September 5, 2009 12:00 PM |
['Alt Space' is a regular GameSetWatch-exclusive column by critic and writer Phill Cameron, discussing the relationship between the personal computer and gaming. Sweeping his gaze across the esoterica of PC gaming, today he regards WW1 Medic, and the success it has portraying the essence of war, and the implications of that portrayal.]
Two dots and a curve. That's all you need, these days, to denote happiness. The entire culture of smilies and emoticons has grown up around the basic principle that facial expressions can be boiled down into a few markings and thrown from the keyboard across the aether, until the person on the other end knows you're joking, happy, angry or sad.
A simple concept, arguably trivialising the infinite capacity for human emotion, the massive number of combinations those 52 muscles resident in the human face can amass. So there you have it, two dots and a curve, boiling something down into it's essence, with little lost in the process.
It's a principle that can be applied to the majority of things. Abstract art and absurdist theatre rely on only hinting at their subjects, creating thoughts and concepts beyond just blatantly shouting what they're trying to say. It's the subtleties that offset the core messages, stripping away the fluff to leave you with something profound and meaningful. War games, of late, have been more concerned with the fluff than the message, and that's all well and good; it's fun to play war. In the list of things that the 2004 PC freeware title WW1 Medic elicits, fun is not even there.
From the creator of Dwarf Fortress, the infamously complex, arcane and inpenertrable city building game, WW1 Medic places you as, unsurprisingly, a medic in the trenches of World War One. You're tasked with saving as many as you can by crawling around through no man's land, patching your men up as best you can, then dragging the unfortunates back to your trench, where they're presumably sent home to live out the rest of their lives. It's a simple concept, complete with scoring system and the chance to patch up the enemy for those more altruistic among us. The interesting thing is not what the game is, but how it's portrayed.
Presented with the most basic of graphics, you see both ends of no man's land, the enemies trenches, and your own. One side is blue, the other green. You're green. Bullets sail over the space between the trenches at erratic intervals, each one randomly sent at the other side, just as likely to miss as hit. There's no thought behind the destruction in WW1 Medic. You just hover behind your side, patching up anyone unlucky enough to get hit, dreading the cry of that horn.
The horn still haunts me. It's jovial, almost whimsical as it sends dozens, if not hundreds of men to their death. They begin to charge, walking stoically to their deaths, some quickly falling onto their stomachs as their comrades get cut down. Even if they do reach the other side, the huddled masses of the other army will soon cut them down. If it's your side that charges, the temptation is to hang back, waiting for it all to calm down before venturing into the field of death, patching up whoever is close enough to drag back without worrying too much about catching a stray round.
Bullets are hardly the only thing you have to worry about. Mustard gas forms arbitrarily around the field, catching friend and foe alike, all dying with a splutter. There's little to no warning of where it's going to strike, so staying alive depends almost entirely on luck. The shelling has a little more warning, as you see the shadows of the shells growing ever bigger before exploding upon impact. Planes strafe occasionally. Really, bullets are the last of your worries.
It's hard to describe, and you should really play it yourself, what with it being free, but the ideas it spawns and nurtures are far more simple to explain. WW1 Medic is, in my experience, the truest depiction of war ever conceived in the space of gaming. Perhaps that is too broad, and should be limited more to depicting World War 1, or pre modern war, but the arbitrary nature, and utter disregard for human life present makes it seem that much more real and horrifying.
It raises interesting questions on why exactly we glorify war in the first place; with the Call of Duty games, and previously Medal of Honour, World War 2 has been done to death, but while you can get some sense of the sights and sounds of war from those games, you were always just one step below super human, able to shrug off bullets and explosions with nary a worry.
It's not a complaint against those games, but they never made me feel like I was there. It was just a bit more cinematic fluff, used to elicit a reaction. Of course, WW1 Medic is there to garner a reaction too, but it somehow feels a bit more true, and thus, more poignant.
Vulnerability has been a concept played around with in games for a while, but never truly embraced. Even in something like ArmA or Thief, you rely on tactics and intelligence to outsmart and outmanoeuvre your opponents, so they never really get a shot off at you.
You can still take a few shots, get patched up, carry on like nothing's happened. Perhaps the increased vulnerability here wouldn't make for a fun sustained experience, and only works within WW1 Medic's small walls because it's an isolated, short play session, where it sometimes lasts only a few seconds as you take one of the first shots fired in the cranium.
WW1 Medic is not fun to play. It's not even satisfying. You might save a few lives, but you can never make a difference to the soldiers there, as more are always ready to take the place of those lost. At the end you're given a score on how well you did, but that's almost a mockery, placed there to attach a figure to something that doesn't need or want one. You go out there, you do what you can, but ultimately, it's all futile. And that's war.
Categories: Column: Alt Space