Happy birthday, Ontological Geek! In honor of our first year (feels weird to say “our” in this context, since I started writing in January), I’m going to turn to that traditional celebratory activity: war.
War film has been hugely popular since the beginnings of the medium, and that style has definitely influenced the first-person shooter genre in video games. A great deal (half or more, I’d reckon) of first-person shooter games feature a war of some sort; only the rare shooter, such as the non-side-scrolling Metroid games, feature a story that has a sole protagonist up against an unorganized, non-military foe who isn’t involved in some large campaign or plot. Instead, most modern shooters are war tales in some way or another, and the actions your protagonist takes throughout the game are situated as part of a larger effort. You’re not aiming to kill ’em all or get a MacGuffin for its own sake; instead, you’re hitting supply lines, halting offensives, watching your allies die horribly or heroically sacrifice themselves, shutting down (or launching) nuclear strikes, or seeking out a MacGuffin to turn the tide of the war. This is admittedly more realistic than the one-man-army style of story, but it also has its own set of tropes that FPS games (and 3rd-person shooters that focus on war, though they seem less likely to focus on the topic) have had little luck subverting or avoiding, resulting in stale and predictable narratives and characters.
I’ll be piggy-backing off of my earlier article on the hero narrative in this discussion, because I think the outlines of the hero narrative are partially what makes the war stories portrayed in video games so stale and uninteresting. If you’d prefer not to re-read the article, the salient point is this: the hero narrative of most video games, featuring a protagonist who overcomes all failures and who is the most important man in the room, has nearly been exhausted. In fact, such a protagonist rarely suits a war story.
War… War Never Changes
Well, it’s not exactly that simple, Mr. Perlman. War stories are fundamentally interesting to us and, outside of video games, they contain diverse themes and structures. Compare Schindler’s List, Inglourious Basterds, Saving Private Ryan, Glory, Apocalypse Now, and All Quiet on the Western Front. Each film contains radically different themes, characters, and tone. They investigate disparate aspects of war with varied amounts of reverence and black humor, and show us a wide range of who the soldier is, and what he (or she) can become.
You would be hard-pressed to find such range in video game portrayals of war. The typical model ignores the complexities of war for a surprisingly black-and-white portrayal that does not lend itself to the exploration of mature themes; you are almost always a defender of justice and virtue against the heartless (or duped) foes of your nation, and “massacre fatigue” is a well-documented problem in many FPS games. When you kill a man in most war games, you’re unlikely to feel anything other than a small sense of victory. While I don’t think that this is at all responsible for any social ills or the actions of unstable individuals, that games inspire only such underwhelming responses is unfortunate.
Few war games actually engage with the difficulties of war; supporting characters are much, much more likely to cheer and quip when you blow another human’s skull open than to express disgust, sorrow, or simply not comment. Admittedly, I’ve never been in a war, so that may be the way it happens, but I sort of doubt it. In most (quality) war films, such behavior would qualify the character as a Jerk Ass, if not a Complete Monster, and is generally there to illustrate either how war can change an individual or how war can let certain people be just as misanthropic as they always were. This does not apply to campy and/or gore-fest films, but I’d hesitate to call them war films since they’re not actually investigating war as a concept but rather using it as a vehicle for simpler thrills. But in most video games, a squad will more often than not have at least one person who displays anti-social and/or psychopathic behavior, perhaps only when viewed outside the actual game narrative, since it is exceptionally unlikely that such a character will be called out for their blood-thirst. It’s actually a little more than not being challenged in that attitude, actually; the game world doesn’t respond to their behavior, thus implying that it is a fine response to war.
A powerful contributor to this problem is the black-and-white quality of the narrative; those on the other side are either evil or signed up on evil’s side, so there’s no sense in regarding them as human (or sentient things with feelings, if we’ve got aliens). Personally, I think the proliferation of that character archetype is amazing. War movies have presented that archetype to great effect before, either as a foil or as a way to show just how dark and terrifying the world can be, but video games have adopted it for different reasons entirely. I think that there is a fundamental difference of goals and content in most films about war versus most games about war.
In most games about war, the action is the point: most of the play experience will be made up of running, gunning, and taking cover as enemy fire zips overhead. Between eighty (at the very least) to ninety-five percent of the play-time will consist of heated firefights, or moving into a position to have a heated firefight, since that is the part of war that is adrenaline-fueled and is most obviously dramatic, since the stakes become life-and-death. But it’s a mistake to assume that those stakes make a game dramatic, especially when your own character’s repeated deaths and even the deaths of your allies passes by without a hint of emotional resonance. Intense battle scenes are so engaging in films and books partially because we don’t know whether the characters that we care about will survive them; this is true in any story with serious stakes, but it is especially true of war stories, in which the threat of sudden death is a very important theme. That tension, and thus that theme, cannot exist in a war game. Even if an ally becomes cherished by the player, when that ally dies, it will be in a cut-scene, and will probably be slightly removed from the core experience. What’s more, all personal responsibility on the part of the player will be negligible. The player will not think, “I got my friend killed,” or “I wasn’t good enough,”; the player will instead think, “Wouldn’t have happened if I was playing in that moment.”
Because control of the character is taken from the player at the most dramatic moment, when the supporting character’s life is in the balance, the player is more likely to chalk it up to the ineptitude of the main character or supporting character instead of internalizing or rationalizing the death of the ally, which is essential to accessing the experience of the grieving soldier. For the most part, though, the “dramatic” fight scenes are devoid of actual drama, because named allies are almost always invincible, and every ally who might die is a nameless mook, and is utterly unimportant to the player. This means that, for all the excitement that firefights bring, they can actually get in the way of an engaging narrative and prevent a game from addressing the themes it otherwise might.
However, I think that an even bigger problem exists between the conceits of the typical hero narrative and those of most war narratives.
Spartans ‘R’ Us
The super-soldier is hardly a new idea, but it has never been as prolific as it is in war games. It’s achieved a near-100% saturation rate. This is the notion that the protagonist is the most important soldier on the battlefield. He (or she, but given the form, “he” is really the safe bet) is wherever important things are going down; he turns the tides in every major battle; he cannot die; if he is not some sort of leadership who mixes it up on the front lines anyway, then his military decisions turn out to be better than his own inept sergeant’s decisions; he often decides the fate of the war by his timely action and his unbelievable defense/capture of the MacGuffin despite overwhelming odds of failure. This should sound like just about every war game you’ve ever played. It should also sound very dissimilar to any quality war film or book you’ve ever read. There’s a number of reasons why the hero narrative does not prepare a proper environment for investigating the themes of war.
1.There is a central protagonist, and he is a bad-ass.
The focus is not on soldiers, and how the common man deals with war. It’s on the gruff dude with an attitude and one-liners to spare. It’s on the veteran who is already awesome and battle-hardened. It is on the individual who is the minority in most actual wars, and who is not actively changing before our eyes in response to alarming war stimuli. Look to the Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, any Call of Duty protagonist, Tomas Sevchenko, or Nathan Hale. They are super-human, either in the way that the universe treats them or because they’re actually super-human, in the case of the Chief and Hale. The player encounters the war through the eyes of this bad-ass killer. Fear has no place in the minds of these individuals, and death cannot touch them. They are immune to all of the things that make war interesting, on the psychological front. And if other characters behave like a normal person might (with fear, trembling, and panic), they seem weak or pathetic by comparison, and any emotional link that might transmit that “war is horrible” to the player fails instantly.
Quite simply, from a narrative standpoint, war is interesting because of what it does to people; if the character the player is inhabiting is already used to war, and receives no new revelations through the course of the game, then the player will have a difficult time receiving any sort of experience from the virtual war. Likewise, this means that the cast of the game isn’t an ensemble, which could show us how war affects multiple characters. Thus, perhaps war games might be better off with multiple protagonists/main characters.
2. The hero must be incredibly vital to the war effort.
Which isn’t exactly how real war works at all, and the best war films make this clear: war is an insanely communal effort. Occasionally large events will happen that change the course of a theater of war, but these are in the minority. Usually, however, in video game tales, the hero narrative demands that the hero be in exactly the most important place at a given moment, right in place to steal the nuclear codes or some other Item of Essential Value that will allow the allies to win the war for good. This makes the game obviously dramatic, and obviously interesting, but it also destroys more subtle possibilities, like a focus on character relationships and issues, while also ignoring the predominant experience of war. What’s more, since nearly every war game has such a large scope, this means that a large-scope game only has so many interesting narrative devices it can employ without feeling tired and over-done.
3. The enemies are never right.
I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. A heroic narrative cannot invoke sympathy for the villains, and honestly, if it humanizes them at all the narrative starts to break down. The player cannot be wondering whether the soldier he just killed had a wife and child, and so the designers of war games tend to keep things exceptionally black-and-white. This is a potential problem in every story, but it is a grievous error in war stories. Addressing this theme is one of the best things that war stories can accomplish, and it’s unfortunate that the game will probably have no qualms about painting your foes in the broadest of strokes just to keep your enjoyment of the experience as guilt-free as possible. Making you think is not the goal of such games; addictive shooting game-play is. Obviously, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that decision… it just tends to generate bad art.
It’s A Game, Dude
So what if a game doesn’t actually reflect any real war experience? That’s not a problem, right?
Well, it is if we want games that seriously deal with the concept of war, and if we want games that address the themes of war artfully and with maturity. What’s more, there’s a great deal of experience in war that is intriguing, interesting, and ripe for gaming; it’s just not getting any play because of the stubbornness of the hero narrative and the success of the high-stakes plot model. There are plenty of other stories worth telling.
Have you played any war games that actually reveal a more typical war experience, or that have made you think about the nature of war, or how war affects individuals? Let me know! I’d love to play them, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.