What the Military FPS Can Do To Evolve
Like so many, I tend to cycle through phases, where my genre tastes jump all over the board. While reading the Game of Thrones series, I found myself drawn toward fantasy games like Skyrim and Dragon Age. When I was watching The Walking Dead religiously, I became engrossed in post-apocalyptic games like Fallout 3 and Rage. And maybe it’s just all the rhetoric going on with gun control, but lately, I’ve had this unsatiable need to sit down for some good old-fashioned military FPS action.
Now, I’ll shamelessly admit I’ve been blazing through games like Call of Duty and Battlefront for nothing more than the gameplay and easy achievements gleaned from the campaigns. But while I was playing them, I realized something. Being one to champion the cause and importance of a solid narrative in gaming, I found that in these games, I simply did not care what was going on in the story. For me, I just wanted to get in the mission, complete my objectives, get the trophies and achievements, and get out.
I know I’m not alone when I say that this is a problem. Thanks to the likes of Battlefield and Call of Duty, campaigns in military games have taken a total backseat, giving way to multiplayer modes where people can jump in and frag each other to help boost their K/D ratio.
And before I get to my next point, let me say this; there is nothing wrong with that. I’ve played hours upon hours of online multiplayer (Call of Duty specifically), and love jumping in on Team Deathmatch and Kill Confirmed. It’s not that I’m abdicating for an end to online multiplayer.
Rather, I’m kind of bothered by the fact that there is so much missed opportunity in the mindless campaigns military games tend to have.
So what an be done? In my mind, these few steps could be the most effective way to revitalize the genre and help it meet its fullest potential.
A MORE MEANINGFUL NARRATIVE
Military personnel are stereotypically depicted in video games in a way that’s almost insulting. They’re crude, crass, and tough as nails in 90% of the games you’ll play. While this may be the case with some of those who serve in the military, it isn’t a fair representation of all of them.
Too often, military games have this strange, hyper-patriotic tone that feels both contrived and glorified in a way that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. There’s no remorse felt by characters, no internal struggle, no implications outside of the battlefield. It’s just you, your bros, and your gun, all working together to mow down enemies in a bullet-fed frenzy.
But in reality, there are so many different stories that could be told in the military FPS realm outside of the typical storyline.
One game that illustrates this beautifully is Spec Ops: The Line. While it looks generic and doesn’t necessarily play all that well, the story it tells is deeply compelling and caught me completely off guard. Sure, it starts off with your typical “bro” feeling, but it eventually branched out into a fascinating narrative that brought you face-to-face with the horrors of war and the effect it has on those who experience it firsthand. This is something that is only glossed over in a majority of militay shooters, and it warrants a discussion in narratives moving forward, thanks to its engaging and raw tone.
And it might not be the best shooter ever made, but Homefront managed to tell an interesting story by weaving in ideas of alternate US history and the movie Red Dawn together in one story that saw you taking back your country from a North Korean invasion. It’s not only a story with eerie implications, it’s also one that you feel a personal investment in. After all, this is your country, and the game sees you taking it back in a firsthand experience as only a video game could deliver it.
The last game that deserves an honorable mention here is Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Treyarch is known to be the edgier of the two major developers behind the Call of Duty series, and in Black Ops II, they did attempt to do something unique with their overall narrative. Instead of shoehorning in a generic villain in the campaign and expecting you to hate him because, well, you’re supposed to, they actually tried to flesh him out by making you play as him and witness the events that made him into the man he is. It wasn’t the most amazing story I’ve ever encountered in a game, but after understanding who Menendez was and why he did what he did, I was kept somewhat interested in the story and his overall character development throughout the campaign.
It’s also important to note that the campaigns of these games need to stop being only a handful of hours long. If you’re asking players for $59.99 for a game that only offers a five-hour campaign, it’s a rip off in my mind. Take your time to craft a solid narrative and offer a well-paced story that lasts anywhere from 10-12 hours, and you’re raising the quality of the product in the consumer’s hands. Sure, some like to pick those games up strictly for the multiplayer and will never touch the campaign. But for all of those people, you could just as easily find others who are genuinely interested in playing through story missions as well. Don’t undercut one demographic in favor of another.
All too often, military shooters feel like a playable Michael Bay film. Scripted explosions, brutal kills, and bad ass main characters tend to be the standard in them, and it’s starting to get a little old.
I’m not calling for an end to the violence in shooters. Far from it. Actually, I’m asking that the violence in the games becomes somewhat more contexualized.
What do I mean? Take a game like Bulletstorm. It’s ultra-violent, over-the-top gunplay and doesn’t try to be anything deeper than that. Because of that, it works. You accept that the violence in there is extreme and goofy, and that makes the game unique.
But when you add things like that to a military shooter, suddenly, it doesn’t make sense in the context of it. You can’t set up for a gritty, realistic story based around infantry and expect it to flow well. It feels disjointed and out of place.
Not to keep ringing the praise bell on it, but Spec Ops does a decent job with this as well. The game begins as a rescue mission; you don’t intend to kill anyone. But when things go south and the squad’s lives are in danger, they’re forced to resort to violence in an effort to defend themselves. They express remorse about it throughout the campaign, the captain tries to help them justify it, and it isn’t supposed to make you feel powerful. You’re supposed to feel desperate and overwhelmed, and for that, the violence suddenly fits the bill.
Again, it doesn’t have to be a diplomacy sim; I’m not asking that violence be reduced in the games. Rather, I’d love to see it have a more purposeful application throughout the duration of the gameplay. Doing so makes it feel much more organic and interesting than merely setting up a series of explosions to take place throughout the duration of the campaign.
Thanks to the framework and popularity of games like Battlefield and Call of Duty, multiplayer in shooters has taken on a very generic and tired feel. It’s riddled with team deathmatch-style modes made up of not much more than a group of players blasting each other away on a map.
Being a big fan of some of these modes, I’m not asking that these be done away with. But innovation does need to take place in some form to mix things up and offer players a wider variety of options. Doing so would appeal to different play styles and broaden its appeal.
One thing PC gamers have done for a long time that I would love to see move over to consoles in a big way is implementing real-time tactics and strategy in squad-based combat. Assigning roles to individual players and working together to achieve objectives would be a great way to usher in players wanting some sort of alternative than just being quick scoped by a 12-year-old and hearing insults about their mother.
Of course, these are only just a handful of things that could be done to revitalize the genre as a whole. But I really do feel like interesting and compelling things could be done to turn the military FPS into a fascinating and exciting genre that explores new avenues with its narrative. After all, it is one of the best-selling genres in the market, and has an opportunity to expose people to the wonders a video game’s story can do. It is easily one of the most unique forms of entertainment media in the world, and it’s time we started utilizing that to its fullest potential.