“You can do anything you want.” That is what nearly all open-world games, from Grand Theft Auto to Skyrim, try to sell you. That notion, foolishly ambitious, is presented as side activities in these games—racing, parasailing, hunting—that live crushed beneath what the majority of these games are about: fashionable violence. Grand Theft Auto V gives far more attention to the minute details of violence than it does any of its more mundane activities. Windshields shattering in an oh so Hollywood manner by shotgun pellets, or the flop of a dying man’s hand as he bleeds out in the middle of an intersection, are more lovingly crafted than the game’s activities, like shopping or interacting with non-playable characters.
It’s difficult to imagine Grand Theft Auto without a focus on violence, given the crime focus in the series’ stories; however, many open-world games follow the same blueprint laid out by Grand Theft Auto III years ago, centering on killing or maiming and littering the rest of the digital sandbox with other toys and trinkets, rarely engaging, to feed the illusion that the player can do anything they wish.
Here are five games, the majority of them open-world, that would benefit from a new, non-violent focus.
1. Far Cry
Far Cry is the best game when it comes to transporting players to exotic, gorgeous destinations. Too bad what could be a fantastic tourism simulator quickly erodes into a shooting gallery. Wouldn’t it be nice to take a walk along the beaches of the Rook Islands without worrying about some bandit or rebel sniping you, or gaze down over the peaks of Kyrat and slowly take in the glorious world that these teams of artists, coders and designers have painstakingly created? To be able to admire and interact with scenery and the wildlife in a way that doesn’t involve filling them with hot lead and arrows?
Far Cry 4 in particular would have been a far superior game if violence wasn’t its driving force. The story of Ajay returning home to spread his mother’s ashes is, on a conceptual level, touching and brimming with potential. Too bad every conversation in that game occurs within the context of where you’re going next and how you’re going to kill whatever is there.
With affordable VR tech slowly approaching, it would be worthwhile to consider a game like Far Cry removed from gunplay, a non-violent virtual celebration of the majesty of nature. Perhaps a game centered around photography instead of gunfire.
Infamous has been touted by critics as one of the best super hero games, if not the best. The problem with that is that being a hero/heroine involves more than just punching people or zapping them with electricity. What about saving them from burning buildings or derailed trains? Or hanging with other super heroes, the only people on the planet who can understand the privilege and burden of having powers, and trying to find peace in quiet moments? Infamous is too fixated on the loud, messy parts of being a hero, to the point that all three games eventually become a mindlessly repetitive massacre lacking the heart or humor that’s so often at the center of Infamous’ inspirations.
It’s a shame because Infamous could be so much more interesting, too, by focusing on other elements. Don’t give me a hundred ways to kill or capture a criminal and call it a day. Maybe just give me two or three and, more importantly, sell me on the fantasy of being a hero or a villain. Show me the consequences of my actions. Maybe if I casually stroll through a certain neighborhood in the game, I’ll see a kid I saved from drowning in an earlier mission just walking about or playing in their backyard. Maybe give me branching paths and dialogue trees where I can get into a heated debate with a fellow hero about how to handle a situation. There is so much untapped potential here that exists outside of the loop of violence that Infamous and other super hero games are stuck in.
3. Watch Dogs
Watch Dogs is a tragic game. Buried beneath the layers of misogynistic, racist, poorly designed garbage there’s a kernel of absolute genius. The concept of being a hacker capable of tapping into a modern city’s systems to use it against their enemies is brilliant. But, as this is an open-world AAA game released in 2014, it is disappointingly inevitable that that concept takes a backseat to violence. Instead of a sharp, likeable hacker who uses their wits to outmaneuver and defeat their foes, we got Aiden Pearce, a protagonist that rises directly out of pop culture’s fascination with Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman like a stench from a sewer.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, a version of Watch Dogs where the script isn’t trash, where we have a protagonist that’s at the very least sympathetic if not likable, where hacking is your main weapon instead of a pistol. Where causing alarms to go off will bring the police to chase your enemies or fight them for you while you make a clean getaway. A game where instead of merely spying on NPCs you can have some measure of influence in their lives that doesn’t stem from shoving a gun in their face. You can take from the rich to give to the poor. You can bring down corrupt politicians by making their emails or financial data public information, without firing a shot, without murdering a single person. A hacker fantasy untouched by the need for violence.
Pour one out, folks. That could have been a hell of a game.
4. Mass Effect
I love Mass Effect’s combat. I truly do. I think Mass Effect 2 and 3 are some of the best third person shooters thanks to the biotic and tech powers that let you cause havoc on the battlefield. That said, can you imagine a game set in that universe where you don’t have to pick up a gun or order anyone else to kill somebody?
I’m convinced that the moment Bioware finally makes a dating simulator out of Mass Effect or Dragon Age or licenses another developer to do so will change games in a big way for the better. Because, yeah, the combat is fun, but it’s painfully apparent that the majority of people play these games for the characters and not for the shooty/stabby bits. Make a game where you just hang around with Garrus or Tali or Wrex in a bar and people would buy it and probably love it to pieces and it would encourage more games in that mold.
5. Assassin’s Creed
I can’t recall a series in the past few years I’m more disappointed in than Assassin’s Creed, which has the entirety of history at its pleasure. The places they could take you! The people you could play as! The stories they could tell! And yet, year after year, we’re treated to another yarn about a dude mingling with historical figures while he stabs bad guys in the face.
Yes, sure, the game’s called Assassin’s Creed but why not take that concept and create a nonviolent offshoot? An interactive Wishbone of sorts where each game explores a different period of history. Maybe we could be a diplomat in China during the Ming dynasty or a spy in the USSR or perhaps we could play as a woman who’s not confined to DLC or a brief, downloadable adventure, but instead a full release and all the publisher support that goes with that.
Assassin’s Creed lifted itself out of the muck by taking a chance with Assassin’s Creed IV and creating a pirate simulator. After the disaster that was Unity, the series needs another wildcard to revitalize it. A more thoughtful game that places emphasis on navigating dialogue and tricky political situations, instead of slicing through crowds of enemies, could be just the trick.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.