Friday 7 December 2012

When text games go to war, elsewhere

Somehow, against all odds, I have tricked left-leaning UK magazine The New Statesman to publish an article by me, John Brindle. In it, I examine several text-based war games which challenge the representation of war in mainstream games, and which manage to speak about that subject in ways that AAA can't. You can find it here.
Take 2007’s Rendition, whose title would not exist without the war on terror. Both the first two Modern Warfare games include "interrogation" sequences, once with a beating and once with electrodes. But where they coyly conceal the violence involved, Rendition makes you participate in awful detail. Try to leave the room and you’re told you haven’t done enough to Abdul. “Break Abdul’s toe,” you type, and the game replies: “Which do you mean? his left little toe, his left second toe, his left middle toe, his left fourth toe, his left big toe, his right little toe…” At this point, many players simply quit.
Below are some notes on what I think of the article and what others think of it.

Reading it over again, I realised how goddamn smug and one dimensional I'd made these games all sound - blah, blah, war is horrible, don't you feel BAD for participating? But that isn't the whole story (except in the case of Rendition, which is totally just that). The other games actually portray their soldiers in fairly sympathetic and human ways. Maybe Make Some Change is about a person who desperately wants to do good but can’t see how, and about how even those who forced him into that position had minds and sorrows of their own. Its most powerful emotional beats are when you get a sudden blast o empathy with the protagonist or his tormentors. Even the satirically dry Unmanned can easily leave you feeling very sorry for its protagonist, while Howling Dogs is one of the most beautiful things I have ever played. 

The truth is that, for all its tearful posturing, the manshooter profoundly dehumanises the individual soldier. It makes him as limited and mechanical a creature as his enemy; it admits him no interior life, no sympathy, no regret, no fear. And it denies the great truth that he is a human being like any of the rest of us, and he has choices he has to make, and he can be something more or something better or something other than a killing machine. At the very least, he hugs his buddies once in a while.

As for the charges of others: a few people have pointed out the existence of war-critical AAA games like Spec Ops: The Line and (apparently) Far Cry 3.  Maybe the real question is not whether mainstream games can't say these things but whether they simply won't. This is a fair point, but I don't think the words are so separable. Spec Ops could have included every verb that exists Maybe Make Some Change: not just 'shoot' but 'threaten', 'calm', 'hear' and even 'hug' (it already has 'miss', and uses it to great effect). It did not, because it had to be a squad-based third person shooter. Let's be clear: this ostensibly most subversive of games is, if we wish to be harsh, still only a very conventional AAA shooter which mugs at the camera from time to time. Where "won't" results from commercial pressures, is it really any different from "can't"?

Of course we can also talk about the formal capabilities of text versus 3D graphics in isolation from their commercial dimensions. But the games I cite do things with time, contemplation and perspective that I have not seen a shooter match (and cannot see how they could). More importantly, I think players treat text and graphics very differently. Interactive fiction is understood as a story, where the reader is very aware of how things are being mediated to them. By contrast, AAA games are experienced as artificial worlds of genuine cause and effect, and in doing so present an ideological fait accompli where the threat is inarguably deadly and the response both just and inevitable. In a sense, both Modern Warfare and Maybe Make Some Change are 'telling' the player they are only allowed to shoot, but these are very different kinds of speech with very different effects.

Anyway, I collected a lot of material from the people I quoted which never made it into the article, so over this weekend I'm going to be posting the full conversations I had with Aaron Reed, Robert Yang, Porpentine and Paolo Pedercini. Reed's is by far the longest because we had a digressive Skype chat rather than an exchange of emails, but I think/hope all are pretty interesting. Watch the skies.

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