Back to the past: Tackling real-life tragedy in first-person shooters

Back to the past: Tackling real-life tragedy in first-person shooters
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

October 6th 2016 at 12:34PM

As EA DICE heads to the First World War in Battlefield 1, Matthew Jarvis speaks to smaller studios working on historical shooters

As the opening of Fallout immortalises, war never changes. War video games, however, do. The last decade saw the 20th-century warfare of early Medal of Honor, Battlefield and Call of Duty titles deposed by battles set in the 21st century, often in new instalments of the same franchises. 

Most famously catalysed by the Middle Eastern setting of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, first-person shooters have since edged further and further beyond their contemporary boundaries, leading to a movement into near-future and even sci-fi scenarios. This has broken the FPS genre in two, as other titles are now returning to the historical background of the World Wars, Vietnam and the Cold War.

“The main drive comes from the indie community, which has been growing rapidly from the former modding communities with the rise of the affordable game engines,” proposes Jos Hoebe, co-founder and CEO of Blackmill Games, which is developing Verdun, based on the eponymous WWI battle.

“Factors include, firstly, the desire to return to no-nonsense gaming, meaning these historical scenarios have a clearer and fixed set of well-known options, such as a time without killstreaks. Secondly, fatigue with bombastic over-the-top future scenarios and, lastly, because this is most likely a cyclic process where the new generation of graphical capabilities, such as PBR, photometry and mo-cap tech, can do a significantly better job in representing these historical scenarios.”

Bulkhead Interactive is working on Battalion 1944, which raised more than £300,000 on Kickstarter and is pitched as “a return to the core of classic multiplayer shooters”.

“Battalion’s ethos isn’t ‘we’re missing WW2 games’ – it’s more than that,” elaborates senior producer Joe Brammer. “Our ethos is that we miss the classical feel of what great studios like DICE and Infinity Ward were built on, and the grounded gameplay of Battlefield 2 and Call of Duty 2.”

We opted to let a significant amount of killed characters not die instantly, so they linger on the battlefield. With this, we are trying to make the experience as a whole more ‘raw’ and unfiltered.

 

RELIVING THE PAST

Even historical titles that play more fast and loose with their setting, like Battlefield 1, must maintain a certain level of accuracy to sustain their immersion. But they must also be fun.

“The challenge is to identify and work with the rules, constraints and building blocks that the historical scenario offers and find a creative solution to creating a fun game,” Hoebe explains. “The pace of the game and reality of the scenario should align at least somewhat to be considered an authentic experience.”

One major element of capturing the atmosphere of the World Wars is faithful level design.

“Especially at Verdun, the remnants of the war are still sticking out of the ground,” Hoebe reveals. “We tried to come as close as possible to recreating this in a respectable way in a multiplayer environment.

“We did a lot of background research; we visited the battlefields and gathered significant resources. For the level design we wanted to capture the essence of each of the main sectors of the Western Front.”

Brammer (pictured) seconds the importance of visiting locations in person.

“We decided we could still produce incredibly high fidelity and realistic-looking environments by travelling to Normandy, taking thousands of photos and creating our own PBR material library,” he says. “We built a team whose sole job is to create shaders that we can use on our architectural and environmental assets.

“Although our level design is inspired by the way French streets look and feel, we won’t be creating one-to-one real levels from them; it just wouldn’t make for great gameplay.”

This balance between reality and accessibility extends to the armaments that players use, too.

“90 per cent of the weapons in modern shooters are automatic,” Brammer details. “The core weapons of WWII on each side balance themselves off against each other really well already.”

Hoebe expresses that, for Verdun’s weaponry, his team wanted to “make sure every little screw and detail was exactly the way it was”.

“We worked with historical weapons experts who could point out every quirk,” he recalls. “Needless to say, this was a relatively expensive undertaking as there were generally a lot of iterations involved between the animators using tools like Maya and Modelers processing the feedback.”

Blackmill’s desire to bring the reality of combat to players’ experience also extended to more disturbing features.  

“To enhance the credibility we found that a functioning and realistic gore system was necessary,” Hoebe recounts. “We opted to let a significant amount of killed characters not die instantly, so they linger on the battlefield. With this, we are trying to make the experience as a whole more ‘raw’ and unfiltered.”

LEST WE FORGET

While all forms of media featuring violence can result in controversy, those based on real-life suffering and loss require particular sensitivity. This remains especially pertinent when attempting to design a ‘fun’ game without trivialising the grave subject matter. 

“The horrible human cost endured during these battles are subjects which require a delicate approach,” warns Hoebe. “Certain wording or even in-game implementation must explain your specific interpretation of events and allow people to put them into the proper context.”

Brammer agrees that the far-reaching impact of war, especially with the World Wars, should give devs pause for thought, but suggests that departing far enough from reality can avoid potential controversy.

“It’s difficult, so be sensible,” he opines. “One of the only reasons Call of Duty: World at War got away with limbs exploding was because the rest of that game was so ridiculously disconnected from WWII – see: red dot scope on a Thompson.”

Somebody will make the ‘Auschwitz VR experience’ and it will be excellent, if done tastefully and responsibly.

However, Hoebe issues a caution that the reception to a more unorthodox approach can pivot on the understanding of a developer’s audience.

“Great backlash would’ve ensued if we added something that made no sense or twisted the theme to such an extent that it no longer passes as a credible creative interpretation of the events,” he suggests. “In a modern or future setting the context is mainly driven by fiction and this allows for a greater, if not infinite, pool of possible artistic choices you can make while maintaining credibility and not breaking the immersion.”

As games’ ability to portray events – both fictional and real – with a greater level of detail, realism and immersion continues to mature, Brammer encourages devs to fully consider the content of their title and the way it may be perceived, in order to safeguard against backlash.

“Battalion isn’t dedicated to the brave soldiers in the war,” he states. “It’s not the actualisation of war that films like Saving Private Ryan are. It’s a game, a piece of entertainment and a part of history. It would be more offensive for a World War FPS to claim to be dedicated to or in memory of the fallen soldiers and civilians.

“But we do have constraints we are very strict on. We have absolutely no interest in showing or discussing anything relating to the SS or the Holocaust. We believe it is totally immoral for an FPS to do so.

“One day, somebody will make the ‘Auschwitz VR experience’ and it will be excellent, if done tastefully and responsibly. But that would be with the purpose of educating or telling a story – we do not have that.”