World War I In Video Games

For most of the last decade, the European or South Pacific Theaters of World War II were used as the setting for most First-Person-Shooter games. It was where the now famous Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises got their start and where longtime veteran Medal of Honor ran around until they were unable to compete against the playing experiences the two new kids brought to the table. Despite dominating the setting, the sheer number of horrible cash-ins, as well as the desire to see a modern world rendered in all the lovely shades of brown and gray that current generations graphics were triumphantly boasting.

Five years since Call of Duty: Modern Warfare abandoned the World War II setting, we’ve now in the midst of doing the same thing with the modern setting, running it straight into the ground. With Activision proudly releasing yearly map packs, the modern warfare setting has been done to death in just five-years, what it took the World War II setting to do in about 8-9 years. Companies are largely unwilling to explore more recent wars like the Vietnam War because of the unconventional style of fighting as well as the ambiguities and atrocities committed during that war. The recent modern games all take place in fictional countries with fictional leaders and motives that hover somewhere just above a James Bond film. There is one setting that hasn’t been explored at all by any major video game developer, or even really any indie publisher, and that’s World War I.

It’s not exactly hard to see why it’s been ignored. It gets glossed over during most American high school history classes because of the United States’ committed mentality towards isolationism. All of the veterans are now dead, and the starting date is quickly approaching its 100th anniversary. Besides all that though, the ambiguity of the war is even more prevalent than in other wars, with no clear “good vs. bad” like with World War II. It was a war was largely brought on by the linger effects of 19th century colonialism, empiricism, arms race, and the shells left over from former monarchies.

As for the not so obvious reasons, the war was largely a defensive one, which turned into a massive blood-letting after the German’s failure to take Paris in 1914. Trenches were set up and fortified with barbed wire, mines, shells, and machine guns. The shells made it possible to laud highly destructive explosives as the enemy to psychologically break soldiers, and machine guns made it possible to mow down entire platoons, suicidally sent by commanders still using techniques imposed by Napoleon. Most offensive weaponry like aeroplanes and tanks were still in their infancy and in most cases never really proved to be effective. Blood-letting is the only way to really describe it, four long years of sending wave after wave of young men to their death for reasons that nobody really understood.

All of these reasons showcase why we’ve never seen a World War I video game, however ironically also showcase why we need a World War I video game. Video games are really the only entertainment medium that never fully implants the message of the horrors of war, because in reality war isn’t fun, but a video game is a game, and games are fun. It’s a hard line to walk, because it can give kids the wrong impression of what war is all about. Especially as newer games try so hard to create a realistic atmosphere, while still staying within the realm of video game logic. It’s the reason why you’ll never see a video game where you get shot once and die, or get dragged off the battlefield to spend months recovering in a hospital. That being said, most recent games have always coyly skirted around the true horrors that accompany war.

It would be absolutely impossible to create a game about World War I and not include every single horrible blight against humanity that accompanied the war. It’s the game that, if done right, would shake the FPS genre to its very core, and perhaps even force publishers and developers to give more thought into the messages they wish to part with the gamer. Imagine a scenario where you’re controlling your character, and the unmistakable sound of a shell coming is heard, however this shell is full of mustard gas. Your character fumbles for their gas mask and just as the gas begins to seep out, the screams of soldiers closer to impact is heard. The shrieks as the gas enters their lungs, turning into hoarse coughs as it poisons and kills the cells, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Or perhaps doing a mad suicidal charge against machine gun fire, where whenever your avatar dies you quantum leap into the body of another soldier only to be cut down. This would easily illustrate the sheer perversion of sending those waves against machine gun fire. There could also be air combat sections, where your plan’s engine is held to the frame with string.

There’s no mistaking that it would be an absolutely brutal game and probably impossible to beat, but there’s also no denying that it would leave a profound impact on the players. If done correctly, it could be considered a classic in the same way as Silent Hill 2, for delivering an emotionally impacting story that leaves the player drained in a way that passive media rarely do.

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The Future of Video Games

Last week saw something amazing, it saw a video game developer from a bygone age of gaming make a plea for money to go towards making a new game. His original price was $400,000, and in 24-hours he had raised $1,000,000. Here’s the story, and what this could mean for the video gaming industry.

Tim Schafer, founder of Double-Fine Productions began his career working with LucasArts in the late 1980’s and got his first real break working on the PC classic The Secret of Monkey Island along side other talented designers Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman. The success of The Secret of Monkey Island brought forth the sequel Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, as well as other ’90’s PC gaming classics like Full Throttle, Grim Fandango, and Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle.

Despite the success and cult status of these titles, Tim Schafer and many of the designers for LucasArts Adventure Games left the company in the early ’00’s and founded Double-Fine Productions, which released their first title, Psychonauts, which met with lukewarm success, despite a warm reception from game reviewers. Their 2009 title, Brutal Legend, which featured voice work from Tenacious D singer Jack Black, as well as famous musicians like Lemmy, Rob Halford, Lita Ford, and Ozzy Osborne. The game received large praise from the professional reviewing community and was enough to cement Double-Fine Productions with continuous work, with their most recent title. Once Upon a Monster making full use of Microsoft’s motion senor device, the Kinect, featuring Sesame Street characters like Elmo and Cookie Monster.

In February, Double-Fine Productions and Two-Player Productions started a Kickstarter project to collect donations to create a brand new adventure game. While their starting goal was only $400,000, in little over 24-hours they had surpassed that goal and earned $1,000,000. As of February 19th 2012, they are at $1,987,665, with another 22 days for the project.

The indie video game market has proliferated quite a lot in the digital age, allowing small developers an avenue for distribution that otherwise wouldn’t have existed for them in the age of brick and mortar business’. Distributors like Apple’s App Store and Steam have proven to be quite popular and has allowed game like Angry Birds or Amnesia: The Dark Descent an easy way to reach their audience. Other venues like the Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Store have also allowed console gamers a similar experience that PC gamers have enjoyed since Steam debuted in 2004.

While these services are a good start, they still face many of the problems that plague the AAA gaming market. Indie games tend to be a bit shorter, and often have the problems that may have otherwise been caught when their development staff consisted of more than just a small handful of people. While indie developers work just as hard as their AAA counterparts, their simpler gameplay that forgoes many of the trappings of the mainstream gaming market, it does tend to limit their audience. Still, in an industry so troubled with a creative glut, many of the so-called “indie gamers” are more than happy to overlook the flaws that are associated with their industry.

Going back to Tim Schafer and the Kickstarter project, it really does represent the beginning of what could become a new popular trend among developers. If fans are more than happy to donate nearly two million dollars to see Tim Schafer and crew make a new adventure game, what else would they be happy to see? Imagine if popular industry figures like Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, or John Carmack were to create their own Kickstarter campaign to fund their own personal games that perhaps EA, Bethesda, or Microsoft Game Studios would be disinclined to fund because they don’t have ironsight aiming, regenerating health, two weapon slots, and RPG upgrading elements.

Chris Avellone of Obsidian Games, formerly Black Isle Studios, has expressed interest in starting his own Kickstarter project to make another isometric RPG in lieu of PC RPG favourite Planescape: Torment. Considering recent indie games like Torchlight and Death Spank (developed by former LucasArts employee Ron Gilbert), has suggested a resurgence in recapture the PC Gaming Golden Years of the ’90’s. Reboots of franchises like Syndicate Wars, X-COM, and Fallout has shown that there has been some interest in introducing a new generation of gamers to the games of the ’90’s which are often hard to find or are not optimized to work on modern PC’s (although services like GOG has helped this).

Gabe Newell of Valve, developers of popular digital distribution service Steam has even said that he is in favor of fans funding their games as a way of circumventing conservative gaming publishers and giving the fans what they want, rather than servicing the shareholders first and fans second.

While fan funding may not be the way to go for AAA gaming titles, which can run in the millions of dollars, but for indie games, the cost can be kept down by not trying to keep up with the latest graphics and destructive physics. New games like Battlefield 3 look incredibly pretty and take every opportunity to show off their destruction physics, however we really have started to reach the limit on where we can go. This is evidenced by the longer than usual time the last console generation has been around for, with the Xbox 360 going on 7-years come this November, far longer than the average 5-years per previous generation. Why is this? Because games are just costing too much to develop with top of the range graphics, a major draw for new consoles. Sony found this out first hand with the Playstation 3 launch, which saw barely any games out for the first 6 months of its release in North America.

Since 2007 we have really seen the video games industry in a bit of a glut, in thanks to the massive success of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, which set the standard for which all FPS’ needed to be built around. Regenerating health, two weapons, and ironsight aiming were all really brought into the forefront of the genre in thanks to the Call of Duty series and now they are found in almost every game. Another game whose massive success was found to have an impact on the industry as a whole was another 2007 game, Bioshock, which introduced a more stat-based gaming and RPG elements introduced to genres that they were otherwise normally absent from.

Every year since 2005 we have seen a new Call of Duty game hit the market in November, and even new I.P.’s have been exploited with yearly releases that usually introduce nothing more than artificial enhancements, yet still carry the full price tag. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series has been one such unfortunate victim, and even Square Enix has entertained the idea of releasing annual Final Fantasy games. This has allowed developers less time to deliver a brand new experience, but rather just give us more of the same and it’s beginning to wear thin on the gaming market. While games like Dragon Age II, Bioshock 2, and Fallout: New Vegas have sold well and received decent to good review scores, everyone always mentions the lack of anything that really adds to what the originals brought to the table. With the massive success of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game that was in development for five years, as opposed to the one to two years most games are afforded, the developers can really take the time to make the changes and build on what came before, like what a sequel should be.

The success of the indie market, which seems to be a reaction to these stagnant games that do not add anything to their respective series’ overall, and with the avenue of Kickstarter projects, the players can get what they want and the developers aren’t constrained because they cannot prove their risky idea will even succeed. I can foresee a day when publishers start to go the way of record labels towards obsolescence, desperately clinging to relevancy at the expense of other people. If I could see Activision CEO Bobby Kotick commit suicide in my lifetime because he can no longer run gaming franchises into the ground, I could die a slightly less miserable individual.

If you want to donate to Tim Schafer, $15 gets you a copy of the adventure game that will come out of this project. Here is the link.

LoathsomePete is just as the name sounds, a man who’s mad as hell and isn’t going to take it. You can follow him on Twitter @avengedpie, or on Tumblr