Ceasefire: Why games don’t have to be about combat

BioShock Infinite

By on April 9, 2013 at 9:29 am

Bioshock Infinite changed a lot of mainstream perspectives when it popped the cherry on 2013′s Game of the Year contenders because — outside of featuring an undisputed display of gorgeous visuals alongside a riveting story — it took great strides to slow down the pace of exposition. Most shooters make it their intention for you to be barrelling along at 600km/hour, constantly pointing out this new threat and that old threat, lobbing both physical and metaphorical grenades at you and praying that the player won’t quit out based squarely on the sheer exhaustion from sensory overload.

This is, primarily, why we have those awful turret/chase levels, dreadful QTEs and the plethora of world exploding possibilities that only you, dear player, can prevent. Lazy game design is also arguably successful game design — if you look at the sales figures for the large majority of the modern military shooter staple that we’ve been playing for the last ten plus years.

There have been plenty of other titles that have taken strides to steady the pace of play and allow proceedings to continue without combat. 1999′s Metal Gear Solid on the PSOne is a stellar example of creative pacing and combat avoidance, allowing for the actual development of non-player characters rather than simply blowing them up, while sparking the synapses of the player to develop non-violent or stealthy solutions to avoid certain situations. Sure, there were boss fights, but even those were quirky and clever and were woven into the story in a manner that invited their inclusion. Hell, you didn’t even have to kill them if you didn’t want to. For many people it was the PSN cult favourite Journey which demonstrated that experiences didn’t need to involve violence in order to be clever, interesting or fun.

But lets face it – BioShock Infinite still has combat. It has quite a lot of it actually, and most of it is extraordinarily violent and confronting. This isn’t a bad thing at all, since much of the game’s central themes revolve around protection, courage and redemption thus making violent confrontation an important element of Booker and Elizabeths’ story. A recent Kotaku interview with BioShock Infinite‘s lead man Ken Levine has him calling it “a limitation of the medium”, where people expect to have their existing skill-sets (shooting people in the face) stretched and exploited because, well, it’s easy. Why put together risky, complex, alternatives when the status quo for the last 20 or so years has worked so well, and reliably for everyone? Please take careful note to realize that I’m not being in any way sarcastic or ridiculing what Ken said, because he’s right. The status quo is working.

But are gamers already pre-wired to accept nothing but shooting mechanics in order to test their mettle in first person environments?

Here’s the thing: why not make combat, which is actually a very real and very final part of life, a rare and special event?

Why can’t we change up the dynamic? Instead of creating arbitrary firefights, especially in areas when they aren’t necessary (a good example is that “empty” section between one objective and the next – the long path of death), just allow the player to explore their environment and appreciate it. Create more in-game cut-scenes, more conversations between the protagonists, or locations where players can explore the story outside of the main direction.

The Fallout series does well here, in particular making certain combat situations so difficult or downright awful that the best way out is to avoid them altogether, or allow the player to use previously acquired intelligence or charisma to simply talk their way out of a confrontation — as most people would in real life! Some of my most revered victories have not been when I shot some dudes a bunch of times, but when I outsmarted them, snuck around their obvious traps and overwhelming army, or simply used my wits to present a more appropriate outcome for both parties.

Life or death combat tends to present a very one-dimensional ending to a situation. Your nemesis generally hates you, so he wants you dead, or vice-versa. You kill them and things go on. Much of the now-famous dribble that was Far Cry 3‘s campaign was a victim of this dilemma, where the protagonist is being shown as an innocent with their back against the wall, but their actions — your actions — tell a completely different story. I’m sure if everyone on the island in Lost thought the same way as the protagonists in Far Cry 3, there probably wouldn’t have been more than a single season.

Here’s the thing: why not make combat, which is actually a very real and very final part of life, a rare and special event? Design the game around these eventual events, building actual anticipation and stress, actually allowing us to think that the avatar we are controlling actually has a conscience, can feel fear and regret about bloodshed, and isn’t just another mindless killing machine desperate to blow holes in everything that moves. Build us a climax.

When we get there, do we have to kill or physically disarm our foe? Does this person not have any weaknesses that can be exploited, where we can simply capture, bribe or manipulate? Why not develop a system or puzzles or build a set of social dynamic skills that allow us to work through a confrontation – we’re all used to having long, winding conversations with NPCs thanks to BioWare, so why not leave a bullet to the head the worst possible outcome? You can do it, but it’s like winning via a kick to the crotch. It’s a coward’s win.

There are consequences to killing people outside a game, and as games become more dynamic, realistic, and gritty — why are those consequences not reflected? Why don’t the family or friends, or hell, even your companions, care when you maim or kill another person? Shouldn’t that affect how the entire world thinks of you, since after all, you’re now a murderer. Take Dishonored as another brilliant example of alternatives; You have intrinsic choices on how you deal with people, and those choices effect the outcome of not only the major events of the city, but how people deal with you and how your public image is developed.

I’m sure I’ve lost many of you after the last few paragraphs, and I’m sure most of those people were yelling at their screen about the fact that, well, shooting things is fun. I’d agree – it is. I adore playing Battlefield, Call of Duty and other mainstream military shooters because, well, killing virtual soldiers is a blast. But when we’re expected to believe that Nathan Drake’s only course of action — especially when he has such a smart mouth on him — is murdering the entire henchmen population of the various locales he visits has zero consequences outside of his love interest getting ‘a little lippy’, is ridiculous.

My point is that it’s getting a little old wondering when developers will stop using combat as a crutch to connect various aspects of their game together, to relieve boring or “filler” elements, or simply get players excited. There are numerous other ways to get people going — hell, a good score and some passionate conversation is enough to get me riled up. At one point in BioShock Infinite, I spent an entire section walking through a meticulously well designed scene with my gun pointed down, as a massive story arc made itself known. But I couldn’t enjoy it. Because, like in every other game of its kind, eventually my gun would need to be used again, and it would be time to thoughtlessly kill even more people.

Sadly, I didn’t have to wait that long. But hopefully one day, I won’t have to see that gun on-screen at all — unless there really was no other choice.

17 comments (Leave your own)

i agree totally, combat is getting OLD, too much useless violence, cant we make games that dont rely totally on killing? You can make war games, but war is so much more than killing, its fear, thinking, reason, strategy, diplomacy, solutions, imagine how deep could you make the experience.
I really hope that games can develop more emotion, become real stories, not just a shallow excuse to make money, and i really have to blame consumers here, because the call of duty generation killed the inventive of big companies.


I completely agree. Games that offer alternatives to the standard strategy of “shoot bad guys in face” should be more prolific, but instead we get more CoD clones marching you down a linear shooting gallery. I got fed up of those games a decade ago, particularly when there are so many other options open.

I guess there’s a market for that, but I just can’t be bothered buying those any more.


To each their own I guess, but I enjoy games with combat and gunplay. It’s not very often that I play something that doesn’t involve gratuitous violence!

In fact the most fun I’ve had in a video game for a long time has been Chivalry, lopping off limps and poking holes into the enemy with sword or bow :D


I think the problem can be solved by making games with a realistic framework. Now I’ve never played a CoD or Battlefield game, but I did just recently play 5 min of Homefront (before uninstalling it), so I’m going to use that to make some assumptions about CoD-clones.

In a war the objective is NOT to execute a whole group of people. It is to capture territory, hearts and minds. With a clear objective and realistic framework players should be able to find ways of completing the objective other than by simply executing all the enemies. Even in Crysis 1 I could do this: “Nomad there’s a KPA patrol up ahead.” *OK no problem I’ll just skirt around it in a boat I captured (self set, secondary objective made possible by a realistic sandbox framework).*


While I’m no fan of generic FPS games, which I find most of the genre are, I found Bioshock Infinite had strides in other areas of the game that allowed me to ‘deal with’ this aspect, and actually get through the game. Bioshock 2 on the other hand didn’t, and I don’t think I played that one for more than an hour.

One of my favourite games to this day, and one I picked up again recently, is Vampire Masquerade: Bloodlines, which everyone is no doubt familiar with, but that offered a myriad of scenarios and mixed things up. Sections of the game revolving around conversation, and being able to achieve perks for investing in conversations skill, or using them to talk your way into a situation where combat doesn’t happen. Heck, you can even convince some poor sap that bubble gum will dissolve his fangs, and that he can take on the head honcho vampire, if you are inclined that way.

Admittedly, it does have plenty of combat sections, but its not going full tilt the entire game, and of course, you can stealth through some sections, and oft the ‘mindless killing’ is reprimanded by changes in the chat dialogue later, although it doesn’t change the direction of the story. Further, this doesn’t take into account the areas that don’t have any combat at all, heck, some times there doesn’t even have to anyone in the area; the ocean front hotel still gives me the creeps when I go through, and I’ve been through it half a dozen times already!

Fanboying aside, bring on another Vampire Masquerade (done right!), and it is perfectly possible, and some times preferred, to have games that aren’t guns-a-blazing 95% of the time, although what Bioshock Infinite did with the other elements was genius to off set what in my opinion, would have been another generic shooter; hell, Crysis 3 is a gorgeous game, probably anticipated by a few, but what do you do in the game? Enjoy the gorgeous landscapes, do that wacked out hacking puzzle over and over, and shoot things 95% of the game until they’re dead. Doesn’t matter (to me) how much cash they sunk into it, its still looks and feels like a generic shooter.


Great article.

Imagine a FPS war game where the enemy could surrender. Just by having that mechanic, the whole experience could change.

Capturing enemies by outsmarting them could be a valuable commodity in a game, and give access to better loot/rewards/information (better to have someone to interrogate and to take their guns/food/etc, right?).

In multiplayer, surrendering could allow you to respawn more quickly.

And all kinds of decisions might change – do I try to run away to avoid capture? Is this strategic location worth risking death to hold, or should I surrender?

And I would love to see penalties for dishonourably ignoring the laws of war, e.g., shooting unarmed enemies.

Plus even if people didn’t play nice, the framework established would mean that you could have a real reason to hate some of your enemies.


For some uber fun and rather challenging non-gun gameplay checkout the game Osmos! For a bonus it also goes quite cheap during Steam sales!


treating violence as something special: Heavy Rain.


Good article! It’s got a lot of points I agree wholeheartedly about.


Good article!It’s got a lot of points I agree wholeheartedly about.

Agreed….while not a true shooter in the traditional sense…playing Mirrors edge and not using a gun throughout the entire game was one of my most Fav memories, sure it was hard and frustrating at times…but on completion…fist-pumpingly good…and I was proud to NOT have killed anyone.



i agree totally, combat is getting OLD, too much useless violence, cant we make games that dont rely totally on killing? You can make war games, but war is so much more than killing, its fear, thinking, reason, strategy, diplomacy, solutions, imagine how deep could you make the experience.
I really hope that games can develop more emotion, become real stories, not just a shallow excuse to make money, and i really have to blame consumers here, because the call of duty generation killed the inventive of big companies.

Civilsation … like everyone of them
Caesar 1,2 &3 emporer rise of the middle kingdom
90% of point and click games, poker night at the inventory there’s loads of games that don’t revolve around murder you just have to look outside the AAA world.


Is anyone else getting deja vu? This brooding shifting from left foot to right of discontent with violence was the very reason two brother decided they were going to make a new game with zero violence. The brothers: Rand and Robyn Miller; the game: Myst. Ten million copies and twenty years later (this coming September; ten of those years were spent as the top selling PC/Mac game) and it seems the game’s industry is in the very same position it was back then.

If history is going to follow in its own tradition, than I cannot wait to see what the next ‘Myst’ is going to be…


I remember reading that somewhere, it would be great to see more classic adventures too.

James Pinnell

Enjoyed reading everyone’s great responses, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks design needs to evolve to meet a new generation expecting more mature and reasoned experiences.

I really liked your ideas on surrender, caitsith, it’s never really occured to me that almost every game based on conflict, surrender or detainment is almost *never* an option.


excellent artice, but I love rts titles also


Yeah. I’m so over combat it all it’s forms. I hope the new Bejeweled game removes all combat style features. Why should we have to destroy all of those beautiful gems in a shower of crystalline gore? Why instead can’t we combine them in a beautiful tapestry of a myriad of colours? This would of course help remove other divisive elements from the game. Bejewled and games of it’s ilk discriminate against those who are not good at pattern recognition. Why is aligning 4 gems of the same colour better than 3? No matter how you arrange the crystals you should be rewarded just the same as anyone else!

James Pinnell

I think you missed the point a little Tayschrenn.

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