The Changing Face of War in Games
I have been a gamer for nearly 40 years now and I have witnessed first-hand the evolution of games. One thing that has seen a big change over the last few years is developers approach to the depiction of war in games.
Yes, we still get a swathe of gung-ho gun toting super soldiers taking on the enemy single handed and triumphing against all odds; I have no objection to that as it can be a lot of fun. I have taken far more enjoyment recently from games that take a more considered approach to the horrors of war.
So here is my look at 3 titles that have taken a very different approach to War in Games. If you prefer to watch content the YouTube Video is Here.
This War of Mine: The Little Ones
This is a recent discovery for me thanks to it being free on PlayStation Plus In January. This is a survival game which requires you to find resources, secure your base, craft useful items and keep yourself fed and healthy. However it has a very different way of portraying war in games.
The twist here is that rather than soldiers you are dealing with a group of civilian survivors. Your characters are stuck in a war-torn city that has been bombed to hell. They content with hostile forces trying to dominate or survive, often at their expense.
The genius of this game is that the consequences can be significant. Stealing from other survivors can cause your team to become sad or depressed to the point they will leave or die. Killing is an option, but not a wise one as you are quite vulnerable.
The thing that hammered home this game’s take on conflict was in an early playthrough. While scavenging a hospital I saw a couple of people who I thought were nasty army types. I managed to kill one, pick up his gun and kill the other. I could see that there were other people were in the hospital so I thought I was in for a big fight. However, it turned out that all the other people were patients, nurses and doctors. They were now frightened to death because their protectors had been murdered. I would have been perfectly safe had I not attacked and could have used the hospital to trade items, mend wounds and treat illness.
Cause and Effect
When my character returned to the house in the morning rather than his usual upbeat greeting to his friends, he sank to his knees, put his face in his hands and said “what have I done?” He became depressed and the other two were now sad, statuses that effect several factors such as healing and movement speed. As a player I felt guilt… a computer game made me feel guilty and held me to account for my actions. Not only had I unnecessarily killed two men but those actions had negatively impacted on the very characters I was supposed to help survive.
Now my decisions are more cautious, more measured. Sometimes the game will force you to make difficult decisions, but now it’s because I have no other choice and am prepared for the consequences. As the game progresses materials become more scarce, scavenging more dangerous, beautifully invoking the desperation every player and npc would feel in that situation.
I have yet to survive 40 days, so I don’t know what the end game is. I get the feeling that rescue won’t be all sunshine and bunnies though.
So this is a hard-nosed look into the affect war has on people. It is bleak, reflected by the black and white aesthetic, sometimes harrowing and always emotive. It is not a game that you will enjoy in a traditional sense, but in some respects, it holds up a mirror to the motivation and harsh realities of conflict, which is a very brave and unique thing for a game to do.
This is one of my favourite game of this generation and topped my favourite games list for 2014. Published by UbiSoft Valiant Hearts follows the story of four character’s though the horrors of the First World War. This is not a shooter or a third person action game, it is a side scrolling puzzle platform game.
The power of this game is its beautiful character development showing painfully how ordinary people were affected by this terrible conflict. The developers partnered with educational companies to add educations resources, which added terrifying insight into the conflict. As with This War of Mine it deals with very identifiable characters who we can all relate to.
Emile is a French Farmer who joins the army to help his country and gets to see the full horror of trench warfare first hand.
Karl is Emile’s son-in-law who is thrown out of France at the start of the war because he is German he has to leave his wife and child behind and finds himself fighting on the opposite side to his father in law.
Freddie is an American living in Paris who joins the French army, driven be a need to avenge a loved one killed by a German officer.
Anna is a Belgian vet who volunteers as a medic and has to deal with the death an destruction wrought by the war through treating soldiers on both sides.
There is also Walt a faithful dog that interacts with all of the other characters and is key to solving some of the game’s puzzles.
The game has a very cartoony style which in some respects acts as a buffer to some of the more horrific elements. This prevents the game from becoming so overwhelmingly bleak that players back off.
Despite the graphical style the story that unfolds is personal and affecting. The flawed characters have understandable motivations and are very likable; as a result the unpleasant and horrific things they see hit home like sledgehammer blows. It is an incredibly sensitive portrayal of one of the most wasteful conflicts the world has ever known. Another thing this game did very well was not to demonise one side or the other, the game made sure that the real enemy was War not the people involved.
It is a downbeat game and the ending is shocking and horrific and beautifully captures the futility and human cost of any war. UbiSoft really need recognition for the sensitive and intelligent way they dealt with this topic and it is a game that will stay with me for a long time. If you want to see a full playthrough click here.
Valkyria Chronicles is one of my all-time favourite games. This is a strategy RPG set in an alternate Europe and an alternate version of WW2. The peaceful country of Gallia is invaded by a hostile and more powerful neighbour. The story centres around squad 7, a militia force comprised of Gallian citizens who play a big part in the war.
There’s a theme emerging here. Once again none of the protagonists are soldiers, they have some military training but are not full time combat specialists. Welkin is a science teacher, Alicia works in a bakery, Largo is a farmer, Rosie is a cabaret singer. All the main and incidental characters are given backstory and personality so they never become faceless disposable goons.
Your main story characters cannot die in combat, however the other troops you take with you can die permanently. The in game personnel tab gives detailed bios of your team and the voice acting has so much quirky character you invest in them. This investment means that death does actually matter an you will mourn for your fallen comrades.
What you have running under the beautiful graphics and excellent gameplay is a story about the effect war has upon decent, ordinary people.
Grown Up Themes
There is a race called the Darcsons who are subjected to segregation, mistrust and racism. This is the focus of a gameplay section that deals with ethnic cleansing. This was obviously intended to draw parallels with Jewish concentration camps and Hitler’s Final Solution. This scene really stopped me in my tracks, I couldn’t believe this was being addressed in a game and it made other elements of the story, particularly the treatment of the Darcsens, much more powerful.
A stand out moment for me is when Welkin and Alicia are separated from the rest of squad 7 and have to make their way through a forest filled with enemy troops. At the end of this section they come across an enemy soldier, terminally wounded; they care for the soldier and give him comfort until he dies. An enemy commander discovers them the following morning. The commander sees what they have done for one of his men and lets them go. He says that they are not so different after all and hoped that they meet again under better circumstances. It is a small exchange but importantly humanises the enemy soldiers from then on.
They Could Be You
The strength of this game is that the characters are well developed, likeable, flawed but most importantly relatable; in similar circumstances they could be you. We can’t properly relate to BJ Blazkowitz, or Master Chief because they are super soldiers that we could never hope to be. However we can relate to teachers, farmers, bakers because we all probably know people who do these things. People fighting in the First and Second world wars were often conscripted, volunteered or were drafted. They fought with very little training and often poor equipment, sadly their experiences often left more than physical scars.
Although Valkyria Chronicle has an upbeat “Happy” ending, the plight of Squad 7, their victories and their losses stay with you after the game finishes as a reminder that no one really wins in war.
I honestly believe that games can play a part in educating us about real issues; Life is Strange dealt with Mental Illness and Suicide, This Dragon Cancer looked at the affect terminal illness can has on families. Games like Dragon Age Inquisition and the Last of Us had strong LGBT characters. Even Battlefield’s single player campaign looks at the futility of some of the action in World War One. And the infamous white phosphorous reveal in Spec Ops the Line was shocking in the extreme.
There is still a place for good old fashioned guns blazing action, lets face it it’s just good fun! With the average age of gamers going up all the time, developers need to look at how content can engage with and impact a more mature audience. An audience who may very well want more from their gaming experience than simple bloody carnage.