On Gameplay and the Gun

by Steve Bowler on December 16, 2007 · 1 comment

in combat,general

I was checking out an older post from Damion over at Zen of Design earlier today, discussing repeatability in games, and it reminded me of a piece I was going to craft awhile back trying to chain-of-thought figure out why we’re so dependent on guns in video games these days.

Damion explores that repeatability is behind the emphasis on combat in today’s more popular titles, and I think he has an excellent point. It is easy to ask players to combat small challenges and then grow both those challenges and the skills needed to take on the hightened challenges, and it’s an enjoyable series of tasks for the player, too. But I don’t think repeatability is necessarily what’s behind the reason combat, guns, and swords are so successful in today’s market (be it MMO, single player, multiplayer, what have you). Granted, it’s certainly a part, if not the part, of the gameplay mechanics, however, I think there’s something much more visceral at stake in the decision making process of why games are designed around guns, and it might even be a subliminal, unconscious effort.

Exploring the model of repeatability, we could eschew combat and probably just as easily craft a cooking game (not unlike Cooking Mama) and give the players larger and larger cooking challenges (start off with a bowl of cereal, end with…uh…what’s difficult to make? A souffle?) and give players more tools and complex instruments to deal with those challenges. Okay, yeah, I think that pretty much is Cooking Mama. And while that game is fun and compelling, it lacks a key component that a gun immediately brings to the table:

Lethal Conflict.

Sure, there’s conflict in Cooking Mama. Will I beat the CPU opponent? Will I make this dish better than I have before? It certainly has the necessary game components to add a touch of drama and tension for the player; failure means a scolding, repeating the task again, and possibly the shame of losing to a friend/cpu opponent.

But imagine if someone was holding a gun to your head while you were baking. That would change things, no? Suddenly, failure is not an option. Your life, albeit virtual, is at stake. Failing now just doesn’t mean a scolding and a retry at the level; it means having to watch your cute chef-san avatar brutally cut down execution style. No doubt ruining your dish and your day with a kitchen full of bloody brains. Now you don’t just fail. You die.

Overkill? Certainly, for a game like Cooking Mama, but what the gun brings to the game designer is an immediate escalation of emotion and repercussion for your action/inaction. It’s instant drama: just add guns. I’m not saying that the gun is any kind of auto-key to a successful IP; it would obviously be ridiculous in Cooking Mama (or would it if the tone wasn’t so cute?), but what it does bring you is an immediately recognizable conflict with an emotional buy-in for the player. It doesn’t need explanation, a guide, or a tutorial. One minute you’re having a conversation with someone, the next you’re negotiating for your life at the end of a heater. It’s a situation we are almost hard-wired (from pop culture and media) to identify with as citizens of the current era.

You just don’t get that kind of escalation/drama with frying pans or scalpels or soccer balls. It really only comes, genuinely, from personal combat weaponry. While fists and tanks and missiles and jets have a close proximal relationship with guns and swords, they either lack lethality (in the case of fists) or intimacy (in the case of tanks, missiles, jets, etc.). It’s that sweet spot somewhere inbetween lethality and intimacy that just grabs players and doesn’t let go when you throw that weapon in the ring. A boxing match is suddenly more tense when a knife comes into play. You could further escalate that by then giving the other guy a gun, but it becomes overkill when the first guy then gets to call in an airstrike. It loses that intimacy which creates a personal experience/bond for the player.

So consider this: can you envision a game mechanic which would have as much lethal tension and emotional buy-in/believeability as a gun/sword/knifefight, but not use combat as its principle vehicle? How would you keep it from sounding and looking ridiculous? Don’t get me wrong here; I want to see games not use guns as their principle vehicle for resolving conflict. I just am having a hard time wrapping my head around how to do that and have it be as gripping or more suspenseful than a John Woo Mexican Standoff. I just don’t see that happening right now, in today’s culture, sadly.

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