For better or worse the history of video games is violent. From the very beginning, Spacewar! (1962) locked two players in deadly conflict. Much of this violence is oriented towards other beings; human characters (player or AI controlled), monsters, aliens and assorted creatures.
There is, however, an alternative history of violence — the kind perpetrated against hard concrete and cold steel as opposed to living things. This is the history of environmental destruction.
My first taste of this kind of brute carnage was with Midway’s classic arcade game Rampage. Inspired by older monster movies like King Kong and Godzilla, you played one of three giant creatures (gorilla, lizard or werewolf) and was tasked with levelling two-dimensional city blocks.
The destruction was immediate, and – as you munched skyscrapers and swatted helicopters from the sky like flies – on a scale that dwarfed the petty slaps and kicks of other fighting games. In the most bizarre twist, Rampage was recently made into a “not-bad” film starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
A year before prolific British studio Rare released GoldenEye, they created the cult classic Blast Corps. Utilising the hardware of the N64, this early 3D game let you pilot different vehicles and, as the title (obviously) suggests, blast structures to smithereens in order to clear a path for your company’s nuclear missile carrier.
Blast Corps. was, in fact, a puzzle game where you would need to efficiently swap between the skidding bulldozer, missile-launching motorcycle and several mechanised suits which rolled and somersaulted through buildings with abandon. Much more recently, the indie game Brigador captured a similar sense of wreckage with its own assortment of structure-busting mechs.
The gap between first-person shooters and games which embrace destructible environments is progressively closing. Red Faction was perhaps the first FPS to make destruction an identity. Utilising what it called “GeoMod technology”, the game let you use your weapons and explosives to alter the terrain and architecture around you, blowing holes through walls and even allowing you to chisel paths through rock.
Letting you alter your surroundings like this not only felt like technological “progress” at the time, but was thematically appropriate to a game set on a terraformed Mars where you played a freedom fighter (or State-branded “terrorist” if you prefer) at the vanguard of a miner revolution.
Several years later developer Volition would continue to push forward with its destructive ideas, now with their 3rd-person shooter Red Faction: Guerrilla. Set in an open-world Mars, you had to dismantle the planet’s oppressive State one chunk of infrastructure at a time.
At the beginning of the revolutionary campaign you’re eating away at foundational pillars with the symbolic sledgehammer, whilst later you could burst asunder whole compounds with rocket launchers, or more literally nibble-away at walls and floors with the disintegrating Nano Rifle. Again, it was technologically impressive for the time, but also memorable enough to receive a remastered version.
Whilst the bankruptcy of THQ in 2013 thoroughly shook Volition, the developer’s enthusiasm for destructive environments set into the industry more widely. Avalanche Studios’ Just Cause series has seized the mantle, producing an even more spectacular landscape for destruction. Its own revolutionary figure, Rico Rodriguez, is a goofy Che Guevara type, traveling the world to import revolution and incite rebellion against nasty dictator types.
Like Guerrilla, Just Cause introduces an entire map brimming with oppressive compounds and facilities for you to destroy. Like Blast Corps. vehicles are more prominent and required for the larger monuments. Just Cause is just generally bigger, louder and more explosive than what has come before.
Environmental destruction has crept into gaming in a more subtle way. It’s hard to find an action game where the environment doesn’t to some degree morph and transform under strain — bullets chipping away at waist-high cover, explosive barrels sending fragments and debris flying etc. One series that focusses more intently on large-scale destruction is DICE’s Battlefield series.
Somewhat strangely, it is the older Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (2010) that is most fondly remembered for its environmental destruction. Created using an older version of DICE’s “Frostbite” engine, almost every building in the game can be levelled or demolished, changing the battlefield irreparably and allowing for a range of assault tactics (something seen on a smaller-scale in the multiplayer shooter Rainbow Six: Siege — which sees the thundering return of the sledgehammer).
Bad Company 2 was released just one year after Guerrilla, and in hindsight, it seems clear that Volition, despite its misfortune, had an impact on gaming and our taste for destruction. Whilst the Battlefield games that followed didn’t allow for the same kind of complete demolition, the newly announced Battlefield V promises to return to this revolutionary spirit and be more dynamic and all-encompassing in regards to its destructive environments.