I found another game that allows for (and seems to even prefer) a non-lethal approach. In this case, Starpoint Gemini 2 (2014), a space exploration and trading game that is an indie spiritual successor to Freelancer (2003). With the introduction of science missions (Scan the anomaly), repair missions (repair the broken installation) and chartered freight, taxi and smuggling missions, one can build an entire star-faring career avoiding hostile encounters. In fact, my impatience with trying to trick out my ship almost demands I avoid hostile encounters.
When I talked about Captain Bubbles, my first and favorite Borderlands 2 character, I noted that among my joys of playing her was the focus away from shooting things in the face. This in not only a genre of video game that is about face-shooting, but a franchise that celebrates face-shooting to the nth degree. In Captain Bubbles case, when running around loot-fishing for OP8 hardware, shooting enemies in the face is all but useless. (Though that’s prior to the recent Siren buff. I may have to check again.)
Thief: The Dark Project (1998) offers the option of playing no-kill. Of it’s three difficulty settings, normal, hard and expert, only normal allows for murder. When killing is proscribed, though, it is so on the grounds that it’s unprofessional, not that it’s amoral or even ungentlemanly.* To be fair, my early endeavors at Thief established that guards were far more skilled than I was in melee, and could soak up a lot of (standard pointy-tipped) arrows before succumbing to injury. Killing in Thief TDP is, thus, impractical. It makes some sense given that the Thief series was intended to be about sneaking, and likely the sword and pointy arrows were included only because they were expected.
First person games as a genre have been so focused on face-shooting that they’re classified as First Person Shooters with exceptions without weapons and fighting regarded as Walking Simulators. I’ve suggested a non-combat first person game before and there are quite a number of titles that are not very shooty or minimally shooty. (The Portal series, for instance, is not face-shooty at all) But those titles are few and shooty FPSes are many and it is probably going to stay that way for the forseeable future.
The AAA industry is continuing to push for larger-budget titles and with great money comes great risk-aversion. The current model is to match reliable game-structure A with popular diegetic franchise B to make a (hopefully) passable but uninnovative game.** Even the new Thief reboot† features third-person platforming, a more combat-hardy Garrett, quick-time events and uncircumnavigable action sequences.
Fortunately, the Indie industry is eager to compete against big Hollywood-budget titles by offering new and innovative gameplay (and taking design risks that AAA won’t take because blah-blah-power comes blah-blah trademark violations).
Also, there’s been a handful of titles that were clearly intended to be a spiritual successors to prior titles when their rights-holders didn’t provide an adequate sequel — a trend I hope to encourage by getting and playing such games.
Regarding Starpoint Gemini 2, space trading is something of a niche genre as it is and those of us who play those games really don’t have that many titles to chose from. The SG2 developers didn’t actually anticipate someone would take the Serenity approach as lifestyle choice. I suspect, rather, they lucked into making non-aggressive play exciting and relying on it feasible. Most available missions are still of the kill this guy variety, and plottier missions (those I’ve uncovered so far) are conspicuously all of the shooty variety.
And non-combat missions aren’t always available. I sometimes have to wait or run trade routes or explore until people want things smuggled or repaired. And yet, the submarine-style tension — depending on stealth and trickery to evade massively armed ships that would undoubtedly punch holes in my meager vessel if I gave them half a chance — is very worth it.
* Chris Franklin’s Errant Signal analysis includes a clarification that Garrett is not a pacifist or even morally against murder, rather it’s the player who chooses how aggressive to be.
** Chris Franklin discusses this trend specifically regarding the Star Wars franchise in Errant Signal: Peak Star Wars
† Disclosure: This is what I’ve gleaned from reviews, discussions and partial let’s-plays of Thief. I’ve yet to actually play it, myself.