My current favourite game is Call of Duty. Getting on a bit, I know, but there’s something about the World War II setting that really captivate me. Of course, for the record, I love sci-fi scenarios as well (about as much as I hate those that feature dungeons, trolls, and naked oily blokes with big swords). But, for me, even the coolest Deathstars, lasers, and warp drives cannot rival the lush countryside of Northern France, single shot carbines, and the distant whoomph of field guns and exploding mortars. Aaaah bliss.
WWII resonates powerfully through our culture and history, especially at this moment with the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaching. Airfix models, The Great Escape, toy soldiers, Battle Of Britain, Dad’s Army – I loved all that stuff as a kid. Maybe this is why titles like Call Of Duty, Medal Of Honour and Battlefield 1942 are now such a powerful draw for me.
Occasionally though, playing these games, I’ve had a few of what I can only describe as ‘weird turns’. The first one was while playing Medal Of Honour, specifically the Omaha beach landing level. I loved MOH by the way – great atmosphere, great design, all rounded off with an authentic plot, derived from actual war-time missions.
"Finally, I made it onto the beach and then…felt…suddenly odd. Something about this whole setting made me queasy. The realism of the graphics? The Saving Private Ryan thing?"
But the Omaha beach landing sequence left me feeling strange, disturbed and uncomfortable. As I started that level, I was in my usual video game trance. Lights off, headphones on, unshaven, in my underpants, gloriously immersed in the old computer-generated imaginative fantasy. I was cursing having chosen ‘Veteran’ as my skill level as it had taken me about 18 attempts just to get out of the long boat alive.
Finally, I made it onto the beach and then…felt…suddenly odd. Something about this whole setting made me queasy. The realism of the graphics? The Saving Private Ryan thing?
Hold on, hold on, people really died here. Young men, in their thousands, their hundreds of thousands died horribly, agonisingly, violently. No quicksave, no health bars, no first aid kits, no shrugging off a few rounds from a M1 Garand. These boys were torn to shreds.
Crouched behind my virtual metal girder on my mist-shrouded 3D-rendered beach, simulated bullets zinging past my ears, computer-generated compadres dying all around me – it all just felt weird.
It passed, thankfully. After about what seemed like two hundred respawns, I finally attained the beachhead and was busy doing my job: killing Nazi’s again. My funny turn was forgotten.
A year down the line, however, it hit me again. This time when I got to the Stalingrad missions on Call Of Duty. (BTW If you’ve never read Anthony Beevor’s book Stalingrad, then don’t. The horror of that extended siege and the incredible devastation wrought on both sides defies the imagination and stains the mind. I had bad dreams for weeks after reading it) Again, I felt - what is it this feeling? I can’t quite put my finger on it. Guilt?
There’s just something about the shoe-horning of such a momentous, terrible, horrifying events into a pieces of commercial entertainment that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable.
You could say that Saving Private Ryan does exactly that, of course. But whatever you thought of that film as a whole (I thought it was shit) it changed the depiction of war forever. Never again in a film will we put up with a German clutching his bloodless chest and crying “Gott in himmel” as he tumbles into a trench. The first thirty minutes of Private Ryan was so shocking for me, I can’t bear to watch it again. A friend of mine has watched it twelve times. But then he’s really into WWII and zombie films so perhaps this is heaven for him.
"There’s just something about the shoe-horning of such a momentous, terrible, horrifying events into a pieces of commercial entertainment that makes me feel deeply uncomfortable."
He and I both loved Band Of Brothers though. That great series clearly went on to influence the look and feel of Call Of Duty, and all subsequent WWII games.
Both Spielberg-productions are commercial entertainment of course but they had a legitimate artistic motive – to show the unshowable, as close to truth as they could possibly manage. Subsequently they spoke to veterans, and treated the material and history with the veneration it deserved.
Do Call of Duty and other WWII games do the same? I guess you can’t expect a video game to able to achieve this level of artistry or realism, but, then, isn’t there something weird about reworking of real-life horror to ultimately - let’s face it - make money? Aside from a few meaningful quotes about war from the likes of Churchill, Einstein and um, Stalin, COD does little to honour history. And the publisher of the “intense” and “historically accurate” game has not paid one penny of the game’s vast profits to veteran societies and charities. Electronic Arts even used the Omaha beach landing sequence from Medal Of Honour to promote the game on TV. Look, the ad seemed to be saying, you can really be there, feel what it was like to be mowed down on Omaha beach without getting out of your chair or giving a moment’s thought for the people who died there.
Maybe I’m being harsh. WWII games have made me think about the thousands who sacrificed their lives on D-Day and throughout the whole war. But they’ve also made me think that in its quest for authenticity and realism, new scenarios and adventures, shouldn’t the games industry exhibit some responsibility and respect, or, at the least, slip a few coins to those who died for our