Musings on combat in videogames

Combat in videogames gets a bad rap for two reasons: one, game designers fall back on it all too often, and two, due to its association with violence.

Thing is, in many storytelling traditions battles aren't meant to be taken literally, but rather as metaphors reflecting on the hero's struggles with life and inner demons. Nowadays this is most readily noticeable in manga and anime... and gets completely misunderstood by western audiences that watch the latter expecting spectacle, but instead are treated to the opponents monologuing and otherwise psyching themselves up for one decisive strike. Despite the fact that shootouts at high noon, that staple of Western movies, are all about the spiritual confrontation between the two sides, before a single shot draws the conclusion...

Not long ago I was pointing out how in martial arts movies, at least the good ones, the story is told through the string of fight scenes, as opposed to in-between them, or despite them. Then I remembered that the best videogames do that too: in Warcraft (the 1994 original), it's the missions themselves that tell the story; the scrolling text before each one merely provides context.

But for that to work, combat as a narrative device must have something to say. I've recently started reading a webcomic named Crezure, an urban fantasy in a magitech world with cyberpunk aesthetics, and just got to the part where we visit the underground fighting ring that's so central to the plot. Surprise, surprise: the comic being made by two women, instead of the ultraviolent portrayal we know from movies, what we get is a way for marginalized people to blow some steam and make some money at the same time while keeping injuries at a minimum. One of the main cast having a friendly chat with the fighter she just defeated in her very first match is enlightening.

Real-world sports are more violent than that. Which is no surprise, seeing how many of them are abstractions of armed conflict. Heck, ice hockey and American football require heavy protective equipment, and still end up breaking players with alarming regularity. (Funny how both are hugely popular in North America, but not so much in any other part of the world.)

This is important for videogames, because as I pointed out first thing, game designers infamously fall back on combat all too often. In all honesty, it's hard to blame them: combat is an easy challenge to explain, with clear goals and an engaging back-and-forth built in. If you ever did any arm wrestling, you know what I mean. And that's about the simplest kind there is.

At least fighting games are just that, on purpose; RPGs however are supposed to let people, you know, roleplay. Which means giving them a choice on how to solve problems. And never mind those that don't. Some of them infamously allow players to use peaceful approaches right until a plot-critical moment, when there's no choice but to fight... and the hero is woefully unprepared.

Ironic how bad game design ends up mirroring real life.

So how can we fix this? The obvious solution is to make combat truly optional, which can be tricky. Besides, you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. For one thing, make combat meaningful. Enough with the random pelt collecting. Make up enemies that have some relevance to the plot. Or one of the sidequests. Or even just something, anything to make them unique and memorable. Upon adding the first monster to Keep of the Mad Wizard, I showed people a screenshot. They had strong emotional reactions, and it's not even fifty words of a textual description. In a generic fantasy game, too. If that sounds like a high bar, maybe your game has less to say than you thought.

And then, come on. Make combat itself allow for different approaches. In the aforementioned game, you can tackle a monster head-on, or figure out which of the spells you have handy can get you past it with the least damage. The latter makes it play more like an adventure game, yet you still get enough XP to level up and start winning straight fights if you want to. And that's just two options. I've seen RPGs that offer magic, special attacks and items like throwing knives, in such a way that choosing between them is as much a matter of strategy as it is one of style.

No, getting this right is not so easy. Earn your title, dear game designers.

I could easily stop here. There's more, however. Western culture has a conflicted relationship with violence. On the one hand, we glorify it: in history, in fiction, and when it comes to bombing the hell out of not-so-white people from distant countries. On the other hand, we're terrified of the idea that an angry demonstrator might (the horror!) overturn a garbage bin. Or punch us in the nose if we insult their grievances. My personal theory is that most people in developed countries haven't so much as been bullied once in their lives. Hence why they keep giving kids dangerously useless advice such as "just ignore them" (which only makes it worse) or "tell an adult" (which results in the victim being blamed).

That's why on the one hand people in this half of the world insist that "conflict is what drives stories" (no wonder they don't get anime), yet on the other hand seek to blame violent videogames every time there's another armed massacre. While in older cultures they get that strife is a part of life, that no amount of civilization can or should eliminate entirely. Which isn't the same as wantonly beating on the helpless! That's portrayed just as negatively in Japanese media as it is in Europe.

Yet somehow we keep demanding impossible fantasies of stopping tyrants with kindness, even as we consistently fail to come up with even imaginary ways to do so. Go figure.