Antiwar Machinima

While stumbling around the web, I discovered an article about an essay published in the April 2010 issue of Continuum titled “Reverbing: The Red vs. Blue machinima as an anti-war film” by D. Bruno Starrs. Now I try to be on the top of articles about war (and antiwar) and games, so this was a pretty exciting discovery. It’s a pretty interesting thesis, but unfortunately, one that doesn’t really hold much water. Gamepolitics provides a nice summary of the article, which is free to read online.

Red vs. Blue is the most well-known machinima ever created. Machinima are films created using a game engine, and RvB is created using Halo. The series sprang up as an independent operation but later got the green light from Bungie and even some official support in the way of custom game discs. The series (like most machinima) is known for its bawdy humor, and isn’t something that most audiences would associate with antiwar rhetoric.

What Starrs does very well is compile a series of characteristics defining the pro-war film, compiled from several books on the American war film. These include hijinx during basic training, the reverence for military war victims, contributions of racial minorities, the prominence of the flag, self-sacrifice, and justification for the cause. Starrs adds to this list reinforcement of masculine values, particularly through misogyny (?) or more precisely through absence of women. To this list, Starrs compiles a series of components often found in antiwar films, such as tragedy of war communicated through images of brutality, the extent of death and suffering, incompetent commanders, waste, and futility.

The primary analysis of Red vs Blue that Starrs brings forth though is analysis of the six major characteristics of the pro-war film and how they are reflected or dispelled in the machinima. Most of Starrs’ argument centers around the titles for the first and last episodes of the original five-season series, “Why are We Here?” and “Why were We Here?”, which he argues are hypothetical questions directed at the Iraq and Afghan wars, essentially questioning the cause of warfare. The trouble is, while Starrs makes a loosely convincing argument for parodies of the military burial, self-sacrifice, and the flag, these comparisons are ultimately just that: loose.

A historical analysis of the Red vs Blue machinima suggests to me that the show began as a series of jokes or one-off skits set within the Halo Blood Gulch mission. It does not appear to be until towards the end of the first season or within the second that Rooster Teeth has developed some kind of overarching storyline to fit with the universe they created – and even then, Bungie’s guiding hand seems to be present to loosely tie the series with the more serious story of the Halo multiverse. As such, this humble beginning of ‘random skits’ suggesting a ‘what do the Halo characters do in Blood Gulch?’ seems to derive more from a bunch of gamers sitting around a couch drinking beer and talking BS about their favorite game than something well-planned.

As a result, ‘Why are we here?’ is not specifically an antiwar sentiment but rather a rhetorical question pointing to the illogic behind the realism of the Halo games (and specifically the Blood Gulch map), mainly: there is no logical reason for there to be two bases in a box canyon except as a gameplay design. While the question may certainly be asked from an antiwar work, the context is not particularly designed as an antiwar piece – something the designers have admitted to in the series’ commentary.

Starrs’ argument would be more convincing if there were plenty of comments on the forum supporting the antiwar message (and an admittance from the authors), but again we are left with little.

A more interesting machinima to analyze is Deviation by John Griggs, a machinima based on the Half Life: Counter Strike game (the other antiwar machinima Griggs references, We Choose Death, is terribly vapid, horribly shot, and not worth a look). In Deviation, a squad of four counter-terror soldiers is infiltrating an enemy compound to prevent a terrorist operation. The film is brilliantly shot, with excellent cutting, incredible audio and voice acting, and an excellently written script. Starrs labels the film as antiwar, however, and while it’s an excellent film, I’m not convinced it’s an antiwar piece.

Though one of the reviews connects Deviation with the war in the Middle East (unsurprising, considering the soldiers are part of a counter-terrorist squad), the film’s structure and imagery is more closely aligned with questions of surveillance (security cameras), cyberpunk simulation (why do we constantly die and become reborn to die the same way?), and existentialism (Why are we here?) than of military orders (We follow orders, that’s what we do). It’s not so much that the characters will die every time (and their deaths are amazingly illustrated through a Hitchcockian technique), but that their presence within the space is unreal. The film does not necessarily decry military conflict (it more illustrates the tragedy of blindly following orders) as it does the

An amazing machinima, yes. And antiwar film? Not really. The film has more in common with Avalon and The Matrix than it does with Full Metal Jacket.

Starrs’ article, while useful for compiling ideas of pro-war and antiwar film, ultimately does not work too well given the context in which it is applied. A stronger analysis would compare the pro-war film characteristics with those in antiwar films to see if the dichotomy of aspects such as reverence of the flag/questioning its values is present in these or if the other antiwar sentiments are unique to antiwar rhetoric.

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