Last week, I was messing about with HALO 3: ODST. I wanted to see what the game engine would let you do when you decided not to play the way you were usually expected to play, which was run-and-gun. I was out of ammo and grenades and ended being chased by an giant armoured Hunter with a pulse cannon all over the city map for over twenty minutes. If my player character had a voice, he would have been waving his arms and screaming “WAAAAAUUUUUUGH!” like a bit out of Scooby Doo. I could have just let it kill me, but the game would just reset at the same place where I was out of ammo and facing the Hunter again, so I decided to run and see if there was anyplace to hide or find a weapon. The Hunter stopped chasing me after I passed a particular checkpoint on the map, since the game enemies aren’t programmed to venture past their designated zones. I finally ran up a different alleyway and came up to a Jackal soldier with a laser sniper rifle. He was positioned away from his squad as a back-up to snipe any enemies that got through them. I whacked him on the head, ducked behind a truck for cover and started to pick off his squad with the sniper rifle. Then I went up and looted the bodies for a plasma rifle and plasma grenades. I could now venture through this shortcut to the next stage of the game’s mystery plot without going back and having to face the Hunter. But I was feeling vindictive over getting chased for twenty minutes, so I went back to the other zone with my full arsenal and splattered the Hunter all over the street before I went off to finish the game. Looks like I created my own narrative within the game.
HALO is interesting to me for being one of the more precise cross-media franchises out there. It began as a computer game in 2001 that redefined First Person Shooter games ever since, then spun off into bestselling spin-off novels that revealed a deep and elaborate history and characters, then comic books, then an upcoming anime anthology on DVD. The games themselves have sold more hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of copies and are pretty much the face of Microsoft’s games division. The only reason there hasn’t been a movie is they made the mistake of trying to team up with Hollywood and the project got stalled in corporate politcs and they had to get the rights back. Apart from HALO, the other game franchises that have become huge franchises are also war-based: GEARS OF WAR and CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE, both of which now sporting comic books spin-offs and the former also has a series of spin-off novels. HALO has the deepest story and mythology but they’re all based around the same theme: War. These games would probably be popular in any other era, but they exist now, in a time where War is ongoing and with no end in sight. They are an expression of the times and a way for players and fans to get to grips with it, even unconsciously, in the same way kids like horror movies as a safe way to explore fears and thrills.
I often wonder about the cultural impact of these games. They’re clearly a part of early 21st Century zeitgeist, even as we’re stuck in a cycle of wars abroad. Do these games normalize war in the minds of the kids and teenagers that play them, to the point of taking the idea of War for granted? Or is it part of the normal way kids just like to play war games? A safe way for everyone to make sense of current climate. The most surreal photo I saw of the Iraq War was of a British soldier relaxing after the taking of Saddam’s palace by lying back to read an Andy McNabb novel. And I know US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan blow off steam on base by playing CALL OF DUTY 4: MODERN WARFARE and GEARS OF WAR 2. And the US Army has seen video games as a potential recruiting tool in its official game AMERICA’S ARMY. I don’t think kids are knuckleheaded enough to find war seductive from playing video games or that games show what it’s really like, but I think games serve to make War feel all-pervasive and normal, even “natural”.
I’ve come to believe a culture’s military fiction reveals, intentionally or not, how it likes to see itself. Thus America has the most wide-ranging scope from right-wing Manichean escapism like Tom Clancy’s books and endorsed games to HALO’s melancholy meditation on stoical sacrifice and loss to GEARS OF WARS’ grim homoerotic machismo to Brian de Palma’s lamentations of degraded brutality and misogyny in CASUALTIES OF WAR and REDACTED to Kathryn Bigelow’s celebration of the heroic outsider in THE HURT LOCKER. Japan’s pop culture is suffused with an almost fetishistic obsession with militarism, more than any other country’s, filtered through the prism of Science Fiction. SPACE CRUISER YAMATO is a decades-old anime with the resurrection of the WWII battleship that’s considered a symbol of national pride as a starship in a war with aliens. MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM gets a new series and iteration virtually every year with teenage heroes who get to pilot giant warbots designed to look like samurai in armour. There isn’t a Japanese boy or man who doesn’t know GUNDAM. Kaiji Kawaguchi’s THE SILENT SERVICE and ZIPANG are manga and anime series both engaged with political dialogues with the Japanese military’s place in the world order. THE SILENT SERVICE imagines the captain of a nuclear submarine going rogue and declaring his sub an independent state, precipitating a global crisis, and it’s hard not to imagine it as an allegory for the Japanese desire for military independence. ZIPANG imagines a Japanese Self-Defence Force battleship caught in a time-warp that places its crew smack in the middle of World War II and grappling with the opportunity to change history and how much they should. LIBRARY WARS (licensed and soon to be published by Viz) is a novel and anime series about an alternate history where the public library and books are militarized with earnest young Japanese trained equally in combat, bibliography and information distribution in a literal war against censorship. And I brought up the cute Nazi girls video game weeks ago. The existence of so much genre entries in a culture suggests there’s a hunger for it, and both makers and consumers are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the genre.
Virtually shooting and getting blown up at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Adisakdi Tantimedh
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