[Defiant Development's Morgan Jaffit talks to Gamasutra about Warco, a new war game that replaces the player's gun with a video camera in an attempt to show the human side of war.]
It's almost a cliche at this point for makers of war-based shooting games to tout their titles' "realism." In general, this means the military uniforms and jargon will look and sound right, the guns will be rendered correctly down to the last shell casing, the war-torn villages will be based on real satellite maps, and so on.
But when it comes to realistically showing the human side of war, most war games come up short. They won't bother much with the innocent civilian, caught under rubble from a rocket attack, clutching a photo of her lost child and begging for help.
They won't focus on the embattled president sending a desperate rallying cry to his overwhelmed troops, or the few loyalist soldiers arguing about whether to flee or wait for reinforcements. They won't linger on the scared little girl, looking out from a burned out shack to a city square littered with dead soldiers.
These are the kinds of scenes that will take center stage in Warco, an upcoming war game that's less action movie and more documentary.
As broadcast journalist Jesse DeMarco, players will enter the fictional, civil-war-torn North African country of Benouja armed only with a video camera and a desire to show the world what war is really like, from the inside. After a day of filming, the in-game footage gets cut together into a BBC-style report that shows the war from a very different perspective than down the barrel of a gun.
The project is the brainchild of Tony Maniaty, an Australian journalist that has been covering war zones from East Timor to Eastern Europe since 1975, and film director Robert Connelly. After the pair worked together on Balibo, a film based on Maniaty's reporting in East Timor, they started thinking about the possibilities of a training simulation that could help budding journalists learn to stay safe while coping with the difficulties of on-the-scene war reporting.
The idea eventually expanded from a training simulation to an actual retail game, and some pre-development funds from the Australian government helped bring in the former Pandemic Australia developers at Defiant Development. The team is now fleshing out the idea into a prototype and working to attract more funding.
Initially, Warco's unorthodox concept wasn't an easy sell for the Brisbane-based developers. "On hearing the idea, it's one of those things that took a little bit of time to settle in," Defiant founder and lead designer Morgan Jaffit said in an interview with Gamasutra. Jaffit said it was listening to Maniaty talk about his war reporting experience that convinced him that "[there are] just so many interesting ways that a narrative-based first-person camera shooter can play out in an interesting fashion."
Those interesting narratives include a lot of built-in moral and ethical questions, based around the journalist's role in a war zone. "Journalists have a duty to be removed from action," Jaffit explains. "A journalist can't pick up a gun or drag a soldier off the battlefield -- but the moral questions that raises and the decisions that a character may choose to make in those scenarios become a really striking part of what we want to build."
"It used to be that press were effectively non-targeted combatants on the battlefield," Jaffit said. "That's no longer true in modern wars, in fact journalists are often specifically targeted because they know it'll result in newsworthy scenarios."
"Everybody understood we could make a game about filiming things in the environment," he continued, "but there were some questions as to whether that would an excessively passive experience with no interesting things for the player to do, so we wanted to show a bit of action to let the players know it can also be a dangerous and threatening environment."
But Warco's not all about dodging incoming fire while filming, either. Jaffit described potential missions could involve driving around town and watching how troops interact with civilians, talking with fellow journalists while trapped in a hotel, or being escorted into a rebel camp for an interview with a leader that might not be too happy with your previous reports.
Jaffit said players will be encouraged to explore the game's series of "linked sandboxes" to find secondary and hidden objectives as well. For example, stealthier players may find themselves sneaking around to film a handoff with an arms dealer, uncovering secret NATO support for one side of the conflict.
"We're all about light and shade," Jaffit said. "There's definitely a place for action and the threat of death from troops on the field, but we're also very much about those narrative moments when the threat is less immediate and you're focused on the narrative and the people involved."
"We would love to catch the quiet moments," he continued. "If you watch news footage, if you watch a war documentary, if you watch a war movie, the parts where people are shooting at each other are smaller part of the narrative, an in a lot of ways they're not the most interesting parts," he continued.
It sounds like the kind of serious game that a university might put out as a free training simulation, but Jaffit is adamant that this new kind of war game experience can find an audience in the retail market.
"I'm not thinking we can take Call of Duty head to head for sales. ... [but] the success of games like Heavy Rain shows that there's a strong desire for adult narrative-focused play," he said. "What I'd like to see is more of those tier-two games with slightly smaller budgets that don't need to find a 10 million audience and can instead be comfortable with a 1 or 2 million audience."
Even if it doesn't overtake Call of Duty, though, Jaffit thinks the market is ready for something that expands the definition of a war game. "We're just offering a new perspective," he said. "There's a lot of games that cover the action side of war."
"Some of those start to look at the relationships of the soldiers, and the context of the battlefield, but there's not really anything that stands to one side and can pan off the soldier shooting to the children in the background. That's a very different perspective that we offer to everything else that's out there."