March 9, 2009

War Crimes

When I was an International Relations student, I shared desks with idealists and overachievers. Once, the professor polled the class of twenty-year-olds, asking what we wanted to do with our post-academic lives. Most wanted to work for an NGO or the United Nations, dispatching humanitarian aid, negotiating ceasefires or spreading democracy. Well, I thought, I'll probably write about video games.

The fictional conflict in a fictionalised Africa depicted in Far Cry 2 differs from the modern warfare of Call of Duty in a significant respect. It's an informal war. It's a war of mercenaries and militant rebels, not of armies or soldiers. Mercenaries are effective because they're anonymous, privatised and accountable to no one. The game likes to use the term "deniable asset."

For instance, mercenaries aren't required to abide by the rules of engagement, as the Marines and SAS of Call of Duty 4's campaign are. The rules of engagement distinguish between civilians and hostiles, and dictate permissible levels of force. Soldiers are allowed to shoot only when the rules of engagement are satisfied. Call of Duty 4 isn't set in Iraq (instead, "the Middle East") but take this example from Generation Kill, the journalist Evan Wright's account of the first Marine company into Iraq, and its subsequent HBO dramatisation. At night, the Marines establish a roadblock. Approaching vehicles receive warning shots, as it's impossible to infer whether the drivers are hostile. Most turn around, but one truck doesn't -- it keeps on coming and only then, when all procedures have failed, is the driver killed through his windshield. Maybe it was a member of the Republican Guard; maybe it was just a guy who didn't understand what was going on.

The luxury of the Far Cry 2 mercenary is that he isn't bound by the appropriate and lawful conduct in a situation like that. He shoots as soon as he sees the headlights. There are no rules of engagement in Far Cry 2 -- which might mean something, but there aren't any rules in Call of Duty either. The Marine shoots everything that moves. There is never any question about who's hostile and who's not; everyone is, and they'll confirm it by firing first. The rules of engagement, in part, exist to prevent unnecessary civilian casualties. In these games, the civilians are never there to begin with. These are entertainment wars.

In Africa, the mercenary's freedom from responsibility for killing non-combatants is a redundancy, since at no point is he able to do it. It's not that civilians should exist to get casually slaughtered, but the gameplay could use a little variety: the only non-violent character interaction in the game is when someone orders the player to go and kill someone else. All the characters are either fellow mercenaries -- with whom the player's alliances are extremely shaky -- and the infinitely-numbered faction warriors, who inexplicably open fire at first sight. Even the guards in the central towns, where there's a vague truce in place, still turn the crosshairs red. There are displaced former residents fleeing the country, and of whom the player can catch only a removed and fleeting glimpse. In these moments, the game restricts the player from using a weapon at all. In Far Cry 2, the player murders hundreds of people, diverts aid to criminals, betrays his allies, assassinates police chiefs, pillages the country and burns it to the ground -- but here the game draws the line. The Far Cry mercenary will do anything for money (but he won't do that.)

In all of Call of Duty's urban cities, apartment complexes and television stations, there isn't a single civilian. One mission in Russia takes on a certain urgency when the player is told that rebels are massacring villagers right over the hill. They must have done a really good job.

Call of Duty is problematic as its firefights are so chaotic and swiftly-paced that the player would be guaranteed to maim a civilian in error. The game trains the player in a kind of trigger-happy twitch combat that is probably hugely dangerous in real life. It's hazardous even in this virtual war zone: I shot my own teammates so many times. Generously, they'll even brush that off for at least a couple of direct hits.

What happens, then, in the hypothetical Call of Duty when the player does make that mistake? This is a singularly-focused game with no branching paths. Does it stop entirely or let it slide, inviting controversy by implicitly endorsing the action? Presumably for these sort of reasons, and other practical design or technical considerations, is why these games don't have any vulnerable friendly NPCs. In doing so, however, Call of Duty 4 eliminates a crucial element of Modern Warfare, where tactical planning has to factor in amateur jihadists and Iraqi soldiers disguised as farmers.

Consequently, these games are a military wet dream: there's never a civilian in that truck. You cannot screw up. Everyone innocent has left and the country is made freely available for gung-ho wannabes to run around playing paintball. There is no possibility of a fatal accident. Shoot with confidence. Far Cry's Africa is a mercenary theme park where everything bad that can happen will happen to somebody bad. Neither it nor Call of Duty are so reductive to have good and bad guys, but they do have, clearly and consistently, sides who are there to fight each other and no bystanders get in their way.

If there's a reason this standard should be applied to Call of Duty and Far Cry, and not to Killzone or Crysis, it's that the former two purport to represent contemporary conflicts with actual and continuing body counts. In their choice of mechanics, and removal of civilians, they end up presenting white-washed versions of real-life wars that are easier to stomach. It's military escapism to places that people are trying to escape from.

There's no inherent issue with staging fiction in a war zone. Call of Duty's story is of above-average quality, very well-presented, and it treats its setting with due gravitas (except for not naming the Middle Eastern country in which it takes place.) The thriller storyline isn't the game's main draw, though, that would be the frenetic action set pieces, the combat, the multiplayer -- all the things that were designed to make the game fun. Call of Duty is indeed a really fun action game, but "fun" and "escapism" are grossly inappropriate reasons to set a shooter in the Middle East. The game is a fantasy, and keeping civilians in might not have changed that but keeping them out results in a game that looks like it doesn't want to deal with the ethical hassle. No one wants to see soldiers on either side kicking women and little kids in the head before executing them on the sidewalk. The game wants to be a space where players can enjoy themselves. Admittedly, there's a lot of hardship in virtual war too: missed headshots, respawning enemies, weak cover systems. Sometimes war is so frustrating I almost throw my controller at the television.

I can enjoy Call of Duty, playing from encounter to encounter, but to take a step back, it's as if the ultimate destiny of mortars exploding over the Gaza Strip is to become a mass-market entertainment product for a greasy teenager who trash-talks and griefs over Xbox Live and gets an achievement for killing two people in the same car explosion.

I used to listen to stories about former International Relations students who were motivated to ban land mines, and when my in-game avatar steps on a mine it's such a minor irritant that I can't be motivated to find the quickload. Increasingly, that's less and less how I like games to portray actual war. I don't get excited about the new flamethrower. Where there are no civilians, there are no mistakes, there's no collateral damage and it starts to feel safe. It changes from war into a murder mystery vacation. Maybe there isn't a morally unimpeachable way to make a entertaining game about atrocities, but I'd feel better if those games didn't try and make me feel so good.

Far Cry 2 is like an absurdly literal interpretation of Call of Duty 4. The civilians actually are all bailing out of the country, leaving it to the people who really want to go wild shooting at each other. The fiction supports the mechanics, but never pretends that this open-world environment is a gamer's paradise. The player is not there to save the country but to profit from its suffering. Far Cry actively tries to make players enjoy themselves less, with degrading weapons, debilitating bouts of malaria, frequent guardposts, a general surface oppression and persistent fast talking that's more irritating and inexplicable than anything else in the game. Your mercenary "buddies" are self-interested, amoral assholes and the player rarely gets to engage in any more ethical behaviour.

All of that makes Far Cry 2 sound like a horrible place to be, but then it's set in an area of the world where traditionally, African rebels and power vacuums have led to some pretty grotesque outcomes. It's oppressive, it's nihilistic, but why would it ever be anything else?

At one point the player is given the choice between saving the lives of a group of civilians or all the buddies he has met in the game to date. By then, the buddies will have rescued the player multiple times, he has a history with them, and the civilians only exist as an abstract concept without gameplay effect. After hearing this, you get in your car and arrive at a distressingly non-proverbial fork in the road. The right thing to do would appear self-evident: the buddies provide all kinds of tangible benefits and extra missions. Helping the civilians doesn't seem to net the player anything more than an ephemeral feeling of good will and a little post-hoc rationalisation that he's not a completely irredeemable person.

In this kind of place, though, you need that.


JPLC said...

Interesting. But your post seems to hint at the question: would one want to play a war game where civilians are present and where enemies can hide among them? I, for one, would be very much interested in it, but would most people? Would it sell?

Also, new reader, by the way. =P

Matthew Gallant said...

Not to subtract from your point Duncan, but Call of Duty 4 did have at least have one scene that paid lip service to the plight of civilians.

Glad to see HSD back in full swing!

Duncan said...

Matthew: Oh yeah, that's true. I mean, there's definitely a difference between that kind of barely-interactive cutscene and actual combat scenarios, but you are right. (Far Cry 2's opening taxi ride is similar.) It is one of the game's best scenes.

The Unknown: I'm probably such a bad judge of what would sell. I think Far Cry 2 did pretty well, which is encouraging. As a mainstream Western FPS, it's often a very counter-intuitive design in a late-90s PC game kind of way.

Mitch Krpata said...

I wonder about this sort of thing a lot. I wrote this about Rainbow Six Vegas:

"Rainbow Six: Vegas is as fine an example of tactical action as you’ll find anywhere. What’s missing is a frank look at what a terrorist situation in a place like Las Vegas might entail. The cat-and-mouse shootouts are so tense that at first you might not notice that the casinos are otherwise empty. In the world of Rainbow Six, there are hardly any victims. Wouldn’t a real-life attack on Las Vegas leave thousands dead? Wouldn’t counterterrorist units have to contend with numerous civilians in the line of fire? Wouldn’t that make for a more thought-provoking game than the one we have now?"

But then I remember playing light-gun shooters in the arcade, like Lethal Enforcers and Virtua Cop, and they definitely did have good guys that you could accidentally kill. But I think we'd agree that games like R6, CoD, and Far Cry are miles ahead of those games in terms of narrative and thematic sophistication. The civilan question may be something we're going to have to circle back around to.

qrter said...

I do think Far Cry 2 is different in this aspect to Call of Duty 4, as FC2's themes and story seem to be about what morality still means in a world where people are endlessly shooting the crap out of eachother - the Jackal makes a point of saying he is the one actually helping third world countries overthrow their oppressors by selling them weapons (albeit in a completely dry, uncompelling way, the Jackal being a dully written odious tit).

So I would've liked to seen more of a civilian population in FC2, is what I'm trying to say. It would've fit in with the game's themes.

Jorge Albor said...

Fantastic post by the way. Mitch's reference to light gun shooters in which terrorists would grab innocents or stage battles in public spaces is interesting. I think those games benefited from simpler game mechanics, in that the player could be easily punished for killing civilians. Without exactly four health containers with you through the game, developers may be out of ideas of ways to punish players for killing civilians. Sure, in real life, civilians are killed frequently, but any soldier in particular can face court martial and imprisonment for blatant killing of civilians. Incorporating moral, and legal concerns, in a game that gives players great freedoms, is difficult to say the least.

qrter said...

Thinking about this, SWAT 4 did have civilians and innocents in there and you'd lose the game if you did too much damage to them.

But did I actually care about not shooting those civilians? I think I might've done the first two times or so but then it just became "please don't get in the way, I don't want to restart this mission AGAIN..".

Then again, that's why I eventually gave up on SWAT 4 - everything's going to plan, great, oh shit I missed one guy in a corner with a shotgun - BLAM - restart the mission..

Anonymous said...

Scrolling down the comments I also thought of SWAT 4. I wonder if it's the pinnacle of civilian behavior modelling in FPS games, hopefully not. Not that tying them up isn't particularly satisfying, though.

But as a game mechanic, it's hard to think of the non-combatant NPC's as anything other than potential minus points. The only level where this is averted is the famous second mission of SWAT 4 with the kidnapped girls and the friendly neighborhood molester. In some missions, dead civilians result in outright failure; in others, they incur a significant point reduction to the end score. Enough minus points and you fail to pass the level.

As for other topics touched here, the SWAT series has strict rules of engagement too. A lethal takedown of a hostile gets you a minor point penalty and shooting before ordering them to drop their weapons gets you an even bigger one (not on par with a dead civilian, though). Hell, you even lose points for failing to confiscate the dropped guns. The best result you can get is a mission where no one is incapacitated and no shots were fired.

Where SWAT 4 (for purposes of this discussion) fails is that Progress in the game depends on Making the Grade. Ultimately I find myself reacting to civilian casualties and forgotten status reports in a similar manner: point reduction. Although you can afford to keep complete radio silence towards the HQ and still not come close to the more severe penalties.

The upside is that even a failed mission can be completed. This allows you get to vent your frustrations by recklessly mowing down every suspect in a four-headed cacophonic flurry of SWAT Agents with Tourette's screaming "ON YOUR KNEES! NOW!!" while emptying their shotguns on every available organic entity. None of this girlie-man flashbang'n'tazers approach, I say!

So yeah, there's room for improvement.

jeremy said...

Hmm, great post. I ended up renting Far Cry 2, after all the hooplah I had read about its superior gameplay and intriguing moral ambiguity. However, after playing for a few hours I realized that, to me at least, it was just more endless shoot-anything-that-moves scenarios in a setting that is currently experiencing very real violence. For all the praise I heard about its immersive open-world gameplay, I felt let down that the only actual activity to take part in involved shooting someone or talking to someone about shooting someone else. I imagine a lot had to do with expectations and perhaps an evolving taste that is trending away from shooters altogether, but it was still really disappointing to have this held up as a pinnacle of modern gameplay (even though I know a lot of hard work went into the game, especially crafting a fairly beautiful environment).

again, great post!

Duncan said...

Thanks for the responses, everyone. I agree that the practicalities of "punishing" the player are increasingly difficult to pin down, which maybe says a lot about the limitations of the FPS genre. It's discouraging to me that so many games choose to omit that side of things entirely, though. I think I should play SWAT 4.

To ILR, I think what you characterise as SWAT's failings ("point reduction") sound fairly accurate to real life in its dehumanizing. I'm sure for a lot of soldiers and cops, the shooting of civilians is largely a legal/procedural complication (i.e. was he carrying a weapon, did the officer properly identify himself, etc) and if they were justified, then it's OK. After a while those guys are probably not stricken dumb at each and every tragic loss of an innocent life.

Also, while I'm on the subject of Far Cry 2 I want to reiterate that, to my surprise, the malaria and the checkpoints did't bother me at all but I hate the fast-talking so so much. It drives me crazy every time. What's going on there?

Anonymous said...

Yes, as soon as I finished this post I found myself screaming about SWAT 4. It was good post, by the way. I find military shooters fascinating in the way they allow gamers to often kill with reckless abandon and little consequence. I have yet to try Far Cry 2, but I plan on doing it very soon. It's a game that has spawned some very divisive opinions on how it succeeds with its "open" concept.

I hate repeating myself so I will direct you to every single thing I have written about SWAT 4, because they touch on many of the points that have been discussed here about it. Incidentally, it was my favorite of 2005. I have yet to see anything that comes close to it.

Teaching the Value of Human Life

SWAT 4: Compliance is your only option

Game of the Year 2005

The Stetchkov Syndicate (expansion)

Also, you *should* feel frustrated about having to restart a mission for using undue lethal force or failing to secure civilians. That is your *job*. I think the point reduction/final score mechanic is the only way to get this idea across so you can correct your actions appropriately for the next time. It's a training simulator. There is certainly room for improvement, but as I said - there has yet to be a game that takes non-violent reactions to violent situations seriously in an FPS.

Fake Prestige said...

See, I think if you were genuinely keen on this idea as a developer, you could create a game that doesn't penalize you for civilian casualties. It is simply part of the game and you can deal with it however you like. That is, assuming it's not a training simulator.

Another option is to allow for real-world repercussions such as teammates losing trust, getting demoted from squad leader, getting lower priority missions etc.

Depends on how far you want to go with the idea. If you had a Sims context then eventually you'd be fired and have to do paperwork at a lower income :P

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the etiquette for this, and I hate people who just show up to promote themselves, but I wanted to share something that I wrote on Veteran's Day regarding Call of Duty: World at War and the entire military shooter genre that I think relates. I wrote:

"I don't mean to unfairly single this game out. It's probably a very good war-themed shooter with glittering production values and sobering bromides about warfare that pop up every time the player is killed, just to show that the game is sensitive to the fact that war is not a game. The Call of Duty series has always been very good at slipping little antiwar messages into its militaristic fortune cookies. The fourth time you die crossing a field, Douglas MacArthur will remind you that it's fatal to enter a war without the will to win it. The fifth time you die, Barbara Kingsolver is on hand to talk about the inhumanity of man.

This has been bothering me lately, and I'm hard pressed to completely explain why. There were always things about the series that never sat quite right. The quotes are one example, but there was also the annoying way the games were so barefacedly ripping-off Band of Brothers, Enemy at the Gates , and a slew of other World War II films. The games were never about the war, but were instead about movies that were about the war .

Except that the games always had such a stench of horseshit coming off them, far outstripping Hollywood in terms of jingoistic revisionism. The movies at least acknowledged some of the human cost of the war. Not just in terms of the awful damage it inflicted on so many human bodies but also the minds and hearts of those caught up in the maelstrom.

The Call of Duty series, always so careful to keep its ESRB rating, redacted any of the physical cost of war. More insidiously, they whitewashed the monumental cruelty, stupidity, and misery of the war. The troops rather cheerfully went through each mission with their grizzled sergeant character, playfully bitching about their orders, and then celebrated after their victories. War, as the early Call of Duty series liked to portray it, was kind of like a big football practice. And it was all for a good cause."

Obviously I didn't know that the quotes had been removed from WaW, but beyond that, this pretty well sums up my feelings on where this genre has gone wrong.

Now I'm playing through Far Cry 2, having just bought it yesterday, and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I do wish the game included civilians, if for no other reason than to make the game stop feeling like a theme-park, but in the absence of that kind of context, I have a hard time caring about my mission to kill The Jackal.

In fact, the way the game sidesteps all the messy realities of a 3rd world civil war just makes it seem a bit craven when it introduces a real-life issue, like the "evil international arms dealer" or the "Africa is for Africans" strongman who abuses the language of nationalism to rationalize perpetuating civil war. It's like the game is trying to use authenticity as a mild seasoning, but is afraid to make players feel any of the misery that it claims is afflicting this country.

Anyway, here's the full piece I wrote on military shooters.

Matthew Goldin said...

Evan Wright, author of Generation Kill, is publishing a new book next month about his experiences with different subcultures in America. Here's one description:

“From his work as a reporter at Hustler magazine, to his National Magazine Award–winning writing for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair, Evan Wright has always had an affinity for outsiders—what he calls “the lost tribes of America.” The previously published pieces in this collection chart a deeply personal journey, beginning with his stark but sympathetic portrayals of sex workers in Porn Valley, through his raw portrait of a Hollywood ├╝beragent-turned-war documentarian and hero of America’s far right. Along the way, Wright encounters runaway teens earning corporate dollars as skateboard pitchmen; radical anarchists plotting the overthrow of corporate America; and young American troops on the hunt for terrorists in the combat zones of the Middle East. His subjects are people for whom the American dream is either just out of grasp, or something they’ve chosen to reject altogether. Sometimes frightening, usually profane, and often darkly comic, Hella Nation is Evan Wright’s meticulously observed tour of the jagged edges of all those other Americas hiding in plain sight amid the nation’s malls and gated communities. The collection also includes an all-new, autobiographical introductory essay by the author.”

Ben said...

"Sometimes war is so frustrating I almost throw my controller at the television."

That's the best piece of irony I've read in a good while.