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 Tolls” or 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. TheÂ 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 orÂ 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 beÂ 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, watchingÂ soldiers bondingÂ 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 forÂ half theÂ 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 -Â 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 theÂ 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 bothÂ choice on the battlefield andÂ 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-CrossesÂ – 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.Â 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 clichÃ©Â 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 ourÂ veterans – they’re the ones that I’ll still want to play.