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Violence in Videogames as seen through Fallout: New Vegas

Violence in video games has been something that’s been talked about since videogames have become a thing. It was used as one of the key examples of how videogames were inherently immoral and corrupting those who played them. While those arguments have fallen to the wayside; a sign of videogames maturing as a medium is that you now have people who play games looking at violence critically. I recently read two articles, which you can find here and here, about the topic and it got me thinking about how violence is used from a design perspective and the limitations thereof. Let’s not waste any time and jump in.

There’s the question of why Fallout: New Vegas? The answer is pretty simple:: it’s the game I’ve been playing a lot of recently. Not only that, but it is a game that is often praised for its narrative elements and part of that is how it uses the options of violence to provide characterization.

New Vegas starts with your character, known only as the Courier, getting jumped while o the job and left for dead. It’s only through sheer perseverance and luck that you survive. Once the opening cutscene ends you are given the character creation options. You can choose your race, gender, name all of which have at best minor impact on the game. The next part of the process has far more mechanical weight with your stats, skill specialization and traits.

Stats are important for the game’s mechanics, but their impact on visible actions taken by the player are limited. Skills on the other hand, are far more important as they determine what you can and can’t do. They determine how effective you are at various features of gameplay as well as serve as the primary means of passing checks in conversation. Traits are completely optional and allow you to add a level of personalization, such as being a night person or needing to wear glasses along with things that can alter the way you play the game. Of these three, skills are the most important in terms of impact and their delineation is informative. Many of these are straightforward: Repair determines how well you can fix things, Speech is how well you are at talking and so on. A majority of the skills are delineations of how you want to enact violence.  The logic behind this makes sense; a player will want control over the predominant activity in the game. Not only that but someone who uses energy weapons is different from someone using a rifle and is different from someone using their fists. These decisions invite you to create a character archetype at the very least. These archetypes can be further fleshed out by the player in a way that the game itself can’t acknowledge, but are still important to the player. In my current playthrough of New Vegas, I am using mods in order to solidify the archetype of my character, which you can find here and here.

In comparison the non-combat skills are either far broader or relate to a narrow field in practice.  Science represents omnidisciplinary mastery, Repair is to fix anything from a gun to robots fall into the former category. Lockpick, Survival and Medicine fall into the latter category. This leaves Speech and Barter, which are worth discussing in their own category. Speech doesn’t do anything beyond letting you pass skill checks while Barter impacts your dealings with merchants as well as be used in conversation checks. These two skills stand out because they’re social skills they show how competent you are in social situations. The fact that Speech is just one skill and not multiple skills shows that the developers didn’t want to elaborate on the social system. Speech being one skill means that it’s a measure of general social competence whereas if there were more than two social skills they would represent your ability to handle a multitude of social situations differently or the same situation in different ways. (The exception to this is the Terrifying Presence perk)

All in all, this shows that there is a big emphasis on how you kill things upfront in the game mechanics and streamlining of many other functions. This trend continues with the perks. More than a few of them continue the trend of fitting your character into an archetype by giving you increased damage of some sort. Others make some part of the game easier, with some using skill or stat requirements to add a layer of characterization. There are two sets of perks that are worth focusing on: Black Widow/Lady Killer and Cherchez La Femme/Confirmed Bachelor. These perks not only establish your character’s sexuality, which comes up in some conversations. The real incentive to taking these perks is the 10% damage you get towards the relevant sex. This juxtaposition shows what the devs prioritized.

So the devs focused their attention on violence and how to be efficient, this raises the question of why? First there are the obvious legacy answers. Fallout is a franchise that took its aesthetic from films such Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog as much 1950s scifi, it’s a bleak post apocalyptic setting in which the use of force is an accepted necessity of survival. New Vegas in particular is also drawing upon Western tropes. There is also an issue of technical limitations, there’s only so much deviation that could have been done given that this is the same system that was used to make Fallout 3. This explanation only goes so far though.

Game design has gotten really good at combat; Dungeons and Dragons started out as narrative layer to a wargame. Since then, we have collectively become good upon iterating on combat design to make it better. The reason for this is threefold. First, the narratives that are often told in games have violence as an accepted part of life and that problems can be solved with violence. Second, combat allows for game design to create something that’s challenging and has replayability, or it should at any rate. Putting this point another way, the actual game is the combat system and everything else is little more than flavor text. Third, combat is easier to program. All of these factors explain the current order of things but don’t go beyond that. While looking at violence in videogames in relation to the patriarchy to be useful, it isn’t the only way to take that discussion.

If one wants games in which violence is an option, not the only option, then it makes sense to have an idea of how to do this. It is worth repeating that any piece of entertainment is the culmination of design choices, both conscious and unconscious; for any of this to matter designers need to think of new things and in new ways. While some games allow for stealth or nonlethal playthroughs, those aren’t really what I have in mind. Instead, enhanced social mechanics and interactions are things that I find much more interesting and seemingly hard to implement.  Looking back at tabletop games again, how to handle social interactions is a tricky question. Ignoring the school of thought that holdVis that all social interactions should be purely roleplaying on the grounds of being impossible to replicate, there are still numerous ways to represent social aptitude and social interactions with no answer that rises above the rest outside of personal preference. Going forward, it certainly makes sense to look at what tabletop games have been doing and modeling system after those.

There are certainly technical limitations with this approach though. Social interactions in tabletop games work because the GM is able to react to the players in a way that a videogame can’t. On some level we accept this, being railroaded isn’t an inherent evil so long as the game you’re playing is fun. The tracks are just narrower. Of course it’d be disingenuous to not mention that this calls for a different skill set, which has an impact on the human side of development at some point, but beyond that I can’t comment.

The use of violence in videogames is constricting in the types of games that can be made. This isn’t in question, but it’s still useful to look at how violence is used in roleplaying games as a means of characterization. It is equally useful to posit what can take the place of violence and how to implement that, even if it is only a first step towards actualization.

Next time I’ll be discussing ableism in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Till then.

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