Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Average Emiles of War

There are many video games about war, and most have similar elements. How controversial to say, right? Obviously most war games, including both those that treat the subject carefully and not, involve the player shooting a lot of people. But also, nearly all of these games have characters with the same status in society. They’re all career soldiers thrown into combat with experience. Some, such as Captain Walker of Spec Ops: The Line and Commander Shepard of Mass Effect (yes, we are going to call that series “war games”), have chosen to enlist in the military to serve their respective country/political entity or for some other, perhaps unexplained, reason. Others, like Solid Snake of Metal Gear Solid and Nomad of Crysis, are specifically raised, even manufactured, to be the perfect soldier.

In stories dominated by military jargon and political melodrama, players are put into perspectives separate from “regular” civilian lives. If a personal conflict is portrayed in a war game, it usually regards the toll of combat on a character’s mental and physical health or relationships between other soldiers and military figures. Even though these protagonists and supporting characters might make a passing reference to a spouse and kids, players primarily observe them as members of a military before members of a family. They may be developed with an emotional depth and range and appear to behave as believable human beings, but they are consistently portrayed as exotic compared to everyday citizens.

By portraying soldiers primarily as combat experts and potential heroes, games create a divide in their worlds between those soldiers set to save the world, galaxy, whatever and civilians cheering or suffering on the sidelines. This dichotomy perhaps reflects the modern all-volunteer militaries of many western countries. The US military has been active in conflicts around the world in recent years, but civilians haven’t been conscripted to the service since 1973, during the Vietnam War. The characters in video games about war echo the soldiers of our time: freely choosing to enlist for practical or ideological reasons, perhaps being a part of a family with a history in the military. So video games, often so wrapped up in the high-stakes action of combat and politics of war, rarely explore how people ambivalent or opposed to conflicts are swept up in them.

Putting soldiers on a level different from “normal people” plays into the common nature of games as power fantasies as well. In a typical war game, players can assume the role of essentially a superhuman: a soldier capable of defeating waves of enemies to resolve an intensified crisis vaguely similar to what western players might hear on the news but never come close to experiencing. In most cases, this soldier is disconnected from pedestrian thoughts and actions, aside from briefly grieving a lost comrade or once mentioning a longing for home. Though it may be farfetched to say that many people will interpret the action and stories in these games as realistic depictions of war, I wonder if civilian players can internalize the idea that “there are soldiers and then there are us” through these games. That’s not exactly a great mindset in a society that wants to eradicate war and one that already struggles helping soldiers adjust to civilian life after combat.

One game travels back a hundred years, to a war in which civilians were drafted, to show that soldiers are indeed one of us.

Ubisoft Montpellier’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War opens in the French countryside in 1914. After the outbreak of the war, Karl, a German citizen and farmer, is separated from his French wife and their son after being expelled from the country and forced to fight for Germany. Soon after, Karl’s father-in-law Emile is called to join the war effort for France. Meanwhile, Anna, a young Belgian woman studying to become a veterinarian, goes on a journey to find her father who the Germans had captured to exploit his scientific research to create new weapons. She decides to use her healing gifts to nurse all those in need along the way, regardless of uniform. Emile soon meets Freddie, an American who willfully enlists in the French army to avenge his wife fallen to a German bomb. 

The player switches between these characters throughout the game to solve 2D point-and-click style puzzles. These characters are ordinary people disturbed by this conflict and thrown into it, and even though Freddie’s story follows a tired trope, he eventually learns his hunger for revenge is not worth the cost of war. Valiant Hearts is little interested in the international politics of World War I and rather focuses on the war’s effects on individuals and groups of people. With these simple characters trying to outlive the war in order to reunite with their displaced families, the game posits that there are no good guys or bad guys in war, just victims of a political climate beyond their control. (At the same time, though, Valiant Hearts is awkwardly allies-normative, betraying its message by pitting the heroes against an evil caricature of a German baron for much of the game.)

Valiant Hearts’ gameplay focuses on environmental puzzles that often require players to find items to repair machinery, trade with NPCs, or blow open new paths with explosives in order to progress. The little direct violence in Valiant Hearts involves a sequence shooting down enemy planes from a tank and the occasional knocking of opposing soldiers over the head during stealth. There are also a few light-hearted sequences in which the player drives a taxi while avoiding obstacles and bombs in time to “Flight of the Bumblebee” and other classical pieces of music. And the story takes its liberties separating and bringing the characters back together over an enormous battlefield and conveniently saving characters from imminent death. No, Valiant Hearts is by no stretch a “realistic” depiction of combat or the events of World War I. But it doesn’t have to be.

The elements of the game that resemble a Saturday morning cartoon, including its cutesy art and whimsical segments, while occasionally jarring (e.g. the baron), more often endear players to the characters, making the story’s many crushing moments of loss and hellish images of corpses and destruction more impactful. The player yearns for more infectiously  gleeful moments during the disheartening and tense ones that are inevitable in war. The urgency of battle scenes in which you charge amidst artillery fire particularly stand in stark contrast to the giddy taxicab sequences. Unlike many other pieces of war media that drown in their tension, horror, and nihilism, Valiant Hearts’ lighter side recalls the positive emotions of a joyful world to be cherished, a world that war does a terrible job protecting. 

While the game’s cartoonish depiction of WWI plays loose with details to demonstrate the war’s toll on its fictional characters, Valiant Hearts’ excellent system of collectibles and historical facts reminds players that this was a real conflict that affected real people. At the start of every level, the game provides optional historical tidbits to read accompanied by photographs in its menu, often about the location of the level, the event that took place there, and different aspects of combat and civilian life during the war. The game provides short accessible descriptions of tunnel digging strategies, living conditions, dog tag systems, and occasional statistics through these facts. Throughout the levels, players can find items that when examined in the menu, give even more information on their uses or the events and people associated with them. Players can pick up a rag to learn about soldiers covering their faces in urine-soaked rags to protect themselves from chlorine gas and a metal cross to learn about the importance of religion to many during the war. The most powerful moments of the game occur when players connect the trauma of the individual characters to the realization that those characters aren’t alone in their struggles. Through the game’s mini history lessons, players see that the war affected millions of people, not just soldiers but the entire European society and many other parts of the world. The facts acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of Indian soldiers, all-black regiments, women joining the workforce, women tasked with writing letters to soldiers without families, prisoners of war, and of course those hopelessly adorable dogs of war. 

A lot of people have noted that Valiant Hearts breaks the mould as a war game that doesn’t focus on shooting, where the player’s actions are more often benevolent than harmful. But I’m more interested in that Valiant Hearts recognizes and commits to showing that many different ordinary people participate in war and are affected by it. So why can’t war games set in modern times in conflicts fictional or otherwise do the same? Though the world’s conflicts today are largely without drafts and not on the scale of World War I, the military personnel and civilians caught in them have lives outside the storm of political turmoil, or at least dream of them. Why don’t games show a variety of these perspectives? And if players must take the roles of typical gruff white guy soldiers, why don’t games explore their lives before and after war, their reasons for enlisting, their hobbies, their vulnerabilities, their fears, hopes, and thoughts? Why don’t games go beyond the insights of Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions or the recollection of Cole Train’s thrashball days in Gears of War 3? Why do so many soldiers in war games appear extraordinary, distanced from the civilians they might save?

Perhaps the answer lies in the distance between real soldiers and civilians and the barriers of communication between them. The cultural elevation of troops in the US forbids civilians from asking about their experiences out of respect, forcing veterans to hold in memories without being understood. Perhaps developers refrain from overly personal storytelling in war games out of respect and fear of misrepresenting soldiers’ personal experiences that civilian players “couldn’t possibly understand.” So instead they get not-even-close representations in action game fantasylands that end up playing it safe in their distance from intimate emotions and introspective storytelling.

In the article linked above, former Marine Phil Kay writes, “You don’t honor someone by telling them, ‘I can never imagine what you’ve been through.’ Instead, listen to their story and try to imagine being in it, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that feels.” What better way is there for civilians to “imagine being in it” than using interactive media? With care and nuance, video games could start chipping away that barrier between soldiers and civilians, delivering stories and experiences sometimes too difficult to articulate and too personal to ask about, which some games like Dys4ia are already doing.

And they should start by treating soldiers like human beings.

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