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Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield have shown that war games, done right, can be amazingly fun and wildly addicting. They do this because they are designed well, and the concept of it all opens up a lot of fun possibilities for the designers to work with. But through the many iterations, with many more to come, and a lack of emphasis on story, designers have dulled the terribleness of war.
That is not a good thing. Just to make sure we're clear here, I have no problem with games focusing on war. I just feel that the with light-heartedness some companies put into their games, they are missing something incredibly moving.
First, let's put war into perspective. In war, multiple countries ask or force millions of men and women to fight one another with weapons that blow holes in people. Millions of young lives come to an end for the better of the country.
In war, people go through traumatic experiences. People lose limbs, are given quick surgery so they can get back up to help, watch friends die, and go through absolute hell. The lucky ones come back, and the absolute luckiest come back in one piece. Some, after war, cannot sleep. Others cannot be in public. Some go through flashbacks, completely losing grip on reality.
Words cannot describe how terrible it is, a lot worse than the armed forces commercials make it sound, not because of the physical demand, but because of the psychological torture one experiences on the battlefield. How much of this do video games take into account? Not much.
When you play Modern Warfare 2, you do not think about any of this. The story is more like a James Bond movie than a war story. There are many things designers can do, if they are willing to step outside the ditch they have dug out for war games, to refresh and make right the genre. We need to reexamine the blueprints of the modern war first person shooter.
First, designers need to change the way they show their enemies. When you infiltrate a camp in a usual game today, you are made to believe that everyone you are about to kill is a dirty, rotten, cocky scumbag, as if that justifies killing them. The designer is telling you it is morally acceptable to kill these people, using some of the same methods that wrestling-writers use to make you root for a certain person, the good guy.
The designer should avoid giving you these thoughts. The player should know that he is probably killing respectable people, men AND women, who probably have loving families at home like you. Instead of doing this, designers have twisted them into the generic "bad guys", either to make the player believe in his cause or to make what the player is doing morally right, somehow.
So, I want to see the occasional enemy pull out a picture of their family after being shot. I want to see the youth in their face. I want to see both sexes on the battlefield. Before infiltrating, I want to watch from afar as the "bad guy" picks up a piece of trash, or horses around with his/her friends.
Secondly, the overall story, the war, needs to be a little less cut and dry. In Modern Warfare 2, the good and the bad is carved out very bluntly. Sure, there is betrayal and going undercover, but I am talking the issues - the reason you're fighting.
It should be possible that your country is wrong. The right-wrong question in the game should be open to moral debate. Maybe there are rumors that you're country is fighting for the money, not for the good of people. By leaving this question open, and removing the black and white approach on all levels, we allow the player to question the morality of it all on his/her own. This is one of the things you think about in war - am I fighting for the right and just side? What would it be like to fight for a side that people didn't support (Vietnam?).
Also, designers should put more focus on the character, or, if the design is aiming to put you in the role of a generic person, you. When you are running through a dark jungle, you should see things in the darkness. When you are in an intense situation, your aim should be trembling. Your charcter is not a superhero - he's just a regular guy in an extreme situation.
If the designers choose to have a protagonist with a strong story, we should learn his/her backstory. Seeing a picture of his kids might make me be a little more hesitant to running through the front steps of enemy territory rambo style. Every soldier has a story, and experiencing it can fill a gap long present in war games and motivate the player to do what is right, to survive, or whatever.
Things need to seem out of control. Checkmarks kill the player's feeling of uncertainty. You know exactly where to go at all times in today's games. What if you are given only a generic location in which to search for something, or you've been told something wrong. You want to keep the gamer on the edge. He/she should never feel completely comfortable with what is happening.
Finally, gamers should witness some of the horrific events that real soldiers go through. Seeing a dead family sacrificed in order to get to the bad guy would be a life-changing experience. Actually playing an accidental role in such a thing would make you ask even more questions. Is what I am doing right? The use of moral choice, the same concept used in games like Bioshock and Infamous, would work very well in this genre. By the end, it should be up to the player as to whether he/she wants to fight or not.
Game designers need to get out of the clichés they have dugout for themselves. The designer, instead of sticking to the usual formula, should experiment and try new things. Pull a Metroid, when we realize we'd been playing as a girl. Make the player question something he/she has not questioned before, in previous games and in real life. Even above that, developers should encourage innovation and change if the designers believe it will better the game.
The designer should take the gamer through what it means and feels like to be a soldier. The player should be questioning his/her actions throughout the game, and making believable enemies and a complex story can help this. You should see the psychological effects of war on your character, and at times, the game could become into a sort of survival horror game. More uncertainty would also help add to the game, both in ethics and in tasks. The game should be throwing things at you to make you reconsider your actions in the game and your beliefs in the world.
This being said, I am aware that too much of this could drive the player from the game, pushing the horrors of war a little too much. When you picture this different kind of war fps, you shouldn't picture running through the jungle, over carcasses from the school you just bombed. You should picture something little more gradual.
When the game starts, you could have no reason to question anything your government is doing. In many stories of war (Red Badge of Courage), the character goes into the experience looking forward to the heroic adventure he/she is about to go through. This would be a perfect metaphor as to what the player pictures as he/she puts the game into the drive.
The game could start like the regular war shooter, with obvious good and bad. As the game progresses, smaller things might occur to make the player think. Seeing a friend's legs get blown up, seeing things moving through the trees, helping an injured child, beginning to realize the corruption on top, and beginning to understand how terrible war is could make the player think.
Combining this with a good, thought-provoking story, including the slow realization that your country Is doing bad things, could set up the player for the ultimate moral dilemma in a game. Do you decide to go with your country's plan, which will kill many innocent lives, or do you stand up against it?
I do realize the large conflict a game like this would cause. Morally, I think it is okay to portray war through a video game, especially if the designer makes it a goal to force the gamer to reexamine assumptions about war and life. In fact, I thinking making a war game like this would be more responsible if anything, as you would better show what war really is. This may be considered bad, but it would better than portraying war as a heroic trek, not taking into account the death and destruction. This has been a hot topic since Six Days in Falluja, but I hope I've represented the case well.
These are some things to think about while you are preparing to make another general rehash of what's already been done. I believe we can combine a genre that many see as thoughtless and all gameplay, with the ability games have to make you think and open your mind to create something that will shine as one of the most respected games to date, while keeping the gameplay fun.
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