Modern warfare has changed, so why haven’t firstperson shooters?
Like just about everyone who picked it up in 2007, I was blown away by the first Modern Warfare. I liked the characters, I liked the pacing and I liked the gameplay. But I also liked it because uniquely it felt – sort of – like it had something to say about the two real-world wars we were busy fighting at the time. On the one hand, we were shown these small groups of very violent, very okay-with-murder soldiers skulking about, off-camera and behind the scenes, hunting down very bad people, as we know they do. And on the other, I liked that for all the ooh-rah bravado of the Marine campaign, the message of that scene in which an entire occupying force of good guy Americans is vaporised by a stolen Russian nuke was that war isn’t always a story of good triumphing over evil.
And then in the sequels, that message disappeared. In the CoDs that followed, I’ve stabbed people in the throat, chest and head, trapped someone in a room full of nerve gas, filled a man’s mouth with broken glass and thumped him, hanged someone else, and machine gunned holidaymakers in an airport. But then I’ve also stopped several Russian invasions, destroyed two nuclear missiles and won the Second World War. I’m not sure whether if you could punch all those pluses and minuses into an omniscient ethics calculator I’d come out as good, bad or perhaps some happy medium – maybe on the karmic level of a milkman. But then, in these recent Call Of Dutys, you’re not supposed to ask that. As far as they and the vast majority of modern, hyper-successful shooters are concerned, you are a clear-cut hero, fighting the good fight by any means possible.
But while the CoD template has remained the same since 2007, public opinion on the wars we’re fighting has shifted. We don’t like drone strikes, we don’t like digital surveillance and we don’t like Guantanamo Bay, no matter how many assurances we get that they’re a necessary cost of war. We have whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden risking their lives and their freedoms to leak evidence of alleged war crimes, and millions of people around the world loudly coming out in support of them. So why don’t our video games reflect that? Why don’t we have something that gives us war in all its shades of moral grey, rather than just force-feeding us a steady slurry of jingoism and exploding landmarks? What we need is a modern Modern Warfare: a game that gives us what people like Manning and Snowden are proving is so important in modern conflict: choice.
Here’s how I’m imagining it: Once again, you’re strapped into the well-worn combat boots of Bullets MacGruff – hard-nosed, anything-for-the-cause warfighter extraordinaire. You and your team are sent out on a mission to hunt down some bad guys in a Middle Eastern warzone, armed with your standard arsenal of near-future gizmos and weaponry, and dick-swinging marine corps chat. So far, so CoD.
But then something happens, something that tarnishes your ends-justify-means outlook. Something that makes you, as both a player and a character, question the conflict and your role in it. Perhaps your job is to mark a target for an airstrike, only to find out afterwards you’ve hit a civillian office building, or something similarly gut-wrenching and plausible. Your higher-ups classify the mission, burying it in an encrypted file somewhere, never to see the light of day.
From that point on, how the story plays out is up to you. Maybe you take the view that the airstrike was an accident, and agree to help keep it buried. After all, you rationalise, you can’t bring dead people back with hindsight, and revealing the atrocity would only drive more recruits to the enemy. Its exposure would surely spark retaliatory terror strikes against Western troops, perhaps rioting and attacks on embassies. In war, mistakes happen, but it’s pointless to let one misstep upset the apple cart. If you take that view, you can continue playing the game as your typical CoD shooter, doing more and more morally dubious things for a cause you believe, ultimately, is just. That’s option one.
Or, you can quietly make a stand. You can decide that those responsible must be held to account. Before each mission, you have the option to sabotage it ahead of time. Mission Two might see your squad tasked with killing a terrorist leader who’s holed up at the top of an apartment building, using the residents as human shields by proxy. If you attack the building, many innocent people will die along with the target. So instead of taking the option to follow orders and storm the place, maybe you pay a local fixer to call ahead and warn the tenants of the imminent raid. Your squad arrives to find the building empty. The bad guy gets away, but your hands are clean of innocent blood.
From there, every mission comes with its own moral quandary. Your superiors know they have a leak, but no-one suspects you. Yet. But how much are you willing to risk in the name of doing the right thing? Perhaps you allow yourself one or two missions that betray your conscience, just to throw your investigators of the scent. Then later, maybe you surreptitiously leak one of your squadmates’ helmet-cam footage to a news organisation. The story comes out, and your squadmate takes the fall. There are retaliatory attacks and terror strikes, but you’re still free and working to expose the truth. It’s the best of a bad situation, but your consicence is clear. Play the game this way and you’re in a story that’s somewhere between CoD’s shooiting and Dishonored’s moral choice system, with a dash of Breaking Bad or Dexter splashed in as you juggle your actions with always having to stay a step ahead of the military investigators on your trail.
If this era of Wikileaks and Guardian investigations we’re living through is showing us anything, it’s that war isn’t just about sending heroes round the world to “slot the bastards” until we’re safe again. So why is that the story that videogames – the biggest entertainment properties in the world – are so happy to keep telling us? I don’t know whether it’s laziness, or whether marketing departments have genuinely deduced that the CoD and Battlefield audience just won’t buy a game that deviates from this fantasy view of war and our lofty, morally unimpeachable place in it. But the beauty of an interactive medium is the possibility of choice, of agency. And if we want our shooters of the future to carry any weight – to rise from the level of 24 to the heights of something like Homeland – that’s what they need to offer.