[Consultant Christoph Kaindel takes a look at the real reasons and methods behind fights in history, offering up a few ideas for how everyday life in a late medieval city might be taken as inspiration for building believable game worlds for RPGs or sandbox-style action adventures.]
"In sandbox storytelling, the idea is to give the player a big open world populated with opportunities for interesting interactions. The player isn't constrained to a rail-like linear plot, but can interact with the world in any order that he chooses. If the world is constructed correctly, a story-like experience should emerge."
This quote from a column by Ernest Adams sums up a concept that might be the next step in the evolution of open world adventure games and role playing games. To make sandbox storytelling work, Adams suggests a combination of player-dependent and player-independent events. In other words, things should keep moving and changing in the game world without the player's intervention, as long as they are not critically important for the plot.
As a player, I immensely enjoy playing open world games. I love the sense of freedom, of discovery, of unexpected things happening; as a historian, however, I can't help comparing game worlds to real societies. Even though I realize that game worlds need to be simplified, I feel that many games could benefit from a little extra complexity, inspired by the structure of real societies.
Here are a few ideas how everyday life in a late medieval city might be taken as inspiration for building believable game worlds for RPGs or sandbox-style action adventures. As my main research subject was everyday violence in the middle ages, I will focus on that: the fight for fame and honor, following strict unwritten rules -- and in most cases non-lethal.
Kill or Be Killed
The essence of violence in games has, in my opinion, not changed a lot since the days of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. In most games, "doing violence" can still be summed up as: "The guys over there are your enemies. Point your gun at them and kill them before they kill you." Game violence usually means combat among players or between players and AI-controlled opponents; in both cases, enemies are just obstacles to be removed in order to progress in the game.
This has very little to do with real world violence. In real life, people use violence for many different reasons, to reach many different goals, to fulfill many different needs. People are motivated by greed, by fear, by lust, by hate, by sheer boredom, and there are many ways of acting violently, most of which are not fit to be used in games. Still, I believe if game designers took a little more time to consider the many meanings and uses of real-world violence instead of just making killing more and more visually spectacular, game violence and its consequences might be shown in more varied and interesting ways.
Ironically, game advertisements as well as critics of excessive game violence place a lot of emphasis on the purportedly "realistic" depiction of violence in games. While on the purely visual level, this may hold true for some games, combat in the majority of games follows action movie conventions, and while medpacks and regenerating health allow for more aggressive play, neither, of course, is "realistic".
Player motivation in most games is quite simple. The player character often is a soldier just doing her duty fighting hordes of single-mindedly aggressive opponents. Therefore, violence in video games is usually lethal, as enemies need to be removed on the way to completion of a mission. They never retreat; they never surrender. Once a fight has started, the only possible outcome is usually death for either enemy or player character -- ending the game and forcing the player to load a recent save.
This is a pattern that works reasonably well in linear shooter games; after all, a soldier would not be expected to argue with enemy soldiers or alien abominations. But open world games strive to give the impression of a "living, breathing" environment that is close to the real world -- and in such a setting I expect to have a wider range of combat options.
Until a few decades ago -- in some places and societies even nowadays -- the fight for honor was a non-lethal way of dealing with an opponent. Even though it has fallen out of use in real life, I think it might be well suited as a model of game violence to be used at least in historical or fantasy settings.