GDC - The voyeur's view
Games without guns - part 2

Can games tell stories without guns?

Bioshockleftrightchoice Pac-Man, Mario, and Master Chief - a compact history of video games neatly represented by three iconic characters. A remarkable evolution of technology and design can be seen in this 25 year arc, with each character providing a snapshot of an industry from three critical periods in its development.

For many people this evolution is accompanied by a disturbing trend towards increasingly realistic depictions of violence. The disturbing part, however, isn't the violence. Games have been violent from the beginning--the first video game was called Spacewar, after all--and they will continue to be violent as long as chomping or bopping or shooting things remains fun. The problem isn't the violence; it's the lack of imagination.

Big budget mainstream video games have restricted their focus to an increasingly threadbare shooting mechanic that is fast losing its power to engage us. So-called innovation in most mainstream games has been reduced to figuring out how to distinguish your way-cool shooter from the other guy's way-cool shooter. Halo 3: futuristic warfare shooter; Bioshock: dystopian philosophical shooter; Mass Effect: sci-fi RPG shooter; Turok: dinosaur shooter; The Orange Box: shooter, shooter sequels, team-based shooter, portal shooter.

And the big budget titles on the way: Army of 2; GTA4, MGS4...more of the same. Sure, we'll see new bells and whistles from these games, but nothing truly innovative in terms of the core gameplay experience. I heard Clint Hocking talk today at GDC about immersive gaming in the most intellectually rigorous terms imaginable. He devotes all his time these days to Far Cry 2. Yup, it's a shooter.

Game god Steve Meretzky offered some interesting advice on game design yesterday. If you're building a shooter game and decide you want a story, then go ahead and add it. At worst, it will be a distraction the player can skip, and it may help tie the gameplay experience together.

But, Meretzky continued, if you're building a game whose objective is to tell a compelling story, why would you choose shooting people as your primary gameplay mechanic? Bioshock wants to convey a thematically rich and ambitious narrative set in an immersive, visually powerful world. Why did it need to be a shooter? Do game designers lack any other means of conveying story besides the snippets they can squeeze in between the gun battles?

I'm out of gas after another full day of GDC, but I'll return tomorrow to explore this question more thoroughly. As always, your thoughts are welcome.