Objection! War In Games: What Is It Good For?

Welcome to Objection!

Objection is a new section where we debate hot topics in gaming, and leave it you guys to talk it out in the comments section. Today we're talking about war and how it's represented in video games - could Call of Duty and Medal of Honor be doing something more substantial?

Joining us this week is Luke Reilly, Editor of the Official PlayStation Magazine. His favourite movie is Where Eagles Dare, and he's probably the only human alive capable of completing the last mission on Driver without cheating.

MARK: Maybe it’s just me, but I’m getting a bit tired of the sub-Clancy, shoot everything with a Russian accent, FPS War games - be they modern or not. Cinema has its Apocalypse Nows, its Thin Red Lines, and its Green Zones. All we have is endless regurgitations of Rambo III. Am I being too harsh here?

LUKE: I can see where you’re coming from. I agree that war games rarely explore the same kinds of themes film regularly do. They touch upon topics like survival and sacrifice regularly but, even then, the effects aren’t particularly long-lasting. I think the biggest problem you’ll find here is a genre one. Gaming’s Apocalypse Now isn’t going to be a first-person shooter. I know you were disappointed with Medal of Honor but I’m not sure what you believe Danger Close could’ve done differently.

MARK: When I heard that Medal of Honor was set in Afghanistan, I had a genuine expectation and belief that the development team would attempt to say something substantial about the Afghani conflict and the War on Terror. It was the perfect opportunity for games to establish themselves as a medium that could tell such a story. There was nothing necessarily wrong with Medal of Honor’s mechanics, or the game itself, but it seems like the team began with a concept that suggested they were taking risks, but ultimately submitted the safest product possible.

Why not takes risks? Why set the game in a real conflict, populating it with characters based on real soldiers, if you’re not going to say something about the conflict they’ve found themselves embroiled in? The development team and EA constantly tried to communicate the fact that they didn’t want to exploit the armed forces, but I can’t help but feel cynical about their reasons for setting Medal of Honor in Afganistan, particularly since the end result was a game without any subtlety whatsoever.

LUKE: It remains a question, then, of how you convey this substance. One of the things that struck me about Medal of Honor is that is wasn’t political. Yes, Afghanistan has been in a constant state of civil war since the late ’70s and no, Medal of Honor made no attempt to offer any insight regarding any of it. Similarly, however, it didn’t scatter mutilated US soldiers everywhere and feature a thinly-bearded bad guy shooting up airports to demonise your in-game ‘enemy’. The ‘enemy’ in Medal of Honor are simply the people shooting at you.

I don’t really agree that setting the game in a real country in a real conflict without saying something meaningful is cynical. I think inventing a conflict for the purposes of telling a story, be it in a game, film or whatever, is far worse.

“Hey look everyone. Even in our made-up wars the bad guys are still Middle Eastern!”

Danger Close could’ve added more depth, I guess, but it becomes a question of how you do it. More cutscenes? Extended Humvee rides past dead children with supporting dialogue regarding why war sucks? I’m not a soldier, but whether or not we should be in Afghanistan or not is something politicians and protestors argue about. I’m not sure if the guys who get paid to pull triggers wax political while they’re dodging bullets.

Why not take risks? You don’t have to look any further than the clusterf**k that occurred over Six Days in Fallujah. Atomic Games tried to make a non-traditional survival horror game based on the actual experiences of Marines who participated in the Battle of Fallujah. Atomic was developing training tools for the Marines and were assigned some Marines from Third Battalion First Marines to assist. A few months into development, Third Battalion First Marines was deployed in Iraq and when they returned they reportedly asked Atomic to create a unique videogame about their experiences there. A big brouhaha followed, Konami declined to publish it and the game still in limbo.

If Six Days in Fallujah was a mini series, like Generation Kill, there wouldn’t have been a hint of controversy.

MARK: I agree – if Six Days in Fallujah was a mini-series, proverbial eyelids would have remained unbatted, but that’s as good a reason as any for a big established publisher to take a risk. They can afford to, and gaming needs to take these opportunities to show what it’s capable of as a medium.

The question of how Danger Close could have added more depth is really for them to sort out – but I think that a game in which violence has proper consequences is a good start. In Medal of Honor and Call of Duty players casually slaughter hundreds upon hundreds of endlessly respawning enemies without reprisal, guilt or psychological damage. I sometimes find that misleading and, to a certain extent a bit juvenile. Compare that to the violence seen when you slap Andrew Ryan with a putter in Bioshock – that was an act of violence that had a real sense of gravity, and it made you question the need for violence within that context. I can think of a million examples of that kind of portrayal in other media, but I’m struggling to think of another in the video games universe.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for everything – Commando is one of my favourite movies of all times – but I think it’s a little unhealthy to create a game based on real world conflict that trivialises violence in the way that Medal of Honor does.

LUKE: I know what you mean about gravity. Gravity is the first casualty of gameplay. Games give you something to do, whether it’s driving fast around a race track, scoring goals or killing targets. When killing targets is all a game has it becomes quite meaningless. I totally agree. Kill 1000 enemies and the impact is divided by 1000. I think we’ve become astonishingly indifferent to killing people in games. I feel significantly worse shooting bears in Red Dead Redemption than shooting humans. That’s pretty terrible.

In order for games to make death a big deal they need to make us care about the person at the other end of the sights. I could not pull the trigger on the pot dealer with two daughters in Heavy Rain when he begged for his life. The game made me not want to pull the trigger, and I didn’t.

I think it comes back to a question of genre. I don’t think first-person shooters are going to be the place where developers can get audiences questioning violence and truly feeling the impact of it. It’d be like asking Criterion to slip a few morals on road safety into Hot Pursuit. It’s just not going to work. To do it right you need a slower-paced genre with a very low bodycount - perhaps the first person shooter isn't capable of creating a game engaging enough to sustain that pace.

What do you guys think? Could war games be doing more, or are you happy with the way shooters like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor portray war? How would you like to see violence represented in video gaming? Let us know in the comments below.


Comments

    Brilliant read. Few settings are better equipped for staring into the raw soul of humanity than war, a fact proven by Apocalypse Now, Platoon and more recently films like The Hurt Locker.

    Games have either fallen into the 'blam blam, eh eh eh eh (that's a machine gun noise)', of every war FPS for the last five years or the over sermonizing of Metal Gear Solid.

    Harsh call on Rambo III BTW! Couldn't you have picked on those awful Chuck Norris nam movies.

      A pox on you for calling into question the Missing In Action movies. They are just fine they way they are.

    War in games is sometimes the difference between selling 1 gajillion copies and 15...

    Fortunately, I can counter some of your claims of the shallowness of war portrayed in games (not really with any FPS' though).
    Take a look at "Defcon", for example. Simple gameplay with a really powerful message. The message isn't a story, it's a feeling. When I heard the muted screams and yelling as "background" music, it really added depth to the game, it became a simulation, something thoroughly and intensely creepy, devious, evil.

    More games need to take war seriously, rather than just a scenario to exploit, and then we'll move forward...

    I would just like to quick add, that I have also completed the final mission in Driver without the use of cheats...

    That was one of the hardest missions I have come across in a game, the AI was brutal and the catch up was ridiculous!

    Yes, in the past we've all had a good laugh at how Mass Effect 2 (although not a FPS) lets you slaughter hundreds of low-paid low-brained goons, yet allow the evil head honcho to walk free for massive karmic reward.

    But to write off an entire genre as basically thematically static/stagnant is a pretty heavy-handed and defeatist response.

    I firmly believe that the FPS genre is capable of more than it is producing, in terms of thought-provoking narrative.

    Deus Ex might not be a bad reset point. That would be my first choice, anyway.

      Furthermore, if the war genre is to grow, I would like to see games where you DON'T play as a soldier.

      Examples:

      A civilian/refugee attempting to navigate warzone.

      Photo-journalist (shoot film, not bullets)

      I would play these games, and you'd actually have to struggle to NOT make them powerful experiences.

        True; I should've said traditional first-person shooters. In the world of me-too shooters trying to emulate the success of the Call of Duty series I doubt Mark will get his game.

        There's definitely scope within the first-person genre for a war game with incredible depth, though. I'd love to see a slow-paced, story-driven adventure-style experience inside a massive conflict. I just doubt anyone will apply a big budget and a big brand to it.

        First-person is easily my favourite perspective, however. I only recently saw a video of GTAIV running on PC in a modded first-person view and it made me wonder why on Earth this isn't a default option.

        Your concept of a photojournalist in a war zone is absolutely brilliant, by the way. I'd seriously play that in a heartbeat.

        The idea of playing a photojournalist in a war zone is an ideal set up for thought provoking and consquence driven gameplay.
        Do you cover the conflict equally or focus on one side or the other?
        What lengths do you go to to get a potentially groundbreaking shot?
        What flow on effects occur as a result of your photos?
        Is violence a last resort or a necessary evil to get the picture?

        Just need to find someone to take the chance now... What's Quantic Dream working on?

    I think if the people wanted an Apocolypse Now or Platoon type game then they'll ask for it - sales of Call of Duty or Medal of Honor would say they don't.

    I think Luke has a good point about it being more about genre. It's hard to take the Shooter out of the First Person Shooter genre - because players expect to shoot things whether it be people or bears.

    Luke mentioned his dilemma in Heavy Rain - that type of story-telling and interactivity in a war setting could work as long as it doesn't feature lengthy preachy cutscenes a la Metal Gear Solid. But how many people would be interested in that?

    But I think it is you Mark - I still enjoy the Splinter Cell titles, Metal Gear games and to some extent the Call of Duty story modes. I haven't played Medal of Honor so I can't comment. So I think it also comes down to what YOU want to get out of it - if you want Apocolypse Now then you're probably not going to get it and maybe you should take a break from war games. If not then there's no shortages of shooters out there.

    they could defiantly do a lot more in adding a bit of gravity to the story, if you look at the the recent wikileaks theres a lot of crap that they just don't cover in war games that they have approached in other media. like full metal jacket, and apocalypse now. the breakdown of humanity in a warzone has never really been touched on in a game

    Video games that are set in a war definitely need more branching out. Maybe include some traditional shoot-dudes-in-face gameplay but try to counterbalance it with Mass Effect-style dialogue trees. Like instead of forcing Zahkaev's son to top himself in COD4, perhaps an option to reason with him would have been cool and have the game play out from there. Does the AI suddenly get more difficult because Zahkaev is pissed off you have his son as a hostage? Maybe some subtle tweaks like that could pave the way to something more substantial.

    Imagine an Apocalypse Now game where you have dialogue with Kurtz in that cave? The horror, the horror etc. And if you say the wrong thing, he cuts your head off. I don't know, perhaps scenes like this to break up the levels. Rather than the "Oh what am I doing now? Oh, shooting everything again."

    On other hand, I have COMPLETELY managed to separate my gaming from my real life opinion of war. I may see new reports of the current situation in Afghanistan and be horrified and disgusted, but that don't stop me from yelling BLAAP BLAAP IN YO FACE! when playing some military FPS game. If that makes me a hypocrite, then so be it.

    Oh and hey Mark, can you imagine a game based on the movie Commando? Maybe made by Rockstar North? SIGN ME UP.

      Ha, if Rockstar could make a game based on Commando that was as utterly faithful to the film as it managed with The Warriors I'd be so excited I wouldn't be able to turn around in a hallway for weeks.

        Dude yes. The Warriors game was amazing. And if their take on Commando came complete with underlying homo-erotic subtext between Matrix and Bennett - SOLD!

    I would disagree that the shooter is not the proper venue - it is the IDEAL venue to give a player a sense of really being there in a horrible situation, having to make difficult choices.

    For years I've felt that an FPS set in World War 1, but where it focused mainly on the horror of the experience (especially if 'winning' was untenable and you merely had to survive long enough to get shipped off the front-line) would be a fascinating psychological experiment.

      True, it can be (more or less) a first-person shooter but you've got to take the shooting out of it and replace it with drama and decision making.

      I often hear that war is 99 per cent boredom and anxiety and 1 per cent terror and exhilaration. Someone could make a game like this: a character piece set during war punctuated by rare moments of beyond-brutal violence. I would play it immediately. I'm just not sure too many others would look up long enough from Modern Warfare to notice.

      The problem's not just isolated to games though. The Hurt Locker is the only Best Picture winner on record never to have entered the weekend box office top 10.

    I think in many ways it is the "game" that gets in the way. With a movie your pacing is very different. You can have long stretches without action and only dialogue.

    The unit might only get into a couple of fights in a movie and kill a handful of enemies.

    If you made a FPS like that it would have to be more like mass effect than medal of honor.

    A good example of this for me was fallout. I actually was annoyed by how often i had to fight raiders and super mutants. The first time it was a shock but the hundredth time i didn't care.

    perhaps these game could have a reality slider as well as a difficulty slider.

    From unreal (hundreds of guys to shoot and respawning)

    to real (small groups and sparse confrontations)

    But in terms of the genre people want a war game that plays like monday night combat.

    This is really part of a much more general question: can videogames do anything 'deeper' with any theme at all?

    I have a lot of different views on this, but the simplest one that applies to FPS games is that last initial: S. These games we're talking about are shooters. That's what the player/character is capable of doing. Its not a matter of perspective, its a matter of interaction. Third-person shooters are just as guilty.

    The affordances you give the player in a FPS are basically: movement, shooting (and variants like throwing grenades), and sometimes opening and shutting doors, throwing switches etc. So in that kind of game, every problem the player is presented with has to be solvable with a flick of a switch or the shot of a gun. That doesn't allow us to explore very complicated conflicts. I mean, we could go off the rails a bit and accuse the gaming industry of suggesting that there isn't anything in the real world that can't be solved with a gun, but I think its a bit more naive than malicious there.

    This is where we start moving into the arguments about genre, which I've had plenty of, and that has surfaced a little bit above. Any shooty game that has more possible interactions than shooting is bleeding into the RPG genre--this tells me that while RPGs can have gunplay, FPS are bad at anything but shooting. They are a binary kind of game: am I shooting or not shooting? Even one offering as complex a set of mechanics as FarCry 2 is still suggesting that the only possible resolution to a conflict is the annihilation of the opposition. Arguably FC2 attempts to make a statement about that very concept, but let's leave that aside for just now.

    So I guess that's where I stand on it at the moment. Even in a game about war, there have to be more options to the player than shoot-or-quit-the-game. As someone above said, what about a game where you're not a soldier at all? Or as a friend of mine suggested, what about a game that's actually about the Taliban--where you actually play a guerrilla fighting an ideological and hopeless war against a far superiour force from a cave? You can't always have the option to shoot there because you might not always have a gun!

    /sigh I'm probably flagged by the CIA now.

      I think you raise some really interesting questions about genres and the whole point of war games in general. Without going into a whole heap of detail, I agree that the design or construction of FPS games - giving players a very limited range of actions in the gameworld - makes them hugely limited in scope and impact. The only possible actions are shooting, or the limited moments of non-shooting. When other forms of conflict resolution come into play, the game morphs into an RPG.

      To be sure, this is a consequence of the target market - playing an all-American hero/soldier is infinitely more attractive to a large subset of players than a realistic portrayal of war (or alternatives to war). What would the market be for a diplomacy sim? Or a photojournalism RPG documenting mass killings in the Congo? Would they still be 'fun' in the sense of a 'game'?

      /ASIO will be at your house tomorrow ;)

    I think developers have to be a bit creative with their settings and design in FPS with such a flooded market. Love or hate Halo, you know you're looking at a Halo game the moment you see a screenshot. Can that really be said about 'realistic' shooters like MoH and CoD? Gamers get sick of seeing the same thing on their TV screens and shooting the same bad guys over and over again. Gamers will always enjoy a good shooter but it's the little things like setting, narrative that can make a big difference.

    It's the unique shooters like Half Life and the hybrids like Deus Ex that stand out amongst the crowd. I also like that freelance journalist idea Shane mentioned above.

    Want a brutal and more realistic shooter, try ARMA II. Not as polished, but damn hard.

    Mark it was almost naive to expect Medal of Honor to be anything BUT a standard FPS. I note that I haven't played the latest game, but the series' roots (MoH Frontline is my pick) always lay in an objective based gaming experience which was ultimately about getting from point A to B whilst encountering enemies and shooting them dead. Sure, you had cool undercover missions where you traipsed about with fake ID getting asked by Nazis for your "papers", and there were far more intriguing interactions based around infiltration mechanics as opposed to CoDs action movie run-and-gun style. But at it's heart, MoH never really pushed the envelope.

    I personally love it when FPS games attempt to be more "realistic" - Flashpoint, ArmA etc. - and yet never truly achieving full immersion because all they ever tweak are bullet physics, less health, less HUD and so forth. A truly realistic war game - your Apocalypse Now if you like - would go even further, and I believe this could be done in a first person format.

    Imagine a game where the player character's mental state is actually eroded over the course of the narrative, slowly mauled by the atrocity of war. How about exploring the character's in-game reaction after firing on insurgents in a house and realizing you just took out civillians instead? What about showing scenes of rape or torture and the behavior of those involved, both as witnesses and participants? How about truly portraying what your best buddy's in-game death means to the player, showing the horrified reactions and hobbling the player by taking away their ability to function in someday? Too much? TOO realistic?

    I said I believe it could be done, not necessarily SHOULD be done.

    I think there's a fine line to be walked here, if only because you have to balance gaming as art vs gaming as entertainment. Art, particularly when war is the subject matter, explores the psychological and moral aspects with an intent to provoke thought in some way, shape or form. Traditionally, video games are about escapism and thrillseeking ie fun All FPS games to date have overwhelmingly appealed to the "fun" elements. I'd love to see that balance being achieved someday successfully.

    Until then I'll keep killin' till I get Chopper Gunner :)

    I read a piece that argued (quite convincingly I felt) about the same point: that the first person *shooter* is always going to be limited in what it can say because it's going to have to be about shooting.
    http://beepsandboops.com/blog/37-grayson/106-medal-of-ice-cream

    I'm inclined to agree, but then I think about games like SWAT4 (which I haven't played, but which uses the first person perspective with not too much shooting) and it's apparent success...

      Not to be too pedantic but SWAT 4 is set in a civilian environment where the player character is a police officer. A war setting is a different kettle of fish altogether. I do, however, still own SWAT 4 - great game!

      Your missions don't always have to end in a suspect getting killed; in fact, you lose points if that's the way you play the game (ideally they should be subdued and arrested). But it still suffers from the 'chess board' mentality that tactical shooters often fall into (whether in a war setting or not) . The characters, NPCs etc have no real individuality or soul, and they literally become pawns in the playing area, either objectives or obstacles for the player to manipulate to achieve their goal (MISSION COMPLETED)

        I think that's part of the point: wars are actually fought in civilian locations. The games we see on the market today create a false environment devoid of civilians to reduce the complexity, to take out the ability of a soldier to even accidentally kill a non-combat person. Just because the environment isn't YOUR civilian setting doesn't mean regular people don't live in Afghanistan, Iraq, or whatever 'cities' those were in COD4.

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