Driving home today, I came across a large truck with a bunch of bumper stickers on it. All of them were military, and one made it known the man behind the wheel went and came back from Vietnam. I know I’ve written about this topic before, but right now, on the heels of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3, I think it bears another look. I speak, of course, of how war, death and loss are dealt with in games. Be warned, I’m going to spoil the ending of the BF3 and MW3 campaigns in this article, so if you haven’t finished it, you might want to skip that part of the discussion. I’ll flag it again.
What we fail to remember
In game like CoD and BF, or any medium, that shows images of combat, one of the things we accept on faith is that the people who die in that fiction (and I speak of fiction here), do not, in the real sense of the word, die. In games, in fact, when we kill Nameless Russian/Middle-Easterner/German #2045, there are an endless number of identical or nearly so friends of his who want to kill you just as badly as he did. And since this is a game, we are perfectly happy to press that button, make the guns on screen go boom boom, and kill our Nameless man #2046.
For those grizzled veterans of wars past and present, I think this is something of a double edged sword. On the one hand, there is the sense of imagination. The barrier separating reality from fantasy that allows us to shoot endless waves of oncoming enemies and enjoy every minute of it, even taking time out of our day to enjoy the burning wreckage. The suspense of disbelief that can and must occur for any game to be successful protects us from feeling the full weight of what combat brings.
However, because war games attempt, to their credit, sometimes, to be realistic, anyone who has seen real combat is in danger of being forced to relive something of terrible consequence, usually perpetrated by someone of far lesser age, experience and sympathy. There was an article on The Escapist about this a while back, about a soldier playing Bad Company 2 but being unable to think straight when someone used what became known as a “Jihad Jeep” to take out a tank. In the context of the game, it was a legitimate, if someone crude, tactic. Strap some C4 to a Humvee, drive full tilt towards an enemy tank, and then get out just before detonation. The soldier could not handle this since it mimicked, in a twisted, game mechanical fashion, a traumatizing experience he had on the real battlefield.
What we fail to remember, therefore, is that while there is that barrier keeping us from “living the game,” there is now enough real life simulation in games to affect us on a psychological level, or at least, far more than used to be possible. Men and women who fight for a cause, whether that be an ideal, a country or a religion, have attachments outside of the battle. They have histories, futures, families and friends. Troops returning from such a battleground, especially one as terrible as Vietnam or Iraq or the trenches of Germany, are scarred, whether they allow it to show or not. And games today have the potential to reopen old wounds. Or, as the Escapist article demonstrated, help to heal. The gap between the two is a thin one, crossed easily and just as simple to stand on.
The message that might be heard
Here come the spoilers. At the end of Battlefield 3, you get into a fight with a man wanting to detonate a nuke in the heart of New York. If you fail to stop him, the bomb goes off, but you immediately move back to the last checkpoint to try again. From a story standpoint, this is a failure in design, disregarding the many in the campaign prior. I feel that if you allow that nuke to go off, there should be some sort of ending based on your failure. Show us the pain, the heartache of the country, the reemergence of the US warmachine, all of it. One of DICE’s selling points for the campaign was showing war and all it represents. Let them try again in 24 hours or something, but don’t just bug off and give them infinite mulligans. It’s a fucking nuke, and it just went off one of the biggest cities in the nation. If you fail to stop it, there are consequences, and I don’t think anyone will disagree with me. I want to see those.
In Modern Warfare 3, and all the Modern Warfare games, to a degree, the ending gives more credit to that sense of hopelessness and loss that come from war. The consequences are, if not palpable, understood to be dire and you are aware that you the player, in a way, are responsible for them. For MW3, the last in the trilogy, Makarov is finally trapped and since this is a fiction, you know at some level that you will defeat him. That said, the final battle is given real weight not because of the endless hordes of pallet swapped enemies, but because the writers made sure the characters you lost along the way were real, and you grew to care about them. The pain in Price’s voice when he watched Soap die, the anger as he talks to Macmillan, shows just how close the two of them were.
Battlefield’s single player can learn a thing or two from this concept. In a real war, I think, the soldiers become “brothers in arms,” and there are few relationships closer or more vital to one’s peace of mind. Say what you will about the players or the multiplayer or the series in general, but for me, there’s always been that tangible feeling that this war affects more than just the guy behind the gun on your screen. I don’t care for the action movie feeling the series gives to war, or the giant conspiracy theories that fill it, but if nothing else, the human quality it gives to those men who must make the hard choices and never be truly thanked is one to be commended.
To be honest, I think I’ll put together another article dissecting the Modern Warfare story arc and how it succeeds or fails in presenting the trials of war. What Battlefield is trying to give us is the grand scale, the trials of the common soldier, but it comes up short. Modern Warfare is ultimately a character driven story, and in that respect it does its job. Neither approach is sufficient. War is about everyone, soldiers and civilians, politicians and fanatics. What must happen if games are every to truly capture what war means is the discarding of multiplayer and a full-scale exploration from every angle of the camera. And in the end, I want to feel the torment on both sides of the equation, not just one or the other. Without everything on the table, there’s nothing to show.
There’s my rehashing of war in games. Let me say to any of our readers who are, were or know someone in the military, thank you. There are no words I can utter either on the page or out loud that really express gratitude, appreciation, or understanding for what you do. But those are all I have. So thank you.