big challenges would be:
- realistic modeling of fire and explosions based on the materials being consumed
- environments that "fall apart" realistically as the player struggles to control the blaze
- realistic modeling of water, water hoses, fire extinguishers, and other techniques used to put out fires
- large open world environments with realistic floor plans for office buildings, shopping malls, residential homes, factories, schools, etc.
- realistic driving mechanics for the fire truck
- a variety of different kinds of people to rescue in different states of distress, some requiring first aid
- realistic modeling of natural disasters like forest fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, and floods
The drama in this kind of game would basically revolve around an escalating intensity of disasters and correspondingly more challenging gameplay. Players may start by putting out small house fires and making relatively easy rescues and proceed over the course of the game to progressively larger and more dangerous fires and natural disasters. The enemy here would often be nature, but you could build a great story around a serial arsonist, a corrupt industrialist, or a group of terrorists blowing up buildings.
Zero Hour: America's Medic
Virtual Heroes' Zero Hour: America's Medic was one interesting project that attempted to model EMS (emergency medical services). Unfortunately, it is no longer available.
The Trauma Center series of games is familiar to many people and plenty of amusing videos can be found on YouTube for Surgeon Simulator, a wacky, over-the-top surgery game.
Idea Three: Paramedic, Doctor, Surgeon
The third type of game that I'd like to see is some sort of medical thriller. There are a few surgeon "simulation" type games out there, but nothing that really captures what I have in mind.
I can see a few different gameplay possibilities here, which could be developed into separate games or combined into a single game as different scenarios:
- Paramedic. The player drives an ambulance to the location of patient, figures out what's wrong, provides immediate care, and then drives them back to the hospital.
- Doctor. The player has a steady stream of patients coming into the ER. Based on the information provided by the nurses, he rotates through the patients providing whatever care is required and issuing instructions to NPCs as needed.
- Surgeon. The player actually performs operations on patients.More complex cases may require protracted stays in the hospital with the patient's condition getting better or worse while the player figures out how best to treat them.
In every case, at first, the player would be given simple patients with clear-cut problems and easy solutions. As the player progresses through the game, the number of patients they are required to treat increases, the seriousness of the trauma increases, and the complexity of diagnoses becomes more challenging. Different scenarios, like citywide riots, epidemics, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, floods, etc., could all be used to provide a dramatic backdrop to the ongoing gameplay and an explanation for the escalation in the number of patients and the severity of their conditions.
I think there's a ton of potential for deep gameplay here that would more or less follow the complexity of real world health care. Part of the appeal of this kind of game is the intrinsic interest of medicine: like any good strategy game, the interactions between the different systems of a functioning body provide a challenge for strategic thinkers; the challenge of figuring out what's wrong with a patient is a perfect puzzle for people who like puzzle games; and the amount of information thrown at the player is great for people who love trivia. Throw in some branching dialog trees and some skill-based gameplay and you might just have a winning formula. It's a little bit harder to see how it would all "work" as a game, but combat, racing, and team sports are all difficult design challenges as well and these areas have been more or less perfected through decades of refinement. I'm confident that a skilled design team could create a system that's both immersive and fun.
Well, those are just three types of games that I'd like to see. (I have plenty of others.) I'd like to stress that I think these kinds of games need to go beyond simulation to appeal to a large number of gamers. They need to get the player invested emotionally with solid narrative arcs, well-developed NPCs, and big budget production values. AAA killing games have all of these things, so all that would really be changing is the focus in the gameplay: instead of shooting mechanics, we'd need fun ways of modeling firefighting and surgery.
And I think turning to new types of gameplay is important not only for existing gamers, but for potential gamers as well: not everybody likes or approves of violence in video games, but they might change their mind about the entertainment value provided by games if the industry offered them the kinds of experiences they were currently getting from television drama. I think there are a lot of people out there who might give a game that allowed them to experience what it's like to be a cop or a doctor a shot if it came attached to the same production values that they're used to seeing in ads about war games. That's a large potential market that hasn't been tapped.
Are there games that don't involve killing that you'd like to play that aren't on this list? Let me know in the comment section!