A Video Game That Dares To Make Americans Angry

I have little animosity for the virtual people I shoot in video games. They are cardboard targets. The worst they can do is kill the virtual me. My "death" lasts a few seconds. I can't hate them for that.

This changed last week.

I played the beginning of the upcoming first-person shooter Homefront and I felt a burning urge in the game to do right with the trigger of a virtual gun. Homefront is set in a near-future United States that has become occupied by a bellicose unified Korea.

Early on, in what would be cliché in film but feels novel in a game, my character was arrested in his US apartment by Korean occupation police, handcuffed, shoved into a bus and forced to ride past lines of Americans taken prisoner. As the bus rolled past, I saw enemy soldiers roughing up civilians.

And then I heard the pitched, despairing voice of a mother telling her child not to look. To turn away. To not let what was going to happen next be an unforgettable scar. The scene came into view: a child wailing as his parents are lined up against a wall and shot to death.

I wanted to climb out of that bus and take action. Soon, a resistance fighter rammed the bus with a truck, freed my character and handed me a machine gun. For the first time in a war game, I wanted to make the bad guys pay.

The murder of the parents was disturbing. "I'm still on the fence about that one," David Votypka, the creative director of Homefront told me after I finished the half-hour of action that followed that scene.

Video games of war seldom depict conflict's awful cost, its impact on human beings. Virtual battlefields are devoid of civilians. The horrors of war are, typically, only inflicted on soldiers, by soldiers. In the dozens of World War II video games, players become American Marines to shoot Japanese soldiers or Russians resistance to shoot German stormtroopers. In this year's Medal of Honor, army rangers shoot at Taliban. (Last year's hit Modern Warfare 2 deviated and ordered its player to play, for one mission, as an undercover CIA operative who had to participate in an airport massacre of civilians.)

Homefront is unusual. What could sound like familiar plot device in another form of entertainment has the shock of the new in this adventure. It is the shock of making the player fight through an unpleasant situation, one that feels less macho and more desperate.

Later in the opening level, as my character machine-gunned through Korean occupiers with other members of the American resistance, I wound up fighting through a house, past a mother cradling a crying baby who had to take cover as Korean forces rushed closer.

The creators of the game say that one of their mandates is to show "how warfare affects civilians". In doing so, it feels as if it can stir the passions of gamers like me who typically lack any emotional connection to their virtual enemies.

The lead level designer of the game, Rex Dickson, told me his team has heard it from the people who try the level I played: "I really want to pick up the gun," they say.

I asked Dickson if the goal was for Homefront to make the player feel anger.

"Our goal is to make you feel emotion," he responded.

The narrative single-player part of Homefront has been created by New York City-based development house Kaos Studios. They've worked with Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn screenwriter John Milius to craft their tale and its tone. Milius, Votypka told me, brought them down to earth.

Milius discouraged the game developers' original vision of am adventure that had the player heroically helping the military take back the US. He helped them craft something more intimate, a desperate journey by resistance fighters to transport fuel from Colorado to California. In making the story less grandiose, they've also given it more grit, casting the player as part of a resistance that, Milius prodded them, can't always be politically correct. Lead supporting characters argue about their own tactics, of how brutal or noble they should be.

Homefront is a game targeted at American anxieties, one primed for jingoism. This is a near-future America crippled by economic downturn and invaded by a surging Asian rival. Its portrayal of the Korean enemy will be tempered, though, Votypka said, by a discovery in the game of an internment camp where Korean Americans are held, a reference to America's treatment of its Japanese citizens during World War II.

It feels more unsettling than the war games I usually play. That, of course, begs the question as to whether a video game that might upset its players can be broadly appealing.

There is plenty of power-fantasy in Homefront. Once you have a machine gun in hand, you are a mighty warrior capable of gunning down dozens of enemy soldiers. You fight through fantastic vistas of wrecked suburbs and eventually command a remote-controlled tank that can obliterate enemy forces with a knockout punches of firepower. But you are fighting alongside that mother and her wailing baby. You are reminded there are regular people in this conflict that sons have mothers, that guns shred families.

There is a line, of course. In video games not only is there always a line, but it often feels so much more careful than the ones movie directors or authors discuss. The mum and her baby can't die in Homefront, not from friendly fire, not from enemy fire. The developers didn't want to cross that. Dickson identified a narrative justification: the enemy is focused on killing the armed resistance fighters near her, he suggested to me. It's hard to think of it that way in the heat of that virtual fight. In this game you can get lost in an uncommon video game emotion: anger that hungers for justice.

Homefront is game for people "tired of a shooting gallery," Dickson said. It's a war game meant to get a reaction. And, for once, it's a war game that gets closer to what is awful about war, not just about what victors celebrate.


Comments

    in before RC here in Australia

      inb4 Mod to change skins of American to Korean and Korean to American. I would rather play that.

    AMERICA, F**K YEAH!

    I suppose if game developers can rely on one thing, it's American patriotism :P

      Please don't point out how America fights its wars. The North Koreans look respectable, if not commendable in comparison.

        I dunno, at least the US has the balls to admit what it's doing unlike Koreas 'Oh whoops, did we bomb your ships South? Nope, wasn't us! Though if you say it was us we'll take you on.'

    So it's like, Freedom Fighters, but as an FPS?

    Swap the Koreans for Americans and the Americans for Iraqis & you got yourself a real world scenario. Hope it makes people think anyway.

      not quite buddy, but good luck with that arts degree, i'm sure it'll serve you well flipping burgers.

        No I think WTHfor's got a point. If the Americans are being depicted as freedom fighters, whats another word for freedom fighter? Oh, terrorist...

          ah the irony.

          here you are using the (valid) point that all judgements about war (and anything else i might add) are subjective, to defend someone's point that essentialy boils down to "hurr durr Americans bad".

          logic fail

            Dave,

            "Hope it makes people think anyway."

            They are similar, however, i think the North Koreans are doing a more respectable job.

        WTHfor's comment may have been a generalisation on the US invasion of Iraq, Dave. But you're self-assumed witty assertion he is studying an Arts degree which will result in a fast food industry employed future, is actually the Oxford Dictionary definition of Generalisation and about as witty as yelling "we are not worthy" at an Alice Cooper concert.

        Plus get over yourself.

    Wow. A videogame that makes you think about the human cost of war? I'm all for it. I've quite enjoyed the articles about violence in videogames previously posted on this website and often wished that developers took a bit more responsibility in showing consequences to actions.
    Homefront is unlikely to turn the trend of gratuitous FPS's, it most probably will be a perpetrator of a few gratuitous moments itself. But at least it sounds like the developers are on the right track.
    Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of those people that speak out about violence and gore in an interactive medium. I would say that there aren't too many bigger fans of schlock, horror, gore and violence, be it in games, films or book. I just believe that it has a been a rare case indeed when a game has made you emotionally feel the impact of decisions you make (Heavy Rain being one title that achieved this).
    I had no interest whatsoever in Homefront before I read this article. Now I'm waiting for release so I can play it and see how close it gets to the developers intended target of making people feel emotion. Whether it can do this without feeling entirely gratuitous remains to be seen...

    A game where Korea has invaded and successfully taken over the US? Are you kidding me? I'm all for the willing suspension of disbelief but this is stretching things...

    Sounds good... sign me up.

    Also, by limiting it from retaking the country to transporting fuel, they make it easier to introduce sequels.

    Well this game sounds marvellous. I originally shrugged it off as another Modern Warfare wannabe but it sounds like so much more.
    It's on my list of games to get.

    This was a bold move. I like the notion that this will feel more like you're fighting at "home" where the stakes are different. Get gamers thinking and more emotionaly involved in the content they're playing. Might even have a shot at getting non-gamers to see gaming in a new light.

    Homefront is their game to make and I'm sure they wanted to get a message across, but delving into fictitious age-old stereotypes and demonising is just cheap. Is this really any different than than Allied posters during WWII that portrayed the Japanese as barbaric monsters?

    Being emotionally moved by a game is one thing, but having a firing squad scene is just heavy-handed. That's not emotional development, that's someone's shoving manipulated scenes down your throat to force you to care from the get-go.

    Compare this to say, my personal experience with MW. I played through the first few missions rather detached and treating it as a regular FPS. But the further you slog through it with ambushes, snipers, seeing your virtual squad mates gunned down... but just going through hell and back. I began finding myself hating these nondescript brown people. It wasn't an issue when I began playing, there wasn't any heavy exposition, but I found myself absolutely despising these people and consciously wanting to gun them down. Is it a mildly racist emotional response? Certainly. But is it realistic? Judging by the attitudes of active servicemen... It's right on the money.

    TLDR: The difference between a genuine attitude shift and artificial manipulation is what separates these games. One relies on gamer's first-hand controlled experience, the other simply gives you scenes of North Koreans murdering civilians.

    I don't see this working that well. The emotion of wanting to pick up a gun and fight is not a new one, and shouldn't be mixed up with the rest of the game. It was something that was used well back in the opening of Half-life. However even though you have this strong sense of wanting to be able to pick up a gun and fight, I find the emotion disappears quickly once you actually get into the gunfights.

    This game will supposedly try and show a darker side of war? Games have tried this in the past, Modern Warfare 2 a prime example. Just saying you will try and do it doesn't mean it will work, it is much more difficult than just showing some civilians being killed to stir emotions, especially in gamers when we have played games of these types dozens of times before.

    The invincible mother is an example of something that would easily break suspension of disbelief, and that is only if people cared to begin with. I'm sure more than a few gamers would shoot the person they were escorting just to see if they would die, not something you would do if you were emotionally invested.

    The concept of an invading force taking over your country is something that may be able to stir some emotion, especially from a population that has seen its fair share of combat (the US). However this will only work for players from the US. You are just as likely to alienate people who are sympathetic to the enemy in real life, for instance Korean players. Or people whom have no love for the invaded country would be quite apathetic.

    I find I personally fall in the last category. Any time they tried to push the idea that this was the US being invaded would actually make me feel less attached to the civilians being harmed, because I don't especially care for the US.

    What will be interesting is how well the game sells, and more importantly, the emotional resonance of the game, around the world (especially in Asia).

    Jesus christ. This article gave me diabetes.

    Definitely keen for this one. I'm not from the US so I can't say I would find as much empathy as the immediate target audience but I have been waiting for a game to deal with the issue of war maturely for a while now. The No Russian mission was of real interest because they showed what is really happening in a war. The other side of conflicts.

    I hope they go all out and push some boundaries in this one and I hope that other game that lost the publisher gets released because people don't seem to truly understand what is happening this very second over in the middle east and other parts of the world.

    Oddly enough, I just bought, and started playing, Brothers In Arms for the 360 and it does a decent job of inciting emotion and showing the way people are affected. But maybe I'm just too empathetic and anything about war where the hero isn't a cocky bad-ass makes me upset.

    ill just leave this here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Fighters_%28video_game%29

    Oh the irony. Steven indicates that there's a line in games, specifically different than movies, than shouldn't be crossed. While not 4 days ago was reporting on the Supreme Court case and appearing to back that violent games should not be treated any different than violent movies. Can't have it both ways boy-o.

    It's no wonder we non-Americans can't quite reconcile all the fuss made about the First Amendment, considering that it commonly comes across as rhetoric rather than a real core value.

    Another example of self-censorship due the the oversensitivity of the Fox News brand of citizens.

    How are they supposed to consistently convey the brutality/reality of war if there are things like invulnerable NPCs in the game? Sure, scripted moments like the family massacre might do the job but nothing really compares to the regret/remorse a player feels causing accidental death to an NPC, and only continues to inspire the trigger-friendly mentality of most other shooters.

    No, they they didn't choose NOT to cross the line --- They didn't have the balls to.

    Otherwise, this was a great preview of a POTENTIALLY good game.

    "original vision of am adventure"

    An?

    I kinda got the same feeling from the invasion of Seattle in World in Conflict...

    I am now interested. This seems to be an answer to the war genre discussion of last week.

    Hopefully a confronting war game will inject some life into a quickly stagnating genre thanks to wooden single player campaigns in MoH and the last Battlefield Bad Company games.

    I've enjoyed reading the comments here. It seems that at least in this small corner of the interwebs, the game has caused some emotions to stir already.

    One thing though, why can't I play as the Koreans?

    I'll be keeping an eye on this one me thinks.

    Plus, surely the world could do with a little less CoD...

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