The idea of making a “family-friendly” arena shooting game in the mold of Unreal Tournament or Quake 3 seems counterintuitive; the draw of such games is fast-paced, “elite” gaming experiences, over-the-top explosive gore and a very macho, tournament-minded attitude. The genre itself embodies the popular perception of e-sports – spectacle, competition and a self-conscious striving for “maturity”, a world of announcers shouting “HEAD SHOT” and “KILLING SPREE” and lightning-reactions to score sniper kills while flying across the map jumping constantly. That, anyway, is the perception of the competitive arena shooter, and a perception that really clouds the wider genre. Nintendo’s Splatoon is, nevertheless, an arena shooter, which has a thriving ranked playlist, and is resolutely family-friendly and positive in its entire presentation. It is, in itself, an excellent game; on a technical level its basic shooting mechanics and movement gimmicks are superbly executed, it has a continually-updated armoury and map list (which is provided via free patches, rather than paid DLC – ensuring no fragmentation of the player base) and a solidly-made single-player campaign.
Yet beyond the technical level its real wonder is creating a shooting-game in the third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective that defines titles like Gears of War which is free of the usual causes for objection that can be levelled at the genre. There are valid criticisms of the concept of competitive shooting-games; those attached to realistic settings, like Counterstrike or Call of Duty are turning war into a sport, with all the associations that might bring. Those using abstracted settings of floating geometric objects and brightly-coloured lasers like Unreal Tournament still nevertheless sell themselves on their lavish violence; Unreal revels in it. Players fondly remember the announcer’s ever-more-exciting egging on of the player to explode more enemies, the ability to atomise entire teams with a nuclear missile or decapitate foes with a sawblade launcher. It is fun for many people in the way a film like MD Geist is fun; the violence is so cartoonish and exaggerated it is clearly not to be taken seriously but nevertheless it is entirely reasonable that this gladiatorial setup where the most violent deaths are the best might not be to all tastes – and probably is not generally suitable for young audiences.
Splatoon eschews the visceral violence completely; defeated opponents pop into nothingness and perhaps a gently falling hat to reappear seconds later. The announcer does not lavish in monster kills or rampages, instead the player has simply “splatted” his opponent. Immediately the first barrier to universal appeal is gone; the aim is not to eviscerate, disembowel and vapourise but simply to send someone back to time-out. Secondly, its arsenal is not macho weapons of real war or sci-fi uber-guns whose selling point is what nastiness they do to unprotected flesh but water-pistols, paint-rollers and similar intended to get people doused in ink. This is not a sport made from killing or a death game but simply mucking about with paintball guns, and while the end-result is the same (knock someone out by hitting them with your weapon) this crucial difference in framing – an exaggerated futuristic spin on a real bloodless combat sport compared to a depiction of actual human bloodsport – reinforces the harmlessness of it all. The “dying” is just a visual representation of sitting out for a bit in a water-fight – rather than actual depicted death. And yet nothing is lost by this, and everything gained. Simply by making it clear that this is a shooter without any lethal weapons, Nintendo have made a truly family game out of the most “mature” and aggressive genre.
What is more, the paintballing is not simply a conceit to make a bloodless shooting-game; it could easily be simply a regular shooter with the guns shooting coloured blobs in the vein of cartoon censorship to replace bullets with harmless “knock-out lasers” and death with “being injured” or “sent to the shadow realm.” The whole game is built around your weapons firing liquid with some technically impressive fluid physics on the projectiles. Sniper rifles fire jets of ink which fall and leave a line painted along their trajectory. Machine-guns fire sprays of droplets that rougly paint the ground. The melee weapon is a massive paint roller that has a great sense of momentum. Even the air-strike equivalent is simply a massive dousing of ink from the sky that leaves a big splash-mark on the ground. And the aim of the game is accordingly ink-based. “Killing” is secondary in every game mode to painting the ground – the unranked playlists use the “Turf War” mode, where the aim is to cover as much of the ground with your team’s colour as possible, while ranked matches use the “Splat Zones” mode which is a typical domination (point-capture) mode with the catch that the zone must be painted your team’s colour to score. There is no deathmatch mode, and indeed only those two objective-based modes – and yet without even trying Splatoon does more to get players playing the objectives than many more hardcore shooters. Every action – fighting opponents, helping teammates – contributes to the objective because every missed shot paints the earth. You cannot not play the objectives in Splatoon and that is its most fascinating mechanic. What is more, the teams are small and the games are short – there are no drawn-out stalemates or grinding defeats, and so it has constant intensity which some shooters cannot maintain even with massive visual spectacle and explosions.
On top of all this, the movement gimmick which is its other defining factor once again encourages the positive, helpful play-style that makes Splatoon special. Characters can turn from human to squid and “swim” in their team’s ground, moving significantly faster and up walls. This is also the only way to reload – so once again in order to kill, you must complete objectives. When considered like this, the genius of the design is clear; rather than incentivise objective play by experience bonuses or kill-streaks, the only way to reload weapons, move with ease and attack enemies is by completing the objective.
What Splatoon has achieved is not only creating a far more universally morally tolerable take on the shooting-game (by taking it away from its video-nasty or militaristic settings) but a game which could teach the “competitive” scene a lot about encouraging positive play-styles. The constant reworking of kill-streaks and unlocks in Call of Duty and Battlefield to put more and more weight on capturing flags has yet to really make public servers feel like unified teams; Splatoon, by comparison, has no voice chat, only two gametypes and yet in every game the whole team plays the “intended” way, working together to complete objectives.