call of duty

The Past in the Present: Why Games Set Long, Long Ago Matter

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The beauty of video games is that they can take you to any point in space and time you can possibly dream up. Want to run a cobalt trading operation between two regions of the Milky Way? Elite: Dangerous has you covered. Want to play as a mutant monster hunter caught in the middle of an empire-wide war? Look no further than The Witcher franchise.

But if you’re a game designer, there’s a strong case to be made for setting the action in a real-world, historical setting. To illustrate, we’ll delve into the example of World War I as a setting for games.

“Where Are All the Good World War I Games?”

It’s an interesting question.

The number of games set in a post-apocalyptic future is gigantic. Game developers have also seen a lot of success using World War II as the backdrop — in fact, the list of WWII games is longer than you could shake a bayonet at.

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On the other hand, the list of World War I games that have ever been created since the infancy of video gaming is surprisingly stark (and of those, the majority are flight sims).

There are some very valid arguments to be made as to why The War to End All Wars isn’t an ideal setting for a video game (or, at least, less ideal than WWII), and they’re perhaps deserving of their own separate article. But suffice it to say, nobody thought a game about processing paperwork in a grey, pseudo-Soviet setting was a thrilling idea until “Papers, Please” came along.

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If the idea of turning one of the darkest, bloodiest and most senseless wars in recent history into fodder for a video game sounds like it would be in bad taste … well, it doesn’t need to be that way.

Preserving a Fading Time

While the principle purpose of video games is entertainment, it’s not the only benefit that can come from playing them: they’re also a medium for education.

Continuing with our WWI example, very few — if any — among us can truly appreciate the realities of WWI. An interactive medium like gaming, perhaps even more so than extensive reading about the war, has the capacity to help us empathize with the situation in which millions of soldiers found themselves.

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The reason this is both poignant (when handled right) and important is that this is a monumental world event that is quickly fading from living memory — the last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, passed away in 2012.

Two reasons game developers shy away from this period? Firstly, it’s a war from which there are comparatively fewer records, first-person accounts or artifacts from which to draw inspiration. Secondly, it was a very complicated war from a political standpoint, set it a world markedly different from our own (the political climate behind the second World War are more readily understandable, and it’s easier to differentiate between the heroes and evil parties).

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But these are also precisely the reasons why video gaming should step up to the mantle and represent this time for the benefit of modern players (and it’s not as if there isn’t a market for gamers who want to see historical accuracy in games).

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If done well, any historical games — not just those set around WWI — can be a big win all around: profitable for developers, entertaining for players, genre-pushing for the industry and preserving a little slice of history to boot.

Identifying Trends for Art and Profit

It may well be that non-RTS games set around WWI are fundamentally difficult, but that era does serve as a good case study and opens up a wider discussion on how public interest in certain historical periods influences the game industry.

It’s little surprise that COD and Battlefield games set in the Middle East dominated the charts during the 2000s, given the real-world events of that decade. Outside of modern warfare, we’re seeing a lot of Viking-inspired games coming out on Steam this year — it could be the case that this trend is being fueled by the spectacular HBO show “Vikings” and the success of the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise.

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Or, alternatively, the slew of archeological findings from that period may have spawned a resurgence in public interest, which in turn has shaped gaming and movie trends.

Whichever way around it may be, it’s our job as game designers to identify such trends and deliver a quality gaming experience around them, ideally before everyone hops on the trend and it becomes oversaturated. After all, it would be somewhat foolhardy to make a COD-esque FPS in the current market.

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But if you can be the first to identify a nonfiction story or era that has yet to receive an amazing game treatment?

That’s the holy grail right there.

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The Potentially Game-Changing Feature Introduced By Black Ops 3

Scene from Call of Duty Black Ops 2

It only takes one look at the most popular games in recent years to see that story has become very important to us. Sure, some of 2015’s biggest surprise hits have been multiplayer games, such as Rocket League and Splatoon. That being said, almost all of the biggest 2015 games had one thing in common: a story-driven single player experience.

The Growth of Story

Games like Batman: Arkham Knight, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain have so far blown us away with captivating characters, stories, and worlds wrapped around excellent gameplay. Even highly anticipated titles like Uncharted 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Halo 5: Guardians will be purchased by fans anxious to experience the next chapter of each game’s iconic protagonists.

In short, there’s no better time to be a gamer than today for those who love games with a strong narrative (not to mention those who love to write those video game narratives). There’s no shortage of titles with excellent gameplay matched with a worthwhile story for just about any genre; role-playing, real-time strategy, action-adventure, first-person shooter—you name it.

Then there’s the meteoric rise to popularity of episodic games. Telltale Games were among the first to strike gold with their The Walking Dead games that asked little gameplay input from players but fascinated them with rich characters and story. Even if it leaned more toward being a TV show with interactive elements than a game, it would be the first of many episodic games where story progression was everything.

Not For Everyone

But for every player all about story, there is also one out there who just wants to enjoy the gameplay. Whether they’re the good or bad guy, fighting aliens or an evil government organization, these players just want to slay beasts, shoot enemies, solve puzzles, and more. They may still prefer a decent story over something terrible, but to them great level design and challenging obstacles are far more important than a likable protagonist and unique plot.

Perhaps that is why the newest Call of Duty will do something not very many games have done before: let you skip ahead to a level you haven’t played. This means that players can choose to hop from the first level to the very last one, which can be seen as the equivalent of reading the last pages of a good book before starting from the beginning.

An Archaic Mentality

Jason Blundell, the campaign director of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, explained to Eurogamer why this feature was important to include. “The unlocking level system is an archaic mentality,” he said. “Consumers and game players in general are far more mature these days. There are so many things vying for our interests today. It’s about, how do they want to consume it? Maybe they put it down on level two, and then they’re in work the next day, and some guy says, ‘dude, you’ve got to check out level four!’ And he’s like, ‘okay, I’ll have a quick look.’ That’s totally fine. I think it’s their choice.”

In other words, players shouldn’t have to play level 3 before getting to enjoy level 4 in much the same way that Netflix doesn’t force you to watch the episodes of a show in order. This is even if it gives players an irresistible way of spoiling the ending for them, and that’s fine.

Enjoying Games Your Way

As mentioned before, some gamers see skipping to the end as a sure-fire way of ruining the entire narrative experience. Perhaps they have a point when it comes to games with major plot twists that are the most impactful when you don’t see them coming. Even so, Blundell is confident that this feature will please plenty of gamers who like going about a game’s story their own way.

“If you see the end you’ll say, I need to understand this more,” Blundell added. “But it’s about the journey, though, right? Sure, people will jump on and play the last level. Okay. Cool. That’s up to them….I don’t think playing the last level will give you everything. You’ll just look at it and go, okay, there’s the last level.”

A Possible New Trend

It’s likely that the ability to skip through a story campaign’s levels or stages becomes the norm one day. After all, games are at their best when they give the player options, whether it be to skip cutscenes, tutorials, etc. If this feature ends up being very well-received by fans, you can count on many of the top developers considering it to give their own players the same level of choice many have been waiting for years.

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