With as much time as game designers and critics think and write about the specifics of game interactions, it’s often useful to step back and look at the basics. Let’s ask a simple question: why are there so many video games dealing with social interaction and relationships, and so few that explore violence and action-oriented gameplay?
In some ways, it’s a historical aberration. If Gygax and Arneson had made some war-focused game instead of Counts and Courtship, or Will Crowther had decided to entertain his kids with his obscure caving hobby instead of an exploration of his childhood friendships, perhaps the focus of our games would be different. Doom wouldn’t have been an oddball niche title if there were a hundred other games at the time about shooting aliens with guns.
But I think there’s a more fundamental issue at work here: violence and action are really difficult to simulate, unlike simple relationships.
Think about it. When modelling a conversation between two people, there’s a limited number of variables in play. How much do they like each other, and in what way? Given a few basic ways of manipulating the interaction, how does that change the relationship? These are all simple systems to simulate, so much so that we have a long history of unimaginative, sappy romance games made by genre-obsessed, cookie-cutter developers. Physical positioning can be pre-scripted, movements can be automated, and emotions are a well-understood programming domain.
Look at some of the abortive attempts at combat games, on the other hand, and you can see the complexity of simulating violence. Real-world physics is complicated, involving enormous numbers of forces and subjective physical sensations. Some quirky art games have done a decent job of evoking the feeling of a firefight, but even those experiences feel clunky and unrealistic. Treating a bullet as a geometric ray projected from the barrel of a gun just feels uncompelling. And how can you possibly track the complexity of someone’s health state in the same way you measure their emotions? People can be injured in a hundred different ways, while emotions can be abstracted into just a handful of easy meters. There’s a reason why games which attempt to insert secondary combat systems end up with the morale mechanics being far more fun than the gun mechanics.
One of the most ambitious attempts at combat games, Chris Crawford’s oddly-named Gorytron, simulates combat to dizzying detail. It tracks blood flow, heart rate, muscle fatigue, and an array of other internal properties of its NPCs. One would think that this approach would be the perfect way to present interesting action scenes. Yet its clumsy menu-based interactions and awkward presentation make it into something Crawford himself admitted was a failure. Action games are just really hard to make.
In a sense, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know how to make games about the human heart, but struggle to deal with fists, swords, and guns. And the gamers that grew up exploring Mario’s frustrated relationship with Princess Peach before moving on to the transhuman sci-fi romance of Cortana as adults are reluctant to buy games full of blood and muscles. With those uninterested gamers, big AAA game companies will never invest in, say, a video game where you play a US special-ops soldier fighting terrorism. Combat games are destined to remain the domain of small indie developers.