Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Ordinary Players, Extraordinary Characters

Robert Rath | 13 Dec 2012 12:00
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A soldier charges forward despite the bullet in his abdomen. A criminal robs a bank and loses the cops in a high-speed chase. In games we accept this as normal procedure-just standard game mechanics, nothing to see here-but then we start talking about whether it's realistic or not and things get more complicated.

Here's the normal answer to whether these mechanics are realistic: Bullshit. Couldn't happen. No one is that powerful. We understand that there's a dissonance between the behavior of game characters and real people, and dismiss it as a consequence of the medium the same way we accept an actor onstage pantomiming driving a car or riding a horse. Of course Niko Bellic can shoot up a strip mall, evade the police, and become anonymous again in minutes, we think, it's a game. A normal person couldn't run around being a criminal publicly without being caught, not in the real world, the same way you can't get hit by grenade shrapnel and hide behind a wall until your wounds heal.

But when we say that, we forget one thing: In games, we don't play as normal people, we play as extraordinary people.

Consider regenerating health, for instance. We take it as a given that soldiers couldn't really carry on fighting with a bullet in their abdomen, and if someone says otherwise, we assume they're either naive or an apologist fanboy. What we don't think about is people like Daniel Inouye.

On April 21st, 1945 Lieutenant Daniel Inouye was lying face-down in the Tuscan dirt, crossfire from three German machine guns pinning his platoon to the ground. The enemy was dug into a ridge 40 yards away, firing from bunkers and rock formations. Inouye had already been hit once by a sniper, with the bullet entering his lower belly and exiting a quarter-inch from his spine.

With his men pinned down and vulnerable from the punishing fire, Inouye grabbed a bag of grenades and crawled within five yards of the first bunker. He lobbed in two frags and silenced the first machine gun. Then, alone and exposed, he pulled the pin on a third grenade and turned toward the next machine gun nest-but found himself staring into the barrel of a German rifle grenade. The shot went wide and hit Inouye in the elbow, the shrapnel ripping through flesh and tendons, almost completely severing his right arm.

While the German reloaded, Inouye looked for the dropped frag, shouting at his men to stay back. He found the live explosive still clutched in the nerveless fingers of his dangling right arm. In a fog of shock, Inouye pried the grenade from his own dead fingers and tossed it at the German offhand, taking out the second nest. Then, in a blind rage, he picked up his Thompson and charged the third machine gun, firing left-handed into the bunker with blood spurting from his right arm. A bullet kicked his leg out from under him and he rolled down the hill unconscious.

When Inouye awoke, he refused medical evacuation and propped himself against a tree. He stayed there for a full hour, directing his men until they secured the ridge.

Now, that's a pretty unbelievable story-no doubt if you saw it play out in a game you'd chalk it up to rah-rah go-America FPS absurdity-but not only is it true, Daniel Inouye is alive and well and serving his ninth term in the U.S. Senate. The U.S. Army gave Inouye the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions at San Terenzo, and President Clinton upgraded it to the Medal of Honor in 2000, acknowledging that the U.S. Army had denied full recognition of Inouye's actions because he was part of the Japanese-American 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team. And he wasn't alone; 19 other men from the 100th/442nd also had their medals upgraded, all for actions just as crazy as Inouye's. This, along with eight Presidential Unit Citations, 32 Distinguished Service Crosses, 560 Silver Stars, 4,000 Bronze Stars, and 9,486 Purple Hearts, make the 100th Battalion/442nd RCT the most decorated unit in the history of the U.S. Army. Each of those medals represents an act we wouldn't consider realistic, or even possible, under normal circumstances.

Though in some ways, it's cheating to talk about military history in the context of extraordinary actions. It's generally acknowledged that the men and women serving in militaries around the world regularly go above and beyond the limits of what people do in "everyday" life, or even the limits of what soldiers are expected to do. (Call of Duty, after all, comes from the idiom "above and beyond the call of duty," meaning a soldier who has performed above what is normally expected.) The military is, in fact, a social construction that facilitates and encourages people to do amazing things like dive out of airplanes and rush machine gun nests. What about a game set here on the homefront?

Grand Theft Auto's relationship to reality is a touchy subject in many ways (it's still the go-to title for anti-game mavens when they want to beat a dead horse) but generally the dissonance is just treated as a joke. Liberty City PD isn't going to pick Niko up for leaving a finger print on a car door, for example, and they'll conveniently forget his face the moment he checks into the hospital after gunning down helicopters in an urban center. Modern police methods don't seem to exist in the GTA world, since anyone who acts like their protagonists would get caught inside a week.

Unless you're the Whisky Robber, of course, and you're pulling all your capers in post-communist Hungary. Back in the '90s, modern police methods didn't exist in Eastern Europe either-detectives sometimes worked in the dark, since the Interior Ministry couldn't pay its electricity bills-and low police salaries ensured that Budapest cops fell into three categories: corrupt, incompetent, and underequipped. Most banks didn't have closed-circuit camera systems and a lot of businesses dealt in cash, laying the groundwork for the most spectacular and bizarre spree of armed robberies in European history.

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