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.