Warning: incredibly rambly response incoming.
I’m not sure I agree with the “combat is the most basic/easiest to model form of conflict for games” argument I see being floated around in this thread. For one, I remember reading an article years ago that satirized this viewpoint by portraying conversation in games as the obvious point of entry and combat as too complicated to ever consider simulating, and there is a surprising amount of precedent for that in the interactive fiction space from the late 70s onward.
In a broader sense, though, I don’t know how well construing combat in the abstract as the problem holds up to further scrutiny. We’re treating combat as though it’s inherently synonymous with the power fantasies - the aesthetic of domination and extraction - that are so prevalent in blockbuster games today, but does that have to be the case? In theory, combat can emphasize an aesthetic that doesn’t rely so heavily on domination or extraction, like Capcom and Platinum Games emphasizing charismatic expression in their character action games, or you could abstract the combat so much that power fantasies don’t apply, as in Joust. And it’s not like power fantasies are exclusive to games that focus on combat. One of my problems with Princess Maker was that its various rules, systems, and modes of presentation served to portray the main character as a blank slate whose individual needs are less important than the desires the player brings to bear on her. That sounds a lot like a power fantasy.
Anyway, I understand power fantasies in general as a symptom of a larger problem that is itself a symptom of a much larger problem. Under capitalism, art tends to be produced less as a mode of creative expression and more as a means for capitalism to sustain itself and to keep generating ever more profit. For capitalism, the easiest, least risky way to do that is to create art that seeks mainly to affirm the viewer’s/reader’s/listener’s/player’s/etc. expectations rather than challenge them or bring them toward a deeper understanding of the issues a work in question hopes to discuss. For video games, this has primarily manifested in power fantasies and in open world games, since those aesthetics are predicated on affirming the player’s exerting themselves upon the game.
However, one might also note how the industry favoring this kind of unchallenging art necessarily has the effect of crowding out whatever alternatives might arise to challenge it. This was clearest with the conservative backlash that was Googootrops, and the most recent example I can think of is “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding” getting crowded off my timeline by E3 announcements of exactly the opposite because the industry has just that much money and power to crowd out smaller games even as people realize how needlessly destructive making them is and demand an alternative - but this phenomenon is by no means exclusive to video games. Think the slow death of alternative media as the entertainment industry grew and consolidated into a small number of mega behemoths - any money being spent on non-mainstream art is money that could have gone into Disney’s pockets. Think DC recently saying that Batman can’t perform oral sex, since any sexuality outside a hyper-masculinized version would theoretically alienate the families Disney hopes to court, although in practice it mostly only alienate advertisers who prefer to play it safe.
In this context, arguing that games could use less combat isn’t enough. Besides the fact that we haven’t defined what games are (one of my pet peeves is blockbuster/commercial games standing in to represent all of video games, as though this subset that has only existed since 1993 if we’re being generous is the default form all video games naturally assume), we risk lapsing into an opposite that solves the surface problem, but is just as lacking in artistic value as what we started off with. In fact, I’m pretty sure this has been the substance of people’s criticisms of wholesome games recently, given their focus on soft reassurance over more openly challenging their player’s expectations. We need to address the root of the problem, and that means confronting commercial video games in all their faults and charting out a real alternative to them.