The Duke is Dead
Listen, I know it hurts, but we need to face it. Yes, I enjoyed the slaughter of Imps as much as the next guy. I, too was ecstatic after the first-won deathmatch. Believed that running some guy over with a tank would never get old. I was wrong and it's time to admit it. Game violence is dead.
It had a good innings, that much is sure. Who would have thought in 1992 that a group of Texan social rejects could topple the hithero undisputed king, the dexterity-based game? But it all changed after the first dead Cacodemon: Platform jumping, puzzle solving, and all the other canonical gameplay elements of the time worked best in 2D, and suddenly, 2D just wasn't good enough anymore. Sure, they tried to update them. They tried awfully hard, and succeeded quite a few times. But that's exactly the point: It took an effort.
It's really easy to let the player fire a gun in a 3D game. Try to make jumping from place to place feasible, not to mention fun, though. With the staggering costs of those newfangled engines, that time investment started to look a bit wasteful.
Thus began the bloody reign. New titles, no matter of which nature, built their gameplay around gibs, simply because it was cheap, easy, and popular. The clamor of automatic weapons became the universal language of gaming. "Innovation" seemed to be synonymous with "bullets plus X": Alone in the Dark had already married action and adventure in new and portentous ways. Eidos fused the old with the new, jumping puzzles with guns, and created Tomb Raider. Rockstar took the concept of the sandbox game, an idea as old as the legendary Elite, and blended it so artfully that today the premise doesn't seem to work anymore unless you include prostitutes and baseball bats. Even racing games suddenly started boasting guns. Sooner than later, every other gameplay style seemed to carry Doom's half-blood offspring.
Looking back, that's likely what pushed it over the edge in the end: Violence was everywhere, and so, we got used to it, only to demand more and more refined experiences. This could never be seen more plainly than in that battle between the sequels to two of the most popular straight shooters there ever were. One of them, Doom 3, stuck to its guns. Granted, they had added in-game cut-scenes. Sure, they tried to add some horror to the mix. But in the end, the defining moments of the title were the same as in its precessors. Then as before, it was all about the confrontation, about that one shotgun blast that wipes another Imp out of this plane of existence.
Compare this to Half-Life 2. The game still featured lots of guns, sure, but if we're honest, it wasn't as much about the violence as the promise thereof. Think of those dark first steps into Ravenholm – crows cawing, ropes creaking, and then, that sound of splintering wood and the realization that you are not alone. Remember outrunning a Combine barricade's bullets in a speedboat. Or, coming up with the idea of lobbing a radiator into the oncoming hordes. The action itself was a byproduct. Valve never relied on it, and we thanked them. Time was ripe for change. The market opened to a complexity that had turned visionary titles like System Shock 2 into lead on the shelves not six years ago.
Our tastes had crossed the watershed line. Killing goons was nothing but the old default anymore. Battlefield 2, the most successful shooter of '05, featured horrible shooting, instead focusing on tactics and strategy. And it didn't stop there. Where once we would have drawn guns, we now wielded guitars, petted dogs, climbed giant monstrosities straight out of Salvador Dali's more excitable dreams, or rolled whole cities into tight balls.
'Course, there's still room for some old-fashioned all-out carnage in a game. While our tastes have become more sophisticated, they are not impossible to satisfy, if a skilled developer only tries hard enough - but that's the point, actually. It takes an effort. And who will take it in an environment that sees gun-porn like Black, a sure sale not three years ago, fail horribly?
Violence has had its day. And as usual for regent's deaths, the corpse hasn't had time to cool off before the battle over its succession begins. In the race for the market shares lost by heavy action titles, we see old greats like the RPG, the strategy game, even that once dethroned sovereign, the platformer, face off against ideas that wouldn't have stood a chance in the indie scene, let alone the mass market, five years ago. Back then, who'd have believed that one of Sony's flagship franchises would be called Loco Roco? That a game called Geometry Wars would make people pay five hundred bucks for a new console? That Rockstar Entertainment, Rockstar Entertainment, would create a game about table tennis?
The duke is dead. Pity it took so long.