For a long time now, first-person shooters have focused on War on Terror clichés, big dudebros with tattoos, and enough explosions to make Michael Bay jealous. For years before that, first-person shooters were stuck deep in World War II, telling the same stories over and over again. Every once in awhile, a shooter is set in Vietnam.
We rarely see first-person shooters set in wars before World War II (Verdun being a recent exception), when combat was slower and less reliant on individual movement. In the American Civil War, for example, men marched in rows and had to spend 30 seconds reloading between each shot. It's an era that's a lot less sexy to players looking for high-caliber fun.
It's remarkable, then, that Swedish developer Campfire Games just successfully wrapped up a $118,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund War of Rights, its first-person shooter set in the American Civil War. It allows players to fight on both sides of the September 1862 incursion known as the Maryland campaign. After shocking the overconfident North with a string of victories, the South experimentally made its first assault into enemy territory. It was the turning point of the war and the scene of some of its most brutal fighting.
Of course, another reason we probably don't see many shooters about the Civil War is that every single aspect of it comes with cultural and political baggage. This year, we've seen more and more protests about the Confederate battle flag's continued presence on state capitals and monuments. Also this year, Apple removed (and later reinstated) games from the iTunes App Store that contained Confederate flags, even if they were in games portraying the Civil War's historically accurate details.
"I can understand the discussions about [the Confederate battle flag] being featured on official buildings due to its associations," Campfire Games co-founder Mads Støjko Larsen told me. "This, however, is a game set to take place in 1862. If the flag was there at the time, we'll feature it. Much like any movie or other entertainment media would. Beginning to rewrite history to fit our modern political views is doing a disservice to said material."
The games Apple removed from the App Store were mostly strategy games, with an impersonal, overhead perspective. Players viewed maps and little soldiers from a distance. War of Rights, by contrast, is a first-person shooter built with one of the most realistic-looking game engines in the business, CryEngine, and it will put at least half the players in the shoes of Confederates. That's a far more involved, intimate experience.
But Larsen told me has no problem whatsoever playing as Confederates. "There's no way of portraying a conflict if you can't show both sides of it," he said.
There's undeniable weirdness to the idea of playing as a Confederate soldier in a first-person shooter. Games set in World War II rarely show the perspective of the German Army, and the modern German perspective on that era is not a source of major political controversy. We all agree on who the bad guys were.
In America, the Civil War wound has somehow remained fresh for 160 years. Confederate battle flags still fly across the South. Stubborn ideologues continue to insist that the South fought against a powerful federal government rather than for a brutal slave-based economy. Even the pitch for War of Rights on its Kickstarter page has an uncomfortably even-handed way of presenting the conflict.
"To start off, this is a game focusing on the American Civil War, where bullets flew for the disparate causes of their participants," the pitch reads. "Those that fought for the rights of their states and purported livelihood clashed with those that fought for the rights of the enslaved… and the Federal government's supremacy."
Between the political minefield and slow reload times, it's hard to imagine how this can be fun.
"It's all about the perception of fun," Larsen said. "For me, personally, one of the more enjoyable first-person multiplayer experiences I've had was the good old bolt action rifle only mod for Call of Duty 2. That was slow compared to pretty much every other first-person shooter game out there, but it kept being intense all the same. We very much believe that War of Rights will do the same."
The moment-to-moment idea of War of Rights reminds me a lot of the realistic modern warfare simulator Arma 3. Firefights can be chaotic and explosive, but sometimes time passes as units walk slowly down a valley or ride to the front in a helicopter. Part of the value of Arma is it's more concerned with being accurate than being fun all the time.
The thing about soldiers in first-person shooters is that they need someone to fight against. Weird as it might be, if War of Rights is going to be the historical simulation it wants to become, it has to give players the ability to view that simulation from any soldier's perspective: high-ranking and low, on horse and on foot, and from the North or South.
As opposed to Apple's decision earlier this year, I don't think we should consider parts of history inappropriate subject matter for video games just because the subject matter might make us uncomfortable. There's nothing wrong with the idea of a multiplayer first-person shooter in principle. We just need to know who the bad guys were.