Narrative is Growing Faster Than Gameplay

Bioshock Infinite's best moments and characters had nothing to do with violence.

A lot of folks out there are arguing that Bioshock Infinite is too violent. Sites like Polygon and Kotaku are frowning upon the gory aspects of the game’s combat. Since Infinite released I’ve seen a growing amount of people on Twitter complaining about how reliant the game is on you not simply shooting dudes but cooking them alive, unleashing flesh eating ravens, and electrocuting them until their heads blow off. I think a lot of our gaming community is growing war weary of violent games.

At first I snickered at these comments, it seemed to me that is just folks finding something to bitch about for the sake of doing so. For lack of better phrasing, I wanted to sweep this issue under the rug, think everyone is just a giant vagina, and move on with my life. Yet after playing through Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite I find myself crossing the fence. Videogames have a massive creativity issue right now.

Right now I share the same complaints as a lot of you probably have. It doesn’t make sense why Lara is mowing down dudes by the dozen. I mean, how many of those guys are on that island? That’s what turned me off to the game. Why can’t we have engagements against one or two guys but make those engagements more enticing? Heavy Rain has the player kill less than a handful of people and those were powerful moments. I’m no game developer. I don’t know how you solve this issue. I saw an article about Infinite asking why it couldn’t just be a puzzle game. However, that’s equally stupid. How many times in your life have you opened a door by solving a rubix cube?

The Walking Dead's few instances of violence were powerful.

I want the combat to remain but have it be more meaningful. Take The Walking Dead for example. That game was fantastic because you weren’t killing thousands of zombies. Every violent encounter in that game mattered. There was a high level of tension anytime you were thrown into a fight with the undead or even another human because the player never became desensitized to violence. The moments that stuck with me from The Walking Dead were scenes such as Lee and Clementine bonding or the suicide at the end of the first episode. Thankfully TellTale didn’t feel the need to throw in a dumb action scene with Lee getting behind a .50 cal.

The issue seems to be that narrative in games is growing faster than the videogame part. Columbia is a fully realized place with a rich back history and breath-taking aesthetics. Infinite sets itself to be a super serious game tackling powerful issues and even being one of the first games to examine religion’s place in society. I took Infinite very seriously whenever it was time for the plot to develop. Then unfortunately, I walked out a door and into some massive war against me. It’s jarring that such a cartoonish level of violence coexists with such serious subject matter. Hysterically the people in the slums opened fire on me for walking too close to their merchandise. The one time the game seemed to break away from fighting, there’s an unexplained contrivance forcing the player to engage what are supposed to be allies.

I tolerated it because the combat is fun in Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider. Lara’s bow is one of the most satisfying weapons I’ve used in a game in a long time. The juxtaposition of the videogame part doesn’t match the maturity of the narrative. This didn’t matter with older games because the plot was just an excuse to get into another room full of dudes to murder. But enemies can’t be treated like targets anymore. Lara is a struggling survivor and like Booker is merely defending herself. Games are at the point where the plot is the game and that’s making the shooting guys element feel dumb.

Don’t ditch the combat and make games strictly an interactive story. At that point I might as well get into movies or books. However, the days of facing waves of nameless enemies have to go. Videogames have evolved beyond needing that. It’s time to grow up. I still want my mindless Gears of Wars and Call of Dutys but when a developer wants to make a serious commitment to communicating a message or story, they can’t follow the path of the mindless shooter.

Perhaps this is just an audience issue. Do people like you and me just want something from games the masses don't? I'm sure there are plenty of folks that bought Bioshock Infinite not giving a rat's ass about the plot, Elizabeth, or even the setting. It's why I'm sure The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct will outsell TellTale's Walking Dead. Average Joe that shops at GameStop has a specific idea of what a videogame is and doesn't think about what they actually are or can be. But I'm also the kind of guy that paid to see Evil Dead (and loved it) instead of going to the Shakespeare playing downtown.



Word, I agree.

edit: But of course, every game has its place. No blanket changes. Just more room.

Edited by McGhee

This is exactly what I feel. The only two games to truly move me in the last couple of years have been Dark Souls and FTL, games that are truly doing something unique.

Edited by deathstriker666

@epicsteve said:

It's why I'm sure The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct will outsell TellTale's Walking Dead.

Nah, I doubt that. Historically, licensed games have never sold well because everybody knows they're shit. Activision knows this and sent it out to die with no marketing whatsoever. I doubt most people have even heard of Survival Instincts nor even care for it. Only an idiot would pay $60 for Survival Instincts over the latest CoD/BF/MoH title. Really, the game's only there to please investors. It's the same reason Activision keeps releasing Spiderman games even when no one's buying them.

Posted by Icemael

I don't think the dissonance between the combat and the story in games like Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider has anything to do with of one "growing faster" than the other, it's about developers trying to combine video game genres with stories that don't really fit. If Bioshock Infinite had been an adventure game and Tomb Raider a stealth game with some occasional action combat there wouldn't have been a problem. Of course, if that was the case the games also wouldn't have performed nearly as well either critically or commercially.

Posted by mrfluke

you make some good points even if i dont share your opinion,(you articulate them better and have a better "tone" in your writing than some of those that are doing this sort of writing for a job imo)

but maybe im so desensitized to videogame violence that this stuff doesn't bother me and it doesn't come of to me as dull, (i think especially in bioshocks case as to me that fiction justifies the violence) i didn't really find the walking dead's gameplay moments to be powerful

i think with the onset of new consoles and more powerful hardware, encounters will be back to being meaningful. devs have maxed out this current hardware that i think is a factor to why everything is so standardized right now. (not the definitive factor obviously, but i say its still a factor)

Edited by captain_max707

The trouble is that games have to be games, even when they want to tell a serious story. Usually in games, when something is meant to have a large impact, it is limited so that the times it appears it carries more weight. But we can't start gameplay out of games without people getting upset. The only solution I can see is that games need to make players feel more responsible for the consequences of their violent actions. But this is what is so incredibly difficult, as its hard to feel any real responsibility towards what are ultimately fake scenarios or characters in a context which can be paused or shut down at any moment. Not all games can be like GTA IV and spend hours upon hours creating a world and characters which the player grows attached to. And even then, the combat in GTA is pretty ridiculous anyway.

I think Bioshock: Infinite does a very good job of having a strong story when the story is front and center and then being a fun game when it is time to play. Until someone smarter than me figures out a way to make combat engaging, fun, and meaningful, the best way I can see for games to convey stories consistently is to contextualize everything the player does so that the interactive world created feels whole. While Infinite is very strong in this respect (it has strong environmental story telling), the gameplay itself can sometimes feel out of place. So if in the future games try to sculpt their gameplay around the world and story they are set in, it would probably lead to more engaging experiences (the opposite can work too, but this often leads to thin justifications for gameplay).

My favorite games tend to be those which create interesting and engaging worlds. I find that this can work towards making a strong story just as well as good writing (if not more, in some cases). So I guess what I am trying to get at with my rambling is that games really should use their interactive aspects to their advantage, and contextualize the actions of the player by wrapping the gameplay around the story and setting so as to create a coherent and unified experience.

Edited by SoldierG654342

@epicsteve said:

A lot of folks out there are arguing that Bioshock Infinite is too violent. Sites like Polygon and Kotaku are frowning upon the gory aspects of the game’s combat. Since Infinite released I’ve seen a growing amount of people on Twitter complaining about how reliant the game is on you not simply shooting dudes but cooking them alive, unleashing flesh eating ravens, and electrocuting them until their heads blow off. I think a lot of our gaming community is growing war weary of violent games.

I think that's only half accurate. I think what people are getting tired of, and The Walking Dead reinforces this, is superfluous violence in service of nothing. The problem with Bioshock: Infinite specifically isn't that it's violent, but needlessly so. I stopped intentionally using executions because of how gruesome they were. And I unequiped certain gear because I didn't want to keep seeing people's skin being melted off of their bones. And what was it even is service of?

To show Booker isn't a good guy? A bad guy will kill a few men, psychopaths grind up peoples hearts in their chests. It's not characterization at that point, and if it is it isn't doing what it was (presumably) intended to do.

It's the listless, purposeless violence that people are weary of. And it's probably because the people playing games are growing up and getting more life experience.

Posted by shinboy630

In my opinion, narrative is not growing faster than gameplay (read: violence). The way I see it, both are seeing innovation, just blood and gore sells more to a general audience than an interesting story. If a game with the depth of storytelling and density of world that Infinite has wants to get made, it needs a shooter budget. So it needs to be a shooter. It's an unfortunate market reality, but one we will have to deal with until trends (hopefully) change.

Edited by Jay_Ray

@epicsteve said:

It's why I'm sure The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct will outsell TellTale's Walking Dead.

Nah, I doubt that. Historically, licensed games have never sold well because everybody knows they're shit. Activision knows this and sent it out to die with no marketing whatsoever. I doubt most people have even heard of Survival Instincts nor even care for it. Only an idiot would pay $60 for Survival Instincts over the latest CoD/BF/MoH title. Really, the game's only there to please investors. It's the same reason Activision keeps releasing Spiderman games even when no one's buying them.

While I agree with you deathstriker that I doubt Survival Instincts will out perform Telltale's game Survival Instincts and other licensed games do make money generally. The only thing that pleases investors/stockholders is profit. If licensed games did not make some profit then no publisher would make them.

Which brings me to the topic, narrative is not growing faster than gameplay, narrative is growing faster than the market allows. Here is the problem; games are very expensive to make and therefore need to sell millions of units to make their production worthwhile. And to sell millions you need to make sacrifices such as having crumby box art, have action oriented commercials/trailers, etc. so Average Joe gets interested in the game. There is simply not enough of "us" to allow a non FPS Bioshock Infinite to succeed.

Edited by Mirado

For me, it isn't just the body count that's out of place, but also the sophistication of the mechanics. It's part of the reason why I love Dark Souls; there is an absolute weight to the combat, and each fight feels like an absolutely brutal melee puzzle, for lack of a better description. You don't kill thousands of dudes, or even engage more than a two or three at once, but it makes up that lack of quantity by the concentration it demands and the sudden death nature of it all, and that holds for practically every fight.

The Last of Us seems to be leaning somewhat in the same direction; reducing the quantity of enemies in any given encounter but playing up the danger and emphasising the actual moment-to-moment choices in said encounter. For me, Bioshock's gameplay didn't feel out of place just due to the body count, but how... mechanical the fighting was. Your choices are pull trigger, or use vigor. There's little to no reason to consider your positioning (either when closing in for melee or during a firefight), because the AI has no desire to flank you, no real ability to fall back with any sort of coordination, and no adaptation of tactics. There is no option to avoid combat (except for that one part near the end), and little reason to do so even if you were presented with it. And that was on 1999 mode! I can only imagine the other difficulties were even more brainless in their combat (including their indulgence in the tactical validity of progression through suicide, my arch-nemesis).

There's an imbalance in sophistication as well as in depth of tone.

In short, make less, but more meaningful and stimulating (if not necessarily more challenging, as I understand I am in the minority when it comes to difficulty settings) encounters. Make player choice a larger factor, both in terms of whether or not to engage, but also during the encounter itself. We need smarter combat in conjunction with our smarter stories. It's all getting a bit rote.

Posted by RedRavN

Nice write up. I think there are some genres where the narrative has conversely fallen behind the gameplay. For example, any kind of strategy game or racing game. Its better when games try to make sure the mechanics and the narrative work in conjunction and neither feels weak. Part of the problem with fps is that the core gameplay mechanic of shooting dudes is kind of a constant thing. The only thing a designer can do is make the gameplay unique by having interesting weapons, enemies and environmental interaction during combat. Bioshock infinite's problem in this regard is that I dont think the AI or enemy variety is good enough or unique. Also, the guns and even the vigors feel a bit standard. I think the tears and skyrails are a cool addition but even they feel a bit limited. They are only a bunch of binary choices like spawn in this object or get somewhere faster.

I really enjoyed infinite's combat but I'm a sucker for any kind of visceral first person shooter. Its a shame that the environments in terms of architecture and art design are so unique but the core gameplay feels a bit standard. If there were more enemy types that did other things then stand around and shoot or run at you I think it would have gone a long way to freshening up the experience.

Posted by LiquidPrince

I honestly didn't find the violence in Bioshock to be that gruesome at all. There is a difference between Bioshock's violence and say God of War's which really comes off as brutal.

Edited by Colourful_Hippie

@liquidprince said:

I honestly didn't find the violence in Bioshock to be that gruesome at all. There is a difference between Bioshock's violence and say God of War's which really comes off as brutal.

It's the contrast between the violence and the seemingly innocent backdrop of Colombia that makes the blood and gore that much more apparent. In God of War impaling dudes and severing heads are the norm.

Posted by ArbitraryWater

Video Games still have to be games first and foremost though, and violence is probably the most prevalent mode of interaction in them, both because it's easy and because it sells. Obviously, this will all be solved in the future when all games are casual social mobile match-3 titles, but until then all we can do is point out the dichotomy between storytelling and violence and hope that developers notice and figure out a way to remedy it.

Edited by Letter11

Nice write up, this was a really interesting read. And I have to say, I agree with your notion that narrative is growing faster than gameplay. But perhaps, this is a good thing?

For the average game to succeed, its gameplay must be engaging and fun. How many games have all of us played and enjoyed while barely taking any notice of the plot? So I imagine for most game developers the narrative is the puzzle piece that fits in to make the entire experience better, but it is added after the main tenets of gameplay have been established.

So as this "secondary" element becomes more prominent, it proves to gamers and developers that videogames are a viable method of telling great tales. My hope is, the inclusion of these better and better stories will force the gameplay to evolve along side them.

I think the reason that the stories have out paced gameplay in terms of growth, is simply because the idea of what constitutes a good story has been established for quite some time now. Games however, are a fledgling medium, and the concept of what makes good gameplay continues to evolve rapidly. The newest challenge now, is weaving in the gameplay to complement the narrative. It will take time to understand how to do this effectively.

In the breakout era of gaming, the most prevalent style of game design was you versus the world. Back then, the stories were irrelevant. It was all about the fun experience of you against your nameless foes. It was fine for that era, but a problem arises as we approach more realistic characters and stories. The now prominent narrative works to create a jarring dissonance between the gameplay and the story. In this new age of games, the you versus the world model may not be as viable as it used to be, but many modern games still gravitate to this style because it has proven successful.

You touched on the recent Tomb Raider so I'll talk about its uncle the Uncharted series. Why does Nathan end up killing thousands of soldiers before each game is over? At first you don't even think about it because the series is so much fun. But eventually a cut-scene will play after slaughtering a room full of people, and Nathan and Sully will casually produce one liners without ever touching on the fact that they are mass murderers. The tonal shift is alarming, and over time, it begins to become strange.

Uncharted 2 however, did something intriguing with the ending. Lazarevic delivers some chilling rhetoric after his defeat, which I found haunting.

It's a fantastically written scene, and it made me question what kind of person Nathan is that he doesn't hesitate to do any of these things. Especially when his initial motivation is usually greed. So sure, the game went for the classic you versus the world model, but it incorporated some brilliant writing to help reconcile the two. I think this is a step in the right direction.

Sadly though, in Uncharted 3, Drake's ever bloodying hands are completely ignored. The game however, continued to be as fun as it's predecessor.

As far as BioShock Infinite goes, I found the gameplay and the story telling to be a tightly knit experience. Booker is a violent man, it's no secret. It's consistently addressed by Slate, Comstock and even Elizabeth herself. The evidence is found in his bloody past, and his bloody present. A present, which you happen to be in control of. The violence also serves as a juxtaposition of what Columbia seems at first glance. An idyllic utopia in the clouds; the best of what humanity has to offer on display for all to see. But bubbling underneath the surface, is a vitriolic society built on racism, the exploitation of the poor, and the demonizing of the "Sodom below". When you see the brutal violence, played against these absolutely gorgeous backdrops, it creates a mood unlike any other. Ken Levine has stated that violence is part of the story tellers playbook, and I agree. If you took the violence out of Tarantino film, would it still be a Tarantino film?

My love for BioShock Infinite is no secret though, I wrote a blog about it recently (shameless self promotion time, yeah!). Some would argue that there is too much combat and it interferes with the storytelling, but I suppose I don't agree. I found the combat to be part of the storytelling, and vice versa. Also, it was super fun.

I think we've seen recently with the onset of successful indie games like, Proteus or Thirty-Flights of Loving, the definition of what gameplay even is continues to change. The commercial and critical success of the Walking Dead solidifies the idea that more of us are willing to experience a game that strays from the normal conventions, and I think game designers will take note of that.

The gameplay in the Walking Dead was completely tailored as a delivery vehicle for the enthralling story. But this design philosophy has its own challenges. What if the story wasn't as amazing as it was? What if my heart didn't skip a beat when Clementine was in danger? The gameplay would fall completely flat, as it was not built to stand on its own.

It's a precarious balance between story and gameplay, but I think game designers will get better and better at it as our favorite medium progresses. I mean, look how far we've come in just 40 years. It's incredible.

Edited by Bourbon_Warrior

Infinite had awesome combat, I loved it. If it was nothing more than an interactive cutscene I wouldn't of brought it.

Posted by EpicSteve

@letter11: The Uncharted thing is totally weird. Humans are totally capable of mass killing if their backs are against a wall. But Uncharted never made me feel Nathan was in some brutal danger. Also, where did all these murderous dudes come from!? That's all I could think about during the course of Tomb Raider.

James Bond handles this pretty well. Thinking back on it he probably never kills more than a dozen or two bad guys in each movie. And during most of those scenes Bond is put in considerable dangers against dudes who also probably deserve to die.

I can also look to real-war. The highest body count an American has on record I know of was a WWII soldier that killed nearly 300 Germans. Nathan probably kills that many pirates during the first hour of the game.

I fear of coming off as some passive jerk not wanting violence in my games. Not true at all. I love ripping dude's spine out in Mortal Kombat and I still find my once a year COD campaigns fun. More and more now I can't be lead to believe the game's plot and gameplay live in the same universe.

Posted by psylah

Is that narrative in your pocket or are you happy to see me

Posted by LiquidPrince

@liquidprince said:

I honestly didn't find the violence in Bioshock to be that gruesome at all. There is a difference between Bioshock's violence and say God of War's which really comes off as brutal.

It's the contrast between the violence and the seemingly innocent backdrop of Colombia that makes the blood and gore that much more apparent. In God of War impaling dudes and severing heads are the norm.

Yeah, but killing characters that look a bit exaggerated and cartooney has a different impact on me, then say killing things in a more realistic world. The tone the world sets informs how I view the games violence. In the case of Bioshock, while it was pretty brutal at times, I never cringed or thought it was overdone, like the scene from God of War 3 where you bash in Hercules' face in for example.

Edited by Colourful_Hippie

@liquidprince: Yeah I never felt a disconnect cuz of the artstyle and what you're showing me, even though it's brutal, simply gets a meh from me. The context is what matters to me and the ridiculousness of that violence fits in with that universe. Gouging out Poseidon's eyes in the beginning of that game did a good job of setting the violent tone for the rest of it versus the seemingly peaceful/perfect paradise that the intro of Infinite was setting up. You're kinda taking all that stuff just at face value.

Edited by Veektarius

I agree with your sentiments and have been harping on this for awhile. The problem isn't how gruesome the killing is, it's the attempt to portray a world that's compelling in a way that's supposed to resemble reality enough to engage us. Then they give you a basic video game with hundreds of bad guys thrown at you.

The reason for this is pretty simple. It's not that the video game designers have no concept of the narrative dissonance. control schemes have improved to the point where we can aim with pinpoint accuracy and killing dudes with one bullet in a headshot is expected - not exceptional. In essence, you need to make winning harder for a game to still be challenging while reducing the body count. Some games try to do this by lowering player hitpoints or increasing enemy hitpoints. Both of these methods are pretty unpopular. To my mind, the only solution is to make shooting itself harder. This can't be done by making the controls artificially worse by bringing us back to Resident Evil schemes.

So what I personally recommend is additional mechanics in gun handling, such as realistic recoil, reload times, increasing the difficulty of aiming while on the move... changes that will make killing guys harder but in a way that makes players feel like their experience is better approximating the skills they'd need in a "real" firefight. I doubt it'd be for everyone, and these mechanics would need to be implemented in a way that makes success satisfying and failure not so frustrating, but that's what I see as the way forward for correcting the problem.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Anybody else ever want to enter intellectual discussions like this, only to back off because it talks about games you haven't played yet but are interesting in playing?

Edited by c0l0nelp0c0rn1
@epicsteve said:

Don’t ditch the combat and make games strictly an interactive story. At that point I might as well get into movies or books. However, the days of facing waves of nameless enemies have to go. Videogames have evolved beyond needing that. It’s time to grow up. I still want my mindless Gears of Wars and Call of Dutys but when a developer wants to make a serious commitment to communicating a message or story, they can’t follow the path of the mindless shooter.

Maybe the answer is to make the GoWs and CoDs multi only? I still feel that, in Infinite's case, there would be more ludonarrative dissonance if there weren't waves of enemies attacking you. If Elizabeth is supposed to be so important, then why wouldn't there be a massive call to arms? Unfortunately there's ludonarrative dissonance abounding when Booker is mowing down hordes of bots and enemies. Damned if you do and damned if you don't, I guess.

Edit: Now that I think about it, the real head-scratcher is why don't the soldiers in columbia use better formations when they know Booker is coming?

Posted by MikkaQ

I think a more accurate statement is "Narrative growth is outpacing gameplay in games relying on narrative".

My point being gameplay innovation is plentiful if you look for games without an over-reliance on narrative. Like strategy, racing, puzzle or platforming games. Also lots of indies who can't afford to focus on a story tend to put all their effort into refining gameplay systems or innovating new ones.

Edited by YI_Orange

I don't really feel I'm as affected by this problem as a lot of others seem to be, but I acknowledge it exists.

That said, how do you keep the games fun but also cut down on the faceless hordes? Make every game trying to tell a strong narrative a stealth game or walking dead/heavy rain game? No thanks. Those are fine once in a while, but if everything is going to be like that...don't get me wrong. I loved Heavy Rain when I first played it, I love The Walking Dead, and I even love Asura's Wrath, but they wouldn't work if they were mass produced.

The Impression The Last of Us seems to be giving off could be a way to go, but if it is going to be very few enemies per encounter but with other circumstances, then you can't produce large amounts of that either. It will stay engaging because of the tension in those scenarios, if too many games are trying to do that same thing then you lose that tension and risk falling into something formulaic.

As someone who values stories and characters as much as if not slightly more than gameplay, it might seem a bit weird that this stuff doesn't really bother me, and I've never really thought about why that is before.

Maybe because when it's time to play, I'm in play mode, and when it's time to story, I'm in story mode. Though sometimes they bleed over. For example, toward the end of Bioshock Infinite when you get separated from Elizabeth I stopped my normal playstyle and tried to rush as fast as I could through everything because I was feeling a sense of urgency to get there as fast as I could. It's times like this the hordes actually do break it for me because I want to just keep going and not give a fuck about anyone in my way, but usually I'm forced to fall back or slow down or spend 5 minutes in one room purely because of the number of enemies.

Another reason it may not bother me so much is that I sort of invented something for myself a long time ago. I started viewing it as that unless the murder is in some way canonically acknowledged, then it didn't necessarily happen. Sure, Nathan Drake kills 300 guys. But he also jumps at walls he can't climb and other nonsense people might do because it's funny, yet somehow this doesn't break the game for people? I don't see it as him killing 300 guys. Sure he probably kills some, but I choose to believe that most of them are there for the purpose of gameplay and if the narrative were in some other form there would be a significantly reduced number of enemies.

The flip side of that is games like Fire Emblem or Valkyria Chronicles. Are we to believe that this wars are being fought by numbers in the 10s vs. numbers in the 100s in battles of 12 vs. 12 at a time? I'm out of time to write this, took longer than I thought, but you see where I'm going with this last bit right? I'll try to say more later if I can.

Posted by djou

I agree that narrative is outpacing gameplay innovation, but that's a good thing, it bringing a traditionally weak point in video games to parity with the mechanics.

You have to consider the pragmatic aspects of game design, at some point there will be a ceiling on the number of artists and programmers you can throw at a game to make it prettier or tighten the controls. Hiring ten more writers all at lower wages to sharpen the dialogue makes a huge impact. One of the most distinctive elements about Spec Ops was the progressive one-liners that the characters spoke as they slowly went mad. The same can be said about a technically unambitious game like TWD, greater resources were prioritized to the writing instead of developing a new engine.

I think the main crux of your argument is can big budget games like Bioshock and TR exist without combat (or less of it)? Every game needs peaks and valleys to the pacing to maintain a players interest over tens of hours. The easiest way to supply this is to fall back of tropes like waves of enemies or superficial character customization. You cite Heavy Rain as an example where minimal combat heightened the meaning of each kill, but if this type of game were as prevalent as an FPS it would cease to be distinctive. Players easily pick apart the flaws of the Bioshock combat because its a tired formula.

I hear people complain about the dissonance in Bioshock often, but one thing people never bring up is that this is not a subtle game. Everything about it is big and flashy: the settings, archetypal characters, themes, and game play mechanics. If there were less dissonance between the shooting and story it would go against its identity as a big ambitious game designed to offer something for every video game player. There's a legitimate critique that can be made that the shooting in Bioshock doesn't supply as satisfying an emergent situations as the setting and art direction, but even though it saddens me, this game is a first person action shooter, not a first person walker. At least right now no one will fund a $200 million dollar FPW.

Edited by oraknabo

I think there are always great gameplay advancements in the indie scene and don't look to AAA games to innovate on gameplay all that much.

What I'd actually like to see AAA titles do for a while is to examine some older gameplay elements that they seem to assume are outdated and nobody wants anymore.

The last year or so has been a real disappointment for me. I had very little fun playing most of the AAA games I bought this year. Most of them seemed so determined to hold your hand and not be too challenging while making everything you do in the game feel like a chore. The games I really loved were Dark Souls and XCOM, two difficult games that reject a lot of what the rest of the industry is doing. And it's not just the difficulty that I like, it's the balance of the game design and the choices they force me to make.

I hated playing ME3 with it's incredibly shallow dialogue options and recycled multiplayer maps. I couldn't even get through the first section of AC3 because I never had a moment of fun in the hours I tried to give it a chance. I realized Tomb Raider actually contained everything I wanted in a new Tomb Raider game, but it was so busy shoving me into QTE sequences and combat I wasn't interested in to ever let me do those things.

Skyrim and Dishonored were well made games that I was able to enjoy a lot more, but there was something really lacking in both.

I end up having to go back and play the Half-Life games, the Thief games & System Shock 2, Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines, The Fallouts, Torment & Arcanum, older Zeldas & Dragon Quests, STALKER and the GTA games over and over to remind me that I still love big, ambitious games.

I really want to get into newer games. I think for a while there at the beginning of this gen things were really great with the slow improvement of Assassin's Creed through the first three titles and the first 2 Mass effects, but I feel like EA and Ubisoft both decided by the last entries in each that they really didn't give a crap about putting out actually playable games. It also seems like most of the people that made those franchises great aren't even working on them anymore.

I thought Bioshock Infinite did some great things with storytelling and I think Levine knows more about weaving theme into a game than just about anyone, but the gameplay was really boring the hell out of me by the last few hours. I'm really just sick of games that want me trap me in an arena and make sure 100 attackers are dead before I can progress in a story I'm interested in.

EDIT: I also really enjoyed The Walking Dead too. I don't really want every game to become an adventure game, but I'll take a good story that makes me think about my choices any day over mindlessly shooting everything that comes at me.

Posted by Ben_H

I think this is an issue that is going to become more and more apparent as developers try and make stories more meaningful. In Far Cry 3 you go from terrified college bro to a killing machine in all of 10 minutes. With the continuing push to makes games more realistic they are going to have to do away with the concept of shooting lots of dudes because it will become an even bigger disconnect between narrative and gameplay. It is just getting to be far too over the top.

It is one thing I think the old Splinter Cell games (1-3) did right. They found the perfect balance between gameplay and narrative. Yes they were stealth games, but still. There weren't a ton of enemies but they were significantly tougher to take out. There was always a sense of urgency about those games too. But sadly even they switched over to the fast paced, shoot-lots-of-dudes style in the newer games even though it was completely out of place in them. Some of the most intense moments I can remember playing a game were when I only had a couple bullets left in SC1 and I had to make it through an area. Every shot was important. Every shot counted. It wasn't a case of finding whatever chews through enemies the fastest like most shooters, but how could I use the few gadgets and bullets I have to get past an area without being screwed for the next part. It is something I feel few games have accomplished since.

This exact subject is why I have essentially stopped playing shooters altogether. It feels pointless. Why are you shooting all these people? They almost never justify it, but just use it as a substitute for actual good gameplay.

Edited by Laiv162560asse

It's a knotty problem. More and more over the past couple of years I've come to question my attitude towards shooters and games with lots of poorly justified cruelty, in much the same way @epicsteve has in the OP. I've come to the decision that I want big budget games to be about strong characters, solid story and interesting themes, regardless of how good the sinew of the game mechanics is. As such, any game that treats one of its themes dismissively or clumsily is disappointing to me (though I might consider it good in other respects). In games where you're asked to care about other characters, the value of human life and death should have to figure into the game as a theme somewhere - or else why should you care about the moral justification of the player character, or the lives of sympathetic NPCs? Games such as Tomb Raider redux and BS: Infinite are a big turnoff to me in the way that they are padded with excessive, meaningless slaughter. Not everyone has to feel this way about games, but I do.

It's not a question of censorship or preciousness either. I love video game violence. However, I want thematic consistency. I don't want to feel like I'm reading a novel with a bunch of sudoku puzzles thrown in. Slaughter makes sense in God of War because Kratos is a horrible guy and he's fuckin' ANGRY, plus the violence is so ludicrously over the top that it becomes intentionally funny. It makes sense in Hotline Miami because the game is trying to be a nightmarish headfuck with a cruel, hostile atmosphere, where every nauseating death animation is a brush stroke in the service of making the main character's situation weirder. It makes sense in a popcorn revenge blockbuster like Max Payne 3 (despite the pillorying it got for its 'dissonance'), because Max is little more than John Creasy-type glorified merc fighting 3 entire South American armies. It rarely makes much sense in games that are aiming for some kind of deeper emotional resonance. In fact I found greater emotional resonance in Max Payne 3 because the violent journey is so simple and unpretentious: poor kids are shooting you for dumb reasons, you shoot them, it looks disgusting - so maybe hold off on that 3rd or 4th headshot. Well done, game, you've made me feel how I imagine I would feel I really were a grizzled badass who didn't necessarily want to be in this situation.

I don't want to talk much about Max Payne 3 but I guess it's a candidate for discussion because it was a relatively recent AAA title that got stick for its violence. There was a small but IMO under-appreciated moment towards the end of that game that I found fascinating, where an armed cop surrenders to you after you slaughter a room of his buddies. The game hasn't prepared you for this, there has been no non-fatal interaction with enemies during any of the preceding 11 chapters, and there is no 'Press A to execute, B to spare' type prompt. It's very easy to accidentally shoot the guy without realising what he wants. He just runs out, puts his hands up, kneels down and looks at the floor. You can leave him where he is; it's not a trick or some cynical, exploitative 'HAHAH, you showed compassion and now he's back to kill you!' moment. You can kill him - there's no reward or punishment either way except for what happens in your own head. It's just the game offering a reminder: "You realise you're killing people, right? Here's an opportunity not to kill, to remind you that you've been killing. Take it or not, I aint judging!" Many shooters seem to somehow forget they're depicting real death, or only draw attention to the killing as a bloody spectacle, which becomes a problem when a game is trying not to be silly pulp entertainment like MP3.

From what I've seen, I don't think a game like The Last of Us has the answer. Brutal violence, exaggerated blood spatter, hostage-taking purely for the purpose of killing more people, dehumanised enemies with potty mouths and a weirdly precocious little girl with an adult's voice providing emotional validation for your actions - that's still all just in the realm of exploitative pulp. It may create a more naturalistic weave of narrative and gameplay, due to a lower number of enemies (which itself is an aspect that remains to be seen), but thematically the game will need to provide a good reason for why I'm such a giant dick and why the two main characters are so special compared to those they're killing.

Funnily enough the only violent action games that have got the balance pitch perfect for me in recent memory are the Batman: Arkham games, since they happen to have a protagonist who refuses to kill. The violence is still ludicrous and fun, but there's a weirdly compassionate aspect to it all; in theory Batman is calculating everything he does to avoid damaging anyone too badly. Beating people up still makes sense, because that's what Batman exists to do. It makes sense that he will always have have loads of guys to fight, since the grunts are recycled, as they canonically inform us by complaining about injuries Batman has given them in the past. It seems that having a protagonist with a cast iron moral code goes a long way to smoothing out these jagged corners where gameplay and narrative meet. So there you have it. The answer, just like it is in all situations, is Batman.

Having said that, I would be interested in a Batman arc where it turned out that Lucius Fox had modified the cowl in order to give Batman free reign to murder people without guilt. I like the idea that detective vision shows prone bodies as 'Unconscious' even when they're dead as a doornail or dying in the gutter from brain haemorrhages.

Posted by misterpope

I definitely agree. Games that withhold on the violence make those violent moments so much more powerful. I'm always bugged in games like Mass Effect where I'm mowing through waves and waves of dudes only to have a cut-scene where I can take the "bad" choice to kill a dude or the "good" choice to save his life. Then I continue to mercilessly kill everybody between me and objective A. It works, if the gameplay is great and the writing is great then it isn't too apparent, but it always feels at odds with itself.