From The Archives - Are Video Games a Suitable Medium for War Stories?
From The Archives posts are posts which I’ve carried over from my old blogs and sites I wrote for that are now offline so that I can keep a record of some of my better and more important work that would otherwise be lost. They come from the entire length of my time in games writing, so you’ll probably notice a big jump in quality between the really old stuff and the more recent content.
This was originally posted on an old blog of mine on June 15th 2012. I was just starting to think about games more critically and write out my thoughts in a more concise and sophisticated manner, and there was a big discussion about violence and authenticity in videogames at the time. It got me inspired to post a critical opinion piece on my developing blog. I was also apparently passing myself off as too cool for horror movies despite having barely watched any at this point.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Red Dead Redemption and Gallipoli. But if you haven’t finished RDR or seen Gallipoli- REALLY!? Also, it’s talking mostly in regards to FPSes, as they are the most common genre for war games. I don’t play many FPSes, so if there’s anything factually wrong, feel free to tell me, I’d love to discuss this more.
I was watching the Gamespot Australia live stream on Tuesday, and there was a discussion there that really interested me, to the point where I’m actually writing something about it! This discussion was about war and video games, and whether video games really do war ‘justice’. I, myself, don’t play many shooters because I see them as pointless. It’s just mindless killing, with no real goal, no sense of co-ordination of teamwork, nothing. Just killing and more killing for a whole round. And that’s basically what war games are now that they’re focused on the multiplayer aspects rather than creating a singleplayer experience. The games (for the most part) present kills as a good thing you should be striving towards, for which you are rewarded with points, killstreaks or what have you. There’s a clear divide between good and evil. The other team, or the antagonists in the storyline are the enemy. In the case of multiplayer opponents, they have no reason they’re fighting other than it’s fun and they want to win. In the case of singleplayer antagonists, they’re hardly ever well thought out characters, they’re just plain evil, and you need to stop them. And the enemies you kill along the way are just characterless polygons who you have to kill to progress. Everyone in war is a living, breathing human being, enemy or ally.
I was posting my thoughts on the discussion in the live stream chat, and I mentioned how video games were just as valid as films to convey war stories, they just don’t. One of the other viewers said something along the lines “But are they really the same as film?” and I said no, they’re not. In fact, games should be more valid a medium to convey these stories, because they put you in the shoes of a character. It’s much like the difference between horror movies and horror games. Horror movies really don’t scare me, and the reason is most likely because there’s nothing on the line. I’m at no loss if the characters die, and most of the time I want them to die because they’re usually annoying archetypes. In horror games however, my character’s life is on the line. This character is my body in the world, and threats to them are threats to me. If they die, I’ll lose a lot of progress. And even if it’s not a lot of progress, the games make me feel threatened as if there’s much worse consequences for death. War games don’t really have this same effect. I just feel like a gung ho soldier who can kill everyone, save the day and be a hero. The closest I’ve come to this in a war game is in Battlefield when I’m a soldier who has no means to take down an armoured vehicle, but when I’m capturing a control point a tank blasts a hole in the wall, and they know I’m there. I feel like my life is on the line and I need to hide, and this is a feeling more war games should try to emulate. The thing is though, that even if that tank did blast me, five seconds later I’m back to life and can go do something else. If more singleplayer campaigns had moments like these, with few checkpoints, it could really give a sense of danger. And it’s not just the player who has to be in danger, NPC companions could me more developed characters, who stay dead once killed, giving you a reason to not only care about them, but want to fight for them.
In the live stream, an interview was mentioned, between journalist Tom McShea and Medal of Honor Warfighter executive producer Greg Goodrich. Tom wrote an editorial about military shooters, and how they’re not realistically portraying war. Greg asked him to an interview to discuss this with him, because he feels the game is an authentic experience rather than a realistic one. Both sides have valid points. Tom says games should be realistic in gameplay and show the tragic side of war, whereas Greg is saying while the gameplay isn’t realistic, the game is still authentic because it shows the valour and glory of the men fighting in war. War does indeed have these moments of glory, but in the end, it’s a tragic thing. Games focus on the good, enjoyable sides of war, and rarely focus on the tragedy. As Greg says, the gameplay doesn’t have to be 100% realistic, because the game won’t be enjoyable, but that doesn’t mean the game can’t present an authentic experience. But I feel if the games only present one side of the conflict, it’s not really authentic. In these games, the players never really experience loss, characters who die are always enemies or side characters who you don’t have much to do with, or in the case of RTS games just expendable, nameless units you can make more of. If games are going to try to represent war, they should be showing both of the sides these guys are talking about, the good and the bad. Imagine a game, like Tom describes, where you have a squad or company who follow you throughout the game, with their own stories to tell, but if you don’t protect them, and they die, they stay dead. But this won’t ‘work’, for one reason, and that reason is why games will never 100% accurately capture the experience of war.
The reason why war doesn't translate to games is because gamers are after a game, not an experience. What I mean by that is that a game is something where you're given an objective, and you win or lose by completing or failing this objective. Winning is good, losing is bad. A player keeps playing until they win or reach a game over. An experience is something like Heavy Rain. If you don't meet the objectives, it keeps going. It isn't about giving you something to 'beat', it's about giving you an engaging experience beginning to end, not being concerned with being 'gamey'. You don't win or lose in Heavy Rain, you follow a plot and engage emotionally with different characters, experiencing their journeys. You just have some control over what their journeys involve. And this is why war as a game doesn't work. In order to convey the tragic nature of war, the player has to experience loss in some way, and gamers see this as a bad thing, because they approach it as a game, where you win/succeed or lose/fail, rather than treating it as an interactive experience so to speak.
Look at the movie Gallipoli for instance. I think this movie successfully shows both sides of war- the honourable comradeship side, and the tragic side, with the ending scene powerfully capturing the tragedy. Mel Gibson's character (Frank?) has the orders to cancel the last charge, which he has to run down to the front lines because the communication lines aren't working. He runs his fastest, but doesn't make it in time. He hears the whistle blow, and cries in anguish knowing he didn't make it and now his comrades are charging to their deaths. Then his friend Archie delivers a final speech of sorts, before he charges forward, with the film ending on the powerful image of this young man being shot. This scene is famous for how powerful it is, but let's see how it would translate into a game. You're playing as Frank, having to run to the front to deliver the message, but when you're almost there, you hear a whistle blow, and Frank cries out. Some people at this point would immediately know this means they failed, and would restart the mission to try again. But no matter how many times they retry, the whistle still blows. "Wait," they ask, "the game FORCES me to fail?" The game continues. Now the player controls Archie. "Oh boy! Now I get to shoot people!" They sprint out, but not long afterwards a gunshot sounds, and the play freezes, as the camera zooms out and focuses on Archie, who has been shot dead. Cut to black, credit roll. "WHAT THE ****!?" the player cries. "That must be the bad ending, I must need to not get shot". But again, retry after retry, the player is met with the same result. If this were me, I'd die once, wonder if it was meant to happen, then Google it, then think it was an interesting way to end it. But I think the ending still loses some of its power due to the player assuming it only ended that way due to a failure on their part, rather than an interesting design choice to emphasise a point- war is tragic, and no one really wins.
This is similar to the ending of Red Dead Redemption. (Last chance to back out from spoilers. Not that you haven’t finished this game… RIGHT!?) The ‘ending’ was extremely tragic. John sacrifices himself so that his family can live in peace. It shows that John couldn’t escape his past, but he found redemption in giving his life for his family, symbolically signifying the end of the old west. He doesn’t go down without a fight though, and tries to gun down as many agents as he could before finally being gunned down. Now I realised this was a forced death in order to add to the plot, but going on internet message boards, there were many people unhappy with it. Even now, putting “Red Dead Redemption Ending” into Google brings up the following suggestions:
Some people didn’t like the fact John died, plain and simple. They wanted some epic showdown where John took everyone down and came out on top. But then the ending wouldn’t have had the same meaning. If John managed to escape all his sins by killing more people, the ending really wouldn’t mean anything. Sure, it would be a happier ending, and people would feel more accomplished, but this is my point. When a character dies, players associate it with failure, because the goal of the game is to keep them alive and complete objectives. Gamers are playing to ‘win’ the game, rather than enjoy the experience it offers. People don’t get as angry when a protagonist dies in a film or novel, because there’s no ‘failure’ associated with their death. The reader/viewer doesn’t ‘lose’ if someone dies in a linear text, and had no part in their death. But in games, players see death as a good thing if it’s their enemies that are dead, because they have ‘won’, and see death as a bad thing if their character dies, because they have ‘lost’. In Fire Emblem when a unit dies, they’re dead permanently, making you connect with all your individual units, and if you lose one, you feel like you’ve lost, and restart. A war game, like the one suggested earlier, that had permanent deaths would very much capture the tragedy of war, but players would just see this as them failing, and would keep restarting until they ‘succeed’. And if the characters are forced to die during the story, some players will feel ripped off, because these characters they’ve kept alive for so long have been taken from them regardless of their actions.
The way I see it is that so long as gamers see games as a platform where winning/success and losing/failure are the only two available outcomes, games will never accurately portray war. But I wouldn’t say this means the games are disrespectful or shouldn’t be made. I mean, they are games, and the main point of games is to entertain people. But if they’re going to compromise realism or authenticity for gameplay, could that not suggest that perhaps the situation isn’t totally suited to a game? If a war game is going to be focused on making the player a total good guy who can pretty much win battles by himself, rather than trying to show the true nature of war, why try to represent real life, modern warfare? Why not just use fictional people, countries etc.? There’s no risk of offending people or turning war as it’s happening in the real world into something ‘fun’. I just really find it odd that games based around something so tragic are designed to be, and are played because they are fun. People are probably going to call me out because I play Battlefield, but I think this really backs up what I’m saying. I don’t play Battlefield to experience real life war, I play it because it’s an action game, in which I need to think and use teamwork in order to win. If it used a fictional setting, with fictional countries and locations, it would still be fun. Companies don’t need to market these games as realistic/authentic experiences, and shouldn’t, because they’re really not. People would still play the games if they weren’t marketed this way, so there’s no need for them to be. If games are going to try and reflect real life war, then they should do just that. Do it justice, show the reality of war. It can still have moments of glory and valiant teamwork and heroism, but at its heart, war is a tragic thing, so if games are going to be set in the real world, showing real life conflicts (or potential real life conflicts like those in Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honour etc.), then they should be showing everything that’s a part of these wars, not just the fun sides.