With Battlefield 3 on the shelves and Modern Warfare 3's release date approaching, the military shooter has been the center of attention in much of gaming discourse. Some gamers are excited for the nonstop, set-piece driven action the genre has to offer while others are beginning to feel exhausted by their index fingers clutching the right trigger for hours on in.

Regardless of anyone's hyped hatred or admiration for these games, it is interesting to consider where this genre is heading. Though the current formula certainly works to some degree (shipping figures and reviews can attest for that), I think many would agree that it is on the cusp of design relevancy; we can only save the world from nukes and crazy Russians but so many times. So where does the military shooter go from here? How can developers evolve their prized schema?

See? They're already planning the next move

Considering characterization           

There is a considerable amount of fun and intrigue to be had with the Tom Clancy/Manchurian Candidate-like approach to storytelling and characterization that many military shooters currently utilize. The suspense, twists, and explosive action that carry the narrative are immensely entertaining.

However, our playable protagonists usually end up taking on one of two archetypes: the super soldier who is ready to do whatever it takes to accomplish a stated objective (see Modern Warfare 1 or 2) or the outcast soldier retelling a tale to justify the actions that landed him in an intense interrogation (see Black Ops or Battlefield 3). As great as it can be to take control of these characters, there has to more to being a soldier than complex conspiracies and stopping global terrorism.

These stories are usually more big-picture driven; the scope of the narrative is supposed to illustrate just how grave the situation truly is. As such, the weight of tale isn't placed upon any particular character. Could it be, though? Certainly it's possible to tell a war story where the focus is on the development of an individual. For an excellent example of this, we can examine a fascinating character from a war film.

In The Hurt Locker, the focus on the story is less on the events surrounding the action and more on the plight and psyche of an individual soldier. The main character of the story, Sergeant First Class William James, played by Jeremy Renner, is projected throughout the narrative as a war addict. He has to be in a constant state of danger induced adrenaline.  

Side Note: Renner totally got snubbed at the Oscars. . .

The point of the plot sees past common themes and ideas found in war stories and instead focuses on the individual. In fact, the aspects of war found in the movie have been criticized by real veterans for their inaccuracies. The mainly character-driven action of the story is the meat of the film, though; we want to see what happens to Sergeant James just as much as, if not more than, witnessing the development of the external conflicts.  

Video game military shooters should take cues from this kind of characterization. Allowing the player to experience the plight of a more complicated individual could make the character's choices and actions much more personal and daunting. Perhaps this could even lead to more gamers really meditating and considering the weight and effects of the external conflict of the story in the process. Which leads me to my next point...

...maybe we shouldn't be so comfortable with this

If military shooters have become derivative for some people, perhaps the result of this feeling can be traced to how comfortable gamers have become with the stakes and actions that are carried out in the genre. Gamers are often subjected to taking down foes en masse to an almost laughable extreme. We have become so accustomed to the process of conflict and action in military shooters that we are practically unfazed by the fictional gravity of these simulated combat situations.

A dose of focused intensity might be the solution to the eroded feelings of anxiety, panic, and awe that the military shooter was initially able to so effectively instill. Rather than relying on the sheer number of enemy AI on screen at one time, why not explore combat situations that ask players to take more into consideration than what their sights are lined upon?

I believe there is a close example of this in recent video games. One of my favorite gaming moments (and I mean of all games, not just the genre at hand) was Call of Duty 4's "All Ghillied Up" mission. This part of the game tested the player's patience and thinking rather than their trigger finger. Instead of explosion after explosion, the mission was best approached by steadily and carefully considering the targets.

If you played this part of CoD4 slowly and patiently, chances are you were less worried about your kill count and more concerned with how your character was going to crawl past an enemy platoon of tanks and ground soldiers. Perhaps this doesn't quite capture idea of taking players outside of their comfort zone, but I think it still demonstrates a foundation for the concept; "All Ghillied Up" broke away from the heart-racing, gun-blazing pace of the rest of the game.


What's up with the grass covered sniper rifles moving around on the ground? Eh, I'm sure it's nothing.

Further consideration

Lastly, I believe it might be important for gamers to step back and really consider the military shooter. Perhaps just examining why the genre even exists could lead to a further exploration of what the military shooter is capable of. What is the player doing in these games? What kinds of themes and ideas are explored? How do these concepts inform gameplay? And, perhaps most importantly, why do we play these games?

Why do we take part in the imitation of mankind's ugly side? War is really as brutal as humanity can get, so why embrace it through cultural productions? My argument for this rests in the hands of empathy. I believe that imitating the chaos and violence of war- regardless of medium- leads to an understanding of the subjects of such conflicts, albeit an incredibly small understanding.

By no means am I claiming that I know what it's like to be a soldier because I beat Call of Duty on veteran. Rather, I propose that being exposed to fictional works imitating acts of warfare remind us, even if by hyperbolic recreations, that such conflict exists and real people do experience it. I would like to remind you that I am not asking you to buy into that particular argument. Instead, I just want you to think about the question. Why do you play military shooters? Even if the answer is, "Because they're fun, you over-analytical jerk," then I think we've gotten somewhere.