It looks like a military shooter, but it isn’t. There’s a first-person view, you’re caught up in conflict, wounded soldiers and civilians lie amongst the rubble begging for help, and you’re surrounded by the sound of showering bullets and military units. At a glance, Warco could be mistaken for any other first-person shooter set in any other war zone, but it isn’t. In fact, it is the opposite. You never fire a weapon, not even once.
Developed by Defiant Development, a studio made up entirely of former Pandemic employees, the team has not only been able to live up to its name by establishing a new studio after the collapse of Pandemic, they are now challenging what we know about war games and genres through Warco. Is it a first-person shooter? No. Is it a war emulator? Not quite. It’s none of the above because it’s so much more.
At its most basic level, Warco (which is an old journalism term for “War Correspondent”) is about being a war journalist. You don’t fire a gun, you’re not a glorified hero rushing into combat, and there is no virtual flag for you to capture. Instead, armed with a video camera, your goal is to capture the story as combatants and civilians around you are fired upon, and you are caught in the middle. It is an unusual position for a player to be placed in – not passively watching the action as it happens, but not being responsible for it either. According to the founder of Defiant Development, Morgan Jaffit, it’s a case of reality being just as, if not more, interesting than fiction.
“Tony Maniaty (an Australian journalist who worked in Timor in the 1970s) gave us a bit of background about what it was like to be a journalist in the 1970s compared to what it’s like today, and there has been such a dramatic change in the way that front-line journalists operate,” he says.
“It used to be that the press were considered not to be targets, whereas now they’re specifically targeted. There were just all these elements that I thought would make a great game.”
The elements that Jaffit talks about are embedded in reality, not fantasy, fleshed out by Defiant Development along with Maniaty, who is a former ABC and SBS correspondent, and film director Robert Connelly (The Boys, Romulus My Father, Balibo). As someone with little interest in fantasy war games, Jaffit saw the potential for Warco to partner the strong narratives of war with equally strong game design to create something that the world hasn’t seen before.
“I’m personally a great believer that video games and interactive media are the medium of the 21st century. I’m a big believer that this is what people will be writing about when they look at the history of development of art in this time period,” he says.
“That said, I think we often cheapen the potential of the medium. [Warco]is the closest I could see to building something that was both engaging in game narrative but also pulled in on the elements of documentary and allowed us to tell a story that all of these war games imply happened around the edges.” And so the goal of the project was to explore those implied stories that are often pushed to the side in war fantasy games. Rather than send the player into the game as a beefed-up war hero, the player is a young female journalist named Jesse Demarco who has to wade through the chaos around her to capture stories that will ultimately shape the game world.
If this sounds like a voyeuristic, almost passive experience, it isn’t. The team at Defiant have thought it through and acknowledge that it was one of the early criticisms of the game concept. Working with Maniaty, they were able to craft narratives and design a game that made the experience active for the player.
“A game, by definition, has to be active, and there’s a very voyeuristic nature to this so we really wanted to make sense of gathering footage something more active: you’re actively pulling together a story and a narrative out of the pieces of the world you observe,” says Jaffit.
“It’s a very active world, it’s a very dynamic world, and the player has to remain active to get those stories. It’s has a far less moment-to-moment dynamic than, for example, shooting people. You’re not running around shooting people, but the choices you make should be framed in an important fashion and there are quite a few turning-point decisions for our hero Jesse Demarco over the course of the game.”
So how exactly can the player actively shape the game world? It comes down to moral decisions. For example, you’re interviewing a rebel leader and during the course of the interview you find information that will be helpful to the loyalist troops: how do you present this information? You see a wounded soldier who is being fired upon: do you help him behind cover? Do you intervene when a civilian is in trouble? You serve as the eyes and ears of the world and what you choose to report and how you choose to report it will change the dynamics of the world greatly — it goes far beyond putting a bullet through another soldier.
These are the questions that Defiant Development wants players to ask themselves. They want players to be put into difficult situations because these tricky questions with heavy consequences are some of the most engaging elements of war and war journalism.
“When Tony talked about war journalism, one of the examples he gave very early on was that a journalist is, by definition, not involved, and if as a journalist you are to pick up a gun or help a wounded soldier behind cover, then you instantly become a combatant and you’re a fair target,” says Jaffit.
“The moral question is exactly this: if you see somebody wounded and bleeding in the middle of the street while being fired upon, do you help them? That’s the question, and of course questions and decisions are what makes a game, it’s what makes it interactive rather than a film and I just found those questions incredibly fascinating.”
With a wealth of game development experience behind them, Jaffit and his team at Defiant were able to create a game with engaging game mechanics, but as Jaffit himself admits, the game is not all action and light-hearted play. Yes, Defiant have been able to make this a captivating, interactive and powerful experience, but it will also be a confronting game. Jaffit makes no apologies for this.
“We absolutely want to be confronting because war journalism is confronting — it’s part of the nature of the topic we’re dealing with, and there are a lot of heavy duty moral decisions made by journalists.”
“We just wanted to be honest about what’s involved in war, and that’s why Warco is not about a glorified killing machine who can go through hundreds of enemies. It’s about the honesty of war, which is not glorified, which is brutal. And in all honesty we didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the moral implications because we believe that we’re actually pushing what can be done with a game narrative in a war zone forward from where other games are.” Jaffit says that he takes no issue with war fantasies, but if other games represent action movie fantasies then he hopes Warco represents something that is more grounded in reality and offers a bit more depth, and he believes that is Defiant Development’s strength.
“If you want every other game then you can go to every other studio,” he says.
“If you want something that’s progressive and exciting and a little bit bigger, then we like to think that’s what we stand for.”
So if it’s not a first-person shooter and it’s not a war fantasy or a war simulator, what is it? Where does Warco fit in with the current gaming landscape, and who is going to play it?
“I don’t know what the genre is, and I’ll be honest: the whole point of Warco is to do something new,” says Jaffit.
“We have a very solid idea about people who we think will play it and existing audiences who might be interested, but we can’t point to a group of people and say ‘It’s them!’ because there’s no other game like it in terms of genre. Dead Rising has a camera and so does Pokemon Snap, so is Warco halfway between Dead Rising and Pokemon Snap? Not really. And on that basis you just have to say that you hope it’s something new, and once it’s on the market you hope there are more people making games that show what can happen along those lines as well.”
Warco is currently in development for all current-gen consoles and PC.