Guns, truth and consequences

Darkness within the human race ... Spec Ops: The Line is based on Joseph Conrad's <em>Heart of Darkness</em>.
Darkness within the human race ... Spec Ops: The Line is based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
Change is coming ... a scene from Spec Ops: The Line.

Change is coming ... a scene from Spec Ops: The Line.

Conventional wisdom in the world of video games states that there are too many shooting games, and they are all too much alike. This phenomenon has even been given a name: ''Shooter fatigue''.

So it probably comes as no surprise that the next frontier for video gaming may not be a powerful new technology, remote control mechanism or ever more complex online battles, but their characters' dark emotional landscapes.

In video games, modern military shooters reign with the indisputable king being the Call of Duty series, also known as COD, by Activision. Since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, the franchise has arguably been the most lucrative entertainment property in the world, setting the pace for games in the minds of avid players.

Last year's annual instalment, Modern Warfare 3, even beat James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar to earn $US1 billion in the shortest time: 16 days, compared with Avatar's 17 days.

Despite the strong sales, the series and the gaming style have vocal critics.

One criticism is that there is no consequence to the player's actions. Death is simply a function of the game and endless cannon-fodder enemies can be mown down without remorse - a worrying factor for some parents since the series is not aimed at children but is increasingly sought by them.

According to Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for Far Cry 3, an upcoming shooter game due for release in September, this needs to change. ''I want to make gamers think about the way they interact with games.'' he says.

Although similar to COD at first glance, Far Cry 3 differs in its emotional weight.

Its protagonist is 20-year-old holidaymaker Jason Brody. After Brody and his friends are attacked by modern-day pirates, he is forced to take up arms and become a killer to save the people he cares about.

''What happens to him when he picks up a gun, the trauma he goes through and how it changes him, is the central theme of Far Cry 3,'' Yohalem says.

The writer is passionate about the artistic potential of video games. ''I believe games are the future of experience and entertainment,'' he says. ''They are an art form and we should be using them to explore important issues.''

The game was demonstrated at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles last month alongside another that explores the psychological harm of war, Spec Ops: The Line, from publisher 2K Games. Based on the Joseph Conrad novel Heart of Darkness, Spec Ops: The Line follows the journey of Walker, an American soldier in a devastated near-future Dubai. As in Conrad's story and its spiritual offspring Apocalypse Now, the central theme of the game is the darkness within the human race and its terrible potential for violence and horror. Mixing real-world gunfights with psychedelic introspection, Walker's rapid descent into darkness is illustrated by both his decaying mental state and his increasingly scarred and battered body.

But it raises questions. Can a video game really succeed at such serious storytelling?

Another title at E3 suggests that a game does not need to tell as deep a story to make the player become emotionally invested. Medal of Honor: Warfighter, coming in October from Electronic Arts, will attempt to tap into players' emotions through patriotism and teamwork.

First, it will allow players to take on the role of a variety of ''tier one operators'' from around the world, including Australia's Special Air Service Regiment. It also will also pair players into ''fire teams'' to watch each other's backs on the battlefield. They are simple concepts, but may tie gamers with a stronger emotional string.

Legendary video game designer Warren Spector thinks game developers and publishers need to approach video game violence with a different attitude. He is calling for more meaningful interactions, hinting at the need for consequences.

''When you pull that trigger in a game, all we ever do is pat you on the back for it,'' Spector says. ''If you pull a gun in the real world, it is going to be the defining moment of your life.''

This story Guns, truth and consequences first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.