Don’t get me wrong; I love a good shooter as much as the next person. I’ve played plenty of Overwatch over the last couple of years and have pumped countless hours into gun-toting campaigns for as long as I can remember. Violent games can be fun!
It’s a bit odd, though, that violence has become so ingrained in contemporary culture that its appearance often seems gratuitous. Violence for the sake of violence is a crutch that ever fewer people willingly walk on. It’s no wonder, then, that this year saw a surge in nonviolent games that offer a different outlet in the medium.
When a game eschews violence, it opens up a variety of new possibilities. What mechanics can it implement to replace combat? How does it evoke emotion without resorting to traditional conflict? Can it be scary without forcing superfluous gore onto the player? This year, seven games managed to stand out and blossom in a saturated market without resorting to violence.
Celeste is nonviolent, and relatively lenient with its fail states, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t scary at times. Despite being a standard platformer in many ways, Celeste embodies the phrase “still waters run deep.”
Playing as Madeline, the much reach the top of Celeste Mountain. The journey is treacherous, but not just because of the terrain. Celeste beautifully articulates the complex ways in which we grapple with our inner demons. Madeline is slowly forced to confront the part of her that seeks to undermine her every effort.
Madeline gains new powers, in the form of new traversal abilities, by learning to love and trust that “part of her.” And the journey to the top of Celeste Mountain becomes more and more feasible. The tense platforming in Celeste represents the difficulties we all face in everyday life. Yet the enchanting game world illustrates that these obstacles are worth overcoming.
In Wandersong, the player uses music to solve puzzles. Playing as The Bard, you must eventually compose the “Earth Song” — a tune that will prevent the world from being swallowed whole.
The game is bright, warm, and funny, despite being set in a world devastated by the destructive songs of the goddess “Eya.” Despite the post-apocalyptic aesthetic, which has become so commonplace in contemporary games, Wandersong doesn’t feature any combat or violence. Instead, The Bard journeys through the dying world with a beaming smile and the desire to sing the world into repair.
It’s refreshing to see this aesthetic used for something other than a nuclear apocalypse. I love the likes of Fallout and NieR: Automata, but the warm and delightful tones of Wandersong offer something truly fresh. The game’s music wheel mechanic is also gorgeous take on the dialogue wheels of RPGs. This is a must-play if you’re into games trying to do something new.
Developer Ken Wong made a name for himself designing Monument Valley with Ustwo Games. Despite the success of Monument Valley, Wong moved back to Australia to start his own studio called Mountains.
Seeking to entirely sidestep violence in favor of an emotionally evocative narrative, Wong recruited a team of like-minded individuals before he even conceived the idea for Florence. Together, they designed a mobile game meant to be as accessible as possible. They had a story to tell and needed to make sure people could experience it.
Florence was the result. Based on the relationship between the titular Florence and the cellist Krish, the game tells the bittersweet story of love and heartbreak in a completely fresh way. It evokes a variety of emotions, but does so with little dialogue and minimalist storytelling. The emotional output comes solely from the player’s input. With a gorgeous art style and an incredible score, Florence is an evocative roller coaster that people from all walks of life should ride.
Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn doesn’t just give violence a hard pass; it eschews most of what makes contemporary games emphatically contemporary. Using 1-bit graphics, Return of the Obra Dinn is much more reminiscent of early-Macintosh era games than anything that has come out in the last two decades.
Return of the Obra Dinn’s monochromatic palette, however, is stylish and elegant in its own right. In a way, the aesthetic lends itself well to the overall mystery at the game’s core. There are lots of puzzles to solve, mostly about determining how an entire crew of mariners disappeared at sea, but the game itself is the real puzzle. As the player unravels the titular mystery, the game becomes more and more… wacky, and the player character’s dry status as an insurance auditor wonderfully juxtaposes against a mystery that becomes more unbelievable with each new clue.
No violence is performed here, but there is a lot of death — entirely discovered after the fact. That proves that the latter doesn’t require the former to make a story interesting. Games can be dark in tone without relying on violence for its own sake. Return of the Obra Dinn testifies to this with every fascinating revelation.
Yoku’s Island Express
Do you like platformers? Do you like pinball? If you answered yes to both questions, you likely know about Yoku’s Island Express by now.
If you don’t, however, you should consider playing it. Although it resembles traditional 2D Metroidvanias in many ways, it quickly becomes clear that a key component of the sub-genre is missing: you can’t jump,
Instead, you use a ball attached to the eponymous Yoku in order to manipulate flippers in the same way you would with a pinball machine. As you traverse the open world of Yoku’s Island Express, you’ll come across more flippers, bumpers, and tracks to manipulate, allowing you to make the most of your pinball-inspired traversal mechanics.
One of the best things about Yoku’s Island Express is that it’s just pure fun. Its uniqueness manifests as an unflinching desire to be something new, without conforming to industry trends (i.e. killing things). Yoku’s Island Express is inspiring and innovative, and the fact that it’s so fun to play will likely bring joy and newfound hope to aspiring creatives all over the world.
I spoke with Nomada Studio about GRIS after becoming enchanted by the game’s very first trailer. The game’s art style, its direction, the platforming: they’re all breathtakingly beautiful. Nomada knows it, too. It was exactly what the company wanted to achieve with GRIS.
The player character shares her name with the game. Embarking on a solitary journey through the recesses of GRIS’ own mind, the player must platform through levels and challenges using the character’s dress, which allows her to navigate her psychic reality. As they progress through the game, players learns more about the game’s titular hero and why she’s here. A painful experience caused GRIS’ world to become torn apart. But perhaps there’s a way to make things better.
The game provides a safe space to explore pain and sorrow. It’s free of death, failure, and violence, and juxtaposes its dark undertones with a beautifully bright and quiet world that players can explore at their own pace. A spectacle of game design, GRIS is something we can all learn a lot from.
The real-world “Tetris effect,” where this game gets its title, is a phenomenon where people become so invested in something that its patterns and symbols manifest in mental imagery. After playing The Witness, for instance, I dreamt about chessboard puzzles for a week. More commonly, the original Tetris effect causes people to visualize falling tetrominos (the blocks in Tetris games) as they drift to sleep.
Tetris Effect (the game, not the phenomenon) is the most recent iteration of the 30 year old classic. This time, however, Lumines creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi spearheaded the project. Mizuguchi stayed true to the series’ origins, but imposed his own spin. All of the game’s stages are set against scenes of humanity, history, and the cosmos.
Like lots of games, it’s something you’re meant to escape into, but Tetris Effect makes escaping back out much easier, since it’s not about gratification-based grinding. That makes Tetris Effect stand out from the crowd in 2018; it captures the joys of gaming without subjecting you to the woes.
It’s fun for the sake of fun, sure, but also an evocative sensory overload. Music and color sporadically erupt from minimal soundscapes and monochrome backdrops, before dipping into quiet calmness a split second later. Tetris Effect is wonderfully experiential, nostalgic yet fresh, and absolutely removed from the hyperbolic violence so prominent in modern gaming.
With games getting longer, and my free time getting more sparse as I confront adult life and the real world, Tetris Effect is exactly what I need. In fact, all of the games on this list echo that sentiment. They’re quiet, calm, non-violent, and short. All of them provided unique experiences that I never got elsewhere. All of them are well worth playing in order to explore how a game can excel without ever resorting to a tried and tired tactic. As I said at the start; I like a shooter as much as the next person. I like these games even more.