Games are a medium just like film is a medium, although we never hear about something being criticized for not "being a movie," the same way that claim is held against certain games. A part of this may be due to the fact that violence is often seen as the default interaction for many big-name games, while everything else is seen as icing on a particularly bloody cake.
Which is why, looking back on 2015 with a bit of distance, I'm much more impressed with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt than I am with Fallout 4. They're both amazing games, and will long be remembered in the year's canon of games one should play to understand where the industry was. However, one game seems to relentlessly funnel you toward combat, while the other allows for a much more subtle form of storytelling.
To see what I mean, let me tell you about a race.
A missed opportunity
I didn't expect to hear the cries of an announcer yelling animatedly about a race while I was wandering around Bethesda's fictional Boston wasteland in Fallout 4, especially when his excitement came through bad speakers from a decaying racetrack. I approached the location, enjoying his announcements of strange names.
Looking through my sniper scope, I watched as various robots "ran" the track, although many, to be more accurate, floated.
The crowd was cheering while sitting on the bleachers watching the spectacle. Perhaps, I thought, some had gambled their life savings yearning for a dream that would never become reality. I had some spare caps and decided I wanted to bet, too. The scene ignited my imagination.
Only, I had forgotten: This is Fallout 4.
The default for a situation in Fallout 4 is to kill everyone. There was to be no engagement with this lovingly crafted setup, and no interaction with the audience or the managers that wasn't in the language of bullets and death. Instead, my mere arrival resulted in the announcer summoning the audience to attack me. The scenario in my head remained there; the game was more interested in violence than world-building.
The fight was memorable, if only because I found a switch that led to the detonation of all the mindless robots. Other than that, it was the same firefight with faceless characters that I'd been having since the beginning of the game.
This is not an issue I only have with Fallout 4, but it speaks to a wider problem. There is often little room in these worlds for situations that aren't resolved by violence, even when the possibility for something more is present. These beautiful worlds are created, and then filled with bullets.
These stunning environments, created by talented artists, become mere battlefields for the same mechanics of slaughter that have existed since the first shooters.
Bloodborne's gorgeous Yharnam is there to let its gutters gush with blood. Watch Dogs' Chicago has a thin mask of interaction, dressed in the magic called "one-button hacking," that almost always ended with your hacker wizard shooting people.
Indeed, you use magic hacking software to assault NPCs, sometimes even before they've committed a crime — because "the software" tells your character to. The best outcome for side quests is physical assault by a character who is not even law enforcement. The worst is the NPCs are killed. The tools are merely set dressing for the violence.
The problem isn't that these games include combat, but that combat is relied upon as the primary method of engaging with their detailed, incredible worlds. Developers are now so effective at creating detailed versions of both realistic and fantastical environments, but our interactions remain fixated on violence.
Something feels wrong when mission after mission can be whittled down into a repetition of the same one you did a few minutes ago ... only this time, in a different location, maybe with one or two different enemies. These games look better than ever, but their worlds are wasted on superficial combat. When you compare the recent Fallout games with even past versions of the Fallout universe, there is a case to be made that interesting and non-violent options have been removed from the series.
Kotaku's Patricia Hernandez created a video about what was cut from Fallout 4, and you can begin to see a bit of the team's priorities. There were hints of some really neat stuff ... that was ultimately struck down by the figurative red pen.
Hernandez spoke about the Combat Zone, a location in the game where you meet a companion. It looks like a space where you could bet on and watch cage fighting. But, just like my own experience with an area where a fun betting activity appeared to be set up, this becomes another bullet-by-numbers slaughterfest.
Hernandez shows a trailer where it appears the player is watching a cage fight happen. "There's a souvenir shop," she says. "There's a bar, there's a fighting cage and even seats for the audience." Wouldn't it be great if these things meant something? Instead, it all becomes a well-decorated, lovingly crafted backdrop for blood and bullets.
This isn't a problem that's unique to Fallout 4 but, considering what fans have written and tell me about the franchise's history and Bethesda's, this latest iteration seems to have deliberately viewed noncombat interactions as secondary. The world looks to be much richer than its predecessors, but you interact with it via your weapons.
Even something as powerful as Fallout 4's base building, while unique and expansive, is optional. You won't "lose" by not building. Indeed, even after spending hours playing mayor to numerous towns, I felt little in terms of impact. There were no new stories to tell; the systems didn't feed into ... well, anything. The little towns just kind of stood there, lit and loud and patrolled, but I felt little for them.
Fallout 4's stripped-down dialogue system is another example of this. Your dialogue options rarely result in different outcomes. Dialogue "choices" serve as minor directions to let another character give exposition, not as a way for your character to actually have meaningful conversations with others. What you say doesn't matter, although the game tries to fool you into thinking it does.
The best attempts to focus on nonviolent or noncombat playthroughs don't work. Christopher Livingston attempted to avoid combat and ultimately failed.
"As much fun as I'm having with Chuck, I don't feel like I'll get much further with him," Livingston said. "Charisma and Luck are great when they're maxed out, and there are some enjoyable perks, but they definitely need to be paired with combat or stealth. I'm just not finding enough situations that I can talk my way in and out of, and even maxed-out luck isn't enough to survive a real fight. More and more often as I play, the dapper Chuck is winding up on the ground covered in blood."
Fallout 4 has no meaningful dialogue; the skill tree, with its lack of a level cap, means there's nothing unique about your character. You can eventually unlock everything, and the endings seem to be variations on the same theme. Your choices mean little.
The worst part is that some big-budget open-world games have worked around violence. And they did so in 2015. Let me tell you about an old lady's cookware and weddings.
The story of the pan and the wolves
The Witcher 3 was my personal game of the year (even if I had issues with it). CD Projekt Red's open-world action adventure was incredible, garnering numerous 2015 Game of the Year awards from many outlets. [Editor's note: Not on Polygon, but it was close!]
I fell in love with the game because I found (and am still finding) stories in it that are stunning, humorous and tragic — stories that didn't require me to kill my way through them. The Witcher 3 contains a beautiful, well-realized world that is matched by the interactions that world offers.
During one scene, an old lady demanded that I enter her tiny shack and retrieve a pan for her. Some soldier, you see, had come by a few hours earlier and commandeered her house. There is no fighting: you enter her awful abode, scratch around and find her pan. From the soot in it, Geralt is able to weave together a story of what happened. You return it to her, and she gives you some food. That's it. That's the quest.
Yet the woman is hilariously crotchety and Geralt's reluctance is charming, and the story he figures out from the soot is tragic. From the black powder, Geralt uncovers a message, and he pieces together the rest of the tale after examining other aspects of the environment. The world feels alive; you're not pushed into death.
Throughout The Witcher 3, you encounter many situations that are almost entirely about conversations. In one of them, Geralt speaks with a troll; the entire quest is about getting paint for the troll. There's a scene in the expansion Hearts of Stone in which Geralt allows himself to be possessed by the ghost of a womanizing brute and attends a wedding with a woman he adores. He catches pigs, dives for shoes and dances.
Geralt fights often. He is, after all, a witcher: a monster killer for hire. But conversations matter as much as combat, and investigating the world of The Witcher 3 — even if it's just a basic button press — is essential. Not only do the stories themselves matter, but Geralt often has to piece stories together to solve quests. Gathering knowledge is how he comes to know his targets and how he prepares for battles.
The Witcher 3 is not a game that feels like it has to rely solely on combat to keep the player interested. Indeed, its most memorable moments for me are entirely about refined stories and interactions with characters. I still roar with laughter thinking of Geralt badly performing poetry on stage, or leading pigs to a magical cave.
Default to destruction
It's clear that diversifying interaction makes your game more memorable; it's one reason so many people love the indie darling Undertale. The mixture of an interesting, if somewhat controversial, bullet hell mechanic with turn-based combat freshens everything up.
DayZ, despite all its flaws and frustrations, remains interesting due to the various ways in which players can interact with its world. Players engage in negotiation, bartering and fragile alliances with total strangers. DayZ benefits from the fact that other characters are controlled by real people, so these interactions don't have to be written ahead of time. But the real benefit is the world: Arma 2 provided the backdrop for DayZ's interactions.
Starting with an existing setting and adding interesting ways to play with other people is part of the magic. One could only imagine what would happen if other developers were able to use the worlds of games like Grand Theft Auto 5 to facilitate more interesting ways to play.
There's nothing inherently wrong with combat or violence or brutality in a game. It's just disappointing how many games continue to rely on it as the only or the main method of engaging with their world when it appears to be more available at first blush. There will always be a market for Call of Duty, but the games that funnel us into violence often remain frustrating, especially when it seems like there should be more there.
I say all this as the only person I know who's genuinely excited for the upcoming digital temper tantrum that is Doom, and as someone who loved the combat in both Bloodborne and Fallout 4. Wanting more variety doesn't mean wanting these games to never exist — indeed, it's wanting more to exist than just the ability to decorate beautiful game worlds in blood.
Shooting and combat don't need to be this ubiquitous. Watch Dogs didn't have to be about guns. The Division didn't have to look like another third-person shooter. Fallout 4 didn't have to resolve all its quests with slaughter. But there's an idea out there that seems to state that that path is the quickest way to sales.
It's not true. It's unfortunate. And we can do better.