Games are good, but also bad & the worst. I’m so tired of killing things with magic spells &/or bullets. It’s difficult to find games where the main mechanic doesn’t involve attacking things, but I sure did my darnedest. Here are my favorite games that I played in the year of our lord 2017 that challenge (or at least leave room to challenge) the primacy of combat.
• Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (tabletop)
I am always dubious when RPG developers try to pair down their previous games into more “streamlined” systems. While this is usually done to make the game more accessible to more players, the loss of granular control over your character usually involves removing non-combat ways of interacting with the world. Skyrim & D&D 4e are really good examples of this, where there aren’t many ways to approach a challenge that don’t eventually involve putting a sword into somebody’s body.
After much hemming & hawing (almost entirely on my part), my D&D group made the switch early this year from third edition to fifth edition. Not only were we able to retain the complexity of our old characters & setting, but the simplified system took a lot of the burdens of previous editions off our backs. If anything, I feel like it is easier to find non-combatant solutions to problems in D&D 5e, because the rules are less esoteric & easier to use.
On top of this, Wizards of the Coast making drafts of new game material public on the website before finalizing them for publication really allowed me to simultaneously develop my own sense of game design. Seeing how to create or manipulate “balance” in a game has allowed me to make more dramatic & intentional challenges for players, while leaving room for compelling (or at least humorous) story-telling.
• Epistle 3 (pc/mac)
This short Unity game is based on a short story of the same name by Marc Laidlaw, one of the writers for Valve’s Half-Life series. In the original story, Laidlaw coyly suggests a possible plot for Half-Life 2: Episode 3, a game which has been in development limbo for a decade. The game, made by Heather Robertson for the Epistle 3 Game Jam, draws from this story in an absurd, interactive critique of the Half-Life games. The graphics are composed almost entirely of blank cubes, which you can only “read” or interact with by shooting with your blank cube pistol. The game begins with several cubes at a funeral for Eli Vance, which you can only participate in by shooting the coffin several times.
Epistle 3 is astoundingly funny, & successfully critical of how the most popular stories in modern video games are told from behind the sights of a gun.
• Risus: The Anything RPG (tabletop)
D&D 5e leaves space for non-combatant options in it’s mechanics, but it is still combat-oriented. In Risus, from Cumberland Games, combat is a subsection of another rule. The rules acknowledges that conflicts between characters can & often do involve more than mortal combat. Risus works on the assumption that roleplaying challenges are most entertaining to overcome when players are not bound by rules, only the personal limitations of their character & narrative decisions made by the other players.
Risus is easy to learn & quick to play, with a rulebook no longer than a dozen pages. It was designed for pick-up games at cons, & can be used to play any style of game imaginable. All it requires is pencils, notecards, & handful of six-sided dice.
• Night in the Woods (pc/mac/ps4)
Upon returning to her hometown of Possum Springs, an ex-mining town nestled ambiguously in the Appalachians, Mae Borowski begins to experience strange dreams. She begins to investigate an unsettling disappearance, & discovers something terrifying just below the skin of Possum Springs.
Though it is a current of cosmic horror which drives this game, the spooky themes in Infinite Fall’s Night in the Woods take a back seat to exploring the inner lives of Mae & her friends & neighbors. I spent most of my free time in the game trying to repair the troubled relationship Mae has with her childhood friend, Bea Santello, the chain-smoking goth who runs Possum Spring’s only hardware store. Even if there were options to explore the lore or allegorical horrors in more depth, I don’t know that I would have followed them over spending time with Mae’s friends.
The other half of my time playing Night in the Woods largely involved exploring Possum Springs & developing earnest connections with the people in Mae’s community. These connections serve little mechanical purpose in the game, you don’t get cool items or XP bonuses or help in a boss battle, but they are arguably the point of the game. Horror in this game serves as an allegory for how the economic institutions of a previous generation continue to entrap & exploit communities, & without feeling a solid connection t The anarchist & socialist ideologies which the game presents compel you to care deeply for the characters around Mae, even if all they want is to read her their boring poetry or talk about a god she doesn’t believe in. It’s an experience I don’t think I’ll easily forget.