The non-violent videogames of 2012
Violence in videogames is a problem for many. From DOOM to Mortal Kombat, and Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty, it often seems that the videogame is inextricably linked with this one trait: violence. The phrase ‘violent videogames’ has rolled off the tongue easily over the last two decades, as if no one has ever conceived of a kind of videogame without bullets, blood, and guts. For politicians, the media, and even many developers, there has only ever been one type of videogame: the violent one.
Yet 2012 has been a quiet turning point in the move away from violence as a defining trait of the medium. Unlike comic books, which have long been associated purely with the superhero, it seems unlikely that videogames will forever be collectively defined by a single trait. As well as some indications that the hyper-violent, sensory-overloading first-person shooter is on the wane collectively (the latest installment of genre kingpin Call of Duty sold below expectations), this year there was a modest bundle of successful—commercially and critically—videogames that involve little to no violence.
In fact, it is easy to make a list of 2012’s best videogames that involve no violence whatsoever. Here’s a top five:
Letterpress: In many ways, 2012 has also been the year of the mobile competitive puzzle game, from the Scrabble-like Words With Friends to the Pictionary-esque Draw Something. But Letterpress is a strongly original game that combines vocabulary and word-making (as in Scrabble) with a need for chequers-like spatial control. Making long words is not always the advantage it is in other puzzle games—here, a smaller, but well placed word might be even better. It’s clever, and decidedly more-ish.
Proteus: Proteus is played in an astonishing kind of liminal place, the kind only offered by videogames and the creative power of the algorithm. No two Proteus games will be the same, as the player travels through randomly generated space, seasons, and sounds, all taken in through the game’s lavishly blotchy visual style. It is a strange feeling to experience a Proteus world and to know that no other person will ever share the exact same experience—to see the rain move in off the coast in the same way, to walk the same grotto with the same collection of trees and shrubs, to chase the same playful rabbit across the same foggy cliffs. Every moment in Proteus is personal.
Dear Esther: Taking a ramble around Dear Esther’s beautiful and lonely Hebridean Isle is one of 2012’s most haunting and melancholic experiences. Wrongheadedly criticised by some for limiting the player’s possible range of actions only to walking, Dear Esther is a remarkable experiment in a kind of psychogeography, where mood and tone is conveyed only by landscape, spectacle, and narration. Piecing the game’s traumatic narrative together is like navigating someone else’s memory palace: each summit a recollected hope, each valley an echo of sorrow.
Journey: Despite Journey’s vast and beautiful desert setting, the game has a significant amount to say about human connection and communication. Player interaction is limited in Journey to brief, song-like chirps, tapped out in rhythm by a single button. This restriction surprisingly forges a sense of togetherness, cooperation and friendship—in stark contrast to the fraught player relationships so common in videogames. ‘People can love one another through this mediated interface’ said Journey’s producer, Robin Hunicke, when she was in Australia earlier this year. Hunicke was underplaying Journey’s achievements: people can love each other through the game, yes, but in subtle ways, the game actually propels this love.*
Dys4ia: Anna Anthropy’s autobiographic report of her experiences with hormone replacement therapy is moving and personal in a way few videogames have ever been. It quietly transfigures a medium to be able to talk in private snapshots, to take the reigns away from the player and communicate a precise experience, even if it is in a free browser game, and even if it can be completed in less than five minutes. Dys4ia is honest, and even intimate in ways that other media often shy away from. It’s no small achievement by any measure.
These games were hardly alone as exemplars of what videogames without violence might look like. Further examples abound. The Unfinished Swan is a visually unique puzzle game that plays with perception and space. It confronts players with a blank, unnavigable area that can only be revealed by throwing paint onto the invisible architecture. Spelltower was another excellent mobile puzzle game, setting Balderdash against Tetris, with rising blocks only removable through word-making. Then there was the experimental Soundplay series of videogames curated by partnering media outlets Pitchfork and KillScreen, games that were original and artful, working in the space between videogames and trendy indie music. And finally, of course, there were the many, many social games that used Facebook as a platform—games like the ubiquitous Farmville 2, CityVille 2 and SimCity Social—which despite their vocal detractors continue to offer millions of people creativity and pleasure.
As well as those videogames for which violence is another country, three games that work creatively and critically with violence are worth mentioning in a survey of the videogames of 2012. Molleindustria’s Unmanned is a sharp critique of the mundanity of contemporary military murder: shaving your drone pilot’s stubble in the morning is presented with as much consequence as killing mistakenly identified ‘insurgents’ later in the day. Spec Ops: The Line is a horrifyingly violent military shooter, but one that turns the tables on the player and disallows absolution. ‘Do you feel like a hero yet?’ the game asks as the player mows down hundreds of enemies. Finally, for a game set in the cliched zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead places surprisingly little emphasis on fighting zombies, and instead focuses on your often-strained relationships with fellow survivors. Each action feels utterly consequential, frequently shattering your confidence and triggering regret. It is as much an exploration of the social reverberations of a world-changing cataclysm as an exploration of physical survival.
While videogames may still be inextricably linked to digital acts of violence for some, even a cursory look at the games of 2012 tells a different story. These games are about exploring, about communicating, and are about people. They are some distance from the expected blood and guts of the archetypical videogame, and creatively, they are all the better for it.
*Journey does contain a sequence where the player is threatened by large monsters and can be hurt by them. However, the player cannot inflict violence on the world or its creatures.
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10 Jan 13 at 23:40
I love all the games on your list that I have played, and I’d sure agree there’s plenty of good nonviolent stuff out there now for people sick of shooting. Still and all, the disappointing sales of Call of Duty Black Ops still grossed a cool $1 billion in sales for the first 15 days at retail which I am pretty darn sure is a long way from the kind of revenue that any of these properties managed to net....