Editorial: The Best World War for Shooting Games

'Hey Frank.' 'Yeah?' 'Wouldn't you rather be fighting Russians or mildly off-putting Middle Eastern people than sitting waist-deep in mud, cowering in a gas mask?' '......no.'
Even these guys are more interested in burning toast than fighting Russians in any time period.

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.

All that's missing is House and Rowan Atkinson.
A standard view of what most think all WWI games would look like.

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?

It also explores graphics made by your mom.
The Snowfield explores survival.

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?


  1. We need more Napoleonic War combat. Why hasn’t this treasure trove of strategy been mined?

  2. I love this post Tim. I have been begging for great WWI games since 10th grade. There is so much there to explore. WWI was a major world Philosophical turning point and completely changed how society viewed humanity. There is artistically alot that could be done with WWI Games. My off the top of my head WWI game: a stealth action game where you go out on the nightly raids across enemy lines.

  3. Way back when, the original Medal of Honour title was released as a companion piece (essentially) to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. I genuinely enjoyed both it, and it’s follow-up, Underground. They were not shooters as we understand them today, and indeed hold up better in my mind because of it.
    Rather than assault you with Hollywood-style action set pieces, you crept about in the dark of night, (obviously a stylistic choice to compensate for the PS1’s limitations) taking out Nazis and Gestapo one by one. A group was usually cause for alarm. The atmosphere was distinctly 40s pulp war fiction style with a dose of educational elements (in the form of information about events from the war, figures, etc) that became background noise as the FPS became the industry darling. The load screens featured art that would have been right at home at on the cover of one of those old men’s adventure magazines (the Sweats they called them I believe), and the musical score by Hollywood composer, Michael Giacchino was one of the only western-composed game soundtracks I kept around.
    My point in all this being, that atmosphere and setting, and the pure romance of the period (and yes, I do consider WWII a romantic period, tragic as it was) made the original MoH games something remarkable, without following the standards for the FPS genre that exist today. Applied to WII, I think it could work every bit as well. Though without that care, without that genuine affection and interest in the period, it’d be just another Velvet Assassin.

  4. Also, I really should have edited that before I clicked ‘post comment’.

  5. I like this one essay too but to be totally honest I don’t need there to be ANY games based on real wars. They want to make a war game that I’ll play? The setting would have to be Ragnarok!

  6. @Lusipurr – When I first started working on this article it was going to be about whole eras that have been ignored, and the Napoleonic Wars were right at the top of the list (and would have included the time period up to Crimea). Napoleon: Total War kinda’ engaged me, and the Spanish Campaign DLC was most definitely the highlight of that entire group. What I think would be cool is a game that allows players to play as a British agent in France during the Napoleonic Regime, a sort of super-cool Scarlet Pimpernel figure. Or something that let’s us go to Spain and stroke Sean Bean’s beautiful…manly…hair….

    @J.D. – The fact that WWI was such a world turning point is what interests me as well. I find that I tend to be more captivated by historical games that are set during those time periods, even if they aren’t historically accurate. Red Dead Redepemption comes to mind, as it does a perfect job of portraying the American West as a place of constant change. I think it’s due in large part to the idea of change as being central to history- WWII games (or the lot of strategy games) seemingly ignore the changes that the world went through at that time. A WWI game could easily do the same (as the issue is more with the writing than the setting, necessarily), but I think it’s far easier to recognize WWI as the dawn of a new age in warfare than, say, WWII, because you see the dawn of tanks, chemical warfare, airplanes, as well as the “end” of cavalry and other major tactical mainstays.

  7. @Wolfe – I was also a big fan of the early Medal of Honor series, which has made its most recent entries to the world that much more heartbreaking. The ironic bit about them being companion pieces to Saving Private Ryan, is that, of course, Saving Private Ryan (along with Band of Brothers and Enemy at the Gates) would dominate the narrative tropes and set pieces of nearly every WWII game that followed in its wake, thus diminishing the genre in my opinion.

    I suppose part of the early appeal was that nobody knew which elements of WWII were going to catch on, so you saw a lot of variety with early games. Here’s a bit of Battle of the Bulge, there’s a bit of Operation Torch, let’s try to recreate the battle at Pavlov’s House, etc. The problem (in my eyes) is that we’ve settled a lot of the “main narratives” for WWII. It’s expected to at least acknowledge D-Day (either by allowing the player to be a paratrooper or landing on the beaches themselves), Operation Market Garden usually comes up, and if a sniping scene can be set in Stalingrad, all the better.

    I would agree with your sentiment that the feeling about the time period was romantic, because (in America, at least) it’s totally a romantic and nostalgic setting. This was the time, after all, that men were men and they were good men. We refer to them as our “Greatest Generation.” They fought Nazis, who were unequivocally evil. I suppose my issue with later games is that they retain the romanticism from MoH underneath a thin veneer of purported “historical realism.” Whereas I could play MoH and Underground as fictional historical fun (much in the same way as I played The Saboteur), the latter games in the genre hid their obvious admiration and hero worship under large stacks of research. This becomes obviously problematic in games like World at War, which portrayed Russian and Japanese soldiers as war crime committing psychopaths, while ensuring that we supported them good ol’ boy Pacific Theater American troops who would would never do such things.

    @Jahan – Touche’, good sir, Touche’.

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