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When Violence Meets Honor in History and Games


June 21, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next
 

Non-Lethal Combat in a Sandbox

Open world games featuring non-lethal combat

Game concepts close to the use of personal honor I described are the "style" rating of Saints Row 2 or the "fame" rating of Red Dead Redemption, though in the latter game this is supplemented by an "honor" rating to keep track of the player's good or evil deeds, similar to the "karma" of Fallout 3 and Infamous. But combat in these games is lethal; there is no way to win fame by just subduing an opponent.

There are only a few sandbox games I am aware of that use non-lethal violence as an element of gameplay, even though most fights may be of the deadly variety. The Deus Ex series is famous for allowing players to finish the games without killing anybody; but unconscious characters are still taken out of the game (they may be awakened by their comrades); violence, lethal or non-lethal, is only used to remove obstacles. I will focus on those games that also use violence as a form of communication, in the way I outlined above.

In 2006's The Godfather, the player character has to intimidate shopkeepers to make them pay protection money. Each shopkeeper has a certain weak spot that has to be discovered and then exploited in a kind of minigame, and of course shopkeepers should not be killed. So, the game's rather complex unarmed combat system has to be used carefully.

The intimidation missions bring some variety into a fairly standard third person shooter, and they fit appropriately into a game world of organized crime. Strangely, in Grand Theft Auto IV, a similar game in many ways, unarmed combat is also possible, but it is never really needed except in one or two missions. I found it fairly useless for most of the game.

Wrestling games don't exactly qualify as sandbox games, but I find them very interesting as a genre that combines non-lethal fighting with role playing elements. Contrary to many other role playing games, if you lose a fight in a wrestling game, the storyline continues, only in a different direction. Your position in the ranking list may change, but you will always stay in the game.

Professional wrestling itself has been compared to TV soap operas; both feature actors with clear-cut different personae interacting in changing constellations in a small number of locations. There are bigger and smaller interwoven storylines, often going on for several months or even years; driving forces are love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, courage and cowardice. Wrestling, however, is also presented as a morality play, as the big fight of Good against Evil. And finally, in wrestling, personal honor is all-important.

There is a strange paradox: professional wrestling is staged, but in wrestling games it is presented as a real combat sport. It is acknowledged, though, that audience approval makes a difference to the outcome of the fight. So, in contrast to other fighting games, in most wrestling games you not only have to overcome your opponent, but also win over the audience by performing flashy and varied techniques; only then will you be able to perform a finishing move. This is therefore the only type of action game in which the display of fighting skills is as important as the fight itself -- as it was in the ritualized fights in the Middle Ages.

In Rockstar's Bully (aka Canis Canem Edit) fights happen frequently but are entirely bloodless and non-lethal -- the fighting style is well adapted to the game world of a boarding school in a small American town. The player character -- Jimmy Hopkins, a rebellious teenager -- has to take on several gangs of bullies, but also fight in the boxing ring or in the school's wrestling team. The school is a violent place; often you will see weaker students bullied and pushed about by stronger ones. You can insult other students, but you can also get out of a conflict by apologizing or paying for being left alone -- this is the only game I know that has a violent escalation/de-escalation process.

If Jimmy is caught by an adult or loses a fight, he does not die but is just transported back to his room. As nobody ever dies, Jimmy will confront some people several times in different circumstances, which helps in getting to know them and developing relationships as well as conflicts. Defeating members of one faction will earn respect with their rivals. Several kinds of pranks can be performed, from pushing people into wastepaper baskets to throwing eggs and fireworks or breaking windows using a slingshot.

Bully is one of the few open world games that incorporates the passing of time into its narrative. The game day is structured around school lessons; if Jimmy is caught outside during a lesson, he will be forced to attend. There are also seasons: the game starts in autumn and continues through winter and spring. After the conclusion of the main storyline, in summer, you have the opportunity to finish all remaining side missions.

What I found most interesting in Bully were the restrictions imposed on the main character, all of them logical elements of the game world. The game world is a lot smaller than in one of the GTA games, reflecting the fact that a teenager's world is smaller than an adult's.

As a teenager, Jimmy is not allowed to drive cars. He has to attend class regularly. Though he will become a skillful fighter during the course of the game and will be able to beat all the other kids in the game, he still lives in a world ruled by grownups, who are invincible -- he can sometimes escape from their grasp, but he can not defeat them. All these elements -- the use of honor, non-lethal ritualized violence as a way of life, escalation of violent conflicts, the dominance and invulnerability of adults, and the passage of time -- in my opinion immensely increased the believability of Bully's game world.


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