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Interview:  Warco  Aims To Show The Human Side Of War
Interview: Warco Aims To Show The Human Side Of War Exclusive
September 21, 2011 | By Kyle Orland

[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."

Just because the protagonist doesn't have a gun doesn't mean there won't be action, though. As shown in an early, proof-of-concept trailer, staying safe as war rages around you will be a big part of the game.

"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."

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Eddie Vertigo
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I've been waiting years for someone to do something like this! Simulations like this can inspire people to have thought-provoking conversations in meaningful ways. I'm definitely someone who will be playing this game when it comes out.

Walker Hardin
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I'm glad the themes are more complex and the context more comprehensive than what we get now, but I'm not sure the war reporter angle is the best way to go. A narrative involving someone who isn't yet a combatant, but could be is more interesting, I think. If the option to pick up a gun exists, but the people in the game are so fully realized that killing assumes some of the weight it does in the real world, to the point where the player doesn't WANT to, then that would be an achievement.

Do you want to let the violence around you increase your own capacity for violence? When, or is it ever, justified? By forcing the player into a passive role, rather than letting them choose it, they lose a lot of good material.

I enjoyed my recent no-kill play through of Deus Ex, as did at least one of my friends, so I know people are willing to spare the trigger when presented with other options.

In any case, I appreciate the effort to do something different.

Michael G
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I completely agree, it's a great concept and I'm surprised it hasn't been done before. The closest I can think of is MoH Pacific Assault where a platoon is surrounded on all sides and have to just wait for hours till the japanese that are surrounding them attack. But then the attack comes and it's probably the easiest mission in the game and a wasted opportunity.

I will likely buy this when (if) it comes out but I don't think it would be difficult to make a FPS around this concept, and I'd certainly welcome a slower paced war game, I'm sick of CoD, Battlefield types where it would make no difference if they replaced the players character with an automated turret. Metro 2033 did a great job of putting the fear into the battlefield, especially the above ground missions and the refugee stations are an excellent part of the game that it would've been nice to explore a bit more and hear some of the stories of living there.

Freek Hoekstra
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I have been wanting to create a realistic shooter for some time now, showing real suffering and making the player feel guilty for making the wrong moves resulting innocent casualty's glad to see someone do it!

Daniel Martinez
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Originality to the max! I can't wait to see what kind of impact (if any) this has on consumers. Sadly, I feel like this game will be held back in some markets whom may not want people to see this for one reason or another. It depends on the sociopolitical landscape. But then again, you never know.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Wow! This is the next big thing in gaming in my opinion. I have to say that yes, there will be plenty of people that will be skeptical. I also agree with Daniel in the fact that there will be plenty of people or organizations that might not want such an issue to be handled by a game because they fear it would trivialize the seriousness of war. But if there is ever an example of our industry growing, this would be the right sign in the right direction.

Just look at Heavy Rain for example. This was a game that plenty of people kind of shot it down because there was no action, no gun toting steroidal freak, women with big breasts, and pure gory blood scenes. But it did awesomely well for itself. And I for one have been a gamer for a long time. Although shooters have always been popular, it seems that the trend is to stick with shooters and throw as many elements of other genres into it to make it good. That's great but then you have COD and BF which although are different with some of their themes, are quite similar in many ways. It would be a nice change of pace to play a War-game like this. I feel that if our community continues to say that we have matured, then we need to also have a place for those mature concepts to flourish.

In the movie industry, you have plenty of Van Damme, blow things up, in your face, Quinton Tarrantino films. But then those rare gems show up that shows that art can transcend to something more. I think this would be one of those games. I also think that if so many big publishers weren't strangling their talent, you would get more creative games like this. But I for one would get this when it comes out on day one!

Nick Kinsman
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I think you might be getting a little ahead of yourself here.

While the game sounds great and I am hugely interested, I think calling it 'the next big thing' is a hard sell. This game will have an audience, just like Heavy Rain did. It'll probably do well, just like Heavy Rain did. But, just like Heavy Rain, it's not likely to make the rest of the industry turn on its head and change every easy-sell concept that's currently established.

Sylvester O'Connor
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Hey Nick, I guess I spoke out of term and without detail. I just meant exactly what you pointed out that there will be a market for it like Heavy Rain. I don't think it will make the earth spin, but I love the forward progression that I think the game could be if done right.

Nick Kinsman
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Ha ha, gotcha. I suspect you were a bit excited, as I know my first reaction to this was similarly, "How has nobody else tried this before?"

Michael Joseph
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Sounds like a tough road, but I wish these guys and their game much success.

I hope we see more of this sort of cross pollination between careers when it comes to came design and development. I think this is the sort of diversity we need within the ranks if we're going to avoid the "cultural ghetto along with comics" to quote Chris Hecker.

The biggest barrier to this type of diversity is still accessibility. It's much easier for the seasoned court lawyer to turn around and write court fiction than it is for the war correspondant to make a game.

Christian Ierullo
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Reminds me a little of A Mind forever Voyaging; you just explore a world and record data of things you think will support your thesis of a corrupt regime. I always liked the premise for that game and the concept of the gameplay, it will be interesting to see this type of concept applied to a more realistic context.

Gregory Kinneman
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Reminds me of how the camera in Beyond Good and Evil was the most powerful weapon, because only information could change the world.

Nick Kinsman
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Faaaaantastic to hear this. Really wish the best for these guys and their project.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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im very excited for this game as I wished for someone to make this game before lol