I recently saw a greenlight campaign for a game in which the creators insisted that the player's character could be and do "absolutely anything they wanted." The premise seemed to be an open-world game with extensive and highly modular character creation, including the ability to create and combine superpowers, abilities, and weapons. Unfortunately, from the material they provided, it's impossible to tell how extensive and flexible the system was, because the only thing the creators could think of to do with this system was to kill people in different ways.

I have to give props to them, they came up with a huge range of different ways to kill people. It also makes good business sense to focus on that aspect of the game, since killing people is certainly one of the most common activities in popular and successful video games. I'm not getting all moralistic here, I enjoy indulging my shadow as much as the next guy, I just think it highlights an industry-wide lack of imagination around in-game activities.

This is something that the core gamer audience wants, and it's the most obvious thing to put in a game. It makes sense from a lot of different angles. That said, I think there is significant demand for more varied and interesting in-game activities. There are a few games, like Dear Esther, Journey, Proteus and Flower, that eschew violence altogether, and some of those have been pretty successful. There has also been a recent surge in popularity of survival-horror games, which are usually violent but also have a wide variety of other activities. In some survival games, it's better to avoid confrontation as much as possible.

What is Anything, anyway?

I am a big fan of sandbox games. Skyrim is one* of my top favorite games ever, and it has had a huge impact on my growth as a player and designer. It is, without question, an extremely violent game, but it is also one of the only games I've played where I really came close to feeling like I could do "anything." A quick, top-of-the-head listing of some of the ways I spent my ~200 or so hours in Skyrim:

  • Purchasing and decorating 5 different homes
  • Wandering around looking at the landscape
  • Learning the elaborate alchemy system
  • Searching for potion ingredients
  • Smithing and enchanting
  • Mining ore for smithing
  • Farming (literally)
  • Traveling the world in search of teachers
  • Helping people fall in love
  • Making my own character fall in love
  • Supporting a family
  • Dressing up in different outfits
  • Swimming
  • Base jumping

And that's before counting all of the different things added by mods, and the whole process of choosing mods, trying them out, swapping in different ones to see how they changed the world. There were also things I didn't find particularly interesting, like thievery and guilds.

Of course there was also a lot of creativity in the violent side of the game, incredible variety, but my point here is just to highlight how much else there is that we could be doing. I haven't yet played another game that captured the level of freedom and variety that Skyrim offered.

The Missing Link

The core of Skyrim is a world torn by civil war and beset by dragons. Most of the other things you can do are in some way subordinate to the core activities of fighting battles, slaying dragons, and crawling dungeons. The smithing game is centered around making weapons and armor, the alchemy game is centered around making battle potions, mining supports smithing, and so on. So where I'm really going with this is a suggestion of where I hope to go with this whole project:

  • Make more games where the violence is a subordinate activity.

Games like this already exist, but I think that this is a huge conceptual space that has only been explored a little bit. This isn't the only direction I want to go in, and it isn't where I expect to go with my first game, but there is huge potential here and it's one of the main avenues I intend on exploring.

*I'm terrible at making top-lists, so if you try to keep score you'll probably end up running out of paper. There are just too many variables. If I made one list of my favorite games to play over and over, another of the games that gave me the best experiences, and a third of the games that I consider most important, there would be little if any overlap. Skyrim is one game that I would put on all of those lists -- but not even close to the top of any of them!

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