In the ’98 war film Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks plays Captain Miller who is hunkered against a wall of sand, taking cover against machine gun fire. Intense shelling sends huge clumps of sand into the air to cascade down around Miller as his troops cower in fear. He is hunched beside a radioman whom he occasionally relays orders to. As this happens, he is also corralling his comrades together. The third time he speaks to his radio man, he turns over a corpse, with a deep, jagged hole in his face, inside there is nothing but black. Miller instinctively pushes the corpse away in horror. It’s a short, sharp stab of reality – a shock to the system. War, as they say, is hell.
It’s a commonly explored theme among cinematic and literary circles. Many of the best war movies ever made have the DNA of anti-war storytelling shooting up their spine with many of these stories we so fondly remember being gleamed from similarly cynical views of conflict and war in great literature. While frothy, action-oriented stories do exist, none of them is as infamously remembered as the likes of Platoon, Apocalypse Now or Deer Hunter.
The opposite is true for video games which so often trades on the iconography of war by presenting an overwhelmingly masculine take on human conflict. Video games present a sanitised, rock and roll version of historical conflicts, where the fleshy, blood-soaked carnage is a glorious victory, where the scorched smouldering wreckages of cities are just cinematic backdrops, where the tragedy of lives forever torn apart by war are hidden away and unseen. Sometimes, though, and perhaps worst of all, video games about war happily play on our worst ever prejudices about the rest of the world. Take, for example, a scene from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, where the heroes wade through murky brown swamps in Africa where black soldiers and militia are burning dead bodies, slaughtering innocent civilians and generally being presented as a much more savage and cruel version of their sophisticated European counterparts. Just a subtle hint of racism there, Call of Duty, thanks for making me sit through that. Then there’s Black Ops’s insanely insensitive take on the emotionally devastating Russian roulette scene from Deer Hunter, which plays out like a cover of a grotesquely complicated piece of classical music played on a toy Casio keyboard. The authentic military shooters of the time had an exhausting over-reliance on negative, sometimes racist archetypes and aggressively one-dimensional characterisation. Combining this with the stubborn insistence on avoiding the complexities of human conflict marks out the last generations of shooters as spectacularly archaic depictions of war, well behind the most nuanced and respectful tales of woe told by celluloid and literary counterparts.
Reading books like The Sorrow of War by Vietnamese author Bao Ninh often hammers this comparison home like the firing mechanism of a gun. The Sorrow of War details the shattered memories of North Vietnamese soldier Kien as he recalls the terrible loss and carnage the Vietnam war wrought upon the troubled south Asian country, with particular heartbreaking detail focussing on the tragically lost hopes and wasted loves of Kien’s first romance with Phuong. The tragedy and, yes, sorrow of war slashes an irreparable wound across the soul of Kien. One that the novel suggests never heals. Those touched by war are never, ever the same again.
Comparatively, then, it’s hard to recommend many anti-war video games. There’s a sparse selection that can easily be categorised as anti-war but they are like scant, damaged jewels half-buried in a deserted void. This War of Mine is perhaps the most uncompromising: tasked with running a civilian shelter amidst a bitter civil war you have to navigate the literal and psychological minefields of a nation at war with itself. You play as a defenceless civilian as opposed to the usually accomplished soldier or gifted leader stereotype: here, you’re not some special part of a war and you aren’t as capable of flawless acts of bravery and heroism. in This War of Mine, you’re nothing. You’re barely able to keep everything together and things will often fail despite your best intentions. Based on the real-life events of the Siege of Sarajevo, This War of Mine bucks the traditional war-game trend by being an utterly helpless slice of survival hell.
There are other notable examples. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a wonderfully animated adventure game about loss, death and friendship across battlefields set during World War I. The Metal Gear Solid series is a preposterously hyperbolic Hideo Kojima masterpiece and is also subtly anti-war but you’ll have to squint hard to see it. Spec Ops: The Line also makes a good go of forcing players to confront their horrific actions but generally speaking, that’s yer lot. Outside of those few examples, video games love to lean on the currency of war. That’s fine, of course. It’s natural to be curious about our own self-destructive urges and there’s even room within that curiosity for frothy, popcorn action. But the consistent ignorance of the realities of conflict makes video games look more like expensive, interactive propaganda pieces than fun action movies.
Culture, of course, has moved on. Terrorism and war were on the tip of everyone’s tongue during the mid-2000’s, but now? Not so much. A strange contradiction considering how much closer to absolute annihilation we carelessly lean towards. Our continued fascination with war as this neutered, exploding movie set is perhaps a result of our intellectual distance away from the topic itself. Without it sitting outside our front doors it’s perhaps a bit easier to divorce ourselves away from the cold reality of war and killing. And because our distance has always been a problem in representing war appropriately all games with war are inherently emotionally divorced from how it truly feels.
War is hell. But so is the way we stick our heads in the sand. Video games need to come to terms with war – to confront its own obsession with heroism. Games like Dark Souls have opened the door for something a little different. Perhaps, deep inside that door, tucked away somewhere, we’ll be able to confront our nasty history of ignoring the human suffering of damaged men, broken women and the millions of dead that make up the grand human history of war. Inhumanity and violence are a natural curious fascination but if all we see when we stare into that moral abyss is an action movie, we are nothing but liars and frauds.