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Games in 2015 were better when they stepped away from the guns

Games in 2015 were better when they stepped away from the guns
Where most games try to excite the player over the prospect of pulling a trigger, “Life Is Strange” wants its characters to do anything but. (Dontnod)

For a medium that for much of the last decade has been overrun with machismo, 2015 in video games represented a year of powerful role reversals. It was time, finally, to put down the guns.

Over the last 12 months I've played many diverse roles: a woman losing her virginity in "Cibele," a dying tree struggling to find life in "Prune."

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"Ori and the Blind Forest" had me grappling with the loss of a loved one while trying to survive a perilous forest in a quest for self-confidence. "Sunset" allowed me to experience life as a housekeeper amid a backdrop of war and racism in the early 1970s. And then there was a game that showed it's time to talk about gun violence.

These titles made other games that still rely on pointing and shooting a weapon feel tone deaf and out of touch — none, perhaps, more so than the overly militarized police of "Battlefield Hardline." At a time, culturally, when mass shootings are part of our daily conversation, the industry's over-reliance on games with guns is not only no longer fun, it's exhausting.

The idea of swapping weapons for actual stories should be celebrated in any medium, but in gaming, where guns, bullets and senseless bloody murder have long ruled the day, it felt downright revolutionary.

Oh, there were guns. Even the uppity private school setting of "Life Is Strange" had them, but here a firearm was a tool for fear. The moments in which a gun appears in "Life Is Strange" are chilling. Like the time Chloe Price, azure-haired and in the midst of a punk-rock phase, has stolen a firearm from her stepfather's gun cabinet.

She waves it like a toy, and the player-controlled character, Max Caulfield, jumps, startled at the site of a handgun in her friend's bedroom. It's not only the rare game to delve into teenage life, but it takes the unusual route of bringing weight to the weapon. Where most games try to excite the player over the prospect of pulling a trigger, "Life Is Strange" wants its characters to do anything but.

The two eventually take the gun to a junkyard, and a sense of dread hangs over the teenage recklessness. Max is uncomfortable. She wants to leave, but she's scared of disappointing her friend. Subtly, the game calls into question our nation's lax approach to gun control. Chloe's stepdad is gun- and security-obsessed, wanting to turn a high school into a fully monitored police state.

The game wants the player to wonder why she has such easy access to a deadly instrument, and if the prevalence of weapons truly makes the world a safer place. There is no good outcome. Chloe is a poor shot, and depending on the choices of the player she may end up accidentally putting a bullet in her chest (don't worry, she'll live) or letting the gun fall into the hands of the town deadbeat.

"Life Is Strange" does what so many of our politicians have yet to do. It opens up a discussion.

"Splatoon" gets Nintendo into the shooter business, with squids and paint.
"Splatoon" gets Nintendo into the shooter business, with squids and paint. (Nintendo)

That's not to say games in which players blast away are ever going to disappear, but they do need to be rethought. That's the lesson, after all, from Nintendo's "Splatoon." Here, characters shoot paint rather than bullets, and the goal isn't to wipe out an opponent, it's to cover the ground in colors. Graffiti, it turns out, is more pleasurable than killing.

"Splatoon" gets even crazier. The main characters are human-squid hybrids who can swim in paint. It was risk-taking in that it asked players to rethink how a game with guns can be approached. It also gave us the novel weapon of a paint roller.

When games, in fact, resorted to using guns, their pace slowed. "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain" often makes shootouts the least desirable option, and the post-nuclear war game "Fallout 4" creates an expansive world with some of the more offbeat characters around. That so many need to be shot felt backward.

And while "Rise of the Tomb Raider" often put a gun in Lara Croft's hand, those were the least-exciting moments of the game. It turns out that navigating a waterfall to find a hidden crypt is more thrilling. Though it was one of my favorite games of the year, I tried repeatedly to complete it without using a gun, and it's just not possible.

Shooting? Been there, done that and for too long and too often. So step away from the guns. It makes for better games — and a better world.

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