To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
Some video games bring history alive too vividly.
BY THOMAS L. McDONALD
Private Ryan cast a long shadow over game design. Steven Spielberg’s
use of handheld cameras and graphic depictions of combat violence created an
intense and unblinking view of the horrors of war.
Gaming — particularly 3-D,
first-person action gaming — was still coming of age when the movie was
released in 1998, and Spielberg himself saw the potential of the genre.
Working with his team at DreamWorks
Interactive, he developed “Medal of Honor” (1999) to recreate the realism and
intensity of Saving Private Ryan as an interactive
It seems to be a natural extension
of the evolution of media: Put control of an experience like Saving
Private Ryan in the hands of the viewer, while maintaining the same
level of respect for the material.
But it’s not that simple.
We may use phrases such as
“interactive entertainment,” but to most people, these are just “games,” and as
one veteran commenting on “Medal of Honor” observed, “War ain’t no game.”
Indeed, it’s not, but video and
computer games have evolved so far in three short decades that many are closer
in form, content and structure to movies. It’s natural that game developers
feel they can and should explore any subject or action that can be explored on
It’s here that things become tricky
and the lines blur, because what one may watch passively (and render judgment
upon) in a film like Ryan, The
Godfather or Scarface, one is
asked to become or do
in a game.
Military games generally managed to
avoid that moral conundrum over the last decade and, led by the example of
Spielberg and “Medal of Honor,” offered a respectful, realistic version of war
as an interactive experience. But turning any piece of history, particularly
World War II, into a game is a tricky business. There’s a very fine line
between a realistic depiction of the horrors of war and mere exploitation.
Best-selling series “Call of Duty”
and “Brothers in Arms” began on the right side of that line, but with each new
release, they’ve drifted a little farther.
In both “Brothers in Arms: Hell’s
Highway” (Rated M) and “Call of Duty: World at War” (Rated M) that line is
blurred, and what was once a realistic depiction of the carnage of war shades,
at times, into exploitation.
Before continuing, however, it’s
important to note that both games offer options to turn off the worst elements.
Although the extreme content is on
as a default setting, easily warranting the “Mature” rating, it is possible to
turn off certain features to reduce the impact of the violence, the blood and
gore, and even the language.
“World at War” even goes the extra
mile to block out offending content in historical footage and render certain
scenes only in shadow or cropped versions. Thanks to these toggles (which
unfortunately don’t work in the multiplayer modes), both games can be brought
down closer to a “Teen” rating. Kids are on the honor system, however; there
are no parental lock codes.
The unexpurgated versions, however,
have some troubling elements, particularly in the case of “Hell’s Highway,” the
latest “Brothers in Arms” game. The series is based on the true story of the
101st Airborne, 502nd Parachute Infantry, with the first two games detailing
their experiences behind enemy lines on D-Day.
“Hell’s Highway” finds the team and
its leader, Matt Baker, dropped into the Netherlands for Operation Market
Garden, General Montgomery’s ill-fated attempt to end the war four months after
Actual missions and soldiers of the
502nd were the inspiration for the games, which always aimed for a realistic
depiction to war.
A hallmark of the series is its
strong, cinematic sense of storytelling, with a heavy investment in character
development and the relationships among the “band of brothers.”
The narrative, focus on character,
need for teamwork, and general realism of the weapons and landscapes show that
Gearbox takes its work seriously.
Unfortunately, the game is marred by
visceral, extremely graphic violence shown in the most exploitative ways
possible. Certain “special” kills trigger a slow-motion kill-cam, complete with
dramatic angles and astonishing amounts of gore, as heads are blown in half and
limbs ripped off.
Owing more to Saw
than Saving Private Ryan, this approach
cheapens the entire experience.
As it has drifted from “Teen” to
“Mature” ratings, the “Call of Duty” series has also increased the amount of
violence, gore and profanity in their games following “Call of Duty 4: Modern
World at War brings the series back
to its World War II roots with a rather scattered and unfocused narrative that
skips around in time and location from the Pacific War to the Soviet advance on
The gameplay remains top-notch, with
clever missions and vivid locations, but like “Brothers in Arms,” the focus of
the series sometimes drifts to brutality for its own sake. The story opens with
a gory and somewhat pointless scene of torture and murder that does little to
add to drama or character.
The game recovers, as the focus
shifts back to the gripping first-person combat that is the hallmark of the
series, with some truly memorable and frightening moments.
With both “Call of Duty” and
“Brothers in Arms,” however, there is a lingering sense that developers are
trying to constantly outdo themselves and are increasing the gore and profanity
content less out of some attempt at verisimilitude and more as an effort to
Thus, the fine line between realism
and exploitation, effectively straddled by historical combat shooters since
“Medal of Honor,” gets crossed.
L. McDonald is
of Games magazine and a catechist in the
Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey.