The dirty, mundane, harrowing edge of war

Posted by Alex Jordan on

I had a ton of fun playing Call of Duty 4 and Modern Warfare 2, but I'd never make the mistake of assuming they were depicting some semblance of real warfare. Presenting the agonies and confusion of war is generally boiled down to military lingo and bloody death to break up the steady procession of Michael Bay-inspired scripted events.

I'm ruminating on this because I'm in the process of hauling ass through The Only Thing Worth Dying For, a fantastic account of a Green Beret team that inserted into Afghanistan in late 2001 to link up with Hamid Karzai and foment a Pashtun rebellion against the Taliban, one of the first campaigns in the war. I've marveled at how tense the book has made me, because, for a Special Forces incursion into enemy territory in one of the most dangerous places on the face of the planet, there's not a whole hell of a lot of Hollywood-esque gun battles. There's the meticulous planning and the waiting and the bureaucratic interference, all of which drive the narrative. But most importantly, there's the fog of war. The reining confusion of being on the ground and trying to figure out (a) what the hell is going on, and (b) where are the people that desperately want to kill you leads to a great deal of anxiety, even for the reader!

Imagine if that anxiety could be inspired by a video game. Not that many have tried... most modern war games obsess over cinematics and a tightly-scripted, relentlessly linear presentation... with explosions and Michael Bay stuff. I guess the game designers and publishers are clear on the demographics. But what if someone were to make a game that was less about accomplishing concrete objectives in battle and more about trying to make sense of what you were supposed to do?

Linear games generally can't afford that kind of presentation, but sandbox games can. The old Operation Flashpoint and the newer Armed Assault II have missions that offer the player a wide degree of flexibility, personal judgment, and huge levels to apply both in. Often, that means getting lost and confused. Pair that with an incredibly hostile environment and you can inspire anxiety in the player.

Except, that kind of game probably won't rise beyond the "cult classic" status, where OFP and ArmA 2 have been consigned. Let's not forget, anxiety-free linearity is popular! That's kind of why I want to try out the new Medal of Honor... I've heard that it splits the difference pretty well. We'll see!