The Ryan Lambie Column: War!

Ryan wonders if we have the right to appropriate the harsh experiences of real war in the services of another WWII fragfest...

The air is thick with smoke as I charge through the undergrowth, the chatter of gunfire loud in my ears. Adrenaline surges through me, and my gun feels heavy in my hands. I know the enemy are mere yards behind, and my eyes search frantically for a hiding place. There, mere paces in front of me, stands the reassuringly thick bough of a tree. With a final burst of energy I make for its safety, and as I do so I hear the hollow thump as a smoke grenade goes off to my left. I press on, the tree mere inches away now, close enough to touch…

Too late, I realise my refuge is already occupied. An enemy soldier leaps from its cover, firing three deadly shots into my chest. Stricken, my legs give way beneath me.

Who’d have thought that paintballing in Leeds could be so stressful?

For reasons best known to those with Psychology degrees, we as a society appear to have a collective fascination with war – whether it’s paintball, table-top wargames or a first-person shooter, our appetite for them seems endless. Perhaps it’s a form of morbid curiosity – a desire to experience something that we’ll never go through for real. We can get a little taste of battle without the risk to life and limb that real soldiering involves.

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Gearbox Software’s forthcoming installment in their successful FPS franchise, Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway promises to be the most realistic portrayal of WWII yet seen, with convincing AI, destructible scenery and hand grenades that tear bodies apart in a shower of gore and viscera.

It’s debatable whether we really need yet another WWII FPS, but perhaps the more pertinent question is, should we really be making them? Is it right to create a form of entertainment from one of the most bloody and cruel moments of the last century? As games continue on their path to photorealism, is it right that they should depict the savagery of war with such uncompromising verisimilitude?

Whatever your viewpoint is (even I’m not sure where I stand on the subject, and I normally have an opinion on just about everything), it’s an interesting question nonetheless. The developers of such titles as Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Company of Heroes often claim to create their games for the most noble of intentions, some saying that they can act as a sort of interactive history lesson.

UK developers Ghostlight, for example, are currently working on their own historical battle-based FPS, To End All Wars – this time set among the muddy carnage of WWI. Their senior producer Alasdair Evans had this to say to games™ magazine back in May this year:

‘We don’t feel that it’s a disservice to the memory of the 10 million lives lost to recreate the First World War as a game. If anything we’re glad to be keeping the message alive.’

As noble as the developers’ intentions may be, do people really play a war-based FPS to ‘honour the dead’? I suspect that most gamers play Call of Duty because they enjoy shooting enemies and blowing things up. Of course, there’s little a developer can do about the way their product is perceived – the same can be said for the rest of the entertainment industry too. Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan aimed (quite successfully) to depict the full horror and tragedy of the Normandy landings, yet I overheard some people coming out of a screening I attended saying they found the sequence quite funny.

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But maybe the increasing realism seen in the war-based FPS genre is a sign of video games’ growing maturity; after all, the best WWII simulation we could muster sixteen years ago was the cartoonish Wolfenstein 3D. Perhaps games have now reached the point where they can evoke the same emotional response as an anti-war film such as The Deer Hunter or a novel like Catch 22, meaning that the FPS has moved beyond the traditional video game realm of pure entertainment and into a different arena entirely, where they’re played to shock, horrify and educate.

Have we really reached that stage yet? I’m not sure – maybe I’ll play the latest Brothers in Arms when it’s finally released, and feel some of the terror and sorrow that those soldiers surely felt some sixty years ago. Or maybe I’ll just play it like any other FPS, mindlessly slaughtering one faceless Nazi after another without a moment’s thought.

I’ll freely admit that I’m about as battle-hardened as a pile of towels, and I’ll even concede that I found my brief tour of duty with a paintball gun to be absolutely terrifying. As tense as, say, Call of Duty often is, it’s nowhere near as bad as being hunted through some Yorkshire copse by a bunch of louts with paint pistols. Real war – with proper bullets made of lead – must be terrifying beyond reason. Games may be becoming more realistic, but they’ve got a long, long way to go yet.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.