Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How World War II Became the Mushroom Kingdom

Last week was Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and while there are a number of things I could write about, I feel like other writers out there have covered the major announcements quite thoroughly. Instead, I'd like to focus on something that probably no one else noticed.

In the Career Pavilion, Activision had a huge booth set up with Guitar Hero: World Tour front and center on a big stage, so anyone could show off their chops in front of the rest of the attendees. But meanwhile, tucked off to the side they had an Xbox 360 set up with the latest Call of Duty game, subtitled World at War, which is set during World War II. In case anyone isn't familiar, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter that focuses on intense realism.

I played the game on two different occasions, and each time was a different scenario. In the first scenario, I was a Russian soldier fighting the Third Reich in a gritty urban setting in Eastern Europe. In the other, I was an U.S. soldier fighting the Imperial Japanese Army in the Pacific theater.

What struck me most is how they designed the game to make fighting Germans and Japanese to feel like two distinct scenarios. Fighting the German army involved sneaking through bombed-out buildings and sewers, so I had to be sneaky. By contrast, the fight against the Japanese army took place outdoors, and felt more like a siege. My squad was attempting to take control of a strategic position, so the emphasis was on pushing forward as quick as possible.

Enemy tactics were also varied in the two scenarios, the biggest difference being that the Japanese army had banzai soldiers who would rush straight at you with their bayonets. If you don't kill them before they reach you, or press the melee attack button at just the right time to counter-attack, then you get stabbed and killed.

Now, from a purely design-oriented standpoint, all of this is great. Fighting Germany should feel different from fighting Japan. And the game is fun to play. It has just the right mix of action and challenge to be addictive without being frustrating.

However, the problem I had with the game was this: being about World War II, the events of this game are based on real people, who really lived and died. Many of us probably have living relatives who fought in WW2. What Activision has done is essentially to take those real-life armies and reduced them to green-shelled and red-shelled koopas.

While I was playing, I couldn't shake the feeling in the back of my mind that taking this intense real-life conflict and applying all the familiar tropes of a videogame to it somehow cheapened the reality that it was based on. How would a veteran like to know that all the training and battle experience he went through became reduced to, "Press the melee button when the Banzai soldier gets close"?

But I don't want to sound like I'm knocking the game itself. The game was fun as hell. I just felt like taking a worldwide conflict and slicing it up into "levels" that have their own "enemies" was a weird treatment of the event. Then again, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a better way that they could've done it. I don't know if there's a way to capture both the urge to kill Nazis with a sense of respect for those who lived and died during the conflict, or if fostering a sense of respect is something the game should try to accomplish in the first place.

But maybe this doesn't even matter in the long run. The game is fun to play, pure and simple. So should one even consider if the events of the past have been cheapened through recreation? I'll leave it for the game designers to decide for themselves.


  1. I don't really think it's necessary to be respectful of World War II in a videogame, or indeed any other real-life experience. I don't think that World War II should get special treatment just because we're relatively close to it in time, and imposing a requirement that all games based on real-life experiences meet some standard of "respectful" would be cheating ourselves, I think. The God of War franchise would probably fail a "respectfulness" test with regard to Sparta, but I think that killing the franchise on those grounds would only deprive us of something.

    I don't mean to say that some events shouldn't get respectful treatments, just that not all treatments of such events need to be respectful.

    As for how games can be respectful ... I've always felt like that was one area where the depiction of violence plays a critical role. In my opinion, unrealistic violence - and unrealistic consequences of violence - is disrespectful of events like this. A respectful treatment of World War II violence, in my opinion, would have a lot of "gore" - not an excessive amount, but a realistic amount, which would probably enough to make most players uncomfortable, because war doesn't inflict nice clean wounds that result in nice clean deaths. The characterization of the other human beings in the game would be another "violence" factor I'd focus on in a "respectful" treatment. If the game leaves you feeling like you're just "killing Nazis" then I don't think it meets that part of the respectfulness test. "Nazis" are evil cankers on the face of humanity that deserve to be killed by the hundreds. A more respectful treatment of World War II would leave the player feeling like his opponents were human beings, who didn't want to die, most of whom probably didn't particularly want to kill the player, and most of whom would leave the world a poorer place for their deaths. However the game gets there (I've personally always wanted to see a game where wounded enemies beg for their lives, cry like babies, etc.), I think a "respectful" treatment needs to leave you feeling like you haven't been killing the enemy, you've been killing human beings, almost none of whom deserved to die.

  2. I think your experience proves that what Natalie says is coming true--virtual war games are becoming realistic. There is no difference between knocking over battalions of little green WWII army men in your backyard, killing a Koopa, and shooting a German in "Call of Duty." They're all just games. But only the last one made you think about real war and the consequences of violence on human beings.

  3. I think you're both right. I gave special consideration to the representation of WW2 in a videogame, while ignoring the fact that kids have been acting out WW2 in one form or another for a long time, whether it be with plastic army men or GI Joe or whatever. I think I gave Call of Duty special consideration just because it really approached a level of realism I hadn't really encountered before.

  4. if you want to learn about the politics of world war II, read a history book.

    if you want to learn what it's like to fight a war, go play some paintball or join the army.

    if you want to blow a lot of shit up while maintaining interest via a cohesive storyline, play a WWII videogame

  5. Are World War II videogames good for blowing a lot of shit up while maintaining interest via cohesive storyline? Of course they are. But for understanding World War II, are they redundant with books? I don't think they are.

    Going to a single source to understand a historical event is bad historiography. You wouldn't read a book about World War II and claim to understand it after all. Understanding doesn't work that way - you can't get it from a single source. Even serving in World War II isn't enough to understand the whole event.

    A well-done World War II videogame can convey all sorts of understanding that neither paintball nor army service can. Army service can give you some insight into what it must have been like to be an Army soldier, because there are things that all soldiers in all places and all times have in common. It can give you some understanding of what it was like to fight World War II, since there are things that all combat in all places and all times have in common - although, of course, Army service is no guaranty of combat, and there are things about combat you can only understand by engaging in it. If you don't have any combat experience, paintball can give you some understanding. But it suffers from serious limitations as a tool for understanding, in that the weapons do not behave at all like World War II-era weapons, paintballers do not behave like soldiers, and the objective of the game rarely bears resemblance to the objectives of small unit actions in World War II. And even if you do see combat with the Army, Army service will not let you fight with World War II-era weaponry against World War II-era opponents on actual World War II battlefields.

    If you want to experience the things about World War II-era combat that were unique to that war, you have only three options. You can be one of the people who actually did it, in which case you will have a very good understanding of the combat you personally experienced (which will of course be a miniscule slice of the combat that actually went on, and may or may not be a representative slice). For the rest of us, you can try to create a very good physical simulation, or you can try to create a very good virtual simulation. The latter is the most accessible option, and unless you have very deep pockets and very extensive connections, probably more accurate than a physical simulation as well. It's not the same as actually experiencing World War II combat, but it is as close as most of us will be able to get, and it will result in understanding that no other medium can represent as well.