Shooting things in games is intrinsically compelling. Firing, watching something blow up, and then seeing our score ping higher on the screen creates an exciting feedback loop that gives us immediate agency and power. Shooters are the most popular genre of video game in the U.S. and account for 25% of all games sold. The defining titles of our era are battle royale mass brawlers such as Fortnite and Apex Legends, and epic narrative adventures (with plenty of shooting) such as Grand Theft Auto, Far Cry, and Uncharted.
But after years of playing games like these, I’ve started to ask myself: Would it be possible for any of these mainstream blockbusters to exist without guns? Have developers overlooked other ways to explore stories? Are there more interesting dynamics we could play with in games, designs that could encourage a different kind of feeling in players?
The obvious answer is to swap out guns for something just as intuitive and rewarding, but without the lethal force. Nintendo’s brilliant Splatoon is a multiplayer online shooter with paint guns rather than assault rifles, and in the excellent Marvel’s Spider-Man, our hero webs enemies to walls and hangs them from threads, rather than murdering them. “You can imagine a get-hit-and-you’re-out version of Battle Royale, but with a Frisbee rather than guns,” said game designer Mitu Khandaker. “There’s a rich wealth of mechanics to explore when we draw inspiration from playground games.”
“If I were designing for a broader audience, I would look beyond the known adrenaline/dopamine reward loop.”
Another replacement for gunplay could be photography, which demands the same point-and-shoot action — yet doesn’t involve anyone getting their head blown off. The horror series Fatal Frame of the early 2000s had the player taking photos of ghosts, while Pokémon Snap and the recent indie title The Bradwell Conspiracy used photography too, but these have been outliers. Could a mainstream action…