The pre-review-section editorial in this month’s Edge is about, well… what games are about. When they try to be about things. How well they succeed in being about things. Whether they need to be about things at all. Among others, it makes specific mention of Call of Duty 4, and the “uncomfortable line” it walks between trying to show what it’s really like to be a soldier, and entertaining with dramatic set-pieces and tense action.
Obviously, COD4 can’t show us what it’s really like to be a soldier; no game can. There’s no way it can overcome the fact that I’m sitting comfortably on my couch with my Xbox controller in hand, and not lying prone in a roadside ditch in the Middle East with bullets whizzing over my head. So it doesn’t try. It gives me drama, and tension, and spectacle instead. This is all good and right; that’s what I want from it. Most of us want nothing more than this kind of distant simulacrum of soldiering, and the game can’t provide anything like the real experience anyway, so everyone’s happy.
There is one mission in COD4, however, which is different. In “Death From Above”, you’re suddenly removed from the kind of on-the-ground, in-the-thick-of-it action of the rest of the game, and thrust into the role of gunner/TV operator on an AC-130 gunship. This section is essentially an on-rails shooter: you’re presented with an infra-red image of the ground below which you can move around in a limited field while the plane flies its course, pulling the trigger to unleash your ammunition on whatever’s under the targeting reticle. Tiny glowing silhouettes of men run out of a church; you cut them down with a line of shells. Another group of men take cover behind a vehicle; another explosion sends their bodies flying. That stand of trees looks like a dangerous potential hiding-place; a few more shells put your mind at rest.
How this mission differs from the rest of the game is not just in its essential gameplay mechanics, it’s in how well the experience of playing the game can emulate the experience being depicted. The main game may not really come close to giving us the true combat experience, but it’s very likely (not that I really know anything about it, of course) that a real gunner on a real AC-130 gunship has an experience very similar to the one I’m having: he sits in a chair probably not unlike mine, a false-colour image is presented to him on a TV screen not unlike mine, he can move the image around with an input device not unlike mine, he can press a button and have explosions appear on his TV image that are not unlike the ones that appear on mine.
Therein lies the difference, of course: mine are mere electronic phantoms of explosions; his are real explosions, real deaths. But it’s one of the rare cases where a game actually can convey something very akin to a real situation, and it’s easy to see that if this game can so closely emulate the real experience, then surely the real experience for that AC-130 gunner can be as similar to a videogame as makes no difference. It’s easy, probably even necessary for their continued mental health, for these people to become so detached that the infra-red images on their screens appear no more representative of real people than the ones on mine. The point is reinforced by the dry radio commentary of the other crew members: “Ka-boom. That’s another one for the highlight reel”.
This isn’t a new or surprising insight, but it’s unusually effective coming in the middle of a game that seems to concentrate far more on the dramatic than the realistic, and it hits home all the more effectively for leading the player through the self-same actions a real gunner might take. Even if the rest of the game never really manages to be “about” much other than entertainment, this part provokes some real thoughts, and that’s important. It shows that while videogames don’t need to ever be about things, they can be, and they can do it well, and they do it in ways that aren’t available to other media. And that’s all the validation they’ll ever need.