Slime Rancher and Conflict

Slime Rancher is currently available for PC and Xbox One, with a Playstation 4 release imminent.

After the first few play sessions with it, I’ve been deliberately rationing out my time with Slime Rancher so as not to wear its charm out within a few long play sessions.

It’s got this adorable, feel-good, sunshine-y atmosphere that likens the experience of playing it to receiving a warm hug. And possibly the most notable contributor of all to this feeling is that there’s next to no violent confrontation in the entire game.

Getting a full and properly-representative sample of the entire video game market seems a crazy task, but to give an idea, journalists’ breakdowns of games showcased at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) presentations in recent years suggest that around 75-80% of titles on display feature some focus on combat mechanics. Granted, E3 skews toward bombastic blockbuster releases, while offering lighter coverage of more inventive independent titles and rarely ever featuring quieter genres like flight simulators and visual novels. All the same, it still suggests a trend wherein the regular moment-to-moment interaction with other people and creatures in games leans toward the aggressive.

And we see this tendency bleed even into otherwise-passive games. Minecraft, for its fame as a creative toybox, also introduces hostile creatures from the very start which exist only to perpetuate a “kill-or-be-destroyed” mentality. Stardew Valley, recent crowd-favorite in an overwhelmingly peaceful genre (farm-life simulator), has a pillar of its kill trees and portion of the world map dedicated to a monster-slaying cave that, to be quite honest, feels somewhat shallow and very disjointed from the game’s otherwise more idyllic outlook and planning-based play. And even Mario himself, the jolly fellow known for jumping, is portrayed as indiscriminately stomping, squishing, and burning any ally of King Bowser who he runs across outside of a go-karting track or soccer pitch (and sometimes even then).

This isn’t to say that any one of these games is inherently worse for letting you fight your way out of a situation – in fact, there are many fantastic uses of combat mechanics in games that service a narrative argument against violence or war as an institution, and it would be crazy-making to take offense to Mario of all things just for his goomba-stomp. But they do illustrate the pervasiveness of this line of thought while only one of the three ever offers alternative options than “flee” or “fight”.

Standing as a counterpoint, Slime Rancher is a rare first-person shooting title containing virtually no mechanics used for injury whatsoever.

The first thing the game does to drive this home, before you’re even out of the main menu or told which button lets you jump, is to offer a “Casual Mode” in which the overwhelming majority of the game’s confrontational enemies are removed entirely or de-fanged. By giving the player the option to discard naturally-occurring hostility immediately, it sends a clear message: the point of the game is far enough removed from attacking other people and creatures that minimal value is lost by sacrificing any reason to ever want to do so. And that’s not the only way in which it undercuts the very idea of picking fights from the get-go:

 

 

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Top: Slime Rancher – Bottom: Metal Gear Solid V

Metal Gear Solid V, a game in a series where direct confrontation is usually to be avoided in favor of Stealth Espionage Action(TM), nevertheless has a dedicated “attack” button, two buttons designated for supporting for that attack (“Ready” and “Reload”), three separate “Equip Weapon” buttons, and a map (“iDroid”) that serves double-duty as ordering commands to your aide-de-camp, generally to attack some enemy soldier. Seven control inputs in total that partially or solely feed offensive actions.

On the other hand, of all the inputs in Slime Rancher, perhaps two have inherently aggressive or defensive connotations: “Pulse” and ”Shoot” (the former being explicitly non-harmful and the latter being used in a benign context an overwhelming majority of the time), with two more (“Next/Previous Slot”) being a stretch, used more for selecting food and currency than anything else.

Form follows function, which in turn follows intent.

Then there are the other little bits of the interface pointing in this direction, too, up to and including the insistent terminology within the game’s labels and text descriptions. Specifically, your tool is never once referred to as a rifle or gun of any kind, but a “Vacpack”. It causally underscores its purpose: you’re meant to pick things up and spit them back out, not to induce injury.

And even when aggressive slimes do show up, the vast majority of the time despite, your options are decidedly *not* to attack them. I unfortunately found that to be my initial impulse, assuming that my vacuum’s defensive “push” would upgrade to something punchier, and in the interim I took the half-measure of fleeing at the sight of anything with angry eyes every time I found a feral slime that couldn’t immediately be banished to the sea or off a cliff-edge. But on taking the time to actually read the game’s text explaining slimes’ agitation, my attitude changed entirely.

The in-game description for hostile slimes only once uses a term expressly implying injurious action (“stomp”), instead opting for terms like “bite” and “consume” to reinforce its ultimate conclusion that even these are only threats by way of their pursuit of food rather than deliberately taking malevolent or even territorial action.

The poor things are just hungry.

One of the game’s only sources of fear and stress was instantly solved by carrying around a bag of carrots and feeding the wildlife – and the big fellas even kindly rewarded me with a bit of currency for feeding them. Positive reinforcement!

It turns out that the leading problem in this game is a failure to research rather than a failure to slay monsters; it’s all right there in the manual. The uncommon “Tarr” aside, nothing in this game is malevolent or antagonistic to the player. In fact, the Tarr represent the only instance in which you (presumably) injure things directly and even that has a softer flavor to it – you splash the hostile blob of tar with water, dissolving it into a puddle. Conversely, every bit of damage you take is from a relatively friendly source, from Rock Slimes’ pointy heads (look, don’t touch) and Rad Slimes’ passive radiation (they don’t mean anything by it) to unfed blobs throwing a hunger tantrum.

Well, you can also raise chickens explicitly to feed to the squishy kitties you confine in a pen, but that’s less about participatory violence than it is the ethics of livestock farming, which is a whole other can of worms.

Slime Rancher is one of those rare games where we’re given alternatives to “shoot the bad guy” that are preferable not just by their rewards, but also that feel better through gameplay. Turning the other cheek feels good in the moment everyone comes out the better for it in subsequent moments. It’s not a preachy game, but rather one that shows the regular flow of action that it encourages.

It’s kind of why I’m fond farming simulators as a whole, I feel, even if I never reach the industrious level of intricate planning that defines the later stages of play. It’s partly due to being a native Midwesterner, I’m sure, but also because they’re a subset of games I find to have a healthy, truly relaxing outlook. There nothing’s really out to get you, and your day-to-day isn’t repelling threats your physical well-being, but rather gathering chicken-eggs and re-planting potatoes and asking that nice teacher how the library classes are going.

Or feeding carrots to a blob to make it go plort.

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Ball Pit!

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