Video games have never steered away from the topic of war, but today’s market is saturated with titles like Battlefield and Call of Duty, which I feel do a poor job really hammering into the player’s head that war is hell. Instead, they seem focused on showing how cool it is to be a soldier in the good old US of A.
Well, today I’m here to tell you that there are better ways to show war in video games. I have two examples in mind: Gears of War as a series, and Halo 3: ODST, a specific title from another long running series. Both show the hardship of war and how devastating it is.
Let’s start with Halo 3: ODST, because it’s a quicker one to explain. ODST puts you in the shoes of the titular Orbital Drop Shock Troopers, who are much less durable than their Spartan counterpart: Master Chief. While the latter feels like an unstoppable war machine most of the time, the former feels frail. Running, ducking under cover, and well timed shots are needed to survive. Not only that, but the city the game takes place in: New Mombasa, is absolutely demolished by the end of the game. You see every bit of that destruction, too, as you try your best to fight back enemy forces and survive.
Survival really does become the prime directive of the game. Your squad has a mission that becomes increasingly impossible to achieve, leaving you stranded without much help on a losing front. Your original mission is a massive failure, but you fought hard to survive to see another fight. Not everyone was so lucky.
The game is good at showcasing this bleak, desperate struggle through the way it tells the story. Half of the time, you play as the Rookie, a new member of the team that gets thrown off course and awakens at the dead of night without their squad. You have no way to contact them, leaving you to fight tooth and nail all on your own deep in enemy territory, piecing together what happened to your squad as you progress. During the Rookie portions, the tone of the game is lonely, with an almost hopeless feeling. You’re climbing a mountain, not knowing if salvation is on the other side. The soundtrack, level design, and difficulty of encounters as Rookie really emphasize that.
The other half of the game has you in the shoes of different members of your squad, all fighting together to escape the city. These sections are filled with the more usual action Halo is known for, but still with that feeling of frailty. You’re not Chief, and every firefight could be your last. This is shown explicitly when one of your squad mates is fatally wounded by a Brute Chieftain that Chief would have taken down easily. You’re not a super soldier. You’re expendable.
Halo 3: ODST manages to feel so much different than any other game in the series because of this perspective change. Halo has tackled the hardships of war before in its first novel: The Fall of Reach, which covers the loss of the planet Reach and the death of many Spartans. The game Halo: Reach shows this off well enough, but really only manages the same level of hopelessness as ODST in its cutscenes, because otherwise you play as the badass Spartans. Reach does take its subject matter seriously, though, and I’d still recommend it as a good example of the atrocities of war.
Gears of War is a series often misjudged at first glance. If you just see brief videos or pictures of the roided-up soldiers of the COG, you may get the impression this is a shooter for protein powder junkies and beefy bros. However, you’d be horribly mistaken. Despite its overly muscular main characters, it manages to be the most grounded, realistic depiction of the costs of war I’ve ever played in a game. Every “victory” you achieve amounts to nothing, as you always lose more ground than you gain. The war against the locust is one where everyone loses.
Gears is a tale of endless war. Before the locust, humanity fought amongst itself, building weapons of mass destruction to end the conflict for good. Six weeks after their eighty year war, the locust emerged from underground in every populated city on Sera, wiping out a quarter of all humans, with many more reported missing.
This war with the locust is what you’re thrust into upon booting up Gears of War. The first game follows Marcus Fenix, Dominic Santiago, Damon Baird, and Augustus Cole: also known as Delta Squad. The original leader of the squad is killed in a firefight on a cramped city street, forcing Marcus into the role of leader. From here, you’re on one suicide mission to the next, ending in an assault on the enemy home front via bombing. The mission was a success, but didn’t have the results expected, leaving the enemy with only a greater will to fight.
Gears of War 2 has much greater scale than the first, depicting operation Hollow Storm: a full offensive underground to wipe out the locust once and for all. However, the operation doesn’t go as planned and most soldiers are wiped out or taken hostage to torture and use for slave labor. This game is much darker than the first, showing the locust taking prisoners, one of which is Dom’s wife. Once found, she’s braindead and emaciated, leaving Dom with the tough decision to put her out of her misery. The scene is heartbreaking, but it isn’t the only one. Earlier on, you run into a character met earlier on, who is hyped up to be unstoppable, with an iron will. However, torture wore him down enough that when you find and rescue him, he takes his own life in front of you.
Gears 2 is not afraid to show such tragedies, as it depicts what war can really be like. We’ve done things just as terrible in real life, and that makes its unwavering realism that much more impactful. The end of the game sees Delta Squad sink its own city in an attempt to flood the Hollow where the locust live, giving up humanity’s last stronghold. The slap in the face? It didn’t even work like they hoped.
Gears of War 3 picks up after the end of the last game, showing Delta Squad trying to survive on their own aboard an aircraft carrier they commandeered. Despite sinking their last remaining city, the locust live on, as well as the growing Lambent threat, brought on by a mutation caused by the very fuel humanity mined for. This title is even more hopeless than the last. There is no unified army anymore. It’s just the survivors against the locust. No one is safe from the tragedy of war, as even your long-running partner Dom dies trying to save his friends.
Not long after the death of a character you’ve bonded with over three games, you’re shown what lengths humanity went to against the locust. Chairman Prescott, leader of the Coalition of Ordered Governments, ordered orbital strikes from satellite laser super weapons called the Hammer of Dawn. They struck every city populated by locust in a last ditch effort to push them back. This move killed more humans than it did locust, leaving many cities covered in ash, bodies preserved like those in Pompeii.
The kicker is that you’ve been using the Hammer of Dawn since the first game as a solution to many unwinnable situations. This is the first time the series shows you how devastating it was on a large scale. This lesson is continued later in Gears of War 5, but I’m not here to talk about that title today.
The end of Gears 3 is a climax where Delta Squad kills the locust queen and uses a bio weapon to wipe out the lambent threat. While this means the end of the war, and survival for the people that are left, it’s an empty victory. So many more were lost, and Marcus’ dialogue reflects that at the end. He’s lost, depressed at the death of his best friend, and unable to see a bright future. That is how war ends. Not in some feeling of immense happiness, but finally taking time to feel the loss you’ve experienced.
While games like Battlefield and Call of Duty feel like advertisements for US army recruitment, Gears of War and Halo 3: ODST show why war is such a terrible thing. They don’t glorify the experience. They show what it means to live through the tragedy that it really is. I commend these games for giving a real experience in a sea of generic shooters.
Before anyone says anything, it is true that Gears of War does a lot of joking around with its cast’s banter, but I think it’s to contrast the bleak world around those characters. In the midst of an unwinnable war, some levity would no doubt be welcome. Don’t mistake its willingness to joke as a counter to my argument, because it really only adds to how relatable the characters are, I think.
Even if you’re not big on war stories, I’d recommend giving these games a try just to see the story at play. They continue to hold a special place in my heart, and they’re part of the reason why I’m so anti-war to this day.