I recently downloaded a demo of an upcoming game called Sniper Elite V2.
“Ooh,” I thought, “A game in which I get to sneak around Berlin with a sniper rifle, secretly thinning the ranks of evil Nazis before melting away into the night. That sounds like fun.”
“I hope I can ignore the fact that many of the German soldiers weren’t actually Nazis and were instead ordinary people who either went along with the dictatorship in order that they and their families might stay alive and out of prison and were subsequently conscripted or were idealistic young people who joined the army for the same blindly patriotic reasons as the young soldiers from Britain, America, Canada etc,” I didn’t also think.
So I loaded it up and began happily stumbling around the ruins of a severely bomb-wrecked Berlin that nonetheless managed to look marginally more welcoming than parts of north Kent, taking clumsy pot-shots at suspiciously inept German soldiers and generally hitting them in the knee or the shoulder or the hand.
Every now and then, however, a gust of luck would cause one of my wayward slugs to blam one of these hapless goons somewhere a little more deadly, such as the chest or the face, and when this happened something quite disturbing occurred: the viewpoint entered a slow-motion bullet-cam that tracked the bullet from the muzzle of the rifle all the way to just outside Gunther or Hans or Klaus, whereupon part of Gunther’s or Hans’ or Klaus’ body turned into a kind of x-ray, showing his bones and vital organs, the bullet continued on in loving slow-motion and I was treated to a graphic representation of it bursting his eyeball, shattering his cranium and pulping up some of his brain matter.
This is the game’s gimmick, you see. And I’m sure that the designers with their glasses and ponytails thought it would be cool, but for me it was just hugely depressing. Why? Because these slow-mo sequences were effectively schematics that demonstrated in graphic detail the ways in which a human life can end.
Of course, I know the game isn’t real, because it’s a game: it’s all happening inside my television. No matter how well rendered the graphics or how well animated the characters, it’s obviously not real. But by implying that these graphics have skeletons and vital organs this x-ray gimmick takes it outside the realms of the not-real and into some kind of uncomfortable grey area beyond. The characters in the game don’t actually have skeletons or vital organs, of course – they’re not real, we’ve established that – but showing these innards moves the game from a simplistic atmosphere of “ha ha shoot the fake cartoon Nazi, I might as well be throwing darts at Mickey Mouse for all the immersion there is in this” towards a much more grim and miserable “these represent actual living humans just like you and this is how they and you can die”.
I don’t think it’s an issue of increased realism of graphics, either. Granted, shooting a space invader just made it pop and disappear, and shooting an evil Nazi in Wolfenstein 3D just made him say “agh” and crumple to the floor in a digitised heap of colourful gore, but even methodically beating a passer-by to death with a baseball bat in a game as well realised as Grand Theft Auto IV still didn’t feel real. There was no humanity to the characters; they were just obviously hollow, artificial objects within an obviously hollow, artificial environment. Like vastly more complicated versions of the Pac Man ghosts. The issue, for me, comes in explicitly implying that they are (or that they represent) more than that.
OK. Maybe I’m being harsh. Maybe my reaction here is because I’m getting older and can appreciate that life is finite and that day by day the end is slowly but inexorably drawing closer and that life is the most precious thing that any of us owns in a way that a younger gamer might not.
Maybe. I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that Sniper Elite V2 is the first ever World War II-themed depress-’em-up that I’ve ever played.