There is definitely a place for theory and lofty concepts. A blog is one such place. However, I very much admire L.B. Jefferies’ sentiment when he suggests that there comes a point when theorising is useless without practical implementation: “Talk is cheap and in abundance on the internet, it’s actually doing something that’s in such short supply. If you want things to change, just act that change out yourself.”
In that spirit, then, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is, and instead of presenting Subject Navigator readers with another post on how one concept from one medium is like a different concept from another, I’d like to analyse a game or two. I want to look at some World War Two videogames, overpopulated as the genre may be, and think about what their gamespace says about their approach to the period. I’m starting today with Call of Duty 2, and I’ll be continuing later on in the week with Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway.
[Also, a quick note that I'm away this week, so this blog is currently running on autopilot. I'll be responding to all comments when I get back, though.]
The interesting gameplay element to Call of Duty 2 (and indeed, other games in the series) is that ownership of space is treated as paramount. The further you make it, the more successful you are. This is because major sections of the game continue spawning enemy soldiers until an invisible line is crossed by the player. Shooting enemies is therefore often only helpful in that they won’t then be shooting at you as you stake your claim over the next area.
This is key in creating the mood of the game, and it has three important effects. One: often, this technique is cited as a drawback in generating realism. No German encampment had the limitless supply of reinforcements I’ve mowed down, for example; it also promotes a real Rambo complex, as it won’t be your comrades who will move forward and save the day. Two: importantly, this strategy also forces the player to think in spatial terms. It isn’t, as it is in so many games, simply about how quickly you can train your sights on the enemy. The player has to think strategically, to take out enemy soldiers before moving forward, but to move forward quickly enough to find cover before the next wave appears. World War Two combat, according to Call of Duty 2, isn’t just about shooting; it’s about shooting and moving.
The third point, however, is the most interesting one. The ‘invisible line’ approach allows Call of Duty 2‘s developers to pin the entire game to the player’s movement. Not only are enemy waves triggered and silenced through movement, but so are events. The player becomes the cart to Call of Duty‘s theme park ride.
The World War Two theme park
If you’ve ever been on a theme park ride worth its salt, you’ll know how story related events happen around you as you go past. In the classic Pirates of the Caribbean ride, for example, some of the animatronic characters are on constant loop for all to see, but others will perform specific actions only when a cart goes past. In the Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios, a Tyrannosaurus Rex smashes through the roof of your enclosure just as you are about to ‘fall’ down its gigantic water slide. In the back lot tour, Jaws only attacks when you’ve reached a certain point.
Call of Duty 2, like many first person shooters since Half Life 2 is functioning on the same principle. Bullet holes appear in the pipeline you are creeping through; you are dizzied by the blast of an explosion and as you move forward, an enemy tank drives over the top of your trench. These are ‘canned’ events and will occur every time the player reaches a certain point in a level, but they all work.
And what works best about them, other than creating a cinematic ultra-real feel to events, is that the strategy allows a linearity for the developers to control. The player can still feel in control and feel like the outcome is totally dependent on their actions, yet still in a sense be lead through events as intended by design.
A place to be
Call of Duty 2‘s gamespace therefore has interesting repercussions for representing the Second World War. The War as a theme park is a place to be, a place to experience, to hear and watch, to be taken through history. In this sense one could argue that Call of Duty 2 is morally reprehensible, but I also think that the mode of representation is important. The War is not a place one would actually want to be. It is a place to be thrilled, yes. But it is also a place to be horrified, as row after row of men are cut down before you, as bullets whirr sickeningly close overhead, as brave and good-natured comrades are violently killed in a millisecond. There is a value judgement implied in describing it as a ‘war theme park’, but it isn’t quite as simple as the surface would suggest. It is precisely the elements that make it ‘ride-like’ that allow it to comment on the nature of the Second World War.
Next: why Brothers in Arms tells a crappy story but gets war games right.
Photo credit: DanieVDM.