Forget Realism, We Need Truth

Forget Realism, We Need Truth

Robert tackles the military games genre and says that if you want to depict war, you need to talk about the material in a way that resonates with the audience.

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In fact, the more lifelike graphics get, the more game-like and constrictive gameplay seems in comparison.

I have heard that before from Extra Credits. In their Uncanny Valley episode explained a little about it; although they also stated that we may be able to reach the point where photorealistic graphics will finally deliver the intended real-life experience if we keep on pushing the limits. Can't we find a way to combine the best of both worlds?

The thing is...
I do not think these game fetishize realism. Not at all. At least not CoD (MW2 and 3) and Battlefield.

I mean any game where the 125mm 2A46 shells (real ones) used by the T-90 cant destroy US tanks from 100 meters (they should from 2+ kilometers)... it is obvious it is "lolol USA!!!" and the devs are not thinking of realism at all.

My father, a Vietnam veteran, hated the movie Platoon. They got all the weapons and uniforms right, he told me, but it felt wrong. "It took everything bad that happened during the war and had it happen to one group of guys," he liked to say. He worried that the technical realism would mask how unlikely the narrative was, giving non-veterans a distorted view.

I find it pretty odd that my grandfather (also a Vietnam veteran) has the opposite opinion. He likes Platoon, and mentioned to me that the movie "...was pretty close to how it actually was." I've never watched Apocalypse Now with him, so I'm not sure his stance on that particular movie, however.

Still, have you considered other examples of games in the military genre? I'm fairly surprised Valiant Hearts wasn't mentioned, considering how people have been going on about it and singing its praises. Not had the chance to play it myself, so keep that in mind.

Excellent article as always, and I generally agree with most of the stuff in it, but the more I reflect on Spec Ops, the less I like the message it's trying to portray about player-driven violence being a bad thing. Attempting to humanize video game enemies and guilt the player for killing them seems to me to feel too much like the game's writer/designer blaming the player for his own faults. As a player I can only take actions within the game that the game allows me to take. In a military shooter I can't put down the gun and talk things out. But that's okay, because the enemy is literally inhuman. The bandits in Borderlands are literally mindless killing machines. I and every other player am correct in treating them as sub-human target dummies because they are code simulacrums designed for exactly that.

It seriously bugs me that people try to conflate the actions depicted on-screen with their real-life counterparts while ignoring fundamental differences. A shooter (especially a multiplayer shooter) has far more in common with a game of paintball than it does war or even hunting. There is no death in these things - If I fire a 50 cal sniper round through a friend's head in Call of Duty, he'll be able to get up and fight back as soon as the respawn timer runs down. If I kill a bandit camp in Borderlands 2, they'll be right back there again when I reload the area later.

Kinda wandering off topic here, but my point is that Spec Ops changes the rules slightly and then guilts the player for following the old set. It says that the people you kill have families, but they didn't until the writer tells us later that they did. It says that this soldier liked Tennis or that soldier cried over a letter to his mother, but they didn't. They literally only exist during that brief time frame between loading the level and their corpse despawning, and the only actions they can take are pathing and basic combat logic.

Trying to bring things to an actual conclusion here: Although I applaud the writers of Spec Ops for attempting to make a point, I strongly disagree with the validity of the point they are trying to make.

Falterfire:
Excellent article as always, and I generally agree with most of the stuff in it, but the more I reflect on Spec Ops, the less I like the message it's trying to portray about player-driven violence being a bad thing. Attempting to humanize video game enemies and guilt the player for killing them seems to me to feel too much like the game's writer/designer blaming the player for his own faults. As a player I can only take actions within the game that the game allows me to take. In a military shooter I can't put down the gun and talk things out. But that's okay, because the enemy is literally inhuman. The bandits in Borderlands are literally mindless killing machines. I and every other player am correct in treating them as sub-human target dummies because they are code simulacrums designed for exactly that.

It seriously bugs me that people try to conflate the actions depicted on-screen with their real-life counterparts while ignoring fundamental differences. A shooter (especially a multiplayer shooter) has far more in common with a game of paintball than it does war or even hunting. There is no death in these things - If I fire a 50 cal sniper round through a friend's head in Call of Duty, he'll be able to get up and fight back as soon as the respawn timer runs down. If I kill a bandit camp in Borderlands 2, they'll be right back there again when I reload the area later.

Kinda wandering off topic here, but my point is that Spec Ops changes the rules slightly and then guilts the player for following the old set. It says that the people you kill have families, but they didn't until the writer tells us later that they did. It says that this soldier liked Tennis or that soldier cried over a letter to his mother, but they didn't. They literally only exist during that brief time frame between loading the level and their corpse despawning, and the only actions they can take are pathing and basic combat logic.

Trying to bring things to an actual conclusion here: Although I applaud the writers of Spec Ops for attempting to make a point, I strongly disagree with the validity of the point they are trying to make.

I think that their intent was less about saying "shooting bad guys in video games is bad", but more about questioning (or indicting you could say) the motives of a lot of the players in how they chose to interact with these kill simulations that are in and of themselves harmless. More specifically, there are cases to be made about how the current/next gen iterations of the Call OF Duty were decidedly anti-war, as Robert gave in his examples. Nonetheless, despite the intent of the message, many players used it to vent their frustrations/aggressions about terrorism and to indulge in their post 9/11 revenge fantasies (one could find any number of anecdotes about hyperagressive players online spouting racial slurs, or even outside of multiplayer in the real world, where kids line up to get their chance to "kill some sand ni**ers"). I think this was the real point behind it, as far as the ending dialogue is concerned when it talks about the player "wanting to feel like a hero". I feel its somewhat comparable to the open disdain GTA V has for it's demographic, yet wants to have its cake and eat it too by making fun of gamers but still wanting to be a fun game. But in this case, Spe cOps purposely makes the game "un-fun" in many parts.

A big part of the problem is that "truth" isn't always as absolute and objective as the name implies. While I agree that games and movies(or at least "serious" ones) should focus more on the consequences and issues surrounding the events they depict rather than making sure the soldier's shirt has the exact right number of buttons on it, what the actual realities of an event were vary greatly depending on who you ask. Two different soldiers doing the same job, in the same war, at the same time, in the same unit can still come out with very different opinions on what the war was actually like and what issues were significant about the war in question. This has already been mentioned in the thread above, with one veteran thinking Platoon was accurate while the one mentioned in the article thought it was inaccurate. That is what you need to be careful of when you try to focus on the "truth" because your own philosophies and experiences can have a drastic effect on what the "truth" you depict is. Realism is at least a little more objective but in the end we don't really learn much from it.

I agree to an extent in what your saying, as a veteran of the US military there is nothing even remotely realistic or authentic about most modern military games. The only game that I have played that remotely resonates with my personal military experience is the Arma series and even that is just a shadow of what its like to serve. Arma can't replicate the complexity of emotions you feel when patrolling dangerous roads in Baghdad or the connections you establish from interacting with the local people on the ground. It can't convey the everyday frustrations and anxiety that soldiers experience when you have to watch every person, even every piece of trash on the side of the road for a potential threat that could in a flash be the last thing you see.

One of my biggest issues with modern military games is how they really make a mockery of the relationships that soldiers have with one another. Many developers portray soldiers to be like cavemen, who glorify killing or care so very little for their comrades that when they die it barely raises so much as an eyebrow when in reality its a genuine shock to the entire company. We don't sit around in our downtime talking about dying for our country or talking about how we can't wait to get into another fight so we can kill more of the "bad guys"etc. We talk about normal everyday things, anything to take our mind off of the constant stress and the dangerous monotony of conducting patrols day in and day out not knowing if in the next hour my time could be up.

I don't think there ever will be a game that brings any sense of "true" realism to the military experience because its just not something that can be easily replicated. The reality of non combat garrison life is like any normal job with its share of boredom and challenge. There are days were you do nothing but sit around in the company offices and days were you go to the range to train and both are not what most people consider worth turning into a game. Combat on the other hand has always been the avenue that makes "compelling gameplay" but would a developer ever want to convey the hours of preparation that go into the every patrol? the long walks to the ammo dump to grab munitions or the walk to the chow hall to grab to go plates to eat for the evening mission? What about the moments sitting around in your vehicles trying to decide who has first night watch or who gets to sleep in the drivers seat of the tank because its the only seat that can recline? Is that the realism people want from their games? because it doesn't get any more real then that.

Just my 2 cents I guess, I may have completely gone off topic though.

Coreless:

I don't think there ever will be a game that brings any sense of "true" realism to the military experience because its just not something that can be easily replicated. The reality of non combat garrison life is like any normal job with its share of boredom and challenge. There are days were you do nothing but sit around in the company offices and days were you go to the range to train and both are not what most people consider worth turning into a game. Combat on the other hand has always been the avenue that makes "compelling gameplay" but would a developer ever want to convey the hours of preparation that go into the every patrol? the long walks to the ammo dump to grab munitions or the walk to the chow hall to grab to go plates to eat for the evening mission? What about the moments sitting around in your vehicles trying to decide who has first night watch or who gets to sleep in the drivers seat of the tank because its the only seat that can recline? Is that the realism people want from their games? because it doesn't get any more real then that.

Just my 2 cents I guess, I may have completely gone off topic though.

As a fellow military man I agree with you for sure, which is why it's not so much important to make a "realistic" military game but a compelling one. There is nothing at all realistic about Spec Ops: The Line but it is a compelling game to play regardless. Much the same can be said about Apocalypse Now, which borrowed from the same source material Spec Ops did. Nothing about Apocalypse Now is realistic but it's certainly a compelling film anyway.

I don't know how you feel about the movie Jarhead or if you've ever even seen or heard of it, but I found it to be pretty much as close to "realistic" as any military movie I've ever seen. Many of its scenes captured, perfectly, what life was like for soldiers in Iraq. But that movie would make a terrible game. I think it's hard to portray boredom in a game without actually making the player themselves bored, which is probably not what you want. I think it could be done but it'd not be easy.

So yeah, I agree with the author. Realistic military games aren't the best idea, compelling military games are.

Thank. You. So. Much.

People get confused when I try to explain why I like certain games and dislike others.

CoD fans get confused when I argue that CoD4 was miles better than MW2.

CoD haters get confused when I defend the artistic merits of CoD4.

People think I'm weird because I will talk about Portal, Bioshock, Half-Life, and CoD4 in the same discussion of "video games as a storytelling medium."

But this. This right here. You nailed it on the head Mr. Rath:

"...I like fun - but fun has a short expiration date. I stop having fun when I put down the controller, but a game that shows you truth flash burns itself on your soul."

BAM!

That's it! This is what I've been trying to articulate for years!

Sadly I don't expect developers and publishers will try to get more truth into video games. I remember the "controversy" regarding Six Days in Fallujah that got absolutely ruined by mainstream media, and then the publisher dropped the game completely instead of backing the developers.

If getting more truth in video games equals extreme hate from media outlets, no business will touch on the idea.

Personally I tend to use the term "authentic" or "genuine" rather than truthful for the concept that this article is talking about.

It's not quite the same as "realism" where the writers have done some research to make the incidental details accurate after they've already worked out the main story beats. Instead, it's where the original motivation for the meat of the story comes from experience or an emotional connection or incite into the subject matter.

First: Of course Apocalypse Now used Vietnam only as a backdrop. The story was originally set in the Congo.

Second: Audiences have often a very hard time differentiating between the realism and the "truth" of a story. Just look how Evangelical Christians interpret the bible.

remnant_phoenix:
Thank. You. So. Much.

People get confused when I try to explain why I like certain games and dislike others.

CoD fans get confused when I argue that CoD4 was miles better than MW2.

CoD haters get confused when I defend the artistic merits of CoD4.

People think I'm weird because I will talk about Portal, Bioshock, Half-Life, and CoD4 in the same discussion of "video games as a storytelling medium."

But this. This right here. You nailed it on the head Mr. Rath:

"...I like fun - but fun has a short expiration date. I stop having fun when I put down the controller, but a game that shows you truth flash burns itself on your soul."

BAM!

That's it! This is what I've been trying to articulate for years!

I think you're arguing CoD's single player merits to people who probably enjoy the multiplayer aspect more than the SP experience... because I see that CoD4 was a much better storyline, but MW2 had a much better Multiplayer experience. Just sayin.

CoD haters? Bah... why argue with people who're already disinclined to like a game series based on something you, and they, probably can't quantify.

OT: I agree with almost everything here, except the total backhanded attempt to smack Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed here... I know we're still feeling burned by Unity's release but you can't say that Ubisoft was going for any form of Historical accuracy beyond period looks and historical figures, the rest is a very what-if fiction and has no need nor reason to be truthful or accurate in events portrayed.

Charcharo:
The thing is...
I do not think these game fetishize realism. Not at all. At least not CoD (MW2 and 3) and Battlefield.

I mean any game where the 125mm 2A46 shells (real ones) used by the T-90 cant destroy US tanks from 100 meters (they should from 2+ kilometers)... it is obvious it is "lolol USA!!!" and the devs are not thinking of realism at all.

I feel the same. These are all action games with dramatic action movie themes and writing, at no point do they even attempt to simulate actual combat. If somebody wants realism, they pick up Arma 3 or something.

And I'm also really tired of the word "fetish" being thrown around. The sexual connotations they're meant evoke are juvenile when synonyms such as "fixation", "obsession", or "compulsion" would work just as well, but the author is being dishonest in the first place by describing realism as such. Attention to aesthetic detail and visual authenticity is one of the core principles of ALL mediums of visual arts, games are no exception and I see no sense in criticizing them for it.

Robert Rath:
military games... Considering that these games came from a genre that fetishizes realism

You make some interesting points, but I'm really not sure your base assumption is at all valid. The problem is that you appear to be lumping a whole pile of very different games and trying to force them all into a single genre that doesn't actually exist. There is no such thing as a "military game" genre. Most of the games you list are FPSes, and more specifically the sort usually termed "modern military shooters", in other words a sub-genre that is specifically about having shooters that look somewhat realistic. But then you also talk about Endgame: Syria, which obviously isn't a shooter of any kind. So what exactly is this "military games" genre you're talking about? Why are games like This War of Mine, Hearts of Iron and Panzer General, all in very different genres but undeniably military games, not included? Or if you're trying to limit things only to modern shooters, why is Endgame: Syria there at all?

It seems as though you wanted to make a point about a particular sub-genre exemplified by CoD, but then generalised it to everything related to anything military without really thinking about whether that generalisation was actually valid. Lots of military games address truths about war while including various degrees of realism. Not all of them do it from a first person perspective of one of the people doing the shooting, but that's far from the only perspective that matters. Look at Crusader Kings, for example, where going to war can result in people refusing to fight for you and potentially even rebelling, and there can be all kinds of political, cultural, and economic effects from your decisions of whether to fight or not. You may not be seeing the actual killing through someone's eyes, but there's an awful lot of truth about war right there.

The point is, you can't complain that games in a genre have a particular problem, but then hold up a game in a completely different genre as a better example, while completely ignoring all the other games in a whole pile of genres that cover the full spectrum of bad to good. If you want to talk about problems with modern military shooters, do that. If you want to talk about military games in general, ignoring the vast majority and depicting the flaws of one sub-genre as the flaws of all is not the way to do it.

this isn't a problem exclusive to video games though, if people wanted the truth, american sniper wouldn't be a box-office success.

Well, with Battlefield: Hardline looming around the corner and pinning americans against americans, I guess some people gave thought to a subject which has plagued the others for over a decade: modern warfare shooters forming prefabricated false, incorrect or incomplete public opinions.

Too late now though, everybody thinks Russia's Hitlerland.

Eh, I think the article fails to articulate why realism and truth are incompatible. It also failed to illustrate why the game saying something interesting about war is a necessity in any way. No Mario games seem to touch on the effects of habitual mushroom abuse but those games still seem to be enjoyable. You've automatically defined a game that is true as saying something that resonates with the gamer. By default, you have made a given something that we enjoy. So a game without truth wouldn't resonate with us and so wouldn't be memorable.

You might as well have defined truth as "games that are fun" and then went on to explain why games that are fun are better than games that are not fun.

That being said, I think the core of your article is just that these games need to have a point. Some kind of message that they are trying to depict. I agree that this is nice, but by no means the only way to make a successful game that we all love. Escapism and game mechanics can easily compensate for a lack of "truth". The truth in media is overrated when we have all this truth at our fingertips in real life already.

I think this lines up with what this Tuesday's Experienced Points said about the two-gun limit: ditch it. Ditch this whole "realism" shtick and let imaginations go wild. A game's story doesn't have to LOOK like real life in order to get a message that IS real to you.

Falterfire:
Excellent article as always, and I generally agree with most of the stuff in it, but the more I reflect on Spec Ops, the less I like the message it's trying to portray about player-driven violence being a bad thing. Attempting to humanize video game enemies and guilt the player for killing them seems to me to feel too much like the game's writer/designer blaming the player for his own faults. As a player I can only take actions within the game that the game allows me to take. In a military shooter I can't put down the gun and talk things out. But that's okay, because the enemy is literally inhuman. The bandits in Borderlands are literally mindless killing machines. I and every other player am correct in treating them as sub-human target dummies because they are code simulacrums designed for exactly that.

It seriously bugs me that people try to conflate the actions depicted on-screen with their real-life counterparts while ignoring fundamental differences. A shooter (especially a multiplayer shooter) has far more in common with a game of paintball than it does war or even hunting. There is no death in these things - If I fire a 50 cal sniper round through a friend's head in Call of Duty, he'll be able to get up and fight back as soon as the respawn timer runs down. If I kill a bandit camp in Borderlands 2, they'll be right back there again when I reload the area later.

Kinda wandering off topic here, but my point is that Spec Ops changes the rules slightly and then guilts the player for following the old set. It says that the people you kill have families, but they didn't until the writer tells us later that they did. It says that this soldier liked Tennis or that soldier cried over a letter to his mother, but they didn't. They literally only exist during that brief time frame between loading the level and their corpse despawning, and the only actions they can take are pathing and basic combat logic.

Trying to bring things to an actual conclusion here: Although I applaud the writers of Spec Ops for attempting to make a point, I strongly disagree with the validity of the point they are trying to make.

I guess that's what a game being "True Art" means: it makes you feel like a dick for playing it the way it was designed.

"Robert tackles the military games genre and says that if you want to depict war, you need to talk about the material in a way that resonates with the audience."

Why? Why do you need to talk about war in this way? The likelihood than any individual American will actually see combat is fantastically low. During WWII, as many as 10 million Americans were under arms. At the time we had a population of 132 million Americans. That means 1 out of every 13 Americans was involved directly in the war effort as part of the military. Everyone had an uncle or a brother or a dad or a cousin (or occasionally an aunt, sister, or mother - although those were much much more rare) in uniform. Everyone was connected.

Fast forward to today. There are 1.6 million Americans on active duty - 2.6 if we include the reserves - out of a population of 330 million. That's closer to 1 in 150. That means you can have multiple generations of families who haven't had *ANYONE* in uniform. These people typically know NOTHING of war or its prosecution.

War is freaking boring. A lot of really, really boring mundane repetitive crap, except for the 2-5% where it is filled with terror, doubt, chaos, and will.

No one would ever play that game. Ever.

I will admit, I loved Full Metal Jacket and Jarhead. Swofford is kind of an S-bag, but it's pretty realistic for a Lance Criminal.

While I agree that it would be nice if a lot more military shooters stopped with the pandering and glorifying military fantasies... I don't think that taking the exact 180 and making all of them deep, introspective views on war is necessarily the correct approach. Not only because we can't expect such stories to be successful all the time (and preachy, patronizing stories that attempt to be deep and introspective are some of the worst) but also because sometimes we play video games for a cathartic experience which, in a way, CoD does provide.

Yes, the market is kinda oversaturated with the power fantasies that CoD usually provides, but I don't think that entirely eliminating them is a good alternative.

jaded zombie:
this isn't a problem exclusive to video games though, if people wanted the truth, american sniper wouldn't be a box-office success.

The Hurt Locker says hi.

Many people already made the case that American Sniper is a box-office success because of how empty it is as a movie and how easy it is to project values onto it. It's the Bella Swan of movies, except tailored for paranoid Americans.

OP: I don't have much to add; another enjoyable read as can be expected from Mr. Rath.

It's always better to hit the themes of the subject matter rather than the visuals. Graphics and physics are little more than a connecting path to the heart of the story, where it is the gameplay and the narrative that allow the central conceit to emerge.

Robert Rath:
Forget Realism, We Need Truth

Robert tackles the military games genre and says that if you want to depict war, you need to talk about the material in a way that resonates with the audience.

Read Full Article

Id rather they focus on game play myself them being games and all. and if you want to tell a truth do it through the game play not the narrative. Spec ops was bad, bad gameplay and hamfisted forced atrocities , if you want to see the right way for games to tell truths , look at papers please or this war of mine.

"...I like fun - but fun has a short expiration date. I stop having fun when I put down the controller, but a game that shows you truth flash burns itself on your soul."

I feel that this can be applied to all genres of games, not just military shooters. For instance, there have been certain things I've learned from RPGs that give you a hint of realism that I have always remembered since I came upon them. Legend of Mana, Wild ARMs, Danganronpa, Chrono Trigger and even Persona 4 are but a few that I can mention; I'm sure other people here can mention more. I guess it's when you make an enjoyable gaming experience that shows you something, perhaps even teaches you, that you can apply to the real world that truly makes something memorable.

remnant_phoenix:

CoD haters get confused when I defend the artistic merits of CoD4.

That...is surprising. I've never seen anyone badmouth CoD 4, even if people flat out hate the series, that's always the one that gets held up as "the good one", because it was the exact opposite of the games that came after it.

It did what it did because that was what the developers thought would be good and leave an impression, not just for the sake of it, intentially causing controversy, dem feels, cash out or trying to top itself by being brutalz.

I agree with the general thrust of this article, I disagree on a point or two. Firstly, I don't really agree with Spec Ops: The Line being an illustration of the player's compulsion to just keep killing, considering there are no other options to progress. I don't think that's powerful at all. To me, it's chastising the player for simply playing the game. I hear that's kind of its thing, but it still doesn't feel like a meaningful commentary on war. What would have been more effective is if you could progress by force or evasion, but by evasion, perhaps you witness atrocities from afar that you want to fight and stop. However in doing so, you endanger the lives of your squad, civilians and yourself, and maybe instill in yourself a kind of moral justification for your actions. And I'm talking about the characters in the game. I'm talking about the player. That would have really hit home if the powerful moments of the game were wrought of the players own volition. It would be a good way to show the inherent issues around seeing atrocities, having the will and power to intervene, but knowing somewhere that your actions in stopping them would only lead to more suffering.

Secondly, I disagree with the sentiment that you sacrifice truth when you add more realism. Red Orchestra is a great example of how realism can actually convey the horrors of combat. The sound of artillery, the screams of dying soldier, distant gunfire, your own racing heart and breath, and the knowledge that around the next corner, could be your death. Playing or even watching them game is downright terrifying most of the time, as you would expect combat to be.

elvor0:

remnant_phoenix:

CoD haters get confused when I defend the artistic merits of CoD4.

That...is surprising. I've never seen anyone badmouth CoD 4, even if people flat out hate the series, that's always the one that gets held up as "the good one", because it was the exact opposite of the games that came after it.

It did what it did because that was what the developers thought would be good and leave an impression, not just for the sake of it, intentially causing controversy, dem feels, cash out or trying to top itself by being brutalz.

People who've never played a single CoD game and judge the whole series based what it is known for in more recent years.

And I used to be one of them. When several people whose gaming taste I respect held up CoD4's campaign as something special, I gave it shot in 2011, and it remains one of the more compelling single player game experiences I've had in years. Now I'm one of those people who stick up for CoD4's campaign in spite of what the series is now famous for.

"Computer games are the search for fun... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."

 

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