War. War Never Changes – Thoughts on Conflict and Context by Joe “Shadon1010” Dillon
Every story requires conflict or there is no story, just stagnation. But the word “conflict” itself is distinct from the context that it revolves in. For example, there can be conflict in deciding if you want regular cornflakes in the morning or those with a sugar frosting, or there can be conflict in a dread cosmic entity deciding to devour all of reality. In both cases there is conflict, it’s just the context that differs.
Yet when conflict is mentioned the context is often what first springs to mind. Or rather that we have a stereotype of conflict: war. After all, battles in the media are often called conflicts these days.
Why is this relevant to games? The vast majority of game plots have war as the context as it’s something we are all familiar with even if we have never been directly involved in it. And while war as a context is all well and good, it’s the layers of context that are often placed above this that often frustrate me.
I am of course referring to the many games set in modern times, in the real world, in countries or locations we are all too familiar with. Call of Duty, Homefront, Battlefield, you know what I’m talking about.
My gripe is that because we are now all too familiar with real world wars and battles past and present, game developers and writers are resorting to the middle east country name tastefully removed template of context, such that the word “conflict” and that all too often used context are now synonymous. I can see why this is done; it makes the game easily identifiable and recognisable. If you’ve seen the Captain America trailers as of late the film is being presented for the most part as a standard war flick from the selection of shots they’ve taken, yet of course Marvel are using this technique of identification to draw people in to this story where the context is only dressed with 1940’s World War II era styling and locations, as opposed to being the entire world in which the story plays out.
Allow me to segue elsewhere. I recently completed Crysis 2, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the game despite my PC being still somewhat sore from the abuse it took, something niggled at me. Something I couldn’t initially put my finger on about a variety of things; the de ja vu, the wasted potential, the similarities.
Firstly, the setting of New York, while brilliantly rendered for certain, is so far gone of a cliché that it forced me to recall a similar game story wise: Prototype. Private Military Corporation? Check. Rampant Viral Outbreak? Check. Arsehole Commander of PMC who you kill? Check. Both set in New York. The fact that the Ceph and the mutants from Prototype had similar colour schemes did not help.
Secondly, I realised that the gameplay, as open ended as your choices were in how to approach each set piece, was all too similar to Call of Duty that I couldn’t help but wonder: If I were to show this game without spoiling the title to someone who was familiar with the Call of Duty series but not with Crysis or Crytek, could I pass it off as Call of Duty: Future Warfare? Quite possibly.
My fear is that game writers are becoming too safe in their choices of contexts such that conflict and context become synonymous, likely with this template of real world scenarios that are otherwise unchallenging and instantly recognisable. When I say conflict, this will mean “noble soldier versus third world terrorism”, rather than merely being a mechanism around which a story revolves. Conflict is required in a plot certainly, but the presence of Middle Eastern terrorists is not, nor is military bravado. It’s up to you what you put in there, but try to at least challenge the gamer with something a bit more out there. Remember Bioshock? If that wasn’t a wake up call to the industry that games can’t both be challenging in the story and the actual gameplay as well as being profitable, I don’t know what is.
This is why Crysis 2 was a minor disappointment for me, because it had all the unusual elements in place (Nanosuit, aliens etc) but chose a more pedestrian location with all too familiar characters. It had the potential for something more out there, but instead fell back on the easy option. Still, I applaud Crytek for not going full lazy and injecting the scenario of a devastated New York with those elements I mentioned, and I hope future instalments of Crysis or other series follow suit. Indeed, if I recall correctly, there was initial resistance from Activision in moving Call of Duty from its World War II roots to the Modern Warfare era, yet as a result they actually pulled off, at least in Modern Warfare 1, a solid story with great atmosphere and made untold millions. But now that setting and context has become frankly boring and if it continues to be recycled game stories that utilise it will become as stagnant as they would be without any conflict whatsoever.
Ranting aside, I have one final question. What exactly do writers have against New York?
– Joe “Shadon1010” Dillon is a wannabe writer and has actually been to New York. Despite what is required of him, he does not hate the city. Maybe one homeless person at most. That’s all.