I recently discovered an old Escapist Magazine article on David Jaffe’s cancelled Heartland, a PSP first-person shooter that explores how United States soldiers might react to an invasion of America. The game was slated to take on a serious tone, with NPCs going mad and hatefully aggressive, committing war crimes you would only associate with the Axis in World War II. It was originally supposed to be a Chinese invasion, but Sony decided to drop the specific references and make the enemy undefined. The game was meant to express concerns about the current political situation in America and to denounce particular policies currently in effect. But it never got off the ground due to lack of personal involvement by the employees and resources being used by other game projects. For such an ambitious project, Jaffe even consulted with Gonzala Frasca, the designer behind such works as September 12th and Kabul Kaboom.
I suppose in a way it might also have been an antiwar game and raises interesting questions about not only how the press might have received it but also of how players would have received it. Jaffe describes two scenarios, one in which the player is ordered by his commanding officer to beat up a Chinese American family and then douse the family and the house with gasoline. Another has the player pick up a video recording of an American soldier beheading a captured prisoner; rewinding the tape shows the soldier’s vacation videos to Disneyland.
This type of heady material is something we might find in an antiwar film but is not the sort of events we associate with games. When the press does, it is usually to suggest that games are being tasteless and just being designed to allow players to commit horrible acts and encourage and reward players for doing so turning them into ‘the killers of the future.’ Which is all a load of hogwash. By this logic, Pac-Man and Mario teach us to become overweight druggies.
The real question I see is how players might have reacted to the situation. Gonzala Frasca has stated that such a game might be used by sadists for their own pleasure. While I admire and am inspired by his work, I’ll have to say that couldn’t footage from Schindler’s List or Life is Beautiful also be taken out of context for similar uses? A work will always have the potential to be misread or used for a purpose other than what was intended. A lot of this might come down to how sensitive the work is at approaching the subject matter and ultimately what it has to say.
The real question is how the game would present the player with such difficult choices and how it might use the internal logic of games and common preconceptions about how they work to underscore its message. Follow the rules of the game as that is how you play and win then comes dangerously close to Be a good soldier and don’t question your orders. Couple this with direct psychological effects of these actions on the player’s character – direct cause and effect – and the game will not be about presenting a difficult situation and allowing the player to observe the result without consequence but to make the player ultimately think about that consequence. If the soldier does murder the civilians, how does this effect him as a person and what does this mean about humanity? When the game leaves questions for the player to answer, then the game has become intelligent and reflective, not superficial.
Another developer is working on Imagination is the Only Escape, a game about the Holocaust. It takes place from the perspective of a child who turns to his own imagination to escape the horrors of Nazi occupation. The developers have said this about the project: “There will be no on-screen violence in this product. I don’t see war as a game. I don’t find that amusing.” It may be possible that this could be the first full-fledged commercial antiwar game, and is a title I am very curious about learning more on. I think it is possible to develop such a game in a sensitive and thoughtful manner, to both stay true to the memories of those who died and to reaffirm the need to prevent genocide in the future.