In 1999, when EA released Medal of Honor, the World War II shooter entered a so-called “golden era”. Improved by the subsequent MoH games and perfected by the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Brothers in Arms franchises, World War II became the dominant setting of shooters. The experience of fighting through Nazi-occupied Europe and slugging through the islands of the pacific, enthralled gamers throughout the world, bringing the genre to the forefront of the gaming universe.
However with the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the shooterverse moved away from World-War II era set adventures and began the trend of high-tech modern/futuristic frag-fests. Even Medal of Honor, the franchise that started the WWII shooter craze, transitioned to Afghanistan-based operations with 2010’s reboot Medal of Honor.
Why the decline? Simple. The genre had become so prolific that is was copied, capitalized on, and pillaged to the point where the genre became stale. Clunky, single-A disasters such as Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, and The History Channel: Battle for the Pacific became prevalent, while the larger-tier franchises stumbled with lackluster games such as Medal of Honor: Airborne and Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, games that simply repeated their formula’s instead of improving on them. Modern Warfare’s success sealed the fate of WWII shooters which have been lying in a moribund state ever since.
However video game developers have been taking away the wrong messages from the failures of these games. These flops came not from the staleness of the World War II setting, but the staleness of the shooter mechanics that have dominated the industry over the last decade. The stoic, silent protagonist shtick was getting tiresome, as was the one-man killing machine act; an intriguing setting such as WWII only does so much to cover-up repetitive, shoddy game play and stories. A shift to a different era with its promise of a wider variety of weapon-types, settings, and storylines bought the old-shooter generation a few years but, as the recent Call of Duty games reveal, the genre is still stuck unimaginative story lines, repetitive game play, and generally dull experiences.
Which brings us back to World War II. What is perhaps the single-most important socio-political-cultural event of the 20th century, was treated as a playground for adolescent power fantasies; rich seeds of powerful stories were cast aside, replaced with shallow Rambo-simulators that got old fast. It was only a matter of time before gamers got sick of it and moved on.
However, gamers should not write the obituary for the World War II genre as there is hope for new life for this manhandled setting. WWII is abundant with fascinating stories, just waiting for video games to tell. One of the more interesting aspects of Call of Duty: World At War, when it wasn’t being a generic, by-the-numbers shooter, was its no-holds-bar treatment of the brutality of war, the dismembered limbs, the disorienting chaos, the deathly screams. It is cliché but also true to say that video games have the power to supplant players in the shoes of another human being, more so than any other artistic medium. Why not use that opportunity to introduce the players to the terrifying world of an American GI in Western Europe in 1944? Why bore the player with making them a cartoonish superhero who can easily dispense of any pesky Nazi when you can make them feel the terror and helplessness soldiers must have honestly felt during those dark days. Why should the games fully focus on combat? “War is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror as the saying goes, why not create fleshed out characters and story lines that make the combat events ten times more thrilling and emotionally investing.
Why limit yourself in a setting of limitless possibilities? Why not create a game from the perspective of an Axis soldier, a sorely underrepresented subject in American art. Why not use video games to explore the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan while exposing the Allies own flaws with examinations of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden? The espionage of the war would make for a thrilling spy game, would the life of an ordinary citizen, caught in the carnage of World War not make for fascinating game play?
Speaking of game play, why repeat the one-man god shtick of the past when you could do so many interesting new things in the genre? Make the player like an actual GI, limited power, relying on the collective strength of the team to accomplish their mission. Why not have more Mass-Effect style dialogue-trees, fleshing out the world of Wartime Europe and the Pacific? Maybe have L.A Noire-style adventure game style controls, letting the player interact with the (fascinating) world around them.
If video games ever want to be taken seriously as an art form they need to deal with complex themes and story lines in a mature adult way. They also need to learn how to diversify story lines and game play in order to maintain relevancy and excitement. Games set in World War II provide ample opportunity for both.