The Cultural Gutter

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A Just War

Andrew Smale
Posted February 16, 2006

Scripting the battlefields of World War 2Every time a new World War 2 First Person Shooter is announced, the collective groans from gamers and game media can be heard for miles, as if nothing more could be possibly done with this setting. The genre receives a bad reputation mainly because of the sheer amount of mediocre copycat titles that seem to be released every year. However, for every Elite Forces: WWII Normandy (Third Law, 2001) or World War II Sniper (Jarhead, 2004) there is a Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003) that genuinely makes an effort to advance the gameplay.

I really liked Call of Duty; one of its key features was to give the player an AI-controlled squad that provided covering fire and gave the game’s many firefights a relatively realistic feel. Call of Duty wanted to push the genre away from the Single Hero with Machine Gun Saves World mentality that Medal of Honor and its many imitators seemed to subscribe to. Borrowing heavily from old war movies, it seemed to work despite the game’s obvious scripting. Indeed, Call of Duty 2 (Infinity Ward, 2005) continues this tradition by providing many intense setpieces that are certainly fun to play through, but offer little substance in the way it keeps the action constrained to the area where it is “supposed” to take place.

Call of Duty 2 was the latest in a long line of first-person shooters that attempts to recreate the battlefields of World War 2. Following the success of its predecessor and expansion, much like the Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty 2 did little to progress its proven formula. And yet it managed to find its way onto many year end Best Of lists, with the Xbox 360 port becoming one of the premier titles for the launch of the new platform.

Yet regardless of their quality, World War 2 shooters still manage to sell. The typical member of the game buying public must find something redeemable about them, because these games are still being made despite the malaise voiced by the videogames community. Why?

The genre works because World War 2 offers up a singular, immediately identifiable enemy; a “just cause” to enter the fight. Even the most casual knowledge of world history will produce the Nazis as one of the most despicable groups of all time. In games they’ve become Stormtroopers: nameless, faceless robots whose only purpose is to stand in the way of justice and freedom for the oppressed. You’re not expected to feel bad for killing hundreds of them; they are inherently evil. Nobody ever considers that the soldiers fighting in the German army at the time were conscripts just like the Allied forces, not necessarily adopting Hitler’s murderous campaign of hatred.

justwar-normal.jpgIf you consider the youth of those days, there was no question about enlisting in the armed forces and contributing to the cause – perhaps even making the ultimate sacrifice. It’s just what you did. Though you’ll hear a much grimmer tale from the actual veterans who survived. Modern society has been trained not think that way anymore – they have been jaded by politicians and the media, and war is seen as a completely needless activity. Even by the soldiers themselves. In that sense, there are possibly feelings of guilt for not participating in “the Great Crusade”, a war with supposed purpose. On a subconscious level, maybe playing these games help to fill that void.

The genre has also been heavily influenced by films: Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (Electronic Arts, 2002) was a collaboration between Electronic Arts and Stephen Spielberg, taking the Omaha Beach invasion from Saving Private Ryan (1998) and making it one of the game’s levels. Indeed, this level matched the overwhelming and visceral nature of the Omaha beach invasion, and has since become the boilerplate by which future WW2 games attempt to recreate similar experiences. This combination was only natural, of course, as the setting provides ample opportunity for acts of heroism.

The problem lies in the sterilization of combat. There is much death and disappearing corpses, but no blood. There are health meters and medkits and endless supplies of ammunition to assist the war effort. There are no references to losing friends who fought beside you, or freezing to death in a foxhole in the dead of winter. It perpetuates the attitude that WW2 was full of glory to be had by any man, consequences be damned.

As a result, the World War 2 Shooter is treated like any other game: it’s simply an escape from reality. Their critical acclaim usually revolves around how cinematic they are; as if that is what the games should be vying for. I’ve never seen a reviewer speak about how it touched them emotionally when they saw a squad mate blown up by a mortar, because the games just aren’t set up to be experienced that way. On the other hand, it’s probably too much to ask for unparalleled realism, because I doubt it would be much fun. With that said, for once I’d like to see some respect given to the real source material and not some slickly produced movie. I wonder if the games would be as appealing.


5 Responses to “A Just War”

  1. A.R.Yngve
    February 17th, 2006 @ 5:16 am

    And if you find the “videogameification” of World War II disturbing, consider this:
    Some of the worst conflicts of TODAY will become videogames in the (perhaps near) future:
    -The “insurrection” in Iraq
    -The civil war in Sudan
    -The civil war in Congo
    -The civil war in Sri Lanka
    …and so on and so on.

  2. James Schellenberg
    February 17th, 2006 @ 11:27 am

    Welcome aboard, Andrew! Good article.
    I find the question of realism in games a fascinating one. I’ve been playing Katamari Damacy, which makes a virtue of its flights of fancy. So that might be one end of the spectrum, but what is there at the other extreme end? A game so realistic it’s just like my day to day life? No thanks. I mean, I tried Disaffected, the game that simulates the job of a disgruntled Kinko’s employee, but that seemed like more of a stunt than an actual game.
    It’s certainly true that a certain level of realism might be necessary if you are making a game about, say, Gulf War II (to quote from the previous comment). Which game elements do you choose in order to tether the gameplay to real events? And which do you jettison to make it more fun?
    I’m not attacking your point, Andrew… it’s just that when you were talking about the sterilization of combat and an escape from reality, I had a vision in my head of the opposite: a WWII shooter where if your character dies, your computer kills you too. (I guess some people would play that, but not me!)

  3. Andrew Smale
    February 17th, 2006 @ 12:12 pm

    I never attributed “disturbing” to this genre of games; rather, I am amazed at how much can be taken from this one conflict to produce new games, considering the other wars that have taken place in recent history: World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc. As I alluded to in the article, these conflicts were less clear-cut in their objectives.
    To look at your examples, the war in Iraq has been the subject of games for the last few years: see the U.S Army’s own “America’s Army”, the Desert Combat modification for Battlefield 1942, Full Spectrum Warrior, Battlefield 2, Close Combat: First to Fight, Rainbow Six: Lockdown and many other “military” themed games that choose the Middle East as a setting, but do not necessarily name Iraq as the country the action takes place in. That to me is infinitely more disturbing, considering the timeliness of these events. We haven’t even had time to objectively digest the reasoning behind the war, and yet we have already declared the victor in these games by clearly identifying the “heroes” and the “villains”. But this is a topic I could easily write another article about.

  4. Andrew Smale
    February 17th, 2006 @ 2:25 pm

    Thanks, James! I’m happy to be contributing to the Gutter.
    Once again, I could easily write a separate article on the desirable design elements of a war shooter, but I will try and contain my response to this comment.
    I, too, share your fascination with realism in gaming, but mostly as it applies to wargames. To me the genre demands it, lest the subject matter lose its cultural gravity. I like that some war-themed shooters are taking the tactical team-based approach, because it shouldn’t always be about running and shooting. More games are also beginning to adopt the “one shot, one kill” damage model, where even a stray bullet will kill your character. All too often players of the standard FPS would stand in the line of fire because they knew that they had 95 health points left. These types of additions to the gameplay also make it more challenging – they make you think before acting, which is the way it should be when “lives” are at stake.
    To cite a recent example of a well-executed WW2 shooter design, Brothers in Arms (Gearbox, 2005) puts you in charge of two fire teams on the battlefields of Normandy. The game’s artists painstakingly recreated the hedgerows and towns of Normandy based on old photographs and visits to the region. There is no aiming reticle, and part of the learning curve of the game requires you to compensate for firing distance and weapon recoil. There are no health packs or ammo crates. You can’t save the game anywhere; it forces you to make it successfully through the mission (though there are strategically placed checkpoints along the way). You are the one that commands your fire teams to lay down suppressing fire, or assault a hard point. There is AI in the game, but only enough to get your squad to take cover. They will question your commands if you place them in the line of fire. It doesn’t take much to kill you or your squad members.
    Though after all this, you are occasionally presented with the following if you and your squad die too often: “War isn’t fair, but sometimes a game should be. Would you like to regenerate your squad’s health?”
    It’s a jolt back to reality, because after all, it is still just a game.

  5. Moritz Hegenkötter
    March 11th, 2006 @ 5:00 pm

    Hi Andrew,
    I found your article via Google when I was searching for something different, but I kept this window open to read it later and, well, I did.
    You got quite a point there. War games are some kind of dangerous to deal with because they might stretch the truth. I like those games for there atmosphere and action but exspecially as a German I sometimes have difficulties dealing with there context. I find my country to be the lair of the bad guys. Most games don’t feature the Axis side what is in my eyes a good thing. Most of those games are heroic and I can’t imagine how it could be done to find the heroic part in leading nazi terror to victory.
    For myself I would really like to see an anti-war game once. I think Sudden Strike claimed to be one, but I don’t know how they expected to prove that.
    In an anti-war game your job would not be to get a lot of soldiers of the other side killed but to save your own ass. This was what most veterans told me to be the top goal of the battles they encountered. Just survive somehow and try to rescue some of your friends if possible. Some even said they tried not to hit enemy soldiers with their rifle because they could not stand the guilt of killing another human being. If you could transport the fear, the violence, the excitement, the cruelty, the disparation, the terror of real war I would really like to see and hear people’s reactions. What if soldiers just don’t drop dead after they were hit by a mortar, but their legs are blown off leaving them mutilated? What if there are civilians in the battle zone? What if your officer orders you to shot POWs? What if your comrades around you start to scream or cry in fear shitting bricks? What if war shows its real face?

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