It’s a rather “puzzling” surprise to many readers that I do play games. While poking around someone asked me a question.
Why can’t you play a game as a Nazi? Why can’t you play a WW2 game where you play as the “baddies”. I thought about it and I do have a genuine answer as to why that is possible but why no one would take the risk.
But we did play a Call of Duty game where we played the “Historic Bad Guys” (but at the time good guys). We played as Russians in the first two Call of Dutys, back when it was about showing the viewpoint of historical soldiers. Who here played Call of Duty 2 and forgot the training mission where you learnt to fight with potatoes because grenades are expensive, you are not.
So would someone ever make a game where you played one of the Axis powers in WW2?
No, the first issue is that people would throw an aneurysm and regard it as a “Nazi Simulator” even without having touched the game. In addition? Call of Duty Screwed It Up. Call of Duty has made the FPS genre so saturated with childish spectacle shootery that the chance that anyone would fund a game that is such a calculated risk, new IP and something different and dangerous is unlikely. In addition you would have to STOP it being a spectacle shooter because you want to give a different message to Call of Shooty.
The real problem is how do you depict people who are widely considered as acceptable targets. How do you humanise the Nazis without insulting the victims? That is a thin tightrope to walk. And to do that we must have a game that is different. We must throw out a lot of the sensibilities associated with modern First Person Shooters and Games as a whole. We must break new ground and we must show that games can be art and deal with subjects.
You either have to make a game so unprincipled such as Red Orchestra or one of the early Battlefield games. Where the principles of both sides are not important and side A and B are simply colours that happened to be Allies vs Nazi. You don’t look into what it’s like being a soldier, you look at what it’s like to shoot awesome guns at each other.
In order to make a game where you are in effect a villain you have to step away from the norm and take a risk.
There is a problem in Triple A gaming today. The amount of money invested has been invested in polish but not content since polish looks good, polish makes hype, polish sells games. Call of Duty doesn’t want you to think because if you thought about it you would realise you aren’t playing something new.
Bioshock Infinite is part of what’s wrong with Triple A Gaming. It sold a whopping 3 million copies. But guess what? 3 Million Is not Enough. The overhead is so monsterous that it would need to sell at least 6 to 10 million copies to be considered a commercial success. That’s madness. That’s stupid. The game is excellent but so much money was wasted on stupid things that it would NEVER make it’s costs back unless it went as big as GTA which is based on a formula. The original Bioshock was cheap, tightly streamlined and a controlled experience that you appreciated because the setting allowed for a controlled experience. Where detail was paid not to the graphics so much as the game world. The aesthetics fit and even if the graphics were not stellar you still had a great time.
But I thought about it and there is a way to produce a WW2 game with integrity and that is by looking at another game which tried to be more than just a game. Spec Ops the Line looks at PTSD and it looks at good intentions. Evil is not committed by men who want to commit evil but by men who wish to do good. This is a story older than the Bible. In Hinduism it forms the core of the Mahabaratha, decisions made that were good and honourable lead to tragedies too.
I got the idea from reading about lynching when people compared the Patriarch of Duck Dynasty to Rosa Parks.
See we rarely talk about Nazis because we don’t want to admit that not only was their evil common place at the time but in some ways mirrored the allies. Are we to forget the British atrocities and police state in India? Or the American massacres in the Philippines? Or the historical oppression caused by them? Or the irony of the USA fighting for “Freedom” when it’s own black people were not free? The line that came to my mind was one from Time Magazine during the 50s speaking out about the Lynching of a black man. Not even the Nazis collected photographs of their heinous crimes to be traded as one would trade photographs of a favourite movie star.
The people who did the lynchings may appear evil and horrific to us but they never saw themselves as monsters.
To create such a view point you would have to have a journey, an unfeasible one since you would have to have a mythical German soldier who serves the “Entire war” on a front. You have to create a game that shows the problem with the WW2 Axis train of thought or of behaviour unless you actually “create” a sympathetic viewpoint of a German disgusted by Nazis or a Japanese officer horrified by the country he is bound to serve.
You have to have this person come to the realisation over the course of the game. That he knows that Germany is losing because every day the glorious victories are close to Berlin.
To do that you have to produce a story that is anti-thetical to the beliefs of the time. Contrary to belief, anti-semitism was common place in Europe at the time making it easy to blame Jews and get away with it. In the same way you aren’t getting to see American troops speak about that time they got to go see a Negro getting hanged (there was a roaring trade in Lynching Photographs that were fervently exchanged. Apartheid America was precisely as fucked up as Apartheid Raj or Apartheid South Africa despite what the Duck Dynasty patriarch or the racists claim).
To portray the Germans and Japanese in a sympathetic light during WW2 you have to have an incredibly closed FPS and treat it as an anti-war shooter. Like Spec Ops – The Line. You would have to explore the themes involved at the time and indeed the themes we have today. Of blind support, patriotism defined by obedience, nationalism, biased media and the callousness and disillusionment of war.
Either you play a soldier losing faith, or a soldier with no choices doing things that you would personally find distasteful until you ask yourself the important question.
Either you or the character on screen should have that revelation, otherwise there is no object morality and your FPS would effectively become “Racist Fodder”. If we compare Spec Ops to Call of Juarez – The Cartel then you see one game punish you for killing Americans with back stories about the people you kill so that they no longer remain faceless and in the other you mow down African Americans for “no adequately explained reason”. You aren’t demonstrating villainy, you aren’t making a point, you are just shooting non-white people, the only defence against racism is that one of your “AI companions is black”. It was horribly handled.
You can portray the reality, the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Japanese were phenomenal in scale. They were not committed by monsters, they were not committed by beasts.
They were done by men who we can identify with. Men who considered themselves patriots, men who had loves. Men who had children. Men who considered themselves god fearing.
I wrote about lynching a while back and how the men who did it never considered themselves as evil. Men who would do horrific things, things that were as horrible as the Nazis did or the Empire of the Rising Sun. If you really want to be horrified then go out here.
But they never saw themselves as bad people. The best example I can show of this is in Bioshock Infinite, to begin with you see this utopia and everyone in there is polite and charming. And you are going to do something polite and charming too. A raffle of all things! And they are still polite and charming to you until you realise what the raffle is for.
And your opinion changes at that point. Theirs remains the same because in that story our character is blessed with the understanding of racism. We have an understanding of why what they are doing is wrong and why it’s important to us. The characters on the screen are people from the 1890s. Racism was still a powerful force and lynching was at it’s height.
It can be done, but it will have to eschew progress in FPS to be a horrific grind, where the game is designed and written to make you feel uncomfortable with war.
Call of Duty never excessively glorified war until it entered the Modern Warfare/BlackOps settings. The Historical stuff is grim viewing. Every battle is interspersed by tragic lamentations about war. So despite the camaraderie you realise that these were real people who fought and died. That your elation is soured by the understanding of war.
You have to bring that back to the genre and make it “more”.
As I said. Any game like this would have to be an object lesson into the mind of blind group think and the horror of war. You would literally have to have a moment where you break down in game and go “Do they not realise what they are doing is bad” and have someone else explain this.
You would need characters who grew up without the bigotry emblematic of the two major axis powers. A German educated in the USA who went to defend his “Fatherland” against a racist aggressor at the urges of family. The same for a Japanese soldier who was from a family of American Immigrants who either sent him back home before the outbreak of the war or who resettled. These existed and their viewpoint would bridge the gap the best by providing us with characters we can identify with. A person who knows enough about both sides to see the truth.
To Americans who find this puzzling? Remember Jessie Owens? He had more Freedom in Nazi Germany when he visited than the Country he Represented. He had to take the service elevator to his own medal party in the USA because “Negroes Could Not Use The Guest Elevator”. In Germany? He could mingle with other Athletes. Maybe our young German had “no idea” and merely caved in to familial pressure. There are many options of origins here.
What you need is a very very closed experience. You want to literally tell a story with little choice and little freedom because it’s a story about little choice and little real freedom. But that doesn’t mean the choices you have should be meaningless or meaningful. Remember, in War you have meaningful choices and some of them have meaningless outcomes. Again you sometimes have meaningless choices that later have meaningful outcomes.
But you want the story and the characters to be real and engaging. Not Nazi Man 1 and his friends but Franz, Josef, Hans and Sigmund. You want these characters to come with you and grow and yes you want them to die. You want a movie experience with a few choices.
You want to show the world the gaming equivalent of Das Boot. A movie where you felt for traditional baddies but which had a message.
The Red October was probably more entertaining than Das Boot, but people will remember Das Boot for longer because Das Boot gave us Sympathetic Nazis, made us root for villains and then showed us the reality and futility of war. It was an incredibly tense, incredibly well shot movie. Any movie that can turn silence into tension is doing something good. But you cannot repeat it. You cannot make a Das Boot 2.
Why do we think a book can depicts this idea more than a game? Why do you think that games are limited and cannot deal with lofty subjects? Lest you forget? In the City of Freedom, in the City of Rapture Bioshock dealt with free will in an astonishingly impressive way. Why do you think we cannot treat our hobby like we treat movies? Did people tell Spielberg that he must only produce blockbusters and never experiment with Holocaust movies?
The trick like movies is to realise your target audience. You are not going to make everyone happy with this game. This is not a game for the Call of Duty kiddies. This is a game that is played by people who play it then put it down and tell their friends. This must be priced and teched accordingly. We adults are less likely to be impressed by super HD graphics and more by the actual game. If the game plays well, if the message is good then we will have a game that’ is great to play.
You can make non AAA games and in fact AAA games are a stupid idea since this is going to appeal to a mature audience. This is not going to be a game with a multiplayer or the like.
It should be like Half Life 2. A very closed experience but it gives you a cinematic feel. Set it first on the western front, then you can do sequels for Eastern Front, Africa, the Indo-Chinese-South-East Asia Theater (So Philippines, Indonesia, Burma, Malay Peninsula, Invasion of India and Fall Back) and the Island Hoping (actually if you toss the Philippines here you get an effective campaign vs. the Commonwealth and the USA as separate campaigns). Each of them can deal with the issues pertinent to those campaigns. The East European one can be about racism, the Mainland Asia one can be about Colonialism and the one in the Pacific can be about Duty and Patriotism and we can explore each of these concepts.
The reason for a closed experience is you want the game to tell a story. Call of Duty told the stories of great Victories and Heroic Men before it became about “shoot the foreigner and let’s fight Russia”. Call of Duty once told stories but now completely lost track of who the heroes are with the most recent one (The weaponisation of space? That makes you the baddies! You are playing as a villain!).
These are stories of heroic men who fought for the side of wrong, men who did brave things to fight doing what they thought was right. Men who fell for ideas, men who thought they were doing their duty and men who simply thought thoughts that were wrong.
And that is what you would want to convey in game but with the caveat of realising that the character should come to our understanding of the war.
Spec Ops the Line did this. It played with us and gave us a modern retelling of Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now. You can do this with Nazis, if and only if you utilise games as a mechanism of dealing with a subject.
And the Nazis and the Empire of the Sun are a perfect subject for exploring extremism, group think, dehumanisation. Of how Fallout got it wrong.
War does Change. War Changed so spectacularly and there are just so many concepts to deal with.
We can depict that. Oh it doesn’t have to be closed enough, we can do things like have little changes. Like being ordered to take a shot and missing it on purpose saving an unknown soldier’s life. You can then have a discussion or a conversation on the fact that many soldiers during WW2 shot to miss. Many never wanted to kill, particularly on the Western Front. On the Eastern and Pacific front that changed due to the way both sides dehumanised each other and the impetus created by the anger of Japanese atrocities.
It’s simple to explain. I bet you played Bioshock?
Do you know why people would have no qualms about stoning a black person to death yet calling themselves good? The game tried to capture the sort of carnival atmosphere that was common in the end of the 1800s in Southern USA during a common enough event.
The Lynching. It was literally fun for the whole family. People got to show “those uppity negroes what for”, took pictures of a fun day out. They would inform the press (They knew no jury would convict them, even if the perpetrators were known!) and make it a carnival. People would come watch these brutal murders and rapes and think it was good and okay.
To borrow a quote from Dr. Who, do you know what sort of mentality must you have to have fun doing this?
This not murder, this is pest control. And our grandparents and great grandparents thought like that.
You can push this attitude into the harsh light through the media of a game, but it’s hard. it’s very hard. And very risky. But if you can do it? If you do do it? I guarantee you will have the game of the year. No one else would have dealt with this topic so well. But it requires a constant understanding of what you are doing, respect for the subject material and a realisation that you are not making a game about war or Nazis but to depict why people follow such extreme viewpoints.
You will have made the game equivalent of Das Boot and ironically fired yet another head shot against the zombie that is the modern FPS and forced the gaming industry to think of itself less in terms of AAA games and more in terms of what the game can really do if we stop looking at pure technology and playing to it’s real strength which is immersion.
You would have this mythical “Band of Brothers” sign up during the early stages of WW2, make the push on Belgium and Paris and be rewarded. Then you would have them them do a mission dealing with “terrorists”. And then a mission or two dealing with the realities of being in a situation where you had to follow orders.
We have to make this game be closed but the decisions you make should have an impact. Imagine having a mission where you have to keep quiet to get as close to a Jewish safe house. And what if you think “I should make some noise so they can run”. The mission may be closed but your action changes some of the outcomes”. You can even have the dialogue of your friends covering for you and then confronting you about fucking up on purpose with “why should you care”?
You want that initial euphoria of victory at Dunkirk slowly change. Let’s say your character gets a medal for things done in Paris and he is proud but occupation has soured his opinion.and as the “glorious victories” happen close to Berlin he gets another medal in different circumstances. And this time he is disgusted by it all. That he realises (he wouldn’t know exactly about the Concentration Camps except through the propaganda videos. And they wouldn’t be telling people how Auschwitz and Treblinka were being run. They would show people the more benign yet still sinister Terezin which was maintained to show the Red Cross how people lived at these camps). Your prior knowledge would be shading his actions and you could see the rationalisations people had when they did these things.
And as the fall back begins and the Band of Brothers gets smaller and smaller and you experience various disillusionments you get another medal for doing something heroic, but this time the medal is just metal and ribbon to you.
You want the story of a man going through the various opinions of what war is like and what he was told to do and why he followed it.
The overall game will not change and to many people it won’t satisfy. This is because we think that choice has to be myriad rather than choice has to be real. People will ask ”what’s the point of saving a handful of lives while dooming and indeed killing others” if it doesn’t change the ending to which I will say this “You did change the endings, for those people. Your actions can be relayed back to you through News Articles. Some of your actions may have no meaning, some of them may seem meaningless, some of them may be meaningless actions that have incredible results.
If you could make a game that made us genuinely think about what it was like to be part of an ideological villain whose beliefs are so horrible they are synonymous with villainy and evil and then make us realise that they were human beings and had human reasons for falling for that twisted ideology. Then you would have a good game and a game that demonstrates a lot of issues that mirror our current world.
That the racism, blind nationalism and patriotism, unwillingness to think about our actions and glorification of war have occurred in our lifespans too and that we must be careful not to fall for it.
Games can be more than just fun, they can deal with these topics too.