It's time for shooters to grow up

OPINION: The next generation needs to pull the trigger on its clichés, argues Michael Gapper

There's going to come a time, very soon, where the guy you shoot in a videogame will be a mo-capped, HD, 60-frames-per-second proto-human who strides boldly across the uncanny valley and walks straight into the hot end of your shotgun. We're about to inflict a whole world of violence on the most realistic characters ever rendered.

Star Wars 1313 features characters detailed down to the millimetre, where every micro-twitch of the eyeball and every wrinkle around the mouth is rendered in real time. Square's Luminous Engine demo showed characters whose hair caught the wind and whose faces were lit by every glowing particle. They're beyond human - not realistic exactly, but convincing in a way your brain doesn't reject. And you're going to shoot their faces off, because that's how we roll here in Videogameland.

Now, who cares, right? Jean-Claude Van Damme has been spin-kicking rent-a-stuntmen in the sternum for the best part of two decades and nobody ever shed a tear for those poor bastards, so why should we care about a nameless AI drone, even if he does look human?

Watch Dogs gives every one of its thousands of NPCs a story of their own

Ubisoft's answer is to give every character in Watch Dogs' virtual Chicago their own life story, a job and a salary, and realistic reactions to situations. You can go ahead and Van Damage anyone you like, but before you blow someone away you'll know they're a foster parent, or a city worker, or that they were once declined a loan. When you combine convincing stories with convincing humans, will you still want to hold a gun to a man's head and pull the trigger?

Yes, of course you bloody will. You, like me, are a bastard. But the ever-increasing visual and narrative fidelity in videogames is making the more videogamey aspects of games seem ridiculous. When Lara Croft burns, stabs and impales hundreds of men in the new Tomb Raider she stops feeling like the vulnerable heroine Crystal Dynamics had in mind and becomes a sadistic superheroine from a 1992 Image comic. Rockstar's 50-hour melodrama collapses in hour one when Niko Bellic starts his new life in America by piledriving an old dear into a brick wall and killing 40 cops.

Next-generation morality, we'll deal with later. So long as videogames are about conflict let's use our new power and new ideas to make conflict matter, and so long as videogames insist on aping action movies let's at least copy the good ones. We don't have to make Michael Bay's Transformers any more; developers can aim for something like Die Hard instead.

Games are obsessed with violence because conflict is easy to represent and fun to participate in, but almost every stage demo at E3 followed the shoot-'splode-wisecrack template until all the mayhem blurred into one. Thousands died and no one even blinked. Tabloid psychologists would say we're desensitised - but you can't be sensitive about Black Ops II any more than you could get upset about Whac-A-Mole. There's no actual violence to all the violence and even the goriest shooter has all the subtlety and consequence of an episode of The A-Team.

Meaningful, beautiful action in Square-Enix's amazing Luminous demo

The Last Of Us was E3's one exception. In Sony's PS3 exclusive, a man fights a gang of hardened killers with only four shots in his revolver. It respects guns and the danger inherent in handling them, so when you rush at a man with a machine gun you'll know your life is on the line and when you kill that man, now you'll have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho. The balance of power will shift and the fight will have mattered.

Between them, Sony, Ubisoft, Square Enix and LucasArts are onto something. With its perfectly animated eyeballs and realistically shiny gums, the next generation is all about valuing humanity, and now at least one game is showing signs of respecting conflict, too. When someone brings it all together in one game you'll meet characters you'll want to protect and characters you'll want to hurt - and when that happens you might actually feel something when you squeeze the trigger.