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War, it has been said time and time again, is Hell. On the virtual battlefields of recent war games, more of an effort is being made to portray the harsh realities of warfare. The best example is, of course, Call of Duty 4: a war story of broken men out for blood, dicey international relationships and the grim reality of the front line. It was a ballsy story for sure – without spoiling it, the event that occurs at the end of Act 1 is gut-wrenching in a way few war stories can achieve.
The first Modern Warfare game was hugely emotionally involving and draining. For the second game, I’d like to see them go even further. (Warning: Call of Duty 4/World at War spoilers after the jump).
Call of Duty 4 is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the most effective anti-war pieces, game or otherwise, of the last decade. This can be attributed in large part to the AC-130 gunship level, a set-piece made effectively terrifying by just how easy it is. It’s not a fight, it’s a slaughter, and it’s all too plausible a scenario. As you rain bullets and bombs down on the soldiers below, the dull, bored narration of the events occurring is enough to make your skin crawl. Beyond that, the men you’re fighting alongside have all been touched by the war in ways that have damaged their outlook and desensitized them to their own actions – not to mention that most of them die. There’s more detail that could be gone into here about the overarching causes of the war, the righteousness of either side or even the general portrayal of fictional outbreaks in games, but that’s not so important for now.
Treyarch’s World at War, similarly, lays it on thick towards the end of the Russian campaign. Just before you enter into the German subway station, you’re tasked with, essentially, cleaning up the mess you’ve just made. Injured German soldiers lay dying on the ground, and in a moment that parallels the opening of the campaign quite expertly, you must slaughter the already dying troops. The rest of the Russian campaign follows on in a similar fashion: Russian victory is all but assured, and your mission is now more about revenge and glory than protecting the motherland. World at War was nowhere near as elegant in how it crafted its narrative, but it still got the point across.
And yet for all these achievements across both games, the finale interactive moment of Call of Duty 4 (World at War isn’t quite worth mentioning at this point) is a little bit of an action cop-out, especially when you compare Soap’s fate to that of atomic bomb victim Paul Jackson earlier in the game. The gun slides into Soap’s hands, and with three shots you save your life and wipe out a major threat – killing Zakhaev certainly won’t win the war, but it’s a serious dent in the other side’s armour. Things haven’t ended well by any stretch, but still you’ll be returning a hero.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that Soap should have died. Simply that, the more I think about it, the more room I see to really get under the player’s skin in a game like this. I’d love to see Infinity Ward craft a war game where we don’t simply die, or get injured, or see our entire squad get mowed down – I want to actually experience losing a war. And not in the way the idea has been explored in, say, games set during the Vietnam War – I want it to be a fictional conflict, and I want to be convinced that I’m going to win.
I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to be truly defeated in a war situation. No country willingly steps into a conflict they don’t expect to somehow profit from. Nationalism – arguably the primary catalyst for both World Wars – involves a powerful belief in the nation you’re fighting for, and an absolute certainty that they will prevail. Losing under those circumstances, even in a simulated conflict, would have to be emotionally devastating. The idea that even our best efforts can’t always win the fight is one explored on a much, much smaller scale in the multiplayer modes in these games, so why not incorporate it into the main campaigns?
Some may argue that there needs to be some sort of reward at the end of a gaming experience, but haven’t game narratives evolved past that point? Already games have done a terrific job of showing us that there are real ‘winners’ in war, but surely by now that’s a tired point, no matter how well it’s told, and it’s a lesson that holds a different value for side that actually loses in the conventional sense. Whether this would mean taking on the role of a ‘foreign’ invasion force or simply portraying the loss of the ‘Allied’ forces, I’d love to see an interactive exploration of the devastation of losing out in a massive conflict, one that will affect everyone and everything your virtual avatar was fighting for.
Having said all this, I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see any such game plot emerging anytime soon. The idea of taking on the role of the ‘enemy’ troops isn’t going to appeal to the majority of Modern Warfare’s audience, and judging by the way a lot of players carry on at the end of multiplayer matches, they certainly don’t like losing. But the first Modern Warfare moved me. It really got under my skin and made me think about the events I had just taken place in. I want the ante upped. I want a game experience that educates me on an emotional level in a way that other games haven’t dared to try.

faughtthewar

War, it has been said time and time again, is Hell. On the virtual battlefields of recent war games, more of an effort is being made to portray the harsh realities of warfare. The best example is, of course, Call of Duty 4; it is a war story of broken men out for blood, dicey international relationships and the grim reality of the front line. It was a ballsy story for sure – without spoiling it, the event that occurs at the end of Act 1 is gut-wrenching in a way few war stories can achieve.

The first Modern Warfare game was hugely emotionally involving and draining. For the second game, I’d like to see them go even further. (Warning: Call of Duty 4/World at War spoilers after the jump).

Call of Duty 4 is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the most effective anti-war pieces, game or otherwise, of the last decade. This can be attributed in large part to the AC-130 gunship level, a set-piece made effectively terrifying by just how easy it is to obliterate other human beings. It’s not a fight; it’s a slaughter, and it’s all too plausible a scenario. As you rain bullets and bombs down on the soldiers below, the dull, bored narration of the events occurring is enough to make your skin crawl.

Beyond that, the men you’re fighting alongside have all been touched by the war in ways that have damaged their outlook and have desensitized them to their own actions – not to mention, most of them die. There’s more detail that could have gone into here about the overarching causes of the war, the righteousness of either side or even the general portrayal of fictional outbreaks in games, but that’s not so important for now.

Treyarch’s World at War, similarly, lays it on thick towards the end of the Russian campaign. Just before you enter into the German subway station, you’re tasked with, essentially, cleaning up the mess you’ve just made. Injured German soldiers lay dying on the ground, and in a moment, it parallels the opening of the campaign quite expertly; you must slaughter the already dying troops. The rest of the Russian campaign follows in a similar fashion: Russian victory is all but assured, and your mission is now more about revenge and glory than protecting the motherland. World at War was nowhere near as elegant in how it crafted its narrative, but it still got the point across.

ac130

And yet for all these achievements across both games, the final interactive moment of Call of Duty 4 (World at War isn’t quite worth mentioning at this point) is a little bit of an action cop-out, especially when you compare Soap’s fate to that of atomic bomb victim Paul Jackson earlier in the game. The gun slides into Soap’s hands, and with three shots, you save your life and wipe out a major threat – killing Zakhaev certainly won’t win the war, but it’s a serious dent in the other side’s armor. Things haven’t ended well by any stretch, but you’ll still return as a hero.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that Soap should have died. Simply, the more I think about it, the more room I see to really get under the player’s skin in a game like this. I’d love to see Infinity Ward craft a war game where we don’t simply die, or get injured, or see our entire squad get mowed down – I want to actually experience losing a war. And not in the way the idea has been explored in, say, games set during the Vietnam War – I want it to be a fictional conflict, and I want to be convinced that I’m going to win.

I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to be truly defeated in a war situation. No country willingly steps into a conflict they don’t expect to somehow profit from. Nationalism – arguably the primary catalyst for both World Wars – involves a powerful belief in the nation you’re fighting for, and an absolute certainty that they will prevail. Losing under those circumstances, even in a simulated conflict, would have to be emotionally devastating. The idea that even our best efforts can’t always win the fight is one explored on a much, much smaller scale in the multiplayer modes in these games, so why not incorporate it into the main campaigns?

nukey

Some may argue that there needs to be some sort of reward at the end of a gaming experience, but haven’t game narratives evolved past that point? Already games have done a terrific job of showing us that there are real ‘winners’ in war, but surely by now that’s a tired point, no matter how well it’s told; it’s a lesson that holds a different value for the side that actually loses in the conventional sense. Whether this would mean taking on the role of a foreign invasion or simply portraying the loss of the Allied forces, I’d love to see an interactive exploration of the devastation of losing out in a massive conflict, one that will affect everyone and everything your virtual avatar was fighting for.

Having said all this, I don’t think it’s likely we’ll see any such game plot emerging anytime soon. The idea of taking on the role of the ‘enemy’ troops isn’t going to appeal to the majority of the Modern Warfare audience, and judging by the way a lot of players carry on at the end of multiplayer matches, they certainly don’t like losing. But the first Modern Warfare moved me. It really got under my skin and made me think about the events I had just experienced. I want the ante upped. I want a game experience that educates me on an emotional level in a way that other games haven’t dared to try.

  1. avatar ndruo

    Spoilers ahead. If you’re planning on playing through the single-player campaign of Modern Warfare, probably want to skip this one.

    I feel like what you’re looking for would be more fit for a movie or a book than a video game.

    Why?

    For the sake of simplicity, let’s talk movies exclusively. Just continue reading under the assumption that all of these statements are applied to books as well. Movies are watched and pondered upon. There is no personal investment in advancing the plot, or becoming involved with the characters. You, the viewer, take a back seat to the events that unfold. With this lack of control, you’re more distant and able to accept whatever happens in the end — “good” or “bad.” It is this passive nature of film that allow for nonvictorious, yet satisfactory and fulfilling endings. Maybe not happy, but satisfactory and fulfilling nonetheless. Gran Torino is an example.

    Games, on the other hand, require your active participation. The most prominent example you used, Modern Warfare, is a great example of this. You, the player, are the main character. You advance the plot. You support your teammates, you complete the missions. This is far more intimate and deeply involved than any movie experience can deliver. Rewarding an experience like this with failure will leave the player dissatisfied, every time. Failure, after all, is a bitter pill to swallow. Certainly, there are dark endings — the Gears of War series is a prime example of this — but by and large these are just bait for sequels.

    I don’t think you’ll find what you ask for at the end of your article: a game that punishes you for winning, now or ever. And, in my opinion, it’s better that way.

  2. A fair opinion, but I honestly feel as though a strong narrative is its own reward, one that I value more than the sense of victory you’d get from finishing a solid war game with a mediocre plot. I don’t see it as being ‘punished’ for winning at all, although I do agree that it’s something we’re not likely to see in a game anytime soon.

  3. avatar ndruo

    For some clarification, yes I am of the party that feels winning should have a reward. You take the position that game narratives have evolved past the point of needing to win. Narratives from the losing side can be interesting and thought-provoking, but I don’t think it’s the narrative that determines the need for a reward for one’s success. It’s a fundamental part of games in general. There’s more to it than the narrative. Games are meant to be played and won. And when you win, you’re supposed to win — not lose.

  4. I think a good example of a game out at the moment where you don’t really ‘win’ at the end is Braid (spoilers for Braid ahead, so look away now if you haven’t played it).

    It’s one of the best reviewed games of the year, yet at the end you don’t actually get to rescue the ‘princess’. In fact, you find out that she’s desperately trying to escape you. And then, of course, after a little digging you find out that the whole game was a metaphor for Tim’s guilt over his involvement in the building of the atomic bomb. There’s no real sense of forgiveness, redemption or victory at the end, yet the game was a huge success. Food for thought, if nothing else.

    • avatar Helen

      Tell a friend that you have 11 figerns. When he scoffs at this claim, count from 1 to 10 on your figerns: then count backwards, saying, ’10, 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 figerns on the other hand makes 11!Place an empty glass on a table upside down. Then place on the table three matches and invite one of the parties to place one of the matches on top of the glass using only the other two matches. After some difficulty, he will do this. But,’ you will say, I told you to put the match on the top of the glass and you’ve put it on the bottom!’

  5. avatar Aran

    Though they follow how you described Gears Of War, ‘dark ending for the purpose of setting up a sequel’, I think the Half Life games and episodes are a good example of ‘winning’ the game, but really going out on a feeling that you’ve lost.

    The original game, for example, had you travel over to the alien world and just blow everything up, and put a crowbar into the head of the Big Bad, but moments later when G-Man offers you that “choice”, well, you don’t really feel like you’ve won at all (at least, from a story perspective). Yet I, and most people who played the game, didn’t feel “ripped off” by the game ending like that.

    I know you’re talking here more about the bigger picture of ‘war’ and such, but I think even to the level of the individual character of Freeman, it’s relevant to your points here, that you can create a game where winning the game is essentially losing in the end, but you don’t feel like playing the game was a waste of time either.

  6. Aran, I have a horrible confession to make: I’ve never finished Half Life 1 or 2. In fact I’ve never even played the first one (I’ve never been a PC gamer…although I don’t really have an excuse for why I only ever get halfway through HL2, since I love it so). I have finished Episodes 1 and 2 though, and both benefit heavily from their endings, I feel. Episode 2, in particular, has a great mix of achievement and horrible tragedy, but in a war situation I’d be very interested to see the tragedy element pushed further.

  7. avatar Joe V.

    I agree with your points.

    More games need that sort of tragic ending. Having to swallow your pride & accept a defeat.

    It’s not an FPS, but Ace Combat 6 does this a few times through the game. It start the game by forcing you to evacuate your country’s capital, but then goes for the heroic comeback route. It does show both sides of the story, if somewhat simplistically.

  8. @ndruo – “games are meant to be played and won”

    Let’s look at the Matrix: Path of Neo, instead of the martyr ending of the film we see Neo fight a giant Agent Smith made out of cars and buildings, completely jarring to the themes that have gone before. I literally said to myself “this is bullshit” and switched off the game, I felt as if the developers were saying to me “you’re a gamer, you don’t have the capacity mental capacity to deal with an ending like the film has”.

    Sacrificing story to give the player a “feelgood” ending isn’t always a good thing.

    Games have moved to being interactive experiences, if a developer wants to give a bitter-sweet ending (eg. MGS4) then I see no problem with this. I am not 8, I can handle the bad news, in fact it would most likely invoke a stronger emotional reaction this way.

  9. avatar Ryhanon

    I agree that games have largely moved past the need for a “reward” at the end. I’ve been hoping to see something like this for a long time as well.

    Given how story-telling in games has evolved over the last couple of decades, from a short paragraph at the start and/or end of a game (or even less, in many cases), to the full blown, interactive, cinematic experiences we have in todays gaming environment, where the things you do and choices you make can actually have consequences and an effect on the story-arc (Mass Effect, Fallout, Heavy Rain, etc…) I feel it is only natural that the ultimate “goal” or “reward” at the end of the narrative may sometimes be failure. If, at the end, it were to feel like the natural progression of the narrative, I believe failure could be just as satisfying (or even more so) than victory. Something about always knowing that in the end you’re going to win, just because you’re playing a video game and that’s what they do, seems to take away from the experience in my mind.

    However, I wouldn’t go so far as the rest of you to say that this isn’t likely to happen any time soon. There are three games coming out soon that appear to be touching on this idea

    First, there’s Mass Effect 2, where it has been said that one of the games endings will be the death of Cmdr. Shepard. While I’m nearly certain it would be in some “heroic” and therefore satisfying manner, I am extremely intrigued by the idea that I can play through this game and not know from the outset that my character is going to be safe.

    Secondly, there’s Heavy Rain, which we’ve been told will allow for any of the main characters to die and the story will continue without them. Again, I find this interesting for similar reasons as Mass Effect.

    Lastly, though probably not as interesting as the prior two examples in which the player is left not knowing what will happen, is Halo: Reach. Just like the trailer says, from the beginning, we know the end. This is a game that is very clearly about fighting a war you will lose (even though it is “won” in the other games in the series) – While I think ODST looks pretty good, I’m infinitely more intrigued by Reach simply because of this idea. I think it will be a great story-telling opportunity for Bungie. I just hope they tap into the story-telling genius they had back when they did games like Marathon and Myth.

    • avatar Romeo

      o tilekivos den vgeeni live apo germania???pos ginetai na ine sto idio studio afou to ena ine stin germania kai ta alla stin ellada!

  10. avatar Hm

    Good article and a very good idea. I think adult gaming audiences are sophisticated enough to appreciate something like this today. Foot soldiers frequently have little understanding of the politics behind their actions, fighting purely on a personal level with their ‘band of brothers’ on the battlefield. But games rarely touch on the political side of questioning what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. They almost never humanise the ‘enemy’ side – it’s all black and white. A real emotional story would deal with the grey area of the reasoning and the aftermath of war, questioning the motives of both sides throughout. I would definitely like to see games evolve to better, more thought-provoking stories like this – you may win a battle but lose the war.

  11. avatar DevilXPanther

    Halo: Fall of Reach. I think your probably gonna lose that battle. History repeats itself in that game and it will be fun and both emotionally draining to play as the losing side, and know that in the end, your side WILL fail. You just have to try to go out guns blazing, and take as many of them as you can with you.

    • avatar Ramzan

      Hello would you mind stating which blog plrftoam you’re using? I’m looking to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a tough time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique. P.S Apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

    • avatar Dolly

      Please let me know if you’re looking for a wreitr for your weblog. You have some really great articles and I feel I would be a good asset. If you ever want to take some of the load off, I’d love to write some articles for your blog in exchange for a link back to mine. Please blast me an email if interested. Regards!

  12. avatar DevilXPanther

    In case you didn’t know, I was joking about the probably part. Your gonna die.

    • avatar Keben

      Remember Rukmi of course, thugoh the words are slightly different in my memory – similar in effect, of course. But never thugoht of it like this.More importantly thugoh, do you remember what he did afterwards? Is there any mention of him at all in the future chapters?And hey, Balaram did take part in the war in a sense – man almost killed Bheema after he buggered Duryodhana’s thigh.And there were so many instances of his anger with Krishna for his role in the Kauaravas’ mess, plus his having taught the princes to use the mace.Though yes, he did not actually kill anyone or actually ride out in a towering oliphaunt or anything.

  13. I’d forgotten about Halo: Reach, actually. The only downside there is, like Ryhanon pointed out, you already know you’re going to lose the war. There isn’t going to be that element of shock. Still, it should be an interesting game, even though I’ve never really followed Halo’s plot (I’ve finished the games, but my copy of Halo 3 is a Korean copy, totally legit but very cheap on Play Asia, and nobody can explain the plot to me :P .)

  14. avatar pabadamus

    I like the idea. Too often we don’t realize that there are skewed and less than noble ideologies on both sides of a war. For as long as I have gamed, the narrative has been told from the side of the virtuous, oppressed or preordained. These narratives generally mirror our troubled history and conflicts that had “clear” villains and heroes. Patriotism aside we have a greater ability today to question the true motives of both the heroes and the villains. At an individual (protagonist) level when does liberation become occupation or defense become invasion? When does retaliation become genocide and visa versa. I would love a game that explores or portrays the psychological anguish of being on the “wrong/losing” side (ie first part of Haze). I have always looked at conflict as a form of relativism. If both sides fervently believe they are right then who is wrong? A game that explores what it feels like to lose and be wrong or right would be refreshing.

    • avatar Emre

      Sabrina1. In my opinion pelpoe are not altruistic but rather when they commit good deeds they are responding to moral and social incentives. When it seems like someone is being selfless by preforming a good act or charity that person is actually responding to an incentive for a egotistical reason, which is the exact opposite of altruistic. The moral incentive is used through the person feeling guilt if they don’t help, knowing that helping is the right thing to do. So the reward being that they would have self pride by helping others. A social incentive would be that society praises those who help others, meaning that the individual would want the reward of fitting in with society. So they would act altruistic to be acknowledged as part of the group (society). They conform to societal pressures to be accepted by others. 2. It should not matter why pelpoe do positives things for others. At the end of the day the person that has been helped will not care why they were helped but that they were helped at all. For example if someone gives money to a charity that assists in cancer research it does not matter if the only reason they donated money was that they were responding to a moral incentive but that the charity now has more funding. Both parties involved got what they wanted, so it is a win-win situation.

    • avatar Mithun

      Tiffany1. I don’t think altruism extsis, but it also depends on the scenario one is in. It is true that most people are motivated to do something only if there is either a personal gain, may it be money, or a feeling of satisfaction for doing a good deed. Most people always think about their happiness before the happiness of others. For example, if there was someone who was in a burning house and you were the only person around to help, would you? Yes,this is a true altruistic act that connects with our moral ethics. You could also argue that the person was saving another to gain satisfaction of knowing that you saved someone, but at the same time you would be risking your life.2. I really think it should not matter. If someone wants to do something positive for another person why should the reason of doing an act matter? Just let it be. If someone decides to do something nice and positive then there is no need to question them. Some people are kind and don’t need to explain why they did something, and people who do an act to get some sort of personal gain like a good feeling of ones self aren’t hurting anyone while doing so. In the end the outcome is two happy people.

  15. I fully agree! I loved COD4 for the story line and they way they portrayed war… and I actually agree that seeing a defeat at the end of the story line might be very compelling.

    I agree that I don’t see it as “losing” so much as better story telling. The nuclear incident moved me… I honestly felt that I was just injured (a common game mechanic), and that once I made it out I would slowly recover and the story would move onward… when I died, it really shocked me and as you noted, it was very effective in driving home the realities of war and not the romanticized gaming version we are so often presented with.

    “Winning” is a relative term… and that’s what multiplayer games are for. I do think that single player campaigns can move forward to portray more thought provoking ideas. I also enjoy seeing more “grey” in current games… less fervent right or wrong and more of the concept of what you are doing at the time might seem “right”, but given further events and retrospection … you see them maybe more clearly as “wrong”. This has been touched on in some games, but not in a particularly compelling manner as yet.

    Nice article.

  16. avatar unknown

    Not happening in a COD title made by Infinity Ward; especially when they designed 4′s plot around the idea that a person was trying to ressurect the Soviot Union and if he wasn’t killed, he might have succeeded in bringing the the world a much daker Cold War that screams Doomsday cometh. Definetly not something you want the player to experience since most of the battles in the title was more then just proxy.

    They’re balls-to-the-wall action titles at their core, only subtly thoght-provoking then 98% of all summer-blockbusters.

    • avatar Maksat

      Basically my question is what eenlemts/other things does a good mmorpg need to make people want to play it. Like WoW for example it has story and stuff. So basically im just asking for kind of like a list of what a good mmorpg has in it and needs. Thx.

  17. avatar lex

    I couldn’t agree more.
    I can’t help but think about some of the movies that I enjoy most.
    My favorite movies almost always end in tragic ways that reflect reality.
    I think that suck a path would be more emotionally rewarding than a game portrays the player as the victor from the early stage.
    This is the reason that I was so excited for the resistance games. I don’t necessarily think that they are the greatest as far as fps qualities go, I do however enjoy the fact that you feel a sense of hopelessness. I can’t really explain why, but fighting a losing battle seems like it is so much more emotionally engaging than reliving ww2 battles that you know you are going to win. Just my two cents

  18. If a game ever truly educates you on the horrors of war, I doubt you would play another game that glorified violence again.

    Wii Sports FTW

  19. avatar ......

    AC-130 makes your skin crawl? Thats the future of warfare right there, We need to efficiently and quickly obliterate anyone who poses a threat to this great country without risking any of our own men, and if that means firing artillery shells from an aircraft a 30,000 ft to kill anyone who gets too close then thats what we have to do, look at an atom bomb we can quickly and with very little effort eradicate hundreds of thousands of enemy lives and that is why it is the pinnacle of weapon technology to this day.

  20. avatar Leomar

    Jessica1. True altruism can not truly exist, silpmy because humans always put themselves first. One may argue that giving to charity is a completely selfless act, but is it really? Giving to charity would be a way to keep the guilt off people’s shoulders, instead of a way of helping others. Seeing a homeless man on a street, many would pause to hand him some spare change, but that is not called being altruistic. It’s called giving the man some change so I won’t feel bad about it later. It can be stated that instead of giving money to those less fortunate, humans just don’t want to feel guilty inside. The incentive in this particular case is a good feeling the feeling that one has done something completely selfless. Therefore, one may conclude that altruism does not exist in this world. 2. Why should it matter the motives behind the actions? What matters is not the reasoning, but rather the actions itself. So what if someone had only donated to stop the guilt in their hearts? Giving to charity for the wrong reasons is ten times better than not giving at all. A homeless man would focus more on the money received, rather than the reason why it was given in the first place. Even if true altruism cannot be found on this planet, it is hardly something to mourn over. After all, as long as society is benefiting from their actions, who could complain?

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