It's not all about chicken-dinners and sick headshots...
One of the mainstays of gaming, even in 2017, is that violence is almost intrinsically a major part of the draw. Letting out your frustrations on Zombies, Nazis and wave after wave of nameless henchmen is not only fun, but cathartic. Not only that, but gunplay is one of the simplest mechanics to develop and equally one of the best selling – most of the top five selling games of the past few years feature some aspect of violent death as the main objective. It’s relatively simple to assume that this is simply giving into what people want, but violence, especially FPS-based violence, is hollow.
Splatoon, and it’s superior, younger brother – Splatoon 2 – are two of the best examples that mirror the base mechanics of a shooter (weapons, powerups, levels) but manage to remove killing as the dominant advancement priority. For those unaware of the game, Splatoon has two teams of players holding paint guns of varying types – some of which aren’t guns at all – that are tasked to fight for territory: painted territory. While covering someone with enough paint knocks a player out of play temporarily, there is no benefit to the team or the player’s progress other than removing them out of the field.
Instead, the focus is on spraying as much paint on the map as possible – a task that on the surface sounds incredibly boring, but has me significantly more engrossed and competitive than any Call of Duty or Battlefield experience. Strategy moves from killing or removing players to simply avoiding them, learning how to navigate maps to provide the most coverage in the shortest time possible, and modifying your load-out to avoid running out of ink during that last crucial 30 seconds where even a single bucket of paint can mean the difference between an epic win or a super slim defeat.
The hyper competitive nature of Splatoon, mixed with its family-friendly formula, widens the field of who might enjoy the game. Children, too young to indulge a hyper-violent massacre, can instead enjoy the same tense and strategic shooter experience without having to murder people in new and exciting ways. Splatoon scratches that same COD itch too – that easing of the daily frustrations and indulgence in that angry side – but without giving into the most basic of primal clubbing.
I must make it clear that there is nothing wrong with violent shooters – I have played hundreds of them in my years and quite a few of them I would consider a best-in-class experience. But it’s the games that allow you to take a non-violent route, such as Metal Gear Solid, Fallout: New Vegas, or Dishonored, that I enjoy the most. Violence is the simple way out, both in games and in real life, and as such can be not only discomforting in the virtual world but also boring. Finding a way to knock out a guard, or sneak around them, or even (my favourite) talking them down, requires significantly more skill.
Splatoon 2 is more difficult than other games in its genre because taking out players is much harder than painting new turf. There are weapons that make this action simpler, but they also remove that player from contributing to the coverage – neutering them as a useful member of a team that isn’t especially organised.
Titles like this one also make it easier to justify a doctrine of non-violence with my young son, when I can point at experiences like this and explain that you can still have team fights without bullets.