For Once, a War Game That's Not All About Head Shots and Explosions

With 'The Sun Also Rises' are war games finally getting over the first person shooter?

Aug 21 2014, 2:30pm

Image: The Sun Also Rises

Sometimes video games need to get it together. 2008's Fallout 3 begins with a formless, tired voice saying, "War never changes." That same year, (that very same year!), Metal Gear Solid 4 begins with Snake muttering, "War has changed." 

Despite declaring the opposite, they're circling the same point: that no matter the changes in politics, technology, if we live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland or a cyborg-riddled techno-nightmare, conflict will seemingly continue onward. It's a really broad gloss-over of the state of things.

But war isn't just about the macro, there's the micro. Lives on and off the battlefield are shaped by it. That's why game developers Ty Underwood and August Early, two people who have never been to war, produced the ambitious multiplayer narrative war game, The Sun Also Rises. Like a lot of Americans, they are surrounded by a 'War On Terror' they've never fought in, but were affected by it thousands of kilometres from the actual war zone. 

And it's that perspective they're pursuing in their own video game that gives gamers the chance to play as multiple operators in conflicts we've come to recognize too familiarly on network television clips. 

"Ask anyone in the military," said Underwood. "They know their decisions impact people they'll never meet." 

The game looks at PTSD, civilian interactions, child soldiers and bureaucracy, spread around three key characters: a medic, an Afghan boy and a CIA analyst working from the US. A narrative driven experience, The Sun Also Rises presents you with a variety of problems exploring and inspired by Underwood and Early's rigorous research on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

To Underwood, the game "is a way to bridge the gap" between what people see in media and the several ignored war experiences out there. Unlike several first person shooters that favour the viewpoints of Special Forces soldiers gunning down insurgents, this game emphasizes, "the different types of experiences people have gone through, whether they're soldiers or Afghan civilians." 

In real life, it's all confusion, you're surrounded by civilians, you're in a place where no one speaks your language.

Like on the real battlefield, your game will not exist in isolation. Each of your decisions will have ramifications on other people's games, complete strangers around the world, a design choice mirroring the point the developers are hoping to to make: everything that happens in war has ramifications elsewhere.

It's an ambitious game, not just for taking on the namesake of a Hemingway novel about the struggles of an ex-WWI pilot struggling with the memory of war, but for trying to turn the tide against the most popular games in the world: military shooters.

"These games are always set in an arena, and there's two teams, and you always know who your enemy is," said Early. "You always know who your allies are. You always know everything that's going on. In real life, it's all confusion, you're surrounded by civilians, you're in a place where no one speaks your language." 

For the game, August cited stories from the Korangal Valley in Afghanistan, where soldiers have said they couldn't even see who they were firing at, in some of the most intense fighting the US Army saw since the Vietnam war. "They hear a sound and they duck. This is happening day to day," he said. "These (first person shooter) games are not really representational of war today."

Games like The Sun Also Rises, are made possible by the fact that the scale of game development has changed drastically in the last few years. While Call of Duty or Battlefield may require hundreds of programmers working around the clock, games with more specified ambitions require very few members, and the options to get resources, while no guarantees, are more available. Underwood and Early are using Kickstarter and OUYA's #FreeTheGames Fund to raise money for more research to speak with a wider variety of individuals overseas.

And they are not alone. There's a wave of new, specified war games, focusing on the uncelebrated and overshadowed stories, the people lost in time. Tales of Tales, an experimental game studio, has recently revealed their most ambitious project to date: Sunset, a game about a housekeeper working for a wealthy South American, one who may be involved in a coming revolution. On the more explosive front, there's also RIOT, a sim made up of pixilated versions of global protest events that will probably resonate with anyone who's been awake at all for the last decade.

"There's a place for sensationalist war games," said Underwood. "Just like there's a place for action movies... If it's problematic, it's only because those games take up such a massive space of what people end up seeing from games in general. It's like if every movie you've ever heard of wasTransformers."

Screenshot from The Sun Also Rises.

Instead, Early and Underwood are mixing in their attempt to diversify war gaming into other, more ambitious avenues that make gamers think, rather than just point and shoot.

...they advertise the battlefield as a place for lynchpin heroes: individuals who change the tides of the universe by shooting at a clear and present enemy.

"They're for entertainment, that's okay," said Early. "There's a need for entertainment. What we're trying to do is stray away from that, we believe there's a lot of space to talk about things that these games haven't commented on."

While it's easy to agree with the vapid cynicism of first person shooter narrators, the direction of those games in their depictions of combat is perpetually problematic. Usually too straightforward, they advertise the battlefield as a place for lynchpin heroes: individuals who change the tides of the universe by shooting at a clear and present enemy. 

Even Call of Duty, the most popular of games, with eerie segments like Death from Above or sobering moments like dying in a bomb's fallout, will conclude with an escape from a castle so wild it would seem a bit much in a James Bond adventure. Despite games promoting a world run by conflict, they often miss the scope.

In essence, if everything you knew about conflict was something you learned from a video game, you'd have a pretty strange perspective of this world. You might understand that war can be horrible, haunting, but usually that's because those games willtell you that in cut scenes and bookend narratives. They'll let you know war is perpetuated to the detriment of the innocent only in-between adrenaline rushes of head-shots, air-strikes and sporting camaraderie. Now that games are being allowed to change, so can their perspective about the world around them.

In the end, whether or not war ever changes, The Sun Also Rises shows war video games have begun to, at the very least.