Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
The Lazy Storytelling of Modern Games of Warfare

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 15 Jul 2014 16:00
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Extra Punctuation War

War. Huh. Good god, y'all. What is it good for? Resolving differences between governments, overthrowing regimes that have lost the support of the people, and accelerating the advance of technology by several degrees through the added mandate of competition. What, you mean besides that? Well, it's not terribly good for ensuring that the maximum number of people are alive at any one time, but I don't see what's so bad about that. It means less queuing at the checkout counter.

And lest we forget, war certainly seems to be good for video games (and with the increased use of drone warfare, it's also true the other way around). But I can't help noticing that the tide of war games has turned. Not in ways that I dislike, it must be said. For a while, war games were a constant parade of 'realism', using a contemporary setting to big up the West and our allies and demonize real-world nations for the crime of having a different culture. And I was driven to exasperation by this, not out of any kind of anti-American sentiment, but as a critic of storytelling. The side that has the most numbers and the best tech do not make interesting heroes.

Even Spec Ops: The Line, which I loved, was part of the same conversation; it wouldn't have had anywhere near the same impact if the games it was deconstructing hadn't existed. My frustration with the whole genre led me to start referring to contemporary warfare games as 'spunkgargleweewee', a word that I later extended to encompass any military-themed game with constant meaningless action in which we are expected to support the unethical actions of a superior force out of some sense of automatic loyalty for what it represents, such as in Ryse: Son of Rome. Yes, it was a crass word, but it seems to have done the job. That or the genre doesn't sell so well anymore, but I'll take either as a victory.

spec ops

I'm not about ready to declare that the beast is dead and we can finally live in harmony, but the major culprits all seem to be fleeing from the scene. Call of Duty and Battlefield, the standard bearers, are both heading in new directions with their advertised next instalments. Battlefield: Hardline is shifting to a cops and robbers narrative, while CoD: Advanced Warfare is going back to the previous mainstay of military games: evil private military corporations. Now, both will probably have their fair share of skewed political chest-beating. Both are shifting focus to internal troubles in America, with more than a pinch of class warfare in the subtext. Still, at least an anti-PMC message is on what I would consider the right side of class warfare, unlike Black Ops 2 with its ill-advised (and now severely dated) references to the Occupy movement.

The point is, they're getting away from the foreign aggression storylines that left such a bad taste in my mouth, and I wonder what this says about the changing mindset of the first world. I like to use culture as a barometer for this sort of thing, and at first I was ready to point to it as proof that the general public have become war-weary. Possibly because after all that effort put into sorting out Iraq it just fell apart the moment our backs were turned. And then there's the increased use of drone warfare. It's hard enough to unquestioningly support a massive well-funded military force crushing under-equipped militants, but when one side is risking their lives and the other isn't, you might as well be trying to recut Aliens to make the humans look like the bad guys.

But on reflection, 'war-weary' is too simple a term. I'm disturbed by how many first world nations have this growing anti-immigration feeling going on in the populace (Australia's psychopathic distrust of boats, the rise of UKIP in Britain, etc), which makes me feel that first world nations are feeling a strong urge to take their ball and go home. Curl up with a nice warm blanket and a loaded shotgun and concentrate on keeping their own houses nice and neat. It's a little disappointing. At least military incursions on foreign countries tend to be motivated by some kind of idealism, if often misguided. I worry every country's just going to withdraw into itself now and tighten up into balls of paranoia and cynicism, and that doesn't feel very progressive.

Sniper Elite 3 02

Small wonder that games set in or based around World War 2 are in resurgence, with Sniper Elite 3, Enemy Front and Wolfenstein in just the last couple of months. It was the last 'good' war, after all. But it's odd that World War 2 is considered such an iconic war, because (as Valiant Hearts reminded us) World War 2 having one very clearly villainous side being the aggressive assholes makes it extremely unrepresentative of warfare throughout history. It's usually just two perfectly rational sides who just have different ideas of who should be in control of disputed territory du jour.

But I wonder if running blubbering back to good old uncle WW2 is going to be enough. I wonder if there's a genie that doesn't want to go back into a bottle. Our weariness for idealistic contemporary warfare may yet extend even to the 'good' war. Wolfenstein probably had the right idea: merge it all with outlandish sci-fi and fantasy concepts, 'cos it was so long ago and the political situation so far removed from today's that it might as well be a fantasy setting. But when you take the Enemy Front route, all puffed up with righteousness and taking it all so seriously, then all we see is the same idealism that brought us nothing but trouble.

All I know for sure is that I stared for some time at Sniper Elite 3's Steam page, contemplating downloading it, but all I could feel was profound exhaustion at the prospect. Although, thinking about it, I had just had a wank.

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