On vision and violence

Xenos development has stalled a bit lately, because I’ve been sick. I had a mother of all fevers last week, but fortunately I got better, and am now back to the game. This means that I don’t have many exciting new features to describe; but I still don’t want to leave this blog silent for a long time… So, let’s talk about Xenos vision: what would the game actually be about?

I have to say that my ideas about Xenos change all the time, sometimes radically. When I just started first prototype, back in 2011, I envisioned some sort of cross between Crimsonland and Terraria: a top-down game of frantic shooting combined with resources gathering and building. Today, there’s no building (although some is planned) and no shooting (ditto), and the accent is mostly on gathering and exploration. Ideas for Xenos that I have today might also change in the future – though maybe not so radically, since the game is already under development.

And my current ideas about what Xenos should be were born from my musings on violence in games. I’m not going to argue that videogame violence is inherently bad, or good for that matter – that’s better left to psychologists. But what I clearly see is that it’s prevalentIt’s not just that games are violent: it’s that violence is basically the only tool game protagonists have. If we take more “traditional” games (i.e., exclude puzzles and casual games etc, that don’t feature any violence at all), most of them are structured like this: “There’s something wrong with the world. Go kill those people, then everything’s gonna be OK.” Some games – a precious few – embellish this formula somewhat, making it “There’s something wrong with the world. Go figure out who to kill so that everything would be OK” or “There’s something wrong with the world. Go kill those people… oh, that’s making it worse!” And we praise these games for being “serious”, for offering “moral choices” etc. Having hundreds  and thousands of games repeat this same formula seems kinda sad.

I don’t want to do that. I’ve decided that for Xenos, violence would not be the only, or even the main, tool of the protagonist. And that actually meshes quite good with the theme of alien invasion… I mean, I could make the game about blasting aliens to pieces. But realistically speaking, a single guy could never blast the whole invasion out of existence, no matter how badass he is. The only way to do that is postulate some sort of “hive mind” or “mothership”, that, once destroyed, takes the entire alien race with it. In my book, that’s a cheap and cheesy trick, but even Duke Nukem basically uses it with Cycloid Emperor. And Duke is probably the most badass hero in the universe.

But, if you can’t defeat the aliens though sheer firepower – what would you do with them? Making a game without any victory condition seems way sadder than using violence in the same way everybody does. Another cheesy trick that I frankly don’t like is finding some way to “speak” with aliens and then basically telling them off. Some games use this, like Space Rangers or UFO: Aftermath for example: you speak with aliens, explain that humans are a sentient race, and invaders immediately see the error of their ways and stop. I think it’s really cheap, but what choice do I have? I can’t kill them, I can’t tell them off…

Ligthning-flinging robots and alien poison gas.

Ligthning-flinging robots and alien poison gas.

Let’s talk about the difference between aliens and zombies. I know, that seems like a sudden diversion, but bear with me – it’s actually relevant. You see, Xenos is really looking like Project Zomboid, only with aliens instead of zombies. What’s the difference? Well, first, zombies are stupid, easily destroyed, but numerous. You kill them by the dozen, but more always come, and in the end there are too many. Xenos’ aliens, on the other hand, are relatively rare, but really tough. You just don’t dismantle an armored alien robot with a monkey wrench – or a shotgun, for that matter.  Also, zombies pursue the living relentlessly, longing for their brains; but aliens basically don’t care about humans. They just do their stuff, and if you get in the way, you die. And we humans have no idea what that “stuff” is. I think these aliens are actually a lot like a natural force. Take thunderstorms for instance: we can’t do much about a thunderstorm, and we don’t know why or when a thunderstorm appears (OK, we do, but didn’t for most of human history). Mostly, we just try to stay out of the way, just like with aliens in Xenos.

And what do we, as a species, do with natural forces? We study them; we subvert them; we use them to our advantage. That’s  what Xenos should be about: you should study and subvert aliens to win. The victory condition would be humanity that learned to live with the alien “menace” and ever transformed the “menace” to “boon”. I like this idea, because it’s not something that’s been done to death (like the “destroy the hivemind” trick), and it’s not something that’s achieved through violence. Also, being a technocrat and a transhumanist, I really like the “triumph of science” vibe. Of course, this ending raises a question of whether subverting and using a supposedly sentient race is any better than genocide, but that is actually an interesting question to raise (If aliens in Xenos are in fact sentient. They might not be.)

I don’t plan to make Xenos an entirely non-violent game. It’s a sandbox, after all, and a sandbox should offer maximum freedom, including, in this case, freedom to blast some aliens, and/or humans, with a shotgun. But violence would not be the path to victory, and that’s enough for me.

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