Gaming: War Never Changes. Can Gaming?

Patrick talks violence in gaming and the 11 Bit Studios release, This War of Mine.

"Hungry, sad, and tired. Sounds
like someone has a case of the
Video games have always occupied a strange place among other entertainment media.  Stuck with the stigma of being a “toy” for the first few decades of their existence, video games have struggled to find their artistic identities.  Nowhere has this struggle been more apparent than in the treatment of violence in recent years – the “murder simulator” days of Doom have long since passed, and gaming continues to mature in sometimes surprising ways.

Take, for example, the fourth entry in Ubisoft’s Far Cry series.  The second and third titles in the series tackled the role of violence in gaming and the concept of choice with about as much subtlety as a brick through a windshield.  Both games ask the question we often take for granted in video games:  are we, the player, really the hero when we cause so much death and destruction?  Far Cry 4 takes the theme one step further and provides the player with an out - a way to take a step back from the clich├ęs of gaming and just act like a rational person for once.  It’s difficult to describe this course of action without spoiling it, but suffice to say you can finish the game in mere minutes without firing a shot, without jumping to conclusions and buying into gaming stereotypes.  The result is both an incredible commentary on the series, as well as gaming as a whole. 

Mindless, wanton violence in gaming is fun, but it can often obscure the narrative.  Worse than indiscriminate violence, one could argue, are those games that force morality on the player, giving the Karmic scales numerical values that have quantifiable benefits and drawbacks.  Why the transparency?  How can games reach a level in which the emotional impact of our decisions are enough to cause us to hesitate before pulling that virtual trigger?

Apparently the answer has nothing to do with technology, and has everything to do with storytelling, environment, and delivery.

For the first time in my gaming career, I had to stop playing a game because of regret.  Not because I regretted missing a power-up or allowing a beloved party member to succumb to permadeath, but because I didn’t want my characters to live with the mistakes I had just made.  It sounds hyperbolic, I’m sure, but it’s true.  This War of Mine, an indy release from 11 Bit Studios, provides an interesting perspective from which to view the modern warfare that we’ve grown so accustomed to (bored of?) in gaming – the civilians who suffer the horrors of war the most. 

"Does this look like the face of the
super villain you'll spend the entire
game hunting? Yeah, probably."
Controlling a small group of civilian survivors in a war-torn country, likely inspired by the Balkans and the other strife-ridden states of the former Soviet Union, the player must scavenge for supplies and food during the night, and fight to stay sane in the face of snipers and bombardments during the day.  Gameplay is surprisingly low tech: point-and-click navigation in a two-dimensional side scroller.  Despite the simplicity, and with a minimalist approach to storytelling, the desolate desperation of this world is unbelievably apparent, and when I forced one of my survivors to stab a handful of unarmed refugees to death for the possibility of scavenging a few extra boxes of junk, something magical happened – a video game that could have been technically crafted ten years ago gave me an intense emotional reaction without the use of Hollywood-caliber voice acting or gut punching plot gimmicks.  There was no immediate penalty for my course of action, and, in truth, I did manage to grab some really useful stuff.  Regardless, I found myself mashing the Escape key and wishing to undo something that I had done before in countless games in the past.  Does mean that the storytelling in gaming is moving beyond its Bloodsport roots and into Full Metal Jacket territory?  Who can say, but one can only hope the trend continues.

-Patrick B. McDonald