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.