Nonviolent Verbs and Why Video Games Need More of Them

by | May 3, 2020

In the 40 year history of video games, game developers have consistently drawn from a limited set of verbs to design games. Violent verbs like punching, shooting, and slashing, form the basis for countless gameplay systems from all eras. These versatile verbs allow for a variety of gameplay scenarios, but basing gameplay on these familiar verbs makes creating nonviolent games difficult. Certain games have found success in using these verbs to create nonviolent games (Portal uses shooting to solve puzzles), but by and large, these verbs are meant for violence. 

By focusing on these verbs as the basis for gameplay, video games have ended up ignoring rich, complex verbs present throughout the human experience with just as much potential for engaging gameplay systems. Verbs like painting, dancing, debating, and writing are all actions with near infinite depth to them, yet they rarely, if ever, appear as the primary mechanic in a video game. Nonviolent games need to capitalize on these types of verbs to create unique and engaging experiences, as trying to repurpose violent verbs for nonviolent games can only go so far. Among many recent games that focus on atypical verbs, two games, Wandersong and FEZ, set examples for how games can create engaging nonviolent verbs.

Singing is a verb with tons of depth, yet few games have made it their primary action.

In the first moments of play, Wandersong seems like it will merely tread in the path of many other games that came before it. The game opens with an unnamed and presumably special hero obtaining a fancy looking sword while bombastic music plays. Many other games have featured similar scenes. But quickly, the game reveals that it will forge its own path. The playable character (I named them Luen, which is how I will refer to them for the rest of the article) isn’t the hero prophecies speak of. The truth couldn’t be further than that. Luen is just a simple bard that struggles to lift a sword and abhors committing any form of violence. Instead of trying to save the world through brute strength, Luen tries to save the world through the power of song. 

Luen’s greatest love forms the basis for Wandersong’s gameplay, as the game’s primary verb is singing. Players sing by moving their right control stick in one of the eight cardinal directions. Singing in Wandersong doesn’t require knowledge of music or even strictly timed movements; it just requires players to try their best at making music.

Luen encounters many obstacles while trying to save the world and overcomes them all by singing. Luen’s singing does more than produce soundwaves. Luen’s singing lets them direct a band of coffee-obsessed pirates around the high seas, use a (limited) set of spells, and energize people. When Luen enters the mystical spirit realm, puzzles prevent the joyful bard from reaching their goal of solving puzzles conveniently through different applications of song. In one realm, singing controls magic plants, while in another, singing speeds up or slows down time depending on how Luen sings.  

Singing has even more uses in the physical realm. Initially, singing seems limited in application, but it quickly grows into a versatile tool that allows Luen to approach and manage multiple types of conflict. Ghosts haunting a village and won’t go away? Sing to calm the restless spirits down and help villagers connect with the ghosts. Demon tiger prowling around a mountain? Soothe the poor beast with song. Two kingdoms stuck in a never ending war? Give them a message of peace through song. All in all, players use Wandersong’s singing in contexts other than strictly musical ones, which is what makes Wandersong successful in using “singing” as an atypical game verb. 

Just like Wandersong, FEZ begins by concealing its true nature. Players control Gomez, a cute white blob, immediately after his village chief calls him to the top of his village. When Gomez arrives there, his chief introduces Gomez to the Hexahedron, a gigantic cube that protects the universe. The Hexahedron gifts Gomez a fez, a cylindrical hat, which lets him rotate his world, accessing dimensions he was previously unable to. The Hexahedron breaks into pieces and Gomez decides to traverse dimensions to restore all of the Hexahedron’s parts.

FEZ’s primary gameplay verb is rotating. To rotate, players press buttons to rotate the whole screen by 90 degrees left or right to solve puzzles and complete challenges. The game slowly introduces the variety of ways that players can use rotation to solve the game’s puzzles. Players might find themselves at a dead end, but rotating the level might show platforms or other means of progression previously unseen to them. 


FEZ creates unique puzzles based on perspective. Players can only progress once they rotate the world in the correct way. 

In addition to revealing previously unseen paths of progression, FEZ’s Platforms on opposite sides of the screen can be brought together with a few taps of a button. FEZ’s rotating does more than show players new paths for progressing through a level. When players rotate levels, their location changes. Players might be standing on a platform and be too far away from anything to progress. After rotating 90 degrees, everything shifts and the platform comes close enough for players to progress. 


Look at how FEZ’s rotation lets players solve puzzles not possible in reality

FEZ’s use of rotating might not seem unique. After all, other puzzle games like The Witness and Stephen’s Sausage Roll use mundane verbs like drawing and cooking to make mind-bending and engaging puzzles. It may not be necessarily unique, but FEZ’s turning demonstrates the important fact that verbs in games don’t need to strictly adhere to how they work in reality. After all, no one can rotate two objects to actually make them come closer together. Rotating things might change one’s perspective on them so that they seem closer together, but that doesn’t change their position to each other. A fictional world doesn’t need to have verbs that adhere to reality. FEZ’s turning isn’t linked to reality, which teaches an important lesson for how games with atypical verbs can add depth to their verbs.

Wandersong and FEZ both provide different lessons on how to make more engaging, nonviolent, atypical verbs in video games. Wandersong shows how atypical verbs don’t need to be confined to use in one specific context. FEZ teaches that verbs in games can have properties unique to video games. Both showcase ways to make atypical verbs more engaging. So many nonviolent verbs have yet to be significantly explored: socializing, debating, or other interpersonal verbs, let alone verbs like camping, biking, or teaching. These verbs are rarely, if ever, placed front-and-center in video games. Games don’t have to feature shooting, slashing, or punching as their primary verb. Games can and need to explore atypical verbs more. 



Dr. Rebecca Richards (St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota) curates Thoughtful Play.
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