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Steep, Watch Dogs 2 and the GTA with no guns

How do you go about making a fun open-world game which doesn't have combat at its core? We want to tell more diverse stories in order to reach new audiences, and the key for that may lie in systems design.


This piece was also published on Medium.

I’ve dreamed about playing a GTA with no guns since GTA III came out. It was probably my first 3D open-world experience. At the time, it was along the lines of “that’s mind-blowing, but what if I didn’t want to be a gangster?”.

As strange as it may sound, video games seem to have a hard time answering this.

It was about the time City of God hit the theaters, and it was hard not to compare them. City of God amazed its audience with the beautiful yet troubled city of Rio de Janeiro, its sprawling favelas and an ensemble cast of memorable characters. But although the plot presented an open world scenario full of thoughtless violence as in any GTA game, the boy most resembling a protagonist was not one of the gun-toting villains and heroes of the hood, but a photographer.

Add that to having played Pokémon Snap a while back, and for teen me the GTA with no guns would no doubt be an open-world photography game. Plenty of places, things and events to photograph; magazine gigs in which you’d have to snap 10 different dog breeds or 5 Ferraris or Leo Di Caprio making out with Angelina Jolie; vehicles you could borrow as you climbed the photographers’ hall of fame, and there you have it. All fun, no guns.

Some years later in a blog post, I discussed the concept and dared future me to do something about it: “Folks with the guts to be game designers should try to think outside the box once in a while, or the guys with great ideas should stop being cowards and go make games”. Way to be cocky, teen me.

As it happens, I’m a game designer today, I’ve tried and failed at making a combat-free open world game once, and I think it’s more complicated than having the “great ideas”. Good game design is hard.

A couple weeks ago, game developer Brie Code wrote a great piece called Video Games Are Boring. She advocates that the male-centric, white-centric contemporary game design, embodied in swords and fighting and dragons and sometimes treated as the only thing video games are all about, makes the games industry too boring and narrow, and leave a huge amount of potential players out.

I couldn’t agree more. One may argue that Brie fails to recognize recent achievements such as the rise of narrative exploration games, the infamously called walking simulators. But the discussion is worthwhile nonetheless: How come other media can encompass such a wide variety of genres, for every public imaginable, and still video games seem to live within a dome of similar experiences for similar people — the “gamers” — , or at least be seen as that from the outside?

I’ve struggled to convey this idea in the past years. There’s plenty of ways to get defensive and debunk it: You’re ignoring mobile games; You’re ignoring sports games; You’re ignoring adventure games and visual novels; You’re ignoring the rise of narrative exploration games. You’re anti-violence and I’ll kill you. That’s right, I’m not looking at these while discussing this particular issue, because I feel like there’s still something to find regardless of the solutions that are already out there. It isn’t “solved”.

Half of finding a solution is knowing how to frame the problem, and coining an easy term for it is as good as it gets. A couple weeks ago, Ubisoft’s Tommy François gave a talk at BAFTA disposing of a clarity I must have left with my teenage self: He said someday someone will create a GTA with no guns.

The “GTA with no guns” has it all. We’re talking about a game that puts you in direct control of a character. A game that lets you freely explore and act in a world brimming with life. A game with a non-linear narrative that you care about to some extent, and maybe most of all, with loads of fun that keep you immersed in that world while going from point A to B. And in which you don’t play a genocidal gangster, cop or warrior.

Not Scarface — Back to the Future.

Not Goodfellas — Chinatown.

Not Pulp Fiction — Amélie.

It’s harder than it seems. While virtual reality shines at just making the user be somewhere and experience whatever’s there from the inside, video games have traditionally been about doing. As much as I like games such as Firewatch, Virginia and Gone Home, they don’t excel at making me do stuff.

That’s their (brave) way of looking at things and their discoveries signal a huge step ahead in making games for different publics, but then again, it doesn’t fill the specific GTA with no guns gap.

Most of our innovation and conventions in game design have to do with finding verbs for the player, and polishing them with each new iteration. Jump. Shoot. Traverse. Kick. Accelerate. Dodge. Collect. Upgrade. Build. You name it. So, take the gun out of your character in a third person action game and you’re left with a tricky question: what does the player do?

Enter Steep, the latest of Ubisoft’s open-world games, developed by the Annecy studio and out last Friday. It’s a bold game that puts you in control of a man or woman exploring the Alps. It conveys the open-world feeling of discovery and fun with a nice dose of challenge, all while making you a non-assassin, perfectly normal human being. Maybe except for when you’re skydiving, that’s nuts.

It’s not the first open-world sports game out there — there’s been a fair amount of those with cars and skates — but I think it comes out at an interesting time.

I’ve had friends of mine say that Steep “is just the kind of game” they like, even if they don’t have the sporting profile. They like it because it’s non-combative, because it’s open and free and fun but more human than what’s available in the market.

See, Ubisoft also seems to be trying to find the GTA with no guns. As François said in his talk, the whole industry is. His original mandate at Ubisoft was “to create an RPG that wasn’t sci-fi, wasn’t fantasy, had no guns, no deaths and no enemies”. A game like that would have the power to reach tons and tons of consumers, if it managed to be as entertaining as Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry but in a friendlier shell.

And Steep could be a step in that direction, along with Watch Dogs.

With Steep, Ubisoft invests in a seamlessly social experience with top-notch visuals and open-ended, vastly expansible gameplay. All of that without a hint of combat in sight. As with open-world racing games, Steep innovates within a safe zone, simulating activities that are familiar to people and solved to an extent from the design standpoint: snowboarding, skiing, wingsuit and paragliding.

All players do in Steep are well-known activities that folks have fun doing in our own open world out here.

For years I’ve sidelined sports games when discussing the GTA with no guns issue, as if they were a separate thing of no use in looking for answers. But maybe sports are at the heart of the question.

Fighting and shooting have a sportslike quality to them as much as any real-world action game like soccer or tennis.

The thing GTA, Steep, Assassin’s Creed, Burnout Paradise, Far Cry, Just Cause, Sunset Overdrive, Dead Rising and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater all have in common is that they know how to “playify” their space.

Their worlds are playgrounds for the player to do stuff in, and in contrast to other approaches such as the narrative exploration genre and adventure games, all the doing in these games is designed to be inherently fun.

And as far as doing goes, popping baddies in the head while trying to stay alive is a hell of a concise system.

A bit of game design nerdiness: I like to compare the tension system of combat to Flappy Bird, which pretty much sums up what action video game design is all about. There’s a bird falling, and it will quickly meet its maker unless you act. You tap with just the right amount of skill to flap past the gap. You survive, next fall.

Same thing with having an enemy shoot at you: Wait for too long, and you‘re dead. Tap at just the right time and spot, and you score a kill. Better yet if it’s a hard-earned headshot — instant relief and gratification, next enemy.

Driving a stolen car at high speed in crowded Los Santos trying not to crash is not far from it, as is trying to score the most tricks out of a single jump in Steep, or juggling around a wingsuit and a grappling hook in Just Cause 3. The Tony Hawk’s series is my favorite example though, every wall and rail of its streets yielding good play.

In the abstract, this design pattern bows down to one or more countdowns to failure, and a skill-based way to reset or terminate them with the best possible outcome. Something that acts as a timer, and a way to reset it. The most unpredictable and short the timers are — be it pipe gaps in random heights, smart flanking enemies or gravity acting on your amazing downhill 720º grab — the more action-y it is.

Then, by making people learn the required skill and drive towards the skill ceiling, the game gives the player the raw excitement of someone who’s learning to ride a bike and maintaining balance against all odds.

As counterintuitive as it may seem in the context, tension is the magic word here.

You don’t need a gun in order for the “action fun” to work: You need the underlying systems of tension, and to wrap them in a fiction that supports them.

I don’t believe we play GTA or Watch Dogs because we love being killers. We play them because the design of what you do in these games makes them engaging as hell. These are good systems, but covered in a makeup that have been appealing to the same niche demographic for a long time now, at most getting people from the outside to eventually give in and get used to kill baddies too, because they don’t want to be left out of this videogame thing.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that we can’t find new gameplay.

Minecraft took over the world in a flash, its main action being building. But it still relies on classical tension — monsters come in when the sun goes out — to stop being a canvas and start being a game. Papers, Please tells a hell of a story by making you shuffle documents, but it’s something that’s tailor-made for that particular context and gameplay experience.

A more universal solution is the one seen in QWOP, Surgeon Simulator, I Am Bread and Octodad: make any real-world action really hard to perform through controls that don’t offer any level of abstraction, then put some pressure on top. At the very least, it makes for pretty comical gameplay, but its inherent high difficulty and oddness could be an obstacle in telling more popular stories and achieving mainstream appeal.

VR has extra advantage on that, the player’s hands and physics being a natural fit for emergent, tension-filled interaction with practically anything.

More recently, Watch Dogs 2’s hacking went a great distance in terms of non-combative, fun gameplay. But most of the environmental puzzles that come with that still lack the physicality and unpredictability of Steep’s slopes, or GTA’s getaways. Its gadgets aren’t substitutes for the weapons, but alternatives. Take the prospect of combat out of Watch Dogs 2, and it would start to feel static.

That’s why I say Ubisoft is trying, but they still can’t spare the risk of making a game purely about hacking.

That’s why even Marcus Holloway being such a great guy, he stills carries a 3D-printed assault rifle around and uses it on occasion. (Then when the mythic Zodiac killer contacts you during one of Watch Dogs 2’s DLC missions and says he’s “the killer of over a dozen people”, you can’t help but chuckle).

And it’s the reason why, every couple years, we re-enact the dissonance debate over a new Uncharted game, one that takes the narrative exposure and traversal puzzles to ever new heights, but still can’t afford leaving the enemies at the door.

It’s because combat is a system that’s already “solved” at its core, and no-guns is not.

It’s because there’s still good play to be found in this field. New verbs other than shooting and killing that also work with smart dynamics of tension to make for truly entertaining experiences in the way these massive hits are. Verbs that make the invisible timers, the players’ unpredictable tugs-of-war, be something other than armed enemies — and fill the world with them.

Digital sports of sorts that would allow a contemporary urban narrative, a sci-fi environment or a historic setting to put you in control of something other than the butcher hero.

Even more so, verbs with the potential to persist beyond an individual solution for a single story, and leave the mark that great mechanics such as Jump, Shoot and Defeat have left in the medium’s teenage years.

Then whenever someone wants to tell a new story through video games, they’ll have more options for the base gameplay beyond hack-and-slash and point-and-click.

I think the question to be asking when trying to find the GTA with no guns is: what verbs could replace the old combat ones in a way that lets the developers “playify” the space around the player, bearing this sports-like, action-like quality that makes for skill-demanding, unpredictable and emergent scenarios?

Which actions of the real world could be infused with tension to make for this kind of play, still allowing for amicable contexts? Is it photography, teen me’s dream? Could it be done with that? Maybe graffitti? Social media posting? Talking to strangers? Building, within a constraint other than monsters? Dancing? Or something completely new and digital-only?

What’s the equivalent of a headshot in these contexts — the action that at the same time requires more skill and is way more fulfilling than the regular ones? How to explore the art of play beyond its cultural boundaries, in order to make the GTA with no guns be a romantic comedy, an adventure for all ages or a heartbreaking drama, no shooting involved? Are there any universal solutions to be found?

The industry may be close to finding a goldmine of GTAs with no guns. The industry may need it in the following years, to tell a more diverse array of stories. And I think it’s first of all a systems problem. It’s a matter of finding good play for that, trusting the richness and diverseness there’s still to be discovered in digital interaction, then reap what follows.

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