Trenched Warfare 11


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.


Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/


11 thoughts on “Trenched Warfare

  • Matthew Schanuel

    Posted on behalf of a friend who could­n’t post, for what­ev­er rea­son:

    Beginning with Medal of Honor (2010), this is prob­a­bly the most real­is­tic depic­tion of war from
    the per­spec­tive of Special Forces. Although these aren’t run of the mill sol­diers, nei­ther are they
    super human. Game glitch­es aside, the open­ing days of the inva­sion of Afghanistan are depict­ed
    in a very real man­ner. Fellow sol­diers die when caught in ambush­es, although most named
    char­ac­ters remain alive, this can be excused as a story telling mechan­ic. After all, it is hard to
    tell a story when con­tin­u­al­ly chang­ing char­ac­ters.

    You men­tioned that the ene­my’s per­spec­tive is often ignored, but I think the reac­tion Medal of
    Honor received is evi­dence that this is a lim­i­ta­tion placed on games by the out­side com­mu­ni­ty
    at large. When it was announced that MoH would have mul­ti­play­er sides com­posed of Allied
    Forces vs. the Taliban, pub­lic out­cry was imme­di­ate and mas­sive. Government offi­cials in
    for­eign coun­tries called for the ban­ning of the game and our own mil­i­tary exchange shops
    refused to stock the prod­uct. Multiplayer in games like Modern Warfare is already described as a
    mur­der sim­u­la­tor; I can only imag­ine the vit­ri­ol that would be unleashed on a game that showed
    a story per­spec­tive from a cur­rent enemy. Until the pub­lic at large comes to view games in the
    same light as movies and books, it is unlike­ly that games will be able to explore con­tem­po­rary
    con­flicts from all sides.

    On to super sol­diers. When I hear the term, I auto­mat­i­cal­ly think of Halo and it’s Spartans.
    Full dis­clo­sure, I love Halo. I rank it with Star Wars, Firefly, and Mass Effect in terms of best
    futur­is­tic space operas. The con­cept of the super sol­dier has been around since the days of
    Doom in all of its demon slay­ing glory. The com­mon theme most super sol­diers share is their
    silence (or near silence). This can be explained as both a game mechan­ic and a sign of cau­tion
    on the part of the writ­ers. As a game play mechan­ic, too much chat­ter dur­ing a fire­fight can be
    dis­tract­ing. Nothing is more frus­trat­ing than get­ting fragged because you didn’t hear the grenade
    bounce off your skull thanks to some one liner that is less than funny dur­ing the respawn screen.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    And from the same:

    The other con­sid­er­a­tion is that some peo­ple like to immerse them­selves as the char­ac­ter, and
    the more a char­ac­ter talks the hard­er it is to believe it’s you (this holds espe­cial­ly true for the
    grow­ing female gamer pop­u­la­tion). Compare Halo 13 with Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach.
    To quote an ODST, “Don’t talk much do ya’ Rookie? That’s all right, times like this it pays
    to be the strong silent type.” The first 3 Halo’s you were Spartan 117, John. A man of few
    words, his grav­el­ly, iron­ic sense of humor punc­tu­at­ed here and there, remind­ing you that this
    is the last Spartan alive, not you. In ODST and Reach, you took on the per­sona of the entire­ly
    silent Rookie and Noble 6. Both allowed for you to feel like this was your story, not the story of
    some­one else.

    In terms of timid writ­ing, the silent pro­tag­o­nist allows writ­ers to get away with some clever dia­logue or none at all. To bet­ter explain this con­cept, let’s com­pare two games. The orig­i­nal Duke Nukem and Bulletstorm. The orig­i­nal Duke was foul mouthed, misog­y­nis­tic, arro­gant, and awe­some in all the right ways. His one lin­ers fit the era and fill the heads of the enlight­ened with nos­tal­gia. Bulletstorm on the other hand was foul mouthed, misog­y­nis­tic, arro­gant, and entire­ly annoy­ing. I con­sid­er myself an afi­ciona­do of curse words and even I learned some new phal­lic phras­es from that game. But it was dis­tract­ing and annoy­ing. Weak writ­ers can­not make com­pelling dia­logue and if your main char­ac­ter is a talk­er, that becomes a fail­ure in the game.

    Ok, final thoughts from a per­fect game. Red Dead Redemption. Although I hes­i­tate to clas­si­fy
    this as a “war game”, com­bat is the main mechan­ic for pro­gress­ing through the game. John
    Marston is an incred­i­bly com­pelling for­mer gang mem­ber, bank rob­ber, and mur­der­er who has
    a fam­i­ly now and is try­ing to live his life as best he can. On his adven­ture, he meets a cast of
    com­pelling char­ac­ters that his inter­ac­tions with seem gen­uine and mem­o­rable. John isn’t silent
    and it works well here in the fact that this is John’s story. He is the cen­ter of atten­tion, although he is forced into this by a fac­tion in the game. To counter the myth of the invin­ci­ble hero, in the first 10 min­utes of the game John makes a mis­take and finds him­self on the verge of death. He is manip­u­lat­ed by other char­ac­ters into doing their bid­ding with only minor advances towards his goal. In essence, he over­comes all the weak­ness­es you point­ed out in your post and does so in a com­pelling and mem­o­rable way.

    In the end, war games will always have to focus around a core char­ac­ter or group of char­ac­ters.
    A story must be told from some per­spec­tive and it is only rarely that the game play ends up being more mem­o­rable than the story itself.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    My respons­es begin here:

    > Beginning with Medal of Honor (2010), this is prob­a­bly the most real­is­tic depic­tion of war from the per­spec­tive of Special Forces. Although these aren’t run of the mill sol­diers, nei­ther are they super human. Game glitch­es aside, the open­ing days of the inva­sion of Afghanistan are depict­ed in a very real man­ner. Fellow sol­diers die when caught in ambush­es, although most named char­ac­ters remain alive, this can be excused as a story telling mechan­ic. After all, it is hard to tell a story when con­tin­u­al­ly chang­ing char­ac­ters.

    R: I’ll have to try this game. But yes, I agree. Stories are hard to tell with con­tin­u­al­ly chang­ing char­ac­ters, and even good war sto­ries don’t have a con­stant­ly shift­ing cast. I’m not argu­ing that they should. But the way in which death occurs in most war games is less than com­pelling, and could be improved; it removes the play­er from the expe­ri­ence instead of deep­en­ing the expe­ri­ence.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    > You men­tioned that the ene­my’s per­spec­tive is often ignored, but I think the reac­tion Medal of Honor received is evi­dence that this is a lim­i­ta­tion placed on games by the out­side com­mu­ni­ty at large. When it was announced that MoH would have mul­ti­play­er sides com­posed of Allied Forces vs. the Taliban, pub­lic out­cry was imme­di­ate and mas­sive. Government offi­cials in for­eign coun­tries called for the ban­ning of the game and our own mil­i­tary exchange shops refused to stock the prod­uct. Multiplayer in games like Modern Warfare is already described as a
    mur­der sim­u­la­tor; I can only imag­ine the vit­ri­ol that would be unleashed on a game that showed a story per­spec­tive from a cur­rent enemy. Until the pub­lic at large comes to view games in the
    same light as movies and books, it is unlike­ly that games will be able to explore con­tem­po­rary con­flicts from all sides.

    R: Two respons­es to this. First, there are ways of human­iz­ing the enemy with­out mak­ing them playable. The response of the peo­ple you men­tion above is unfor­tu­nate, but not sur­pris­ing, and there are ways to tell a good, com­plex war nar­ra­tive with­out also sanc­tion­ing actions (the actions of either side, I should point out). Second, games will not become respect­ed or per­ceived as able to deal with con­tro­ver­sial top­ics by avoid­ing them. The only way to fix this is by deal­ing with such top­ics, and han­dling them in mature fash­ion. People will decry any prod­uct you make, for a great num­ber of rea­sons, but the beau­ti­ful thing is that if you make a good prod­uct, then you’re like­ly to still be suc­cess­ful in spite of mis­guid­ed claims.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    > On to super sol­diers. When I hear the term, I auto­mat­i­cal­ly think of Halo and it’s Spartans. Full dis­clo­sure, I love Halo. I rank it with Star Wars, Firefly, and Mass Effect in terms of best futur­is­tic space operas. The con­cept of the super sol­dier has been around since the days of Doom in all of its demon slay­ing glory. The com­mon theme most super sol­diers share is their silence (or near silence). This can be explained as both a game mechan­ic and a sign of cau­tion on the part of the writ­ers. As a game play mechan­ic, too much chat­ter dur­ing a fire­fight can be dis­tract­ing. Nothing is more frus­trat­ing than get­ting fragged because you didn’t hear the grenade bounce off your skull thanks to some one liner that is less than funny dur­ing the respawn screen.

    The other con­sid­er­a­tion is that some peo­ple like to immerse them­selves as the char­ac­ter, and the more a char­ac­ter talks the hard­er it is to believe it’s you (this holds espe­cial­ly true for the grow­ing female gamer pop­u­la­tion). Compare Halo 13 with Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach. To quote an ODST, “Don’t talk much do ya’ Rookie? That’s all right, times like this it pays to be the strong silent type.” The first 3 Halo’s you were Spartan 117, John. A man of few words, his grav­el­ly, iron­ic sense of humor punc­tu­at­ed here and there, remind­ing you that this is the last Spartan alive, not you. In ODST and Reach, you took on the per­sona of the entire­ly silent Rookie and Noble 6. Both allowed for you to feel like this was your story, not the story of some­one else.

    R: Just because the super sol­dier has been an arche­type since the early days does­n’t mean that it has any longevi­ty for war nar­ra­tives, and it’s my opin­ion that, for a nar­ra­tive actu­al­ly inves­ti­gat­ing war as a con­cept, it should prob­a­bly die out. I don’t real­ly find silence com­pelling as a mechan­i­cal neces­si­ty (a well-built game will find other ways to alert you to dan­ger if speech becomes dis­tract­ing).

    I’m also not fully con­vinced that a silent char­ac­ter is the most immer­sive option, espe­cial­ly for war nar­ra­tives in which the effect of war on the char­ac­ter mat­ters so much and the char­ac­ter’s most dra­mat­ic deci­sions are out of your hands, but already decid­ed by the game. There are cer­tain games in which a silent pro­tag­o­nist is the right choice for the expe­ri­ence, but the sto­ries I have always found most immer­sive and engag­ing were the ones with char­ac­ters I could empathize with (even those with silent char­ac­ters whom I found com­pelling, like The Kid from Bastion). If there is only the rough out­line of a char­ac­ter, and choice is not given to me, then I’m not gain­ing any ben­e­fit from a lack of char­ac­ter. If a game can actu­al­ly make me care about the char­ac­ters around me, then it can start mak­ing me feel the loss and ter­ror of war; what bet­ter way than to show the rela­tion­ship between the pro­tag­o­nist and his allies?

  • Matthew Schanuel

    >In terms of timid writ­ing, the silent pro­tag­o­nist allows writ­ers to get away with some clever dia­logue or none at all. To bet­ter explain this con­cept, let’s com­pare two games. The orig­i­nal Duke Nukem and Bulletstorm. The orig­i­nal Duke was foul mouthed, misog­y­nis­tic, arro­gant, and awe­some in all the right ways. His one lin­ers fit the era and fill the heads of the enlight­ened with nos­tal­gia. Bulletstorm on the other hand was foul mouthed, misog­y­nis­tic, arro­gant, and entire­ly annoy­ing. I con­sid­er myself an afi­ciona­do of curse words and even I learned some new phal­lic phras­es from that game. But it was dis­tract­ing and annoy­ing. Weak writ­ers can­not make com­pelling dia­logue and if your main char­ac­ter is a talk­er, that becomes a fail­ure in the game.

    R: And video games should absolute­ly have bet­ter writ­ers. If you’re try­ing to make a good piece of game art with nar­ra­tive and it has crap writ­ing, you will not suc­ceed, regard­less of the sort of story you’re telling. I still don’t find this a com­pelling rea­son to keep around silent pro­tag­o­nists in war sto­ries.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    > Ok, final thoughts from a per­fect game. Red Dead Redemption. Although I hes­i­tate to clas­si­fy this as a “war game”, com­bat is the main mechan­ic for pro­gress­ing through the game. John Marston is an incred­i­bly com­pelling for­mer gang mem­ber, bank rob­ber, and mur­der­er who has a fam­i­ly now and is try­ing to live his life as best he can. On his adven­ture, he meets a cast of com­pelling char­ac­ters that his inter­ac­tions with seem gen­uine and mem­o­rable. John isn’t silent and it works well here in the fact that this is John’s story. He is the cen­ter of atten­tion, although he is forced into this by a fac­tion in the game. To counter the myth of the invin­ci­ble hero, in the first 10 min­utes of the game John makes a mis­take and finds him­self on the verge of death. He is manip­u­lat­ed by other char­ac­ters into doing their bid­ding with only minor advances towards his goal. In essence, he over­comes all the weak­ness­es you point­ed out in your post and does so in a com­pelling and mem­o­rable way.

    R: I think Red Dead Redemption should def­i­nite­ly not be clas­si­fied as a war game. It does engage some sim­i­lar themes, but the cow­boy arche­type is most def­i­nite­ly not a sol­dier; if any­thing, the old super-soldier arche­type prob­a­bly bet­ter fits with the Western genre than it does with war nar­ra­tive.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    > In the end, war games will always have to focus around a core char­ac­ter or group of char­ac­ters. A story must be told from some per­spec­tive and it is only rarely that the game play ends up being more mem­o­rable than the story itself.

    R: Absolutely. War games will always have to focus on a core char­ac­ter (or group of char­ac­ters, prefer­ably, or even mul­ti­ple groups). But this does­n’t mean that per­spec­tive can’t be com­pli­cat­ed. And cer­tain­ly, I think those char­ac­ters should be much more engag­ing. In a good war story, as in any good story, the char­ac­ters should be a focus… not an excuse for the action.

    Thanks so much for read­ing, and thanks for e‑mailing your post to me when the site would­n’t take it! I real­ly appre­ci­ate it.

  • Matthew Schanuel

    You may also find this arti­cle inter­est­ing. I think that most super-soldier laden sto­ries might belong bet­ter in affairs that attempt to con­struct inter­est­ing mul­ti­play­er expe­ri­ences. After all, I’m not at all argu­ing that super-soldier should be kicked out of games… they should just be kicked out of games that want to be engag­ing war sto­ries. It makes some sense that in affairs where the com­mu­nal expe­ri­ence is the focus, the char­ac­ters in-game will take up less con­cep­tu­al space.

    URL: http://​onto​log​i​cal​geek​.blogspot​.com/​2011​/​01​/​a​d​d​i​t​i​o​n​a​l​-​p​y​l​o​n​s​-​n​a​r​r​a​t​i​v​e​-​i​n​.​h​tml

  • Anonymous

    I agree with you that silent pro­tag­o­nists as a gen­er­al group are less than com­pelling. Often times I feel like I’m a gun with a health bar. As much as I liked the MoH reboot, it too fell into this pit­fall. The way other char­ac­ters talked and react­ed to events was what made me feel like I was part of a bad ass Tier 1 team.

    And I agree with you, the rea­sons I list­ed for the silent pro­tag­o­nist are real­ly just excus­es. But they are still a real­i­ty in game design.

  • Anonymous

    After care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, you’re right that Red Dead Redemption isn’t a war game. I sup­pose I wish other games, espe­cial­ly war games, would look to RDR for ques as to how to build a com­pelling story. On a side note, I find it sad that many of the peo­ple I play RDR online with have never touched the sin­gle play­er or gave up after 30 min­utes. Their only inter­est is in killing peo­ple online.

    Super sol­diers are also con­ve­nient game play mechan­ics. Humans are weak, and unlike starfish our health does­n’t regen­er­ate with­out med­i­cine. Shields and regen­er­at­ing health allow for a sense of dan­ger and tak­ing dam­age with­out total­ly halt­ing the progress of a story. Are there bet­ter ways to han­dle pro­gres­sion vs real­ism? Probably, but I’m still think­ing on that.

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