Monday 15 December 2008

A dearth of Indochina

Earlier today (yesterday if you’re in a GMT negative time zone) Corvus Elrod mentioned that he was watching Band of Brothers, the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg epic miniseries that does some pretty great things (in my opinion) with its World War II setting. His quote was that “It's good, but I don't find that war related media interests me much”, which is fair enough. It prompted a bit of a quick whip-around in the twittosphere about the abundance of attention paid to the 1939-45 period by both Hollywood and the videogame industry (to the point where it has now become kind of a joke).

Matthew Gallant then asks “Why isn't there then a similar degree of fascination with, say, the Vietnam war?” At first glance it seems like it’s purely an issue of ‘Well, we won the second World War’, the same for which cannot be said of Vietnam without distorting it into some unrecognizable alternative reality. However, there have been some serious challenges to the conventional wisdom that says videogames should be set in ‘winnable’ conflicts – most notably, Far Cry 2 which I have argued makes a very different statement about conflict than even the somewhat edgy Call of Duty 4, which still essentially sees a ‘win’ at it’s conclusion if at a significant cost.

So if it’s entirely dependant on ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ a particular campaign or situation, then how can we explain the continued focus on the world wars (or even just the Second World War)? Is it just another case of western euro-centrism? On twitter again, Scott Juster, from the experience points blog notes that WWII was “an extremely well documented war. Photos, audio, and video make for an abundance of sources.” Which is quite true. (By the way, sorry for not reading your blog more often guys) Corvus did, however, acknowledge its importance in the formation of national identity, particularly a new American identity in the context of a rapidly globalizing world.

In doing some quick googling for this post, I came across this article in Newsweek from Dec 07, ‘Why WWII Videogames are Hot’ which suggests yet another possibility that I hadn’t quite considered fully before but which seems the more I think about it quite a plausible explanation. The author describes why that particular conflict makes such good videogame fodder, saying:

The close-range infantry combat of Operation Market Garden illustrates why World War II, particularly as it was fought in Europe between 1944 and 1945, has become such popular videogame fodder. The Allies' 11-month campaign across Europe to Berlin was, "to a significant extent a rifleman's war," says historian Niall Ferguson. And though soldiers depended heavily on air and armored support, "they still had to do a lot of ditch-to-ditch, house-to-house fighting—the perfect setting for first-person shooter games."

Which seems to hit the nail on the head in a way the previous explanations didn’t – how many times have you heard about a Mod for a popular FPS game that aims to reproduce The Great War only to be shouted down by people claiming (and perhaps rightly so) that it would be boring (or even frustrating) to partake in a ‘massacre’ like the battle of the Somme. I mean, Christ, who really who wants to be part of a military action where, in just six weeks, a nation like New Zealand can lose nearly one whole percent of it’s population in war casualties. The First World War has been likened by some to a ‘meat grinder’ that absorbed a whole generation of Europe’s men. Add to that the new dominance of the machine gun and of artillery over traditional rifles and cavalry and you have a mix of terribly one-sided gameplay for a first person shooter.

Since gameplay is such an important factor in determining suitable settings for a war game, with that in mind, the reason the Vietnam War has largely been avoided comes slightly more into focus. Not only is proper ‘jungle’ notoriously difficult to depict realistically, not to mention notoriously demanding on videogame hardware, but lots of foliage makes for hard to discern targets. Even in a modern game like Far Cry 2, it can seem like the enemy AI is somehow omniscient – able to see through otherwise dense undergrowth to pinpoint your exact location even it would be plainly impossible for the human eye. Actually, I wonder if the non Vietnamese soldiers felt something like this, and whether it couldn’t be incorporated as a game mechanic, but that’s a bit of a digression.

So to as visual proof of how hard it is to properly see through Vietnamese jungle I’m including here some photos’ taken on my own trip to Vietnam back in January of this year and along side them screenshots of two Vietnam FPS games - Battlefield Vietnam and Vietcong: Purple Haze.

Battlefield: Vietnam

Vietcong: Purple Haze

Somewhere in the Mekong Delta - about 2 hours drive and another hour by bike south and west of Ho Chi Minh City.

I still have yet to see anything in a game like the impenetrable walls of foliage that the Vietnamese jungle presents - and that's probably for the best unless you want a game about going everywhere via boat or roads. Actually, that does remind me of one game...

If you're interested in more of my pictures from the trip in January (all taken by my Dad, an excellent photographer), I've uploaded a choice selection to my flickr stream.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I don't know if I buy the explanation that that article gives, though; I think I'm probably more inclined towards Corvus', and the one I gave earlier over twitter. Granted, I think you are on to something regarding the geography of the combat, but plenty of other areas have been well implemented in games without actually capturing what it is like to be there. If designers really wanted to do Vietnam, they would have found a way.

This also doesn't explain the abundance on non-FPS WWII games. Aerial combat, real-time strategy, hell, even turn-based strategy have also all been done in WWII and not Vietnam or WWI (to the same extent at least; I loves me a bit of Red Baron).

No, I think the only convincing solution, for me, is that people simply don't want to sit down and relax with a depressing and probably nationally embarrassing war like Vietnam. The WWII games at the moment really remind me of the war films of the late 50s and 60s; more 'Where Eagles Dare', 'Battle of Britain' and 'Sink the Bismark' than any modern examination of the conflicts. Certainly, the fiction of the games will tell you a roughly similar story to Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan or even The Thin Red Line, but the gameplay, more often than not (and the COD series is probably an exception here), will tell you that it is a hell of a lot of fun to be out here saving Mother England and Uncle Sam while kicking some Nazi ass. The popular representation of WWII still allows games to get away with this. The same can't be said of Vietnam or other subsequent conflicts. These wars - as surely all wars are in reality - seem to be popularly represented as horrible for all involved: us and the 'bad guys'. The only person who really gets the same type of kick we are supposed to get from taking down a German soldier in a Vietnam context is Lt. Colonel Kilgore: and who wants to play as him?

Sparky said...

I think there are a couple of other things going on here. The first is just the moral simplicity of the conflict. The Japanese and Germans did enough evil in the war that it is acceptable, even today, to paint them uniformly as unrelenting monsters. We can't accomplish the same with Vietnam, or even older conflicts such as the Civil War. Just about every American who fought in WWII is on record as being proud of the fact that he served; you can't say that about Vietnam. In any other war, you could feel a little bit bad about killing your enemies. That's harder to accomplish when they're Nazis.

Another is a certain presence in culture. I hardly think this needs any explanation. WWII has become the heroic myth of modern times, a myth made more powerful by the fact that it was ordinary men doing just about everything. Everybody can find a hero for themselves in that war: the brute loves the soldiers, the nerd loves the scientists. Vietnam has an impact, but its time in the popular imagination is fading while WWII continues to go strong. WWI, in America at least, is all but forgotten. I imagine this is not so in Australia, however, given the impact of Gallipoli.

One more is that WWII has an unparalleled scope, fought across every terrain, involving titanic battles in every possible phase of warfare. There is so much that can be done with it, from global strategy down to hand-to-hand combat. The conflict provides such rich fodder for game modes (although the only the shooting has been exhaustively explored) that you can take almost any war game idea and fit it in to WWII, and vice versa. No other war has that distinction.

So I think there are a variety of factors. Probably the biggest one is the elevation of WWII to national myth in America. Games about WWII are made because the consumers want to play WWII. The reasons for that are more important than any programming consideration.

Matthew Gallant said...

Interesting post Ben, great analysis. If you're interested, Kate Beaton wrote a fascinating post about how the Canadian identity was forged in WW1 (which I mentioned on Twitter).

Ben Abraham said...

Dan and Michael(Sparky) both make very good arguments for more than it being 'just' about the terrain, and I probably agree that things like the myth of the war and the diversity of combat operations played a part...

And yet I still think that there's a really good case to be made for the practicality of turning the war into a videogame - Sparky notes that WWII was such a diverse and involved war and that it is easy to turn into a variety of gameplay. Which, I guess, is kind of the main point I was trying to make (or at least parallel to my own).

Matthew - Yeah I remember reading Kate Beaton's write-up of Paschendale and it's effect on the Canadian sense of national identity. In Australia just the other month, a former prime minister of ours stirred up a bit of controversy saying that Gallippoli wasn't as identity shaping for Australia as was the Kokoda trail (you might never have heard of it - it is still the only battle Australian soldiers have fought as a result of a direct threat to Australia. An interesting read - and there's a movie of it too! =P

VapidVirupa said...

is my BFV webpage for a game editor i am building to simulate that dense forest and my trip to see the Thai forest monks...
Yeah enough of the self promontion
but to the topic yeah the idea of jungle stimulates me as a video game writer because of that very difficulty