Just how real is “realistic” and more importantly how realistic do you want it, if video games are a form of entertainment then shouldn’t their primary purpose be to entertain?
Specifically I’m talking about military based FPS titles, Gamespot writer Tom McShea penned an 800 word article based on his findings at last year’s E3 for Electronic Arts lack lustre shooter Medal of Honor: Warfighter. McShea clearly wasn’t happy about the level of realism and stated that regenerating health and re-spawning teammates trivialized the sacrifices that the game professes to honor. Producer Greg Goodrich to his credit pointed out that Medal of Honor: Warfighter makes no “realistic” claim—it is simply “authentic” in terms of the tools, weapons, uniforms, dialogue and other supporting features depicted.
Medal of Honor: Warfighter was released with a “hardcore” mode that stripped out the regenerating health but I for one would not want to see this as a default option as suggested by McShea. How realistic do we really want military FPS titles to be, do we continue to acknowledge that the taking of another life is indeed horrific and profound but remove that shocking emotional effect from video game entertainment to protect the viability of the product or do we include it at the expense of taste and economic success?
Not a week goes by when we don’t hear on the news that another soldier has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s current preferred weapon of choice. The reality of our armed forces engaged in the longest running conflict of modern times is not to be taken lightly. My question for Mr McShea would ask if anyone wants the horrific realism of injuries caused in combat to be reflected in entertainment products like military genre video games. Will the inclusion of seeing a young soldier screaming in incredible pain with both legs missing below the knee whilst his uniform is on fire bring anything new or do anything more to reflect the realism in war? I know for a fact I don’t want that level of realism in my games, that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the sacrifices our soldiers are making or even makes light of the life changing injuries that continue to have a devastating effect on the physical and mental state of our veterans.
More recently Sniper Elite V2 from 505 Games provided an X-ray Kill cam that provided ballistic penetration and wound trauma effects when the bullet from your rifle was placed with a skilled shot. The game avoided any major backlash from the national press or anti-gun lobbies and even those that weren’t too hot on the feature appeared only mildly objectionable, Marsh Davis over at Eurogamer had this to say “Its appeal is most definitely crass but, oddly, these animations also give each enemy’s death a ghoulish significance.”
The fact that I don’t pay much attention to the exact type of ballistic ammunition I’m running around BF3 with is at it should be. I play these games to unwind (that’s when I’m not swearing at the screen for being tea bagged) and to be honest we don’t need games educating young minds on ballistics and wound trauma. I’ve grown up around guns and fired many different types, Firing a weapon is a hugely violent act that isn’t pretty whatever way you paint it, a projectile hitting you at well over two thousand feet per second is going to leave a mark. If I get shot two or three times in one instance on a real battlefield, chances are I’m either going to be dead or seriously injured, maybe even paralyzed? I really don’t believe that including the realism of life changing wounds in a battlefield situation is going to do anything for FPS games. We have to remember that things like Med Packs and Defibulators (BF3) are designed and included for game flow, the pace of the game and the player experience; they are not added to trivialize the ballistic or physical effects of modern day combat weapons.
Imagine how the flow of a game like BF3 would be affected if we were to apply true realism to the game, we get shot, fall to the ground bleeding from three 7.62mm rounds that ripped into us from Veterans Retreat (Gulf of Oman map) seventy feet away, then we wait for a team player posing as a medic to come over because we’re mashing the call for help button like crazy. 3 mins later he arrives having taken the long way round from the construction site, my participation in the match is now on hold as I’m still on the floor, my joy pad is vibrating and I’m still bleeding. Okay so now we’ve called for a medevac from the aircraft carrier and one of my team mates (who I can’t talk to because he’s not wearing a headset mic) needs to run out into the open and pop smoke for the chopper to find us. Another 5 mins goes by before the chopper can safely land and still I’m on the floor and can’t get back into the game. Turns out that my main artery is ripped and I’m bleeding internally, medic’s got to cut me open and clamp it but I need to stay conscious that’s another 2 mins spent on a bloody floor with med packs, plasma and crap everywhere. All the while I’m using up one medic, one guy popping the smoke and probably another three team mates to secure the landing zone. Is this the realism we’re talking about? Because so far I’ve been in the game 9 mins and on the floor 8 mins unable to play.
Perhaps that might be taking the realism argument too far but it raises the question of how much we want or even need in our games to enjoy them. Video games are as stated at the top of this article entertainment but they are also a business, there are investors, there is a product, there is a consumer and there is a profit to be made.
Under no circumstances am I remotely trivializing the sacrifices made by serving soldiers when I say that, but that is the fact, a brand and a product has to have appeal in order for people to buy it. EA’s Medal of Honor reboot in 2010 was heavily criticized as being too realistic with the military jargon that it went against the product that calling the enemy “the Taliban” was also wrong. According to EA it was this type of realism that would plug them directly into that geardo audience, Following proper radio protocol and all the glossy tier one chatter was just a small slice of it.
In the single player campaign for Battlefield 3 you experience in first person view your own execution at the hands of Muslim extremists; they toy with you in front of a camera set up to film the act which in this case your throat is being cut. It’s an uncomfortable thing to sit through because the tension is building all the time, it made me slightly uneasy but it’s because it reminded me of the 2004 Ken Bigley video, a barbaric and inhumane act as you can imagine, an innocent man having his head cut off on video for all to see. We crave for realism in our games yet games like Minecraft has soared to heady heights of success despite the fact they look like a ghastly 8 bit adventure and dare I say it but it’s the sole reason I don’t play it, I find the basic legoesque nature of the games look unappealing. For Minecraft creativity wins over realism, give players more creativity at the expense of realism and they’ll explore and play for hours and come back for more.
If health regeneration did exist in our daily lives, then perhaps those four hollow point bullets fired by Mark David Chapman into John Lennon’s back on a cold December night in 1980 wouldn’t have been felt for generations since. Do we really need to understand the complexities of soft tissue trauma caused by hollow point rounds in order to appreciate the dangers of firefights while playing a game on Xbox Live on a Saturday night?
Developers have a huge responsibility for product content, finding a perfect balance and doing so with a level of taste that does not offend is no easy task. If I play Battlefield 3 it really doesn’t bother me that when I destroy a tank the opposing player / occupant doesn’t tumble out of the hatch with his uniform on fire with the skin melting from his face, I don’t necessarily require that specific level of detail to realize in real life that is what does happen. I’m more than happy to have in-game characters with the same level of speech and expression as LA Noire, I’m quite happy to have 5 times more collateral damage to objects in games and I’m as happy as Larry to have an unrivalled selection of firearms and attachments and medals to obtain. Give me an Osprey I can fly with the whole multiplayer team on-board, give me access to each and every floor and building in the multiplayer map and by all means give me all this all at the expense of not having to experience what real bullets do to real bodies.
If we take the mainstream media backlash for calling the enemy in MOH ‘Taliban’ and the U turn EA instigated then we can’t move forward with realism in games, removing or changing the naming convention of the enemy may lessen the realism of the game to an accepted level where the likes of newspapers like the Daily Mail will back off but it doesn’t change the nature of the product. If MOH can have accurate dialect, equipment, vehicles and settings then surely the missing piece of the puzzle is to at least set the game in a real world conflict. You can switch it any way you want it but the gun and the bomb in the game are still going to reflect what they were designed for in real life.
Gameplay and the complexities of game design means that there needs to be balance to how games are best enjoyed by the player, sometimes this is done at the creative expense of what reality actually proves otherwise. This balance is a paper thin line that developers are challenged with staying within, not just for the sake of gameplay but as an entertainment product that won’t offend because its being seen to trivialize active duty soldiers in combat situations.
I’d very much like to know where Tom McShea was when EA released Medal of Honor Allied Assault, did the lack of combat realism and the fact we weren’t exposed to seeing young men screaming for their mothers with their lower intestines on their lap on Omaha Beach make this product any less the FPS masterpiece it became?
On another level of this argument McShea doesn’t aim a critical eye at other forms of media such as books or films. Saving Private Ryan is a prime example, I mean, that’s a movie right?, another entertainment product where Tom Hanks probably had a personal assistant bring him hot coffee between takes of storming up that bloody Irish beach awash with fake blood and rubber rifles for the fifth time in a morning. That doesn’t mean Tom Hanks didn’t understand or appreciate any less the magnitude of the horror one morning in June 1944.
Tom McShea’s article does raise some interesting points about how development teams use words like “realism” to talk up their latest FPS, unfortunately though it does so without actually suggesting any alternatives. Real soldiers don’t regenerate health over time which McShea does point out, we all get that ,but what is it you really want, what level of realism do you want because no one pays $60 to go to a funeral?