All the Adventure with half the Violence

| Tuesday, August 13, 2013
I'm not sure what magical creature to blame for this, but somehow this post, fully-written, sat as a draft, unpublished (redundancy ensures that you have enough).

We've previously established that I like violence in games.  Shooting, smashing, smashing with objects normally reserved for shooting, and of course shooting smashing things (gravity gun) are all great violence.  Sometimes slicing substitutes for smashing.  Explosions!

At times I'd wonder if adventure required violence.  After all, without the fight, what is left?  Travel time and story.  Yet what is the story except the adventure itself, and therefore nothing without the conflict?  It's like circular logic swirling into a black hole.

Yet here I am playing Don't Starve and having a blast.  It's a dangerous world, yet it's not a world of battles.  I avoid fights.  Except with spiders, because spiders are jerks in this game.  But even then, how violent can you be when it hurts?  My meat-drying operation means that I can keep my health up, but it's not a solution if I rush into mindless conflict.  A log suit only gets you so far.  I only have a football helmet because a tree killed a pig.  I suspect that was my fault, for riling up the tree with all my chopping.  It had no appreciation for the classics.

Death is dangerously close to permanent.  I've only found one touch stone.  It's not too far away, and I did take the wise step of leaving an old log suit, some earmuffs, and some small jerky in a chest near it.  That's what I learned after I nearly froze to death trying to recover my items in an earlier game.  Maybe the real lesson is not to get in fights with birds twice your height.  Once summer returns, I'm only about halfway through winter, I can shave my magnificent beard for a meat effigy.

The rewards aren't so great either, at least not where I am. I wanted some spider silk so I could make some beehouses, which require catching some live bees.  Hunting spiders is a pain.  Then just to add insulting irony to it all, right after I made the houses winter hit and they've so far done nothing at all.  A few days later I went to fight more spiders, hoping to get more silk for bird traps.  I found enraged beefalos wrecking the nest and I just walked in to get the silk and spider egg.  A few minutes sooner and maybe I'd have just been trapped between a dozen spiders and a dozen beefalos.

I worry much more about freezing to death.  This means carefully-planned runs for wood and rabbits, without time to spare for random combat.  Of course that's when I hear the growling of the hounds...

The first lesson I take away is that combat is most games is far too rewarding relative to the costs.  Save points and respawning mean that there is little incentive to avoid a fight unless the mission is specifically designed for stealth.  The result is that in a sense the violence isn't even as violent, being reduced to an immortal fighting mortal opponents until the latter are all dead or the former is frustrated, yet still entirely alive and unscathed.  That's slaughter, not violence.  Of course so many games are deigned to be entirely about combat, so it's no surprise that they're designed so that combat is inevitable and always winnable.

The second lesson is that danger does not require violence.  The environment can be the danger.  Basic survival can be the danger.  It's not as glamorous as mowing down rows of Zombie Muslim CommuNazis, but it's fun in its own way.  This has been a gameplay element for a long time.  How much did Mario fight relative to time spend jumping over pits of lava?  The jumping puzzles are a different expression of the same concept.  More recently, there is the world of Stalker, in which anomolies like to wait, nearly invisible, before turning you inside out.  They don't add to the action, but rather invert it, forcing an otherwise-uncharacteristic level of caution.

Maybe the problem is one of challenge.  A violent world can have action without challenge.  A non- or less-violent world can end up seeming as if nothing is happening.  Making survival challenging brings back the adventure, yet the challenge may drive people away.  I can imagine a great deal of frustration in a game like Don't Starve, where you can build up and up, only to leave yourself in the cold a little too long, stray a little too far, eat a little too infrequently.  Suddenly it all comes crashing down.


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