Okay, well, that last post set off quite the discussion. This is great, as it inflated my ego and allowed me the chance to bask in the fury of the internetz, but all good things must come to an end. The carousel must come to a stop. The last second must play upon a hockey game. Che must return to talking about history in video games, lest the old ones engulf the world in darkness. The Earth corrects itself accordingly. It is not just for the sake of our planet, however, that I bring up this week’s topic. In recent months, a fascinating and fearful trend has cast its shadow over the websites and forums which make up our quaint community. Gamers, especially those in first person shooter market, are beginning to tire of the sand in their combat boots. The roar of jet engines no longer thrills them as it once had. As they lock themselves behind the mounted gun of the obligatory Humvee driving sequence, some have even taken it upon themselves to wistfully look into the sky and think “I miss shooting Nazis.” Know what might be really new and interesting? What about playing in a setting that has not been beaten to death with a spoon already?
In the interest of complete honesty, there is plenty that could be done with World War II. The resistance movements in Scandinavia received scandalously little attention during the heyday of World War II shooters, and there is still my aforementioned desire to see the Holocaust treated (or even acknowledged) in games. Despite this, however, I have always found it borderline criminal how little attention is given to World War I, at least in the United States. The fact that the setting has been seemingly overlooked (or overshadowed) for video games in particular is an absolute travesty, as it is not only a missed opportunity to educate the widespread public about the so-called “Great War,” but is also rife with fresh and interested aspects which could be cobbled together for various games.
Think about it. Okay, wait, that might be a problem, because most people might think “Trenches,” which is completely understandable. Trenches were kind of a huge thing in World War I. Yet the wonderful thing about a World War, if there really are any things worth being called ‘wonderful’ about it, is that it takes place throughout the world. The trench-based stalemate really only affected the Western Front and parts of the Ottoman Campaigns; the Eastern Front between Germany and Russia was far more mobile and closer to something we might recognize as a “modern” war. Japan quickly overtook Germany’s far East colonies in the early stages of the war, offering a fresh setting which avoids the wave-based tactics employed on the Western Front. Hell, even Africa saw one of the greatest guerrilla campaigns ever mounted, as the German colonial general Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck ran the British army ragged for the entire war.
Yet even the Western Front has its appeal. The superb Toy Soldiers used the wave-attack tactics of trench warfare to create a masterful wave-defense strategy game. Much acclaim has been given to the claustrophobic gas mask sequences in the Metro series, which leads me to wonder how easily the experience could be transplanted into a game sequence set during the second battle of Ypres. The squad-based online First Person Shooter Verdun seeks to carve out a piece of the Western Front pie, although it is only in open beta at this time. The aesthetics of the Western Front are also worth looking into. In a gaming culture which celebrates bombastic hyperbole, who would not love firing the Paris Gun (a weapon which fired shells so far away that its engineers had to take the Coriolis effect into account for the first time in history) or watching biplanes blaze away at Zeppelins?
On a less idealized front, World War I also allows gamers to explore the darker sides of war without the moralistic romanticism that comes with World War II. Oh sure, Sgt. Baker may be apparently struggling with guilt in the Brothers in Arms series, but it only serves to make him that much more a hero when he pulls himself together to kill the evil Nazis. World War I offers no such consolation. It was a war precipitated by a complicated string of alliances and a youthful vigor to kill, on all sides. As the war pressed on, even its most brutal victors (most notably Edward Mannock and Manfred von Richthofen) began to show signs of cracking under the death which surrounded them. Modern weaponry was used against classical tactics, resulting in a single battle which caused approximately the same amount of death for a single side as the entire Vietnam War. This nihilistic horror is simply not present in the later setting, largely because the overused World War II is still seen as a “good” war. The experimental game The Snowfield uses its World War I setting with great effect to explore some of these deeper elements, though its existence is as an exception rather than the rule.
In the end only time can tell whether historical action games will return or whether Modern/Future wars will remain supreme. But what about your thoughts, Lusipadres? Do you find yourselves pining away for the good ol’ French countryside, content with the sandy deserts of Fake-country-istan, convinced of my case (HA!), or is there a different setting that might capture your interest?