GDC 2018: Depictions of violence and war in video games and Destiny’s Sword


I love stories. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I love stories not just for their raw entertainment value, but for their ability to teach. It’s not heavy-handed like being in class, but stories teach culture, customs, and character. We visit the past, the present, the future. We experience things through stories we might never get to experience for ourselves. War, I hope, is one of those things.

Andrew Barron, Director of Design at Bohemia Interactive Simulations, has seen war. And war stories. He’s also been in the game industry for awhile, both before and after his time as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. He knows war, but he also knows war simulators. It’s actually his job to help build them. So when he says our games our violent, he knows what he’s saying, but the context for that may not be easily understood. However, once it is, you’ll see that not only do we have some games getting war “right,” but that there’s room for us to grow, and some people are already working on that in a way that sounds, well, fun.

Make war, not porn

Barron and I share the idea that stories educate. He says game developers are a kind of teacher but that modern media has become far removed from the reality it often misrepresents. As Barron notes, a story about relationships that only concentrates on sex is simply porn. War is much, much more than killing your fellow human being.

Barron uses Game of Thrones as an example of media that gets war right. It’s one war with many conflicts. Imagine a pyramid of conflict. At the top, there’s the one war. Below that are the regional wars among different nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. Propping those up are local wars, between families, former friends, people just angry at other people… again, Game of Thrones.

Barron uses GoT, not only because it’s proven popular and profitable but because of its narrative loop of discovery and surprise. As you get deeper into the world, you find more factions, deeper connections, more personal relationships that make the supposed singular war a huge mess. Sort of like that World War I as a bar fight story.

It’s not just the relationships, though, but moral complexity. Barron argues that “moral ambiguity is not moral complexity.” To a degree, he’s right. If we take the textbook approach, moral ambiguity is simply not knowing whether something is right or wrong. Think back on some of your Star Wars: The Old Republic quests. Often, you’re given options like “Kill opponent” or “Take prisoners.” Maybe you get one asking for a bribe. You are dealing with an enemy combatant, clearly marked and often monologuing about their team’s dastardly plan. You have a few options, but most of them are pretty simple, and let’s be honest, only one is really humane, so the other two options barely make it a question of morality.

Instead, Barron sets up a scenario I’ll try to simplify. Imagine being in a war-torn country and driving military vehicles on the street. You see two people on the bridge but can’t make out their faces. As one of your team’s vehicles goes under the bridge, the person looking over the bridge makes a signal. The second person drops a bomb, blowing up members of your team. The people on the bridge escape in the confusion.

A month later, you return to the bridge with some new people. Once again, you’re all driving military vehicles on a civilian street. As you approach the bridge, you see two people. Again, you can’t see their faces. Do you shoot and risk hurting a civilian? Do you send someone to approach them and hope they don’t use lethal force on your teammates? Do you shout at them and risk giving them a chance to flee? Can you just change your caravan’s path?

Clearly the second scenario is more complex. There are far more unknowns. While the SWTOR scenarios may give you options, rarely do they carry much weight, especially since the “morality” system largely rewards pure good and pure evil, making the rest of the spectrum simply another bar to grind.

With the bridge scenario, you don’t know whom you’re dealing with. You don’t know if the other people are actually an enemy combatant. It’s not picking points or having player freedom. You are facing a clear and present danger. There are so many more “next stage” scenarios that can go down – riots if you killed a civilian, people questioning whether you shot first to pursue revenge, the possibility of pushing the civilians towards the enemy faction, putting your own people in danger through a scenario that’s previously been a trap.

That is more complexity, and while in the real world it’s horrible, in games, it’s kind of fun. Barron brings up TellTale games as a good example of games that use this. You have multiple “right” answers but may have no way of knowing which is “good.” Not only that, but much as in real life, you have only so much time to reach a decision (when we’re not cheating by hitting “pause”).

Morality is key, not just because it can arguably be more fun, but because, as Barron puts it, “in general, video games are much, much more violent than military operations or military simulations.” When invading an enemy bunker, he says, the military generally wants three times as many invaders as there are defenders. That means each soldier is killing one-third of a human. Compare that to FPS games that make you the lone shooter against tens of targets on screen at a time. That is hyper-violent compared to actually killing people on the field.

And this is important because, as most of us know, many civilians will (hopefully) never see real war. The problem is that kids grow up as civilians, enter the military, and like another marine Barron met, are genuinely surprised that military spend a lot of time just talking to locals about the situation, winning hearts so the enemy has less potential eyes (and arms), and just following orders because, in reality, going rogue means sudden death – snipers, landmines, booby-trapped cover.

Barron’s fellow marine said, “This isn’t what I expected. I thought I’d be doing hero shit, like in Call of Duty.” That is absolutely ridiculous, but also shows how damaging and life-threatening a warped sense of fantasy war can be – for both the soldier and those they meet.

War games get a lot wrong. It’s not just the super soldier aspect; it’s small details. Convoys have to use their signals so everyone knows that the path is seen and understood. You build bonds with teammates who can die at any minute. You’re walking single file so you (hopefully) don’t step on a rogue landmine. Positioning matters because bullets and explosives kill faster than an FPS may lead you to believe and you won’t be respawning. When acting as a peacekeeper, holding your gun in your hand around an enemy means they’re free to shoot you, but having it on your back means you’re to be left alone.

War is less generic shooter and more RPG in that you have so many tasks and reputations to work on. Yes, shooting is involved, but it’s more tactical. Perhaps battle royales illustrate the cost of death a bit better, but the story surrounding them is inane.

Last, but not least, is the fact that civilians pay the highest price in war. Turn that moral complexity up to 11 now, developers, we’re getting grim. Think about it. Mines laid for soldiers kill kids. If the soldiers aren’t there, the mines aren’t there. Civilians who don’t pick a side have to deal with both sides to survive, and picking a side clearly makes them a target. Barron mentions that This War of Mine depicts the cost of war on the civilian population quite well. While you may be running around playing hero, the people nearby are living miserable lives that will generally improve once you and the other guys are gone.

The mental toll

All of this ignores what war does to the soldier. As Barron notes, there are a lot of soldiers who return from war who have a big disconnect from society. While there are some people who just focus on things like “How many people did you kill?”, the larger issue is that most people don’t need to consider avoiding a violent death for themselves or the people they care about on a day-to-day basis. American media celebrates the rebel and the rogue without considering how, in combat, that’s the guy who gets blow up for stepping off the safe path.

Such a person, who’s had a lot of structure, clearly defined goals, and actual survival skills, might return home and be told that they don’t have enough experience for a job. The industry has storytellers recycling mass media myths, adding hyper-violence to far-out war stories that do not prepare potential soldiers for war or the civilian population for what that person might have experienced. Much like someone going through a break-up isn’t just sad because they’re no longer “getting some,” there is so much more to a soldier’s life than killing, and this can really affect their mental health.

Ken Hall, the Art Director from APB, says he hopes to illustrate this on a game he’s working on, Destiny’s Sword. It’s a war game, but one where psychology matters. Positioning matters. Death matters. It’s in a very early stage of development, but Hall still shared a vision of the game with me. Destiny’s Sword focuses a lot on the mental strain of war, but in ways I think players can enjoy. Think Fire Emblem with a more adult theme.

The player is a commander in a two-faction war, but civilians play a part, especially in the story, as the fight clearly affects them. You control squads of units, each with its own stories, personalities, and desires. They can get jealous if you promote other units above them, suffer from depression if someone close to them dies, get angry if a friend is attacked, or become paranoid and refuse to interact with you or their squad mates.

Between battles, Hall wants the player to interact with his or her squad, to help the soldiers with their issues, not just in training skills, but through relationships, moral issues, and threats to their mental health. They may lose limbs when they’re defeated, and being defeated too many times means perma-death. This isn’t just to add a “hard mode,” but to make you diversify your group and share the load, much as a squad would have to do on the field.

Even drug use may come in down the line, with units potentially taking your drugs without you telling them to, or even stealing your resources to get it themselves. Again, this is very early in development, and the demo I saw reflected nothing more than simple combat and a few emotional states (like offense rising and defense decreasing from rage when seeing a partner get shot).

Don’t worry too much about losing those units, though. If you’re able to keep them safe and max them out, you can retire them, giving you not only bonuses but their continued companionship as they train new units.

Addressing war in MMOs

Socialization is important in war. You need a team. Not just your units, but other players. From day one, you’ll be in a guild, as guilds have their own stations that provide quests. Quests act as social glue. For example, the guild may have a quest where they can’t take more than 100 damage during a mission. For a max-level player, that’s impossible, but if they’re helping a lowbie, it’ll be easier.

Direct combat, sadly, is 1v1. Think of Team Chess: Everyone is playing by himself, but the whole team is acting together. If you finish first, you can watch your teammates and give them advice. Not only is Destiny’s Sword aiming to create bonds between players and units, but players and players.

While auto-joining guilds may sound problematic and zergy, Hall says that the guild system is designed to encourage splitting off, which is why there’ll be a member cap. Having limited space in the guild means you want a roster of various levels to tackle quests. The level variety helps spread out player coaching. Having an allied guild makes the game’s persistent map PvP (a la PlanetSide 2fill up with complex relationships, which then shape the game’s emergent story, similar to what Barron talked about. It’s some rather elegant sounding game design, if it can be pulled off.

Hall also explicitly wants the game to be ethical. The game is aiming for a free to play model, and has teamed up with Ramin Shokrizade, an Economy/Monetization/Ethics/Consumer Behavior expert we’ve mentioned here on MOP in the past. The aim is to ask players to pay for skins, additional story DLC, and for comics (which might come with something you can use in-game, like additional “lives” for your units). As part of that emphasis on being ethical, the team has already created characters and systems to make the game more inclusive, saying that the sci-fi setting allows for some social/racial/gender themes while trying to make male/female assignment to units visually based only – a character could be transitioning or ambiguous even.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in San Francisco for GDC 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Game Developers Conference!
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