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Steven Poole oole on why games are getting warfare’s future all wrong
Saying that modern warfare is like a videogame has become cliché. Laser-assisted rifles, ‘smart’ bombs, American pilots in Arizona bunkers using joysticks to control flying killer robots over AfPak – that kind of thing. But then what is the player of
Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare supposed to think when, at one stage of the game, she realises she’s basically playing Frogger? Trying to cross a busy dual carriageway (and shoot men in the middle of it) without being flattened by a series of suspiciously identical bulletproof buses, the player might run up the side of the road a bit, trying to find a pedestrian bridge, but then her vision goes all fuzzy and a command to stay in the ‘mission area’ is projected directly onto her retinas. So, a murderous jaywalk it must be.
If war is like a videogame, this is a videogame that is like a war that really is a videogame. The war of the future, predicts
Advanced Warfare, will be a postmodern compilation of historic game mechanics. Not just your standardised funfair shooting gallery (now just the background noise to any such game), but also Frogger, Jetpac (for future soldiers’ boost-jump capability) and
Max Payne (for their slow-motion ability), not to mention a sardonic dose of Heavy Rain. I mean, surely the early moment in
Advanced Warfare at a military funeral when the player is standing in front of a coffin and is urged to “Press Square to pay your respects” is too brilliant not to be a devastating satire of the whole QTE tradition, the still-yawning chasm between the act of depressing a plastic button and the emo-narrative ambitions of the ‘cinematic’ blockbuster console product.
If the war of the future is going to be a videogame – and this must be true, since the designers of Advanced Warfare couldn’t shut up about how many military experts they had consulted during its making – what about the war of the past? Like you, I learn most of what I know about the wars of the past from movies starring Brad Pitt. Recently I brushed
The war of the future is going to consist of vast swarms of miniature armed drones the size of infant bumblebees
up on my knowledge of WWII by watching Fury – or, to give it the title it should have had, Brad Pitt In A Tank. It turns out Brad Pitt’s war might have gone better for him if he had played a few videogames. (Spoilers follow until the end of this paragraph.) At the climax of the film, Brad Pitt has decided, for no very good reason, to fight a large company of Nazis using only his tank and the crewmates thereof. When the tank’s main ammo runs out, Brad Pitt climbs up out of his hatch to man the .50-calibre machine gun mounted atop the vehicle. Improbably to any FPS aficionado, no Nazi soldier thinks of trying to get around to the rear of the tank to shoot Brad Pitt in the back. But at length, he does get taken down by a glinty-eyed Nazi sniper in a ghillie suit. Poor Brad Pitt: any videogame player could have told him that you should never spend too long on a turret.
Revealingly, the most thrilling shots in Brad Pitt In A Tank show a top-down view of a tank battle, as the lumbering machines circle on their tracks, swivelling their turrets to try to target each other in a kind of frantic slowness. In other words, the film’s aesthetic peak most resembles a hi-res update of a 1970s Atari 2600 tank game, Combat. Is it just a psychological truth about a generation who grew up playing videogames that they cannot see such a thing without being reminded of an old console classic? Perhaps, but in this case the reference was very possibly deliberate on the director’s part: after all, a flat, planar, essentially twodimensional viewpoint is something that most people automatically associate with videogames even if they have never been in the habit of playing them.
Of course, what the war of the future is really going to be like has not yet been portrayed in any visual medium. The makers of Advanced Warfare are probably at least right to think that Kevin Spacey will wear a weirdly realistic but slightly too stiff rubber mask of his own face in the future. But otherwise they are wrong: the war of the future is going to consist of vast swarms of miniature armed drones the size of infant bumblebees. In this future, there is no room for human soldiers or clumsy tank-like machinery on the battlefield. It will just look like a weaponised version of the Biblical swarm of locust: a cloud that eats everything it passes over. That’s not very telegenic or ludogenic. In which case, Activision and its ilk might have to come up with some new ideas for electronic entertainment. So the future, after all, might not be totally bad.