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Published December 17, 2009

Why do military shooters so consistently fail to deliver in the story department? Ever since I posted my Modern Warfare 2 review last week, I’ve been asking myself this question. War, as it has been depicted in literary classics such as “For Whom the Bell Tollsor the incredible HBO television miniseries “Band of Brothers,” can be gut-wrenching and tragic, but at the same time, inspiring – battles are won, heroes emerge and tyrants fall. Developers have been mining these moments for dramatic gold for years, with sweeping orchestral scores and the bloodiest battlefields money can buy. But while I’m sure developers like Infinity Ward and EA Los Angeles are staffed with history buffs and guys who want nothing more than to pay proper homage to American troops, their games often feel soulless.

This is the goal…

There’s a severe disconnect to what game developers want to achieve – interactive “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down”- and what we actually get – sanitized shooting galleries in which progress is all about tactics and ammo conservation instead of ideals and sacrifice. Enemy combatants, from the Nazis all the way up to (mostly) Middle Eastern insurgents, have been caricatured to the point in which I just don’t care anymore why I’m fighting them.

I’ve already given Modern Warfare 2 enough crap, so for now, let’s look at any of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy games. Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, G.R.A.W. – it doesn’t matter which entry you pick. Can anyone honestly recall any of the hostiles you were confronting? And I’m not talking about nationality, so much as motivation, origins or leadership. I vaguely recall the G.R.A.W. series taking place in the midst of a Mexican civil war, but the only reason I know this is because of my HUD video screen and news broadcasts in the loading screens. The writers assume that the here-and-now is all you need, but what ever happened to context?

I will fully acknowledge that most war movies assume you know enough about the opposing side, so enemy soldiers aren’t fleshed out much. But what about your comrades in arms. We know guys like Soap from Modern Warfare by name, but we’re never clued in on the stakes or what these guys have waiting for them back home. We’ve come a long way from Call of Duty 2, with nameless allies being constantly mowed down because they can be continuously regenerated. Yet at the same time, we have Generation Kill, the book/miniseries about the opening days of the war in Iraq, in which we spend so much time at camp, watching soldiers bonding and commiserating with each other over their incompetent bosses. Like most of my favorite books and films, it’s about the people first.

So what’s to be done then? Do we set a game at training camp for half the campaign before stepping into battle, a la Full Metal Jacket? Well, maybe. I’m not sure how practical some of these ideas are, but I think developers could play with some of these concepts and come up with richer experiences:

  • The Cost of War - Modern Warfare 2‘s airport scene made lots of gamers (and non-gamers) feel uncomfortable. Some critics, including a few of my fellow Pack cohorts, suggested that this bloodbath was merely for shock value, but I think that Infinity Ward was wise to show us something behind the front-lines for once. Remember that Heartland game David Jaffe was working on for the PSP? The one in which you’d be given the choice of pointing your sights at Chinese-American civilians after a foreign invasion? I’m not saying I wanted to play that game necessarily, but the empty towns and cities that we’re used to are too far in the other extreme.
  • Camaraderie – Maybe it’s time for Bioware-style dialogue trees in our military shooters? Asking players to get to know their commanding officer and fellow troops may turn some off, but a solid script might ease some of those itchy trigger fingers. The only series that comes to mind here is Brother in Arms. I’m not sure about the sequels, but the original focused on the 101st Airborne and and the playable Sgt. Baker. His paratroopers were constantly in peril, and as trite as the dialogue could be, it meant something when one of your men fell in battle. The game established a sense of friendship and common purpose that just isn’t found elsewhere, which I guess is appropriate for this “thinking man’s World War II shooter.”
  • Take off the Headset– This and the last point go hand-in-hand. Loading screens and radio chatter do not involve the player. As much as I love listening to Keith David’s smooth voice barking orders at me, this constant push forward takes away both choice on the battlefield and identity from whoever is speaking as well. Whoever decided that disembodied voices and clumsy exposition would hold my attention? Maybe pre-mission briefings at base camp are in order, or even a heart-to-heart with top brass. But giving the player a glimpse of the larger picture is crucial.
  • Enough with Double-Crosses – I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but I feel like 50% of the modern shooters I play include an enemy mole who reveals himself at the end. Hell, the traitor is probably your commanding officer. This dramatic one-upsmanship is painfully predictable at this point, and needs to stop. (Admittedly, I’m exagerrating on this last point, but this cliché  is a personal pet-peeve)

Of course, when a game like Modern Warfare 2 sells millions in the blink of an eye, it may seem like there’s little incentive for developers to improve their storytelling. But years down the road, when we’re looking at games that truly stood the test of time, the shooters that truly emphasized narrative, that went above and beyond to recognize the sacrifices made by our veterans – they’re the ones that I’ll still want to play.


  1. Nick Nick

    You raise some really good points here, J. I especially think the “take off the headset” idea could go a long way into creating a more realistic battlefield experience and help provide a little more of the scary, chaotic environment that war really is.

    I wonder though, if a deliberate comradeship-based story coupled with a more realistic battlefield environment might be completely at odds with the head-shot seeking, machismo-fueled FPS players that seem to make up a good bit of the current market. I can see Joe-gamer picking up a title that doesn’t involve shooting someone in the first hour or so, shove the title back into the box and throw it back at Gamestop within a day.

    I’m sure having to appeal to a very shallow gamer market is something that plagues high-concept developers day-in, day-out.

    Not to mention that probably only a very small percentage of people that picked up titles like Modern Warefare 2 have even bothered venturing into the story modes in the first place.

  2. Oh, a more thoughtful war game would definitely be at odds with the prime FPS demographic, but I think that can be said of any genre. Developers can pander all they want. But, ideally, someone will step up to the plate artistically sooner or later.

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