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.
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?
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.