There is perhaps no setting more popular for contemporary games than that of war: wars between nations, between humans and extraterrestrials, humans and machines are all common story setups in games. It makes a certain kind of sense. Most violent games are power fantasies, so a story set during a war allows developers to create situations for players to pull off daring acts of heroism reminiscent of action sequences in a movie like Where Eagles Dare or Black Hawk Down. There’s usually scant time or material given to the horrible effects of war in such games outside of a Patton quote plastered over a mission failed screen. War in games, then, is usually just an excuse for a string of action sequences and mediocre storytelling.
Except those rare times when it isn’t.
Here are six games dedicated to showing the player the misery of warfare.
Don’t let Valiant Hearts’ PBS afternoon cartoon visuals fool you. This is a moving, heart wrenching game that concerns a handful of lives being torn to shreds during The Great War. Valiant Hearts sashays back and forth between entertaining comedy and tragic sequences where the people we’ve come to care for endure hell for the tiniest chance to be reunited with their families. Beautifully illustrated fields and resplendent forests lead to barren ground and trenches surrounded by unending piles of dead soldiers. Several sequences deftly explore the concept of what it means to be “enemies” in a war from a soldier’s perspective, including one level that takes place in a mine where the player has to rely on a soldier from the opposing side to help them make it out of the place alive. Another hellish scene featuring a cruel, promotion-seeking general ordering soldier after soldier to their deaths in a futile assault makes a blunt yet powerful point of how war turns human beings into tools to be discarded for political purposes.
There has been some critical chatter about whether the game’s puzzle sequences dilute the potency of the game’s story by forming tedious barricades that the player has to tear down to progress through the story, and while there’s certainly some merit there, it shouldn’t deter anyone from wanting play a strong, story-based game about how war affects families.
Unmanned is a short game developed by Molleindustria. The player steps into the shoes of a military drone pilot dealing with the side effects of his job, taking the player through a day in the life, allowing them some control over his thoughts and actions. Does the player, while the pilot is shaving, allow him to justify his job as doing his patriotic duty, or do they make him ponder his own mortality?
The horrors of war occur in seemingly mundane moments, such as the pilot chitchatting with a co-worker as they track a possible enemy soldier with a drone. The power to kill this person, from far away no less, is at the fingertips of these two people and here they are, talking about their lives as easily as bored cubicle mates shooting the shit in front of a water cooler, disconnected from any moral conundrums about taking a person’s life thanks to the distance such technology affords them.
Unmanned is a succinct, tightly constructed game where every sequence has its own intriguing (and sad) thesis, whether it’s about how terrifying modern warfare technology is or how soldiers and their families cope with the peripheral effects of such technology. You can play Unmanned here.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that resembles its contemporary trigger happy shooter brethren on most levels: you hide behind things, you shoot guys, you move on to another section of the game and do the same thing, racking up an absurd body count.
However, Spec Ops: The Line’s story, clearly inspired by Apocalypse Now, is what sets it apart from the pack. The player controls Martin Walker, the leader of a squad heading into sandstorm devastated Dubai to figure out what happened to a platoon that was helping with disaster recovery efforts in the city. What Walker finds there is a platoon divided into two armies, killing one another. Instead of turning around and heading home, their mission complete, Walker and the rest of his squad press on into the city to find the platoon’s leader, John Konrad, and figure out what happened.
Spec Ops: The Line covers a lot of ground. It tackles the unsettling relationship between violence and entertainment, the ramifications of one nation forcing their rule on another under the guise of helping them, and, perhaps most notably, the role of hero in both games and war fiction. Walker starts out as your generic rah-rah savior with guns archetype, but as the player progresses and Walker piles sins and atrocities on his own conscious, he becomes a more fascinating and even somewhat sympathetic character—in spite of everything he’s done by the game’s end. Special kudos should be given to Nolan North, whose voice work makes Walker’s guilt palpable. When he says, as a broken man, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” it’s hard not to believe him.
This War of Mine is the latest game about warfare that’s meant to make you feel absolutely miserable. Inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo, 11 Bit Studios has made a game where the player controls a group of survivors living in a dilapidated house as a war goes on in their city. During the day, they must construct equipment to keep themselves healthy, like stoves and beds, and at night members of the group must venture out to scavenge tools and food from other buildings. Sometimes this means sneaking around a house that might be filled with people trying to stay alive, other times it might just be a rat that’s making all that noise on the floor above.
The game presents players with situations where they must make hard choices that have an effect on their survivors’ physical and mental health. It’s more daunting to scavenge from a house that has armed guards, but what’s the cost to a character’s morale to rob an old helpless couple at the edge of the city instead? Opting to steal food from that couple might force the scavenger to have a nervous breakdown, making them incapable of doing anything for days in game time.
This War of Mine, then, is an endurance test, a story about surviving hardship through community versus surviving through cruel Darwinist philosophy. How long can the player hold out without making their survivors commit inhumane acts to survive? While it might have been tempting to create a moral vacuum where every action is acceptable as long as it contributes to keeping the survivors alive, This War of Mine takes a risk by accounting for player’s actions with the aforementioned psychological consequences. As a result, This War of Mine, as bleak as it may be, ultimately rejects nihilism, making it one of the more surprisingly human games about warfare.
The New Order is an odd duck: a fun run-and-gun shooter that tasks the player with mowing down countless soldiers while taking time to set up long narrative-focused sections where the player bears witness to the horrors of an alternate future where the Nazis won World War 2. The game’s opening sequence dogs the bloody beach scene in Saving Private Ryan and then follows it up with a gruesome scene of a comrade being vivisected (mostly off-screen).
The main character, BJ Blazkowicz, finds himself fighting alongside a group of ragtag soldiers who have all been grievously wounded, in one way or another, by the Nazi regime during and after the war. Fierce resistance leader Caroline is a woman who lost the use of her legs thanks to a bullet in the spin. Klaus, a former Nazi, joined the resistance after the Nazis killed his child for being born with a clubfoot. Every character is defined by their loss, including Blazkowicz, who says his grief “would flood oceans.”
Sequences in the game include prisons where the prisoners are forced to wear helmets that block out all light, and even a concentration camp level that
does not shy away from showing the player the horrors of such a place.
The New Order is a game that should be sharply divided by the old school action of its shooting sequences and the often quiet and painful character/world-building sections. However, those two halves feed into each other, becoming a fluid experience and one of the most memorable contemporary first person shooters.
Fallout itself isn’t about a particular war. Instead, it’s about everything that comes after the nuclear finale to that war, the radiation soaking the world, the people starving and thirsting in the aptly named Wasteland, the flickering flames of hope for humanity slowly being extinguished with each passing day.
As the Vault Dweller, the player is the only one capable of keeping that fire going. This idea that the player is tasked with saving a miserable world where people are killing each other over scraps of radioactive roach meat is one of the more interesting underlying bits of Fallout. They’re not saving a society on the verge of collapse; they’re trying to salvage a broken world, and if they’re serving as a karmic force of good, then they’re also acting as that world’s symbolic redeemer. There is perhaps no more uplifting experience in games than completing a Fallout game as a positively aligned character, ending a long journey in a dead world with the message that, yes, there is even hope after the war, after the bombs have fallen, after there is nothing left but crumbs and death and sorrow.
There is still hope.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.