There's a very interesting post over at Tea Leaves about how RPGs are about leveling up, and how leveling up practically always requires combat.
This reminds me of a pervasive problem in games: a disconnect between a game's fiction (what it's trying to make you believe) and it's mechanics (what it's allowing, and encouraging, you to do).
These are two crucial aspects of interactive entertainment, and they must be designed to integrate very closely if one wants to tap the potential to evoke emotions. Yet few game developers do this. It is never easy to add new constraints to the already difficult design process, to be forced to rethink basic premises of gameplay (such as leveling up) instead of simply using the conventions of the genre you're working in, and to think about the fiction side, which requires different skills than what is required for designing, say, combat resolution rules.
A good example of the disconnect between fiction and mechanics can be found in BioWare's Knights of the Old Republic. This game contains many opportunities for the player to choose between "good" and "evil" behavior - an essential aspect of the Star Wars universe. Yet many gameplay systems do not allow you to make this choice. You can break into people's apartments. When the inhabitant is home and attacks you, as sometimes happens, your "good" party members will happily join you in killing them. You can then loot the apartment and sell the proceeds to buy weapons (and even drugs). No-one will criticize you, and your Light / Dark rating won't change. As far as I know, there are no consequences.
Another quick example. One of my pet peeves: in a lot of RPGs, you will encounter one or both of the following situations:
- A party member carries a Very Special weapon (or other item), which has great significance to the character. Within a few hours of playing, the player will be practically forced to sell this weapon and buy a better one. And nobody will say a word. "How may I be of service, milord?" "Hi, yeah, I'd like to swap old Excalibur here for that longsword +20, please?" "An excellent choice, milord."
- Two party members have sworn they will Never Leave Each Other. But their bond is obviously not that strong, because the player can easily take one of them into battle, while the other hangs out somewhere safe (Albion did this properly by the way). A variation of this problem occurs in KOTOR, where a party member swears to protect me with his life, but doesn't mind that I never ask him to accompany me on my quests.
But I digress.
Violence and combat are at the roots of role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons grew out of wargames with a medieval fantasy setting (read the history here). Medieval fantasy allows for a plausible explanation of why you're murdering and looting: these are Bad Monsters after all, and conflicts were resolved in a more straightforward way back in those times.
In the decades since D&D, pen and paper RPGs have evolved, and both game mechanics and settings have become much more diverse and sophisticated. But in most cases, the violence has remained. A few pen and paper RPG designers have exposed the hypocrisy, for instance Greg "Designer X" Costikyan, who made Violence, or John Tynes, who made Power Kill. Mr. Tynes, together with Greg Stolze, later made the excellent Unknown Armies, which deals with these issues by unflinchingly simulating the effects of violence, the unnatural, isolation, self-deception. (In a way, this is "Apocalypse Now: The RPG" mentioned in the Tea Leaves post.)
Computer RPGs, which started out as translations of pen and paper RPGs, have taken over these roots, and have made even less effort to deal with these deep issues as the medium has grown more sophisticated.
The Tea Leaves post mentions Ultima IV and, in the comments, Planescape:Torment, as games that treat violence in a different way from most games. Sadly, I have not played the former, and stopped playing the latter too quickly to really get to know it, but I'll take the author's word for it. But there's one other game that comes to mind that tried to allow the player to avoid violence, and that also tried to rethink the basic premises of the CRPG, to the point that it is often no longer seen as one: Deus Ex. Admittedly, they failed to completely avoid combat, but it came pretty close. Supposedly, the sequel allows one to finish the entire game without killing a single entity.
Of course, Deus Ex is still, essentially, a game about a secret super-agent who is in conflict with bad guys. It just allows the conflict to be played out using other means than lethal violence. In a post on Nelson's Weblog that responds to the Tea Leaves post, another game is mentioned: Harvest Moon, an E-rated farming RPG series consisting of 11 titles so far. It reminds me of Animal Crossing. From the GameSpot review of Harvest Moon: Back To Nature:
"Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is surprisingly one of the most satisfying role-playing experiences to be found on the PlayStation. Instead of following the standard flashy FMV, save the world formula, Back to Nature involves you in the day-to-day tasks of running a farm, maintaining friendships, and building a family in a not too flashy but thoroughly involving manner."
I haven't played the game, and it's not well-known in the West. But it seems to be a fairly successful franchise.
Evidently it is possible to design games that do not focus on violent combat, or deal with violent combat in a more mature manner, or even eschew violence altogether. The next question is then: Why are so few people doing this?