This article first appeared on VICE UK
Devastating. Heart breaking. Intricate. Heroic.
These are just some of the words a person could use to describe World War II, one of the most destructive and widespread conflicts the world has ever known. The sheer magnitude of a world at total war is so awe inspiring that it is difficult now, in 2015, to fully comprehend the unimaginable horror of this vast struggle. It's a period of history that showed us both the best and the worst that humanity had to offer – and yet video games have somehow decided that the Second World War is boring.
Time and again, pundits and players repeat the same tired mantra: "When will they stop setting games in WW2? It's so boring. We've seen everything there is to see, twice over!"
It would be easy to blame the individual, yelling about a lack of education while you throw all 1,200 pages of William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at their head. Truth be told, the idea that World War II is boring, with its familiar theatres and unambiguous villains, is a misconception that has been perpetuated ever since we first ran through Castle Wolfenstein's maze-like corridors.
Wolfenstein 3D puts players in the boots of American secret agent B.J. Blazkowicz. In this 1992-released grandfather of the first-person shooter genre, the player, as B.J., is tasked with dismantling the Nazi war machine as a one-man army. The sprites you shoot do not represent men that may have fought for a multitude of reasons. They are cogs in a machine. Nothing more. The whole game culminates at the end of its third episode when the player must face off against a Hitler ensconced within a metal battle-suit. The ending famously shows the Nazi Party leader disintegrating under your hail of bullets. Mission accomplished.
While Wolfenstein 3D was certainly a bombastic thrill ride, it's rather telling that narratives surrounding games set in the Second World War haven't really progressed much further than the simplicity of running through levels and killing every jackbooted foe you see. Heading into the modern era of games, the Medal of Honor series brought WW2 to ever more popular heights. As consoles became more powerful it was clear that these games could begin to broaden their scope to encompass the sheer scale of the war. 2002's Frontline recreated the Normandy landings, and the following year's Rising Sun did the same for the attack on Pearl Harbour. Neither were easily forgotten, both events deeply embedded in our historical landscape.
Even though the scale of the games increased and players now found themselves fighting alongside Allied soldiers more often, there was always a tendency to lay the entire burden of winning the war on the individual's shoulders. We never got to explore who the enemy were in any meaningful way, and our protagonist tended to be just as hollow, simply a solo war machine capable of incredible battlefield efficiency. In a lot of ways we were still stalking Castle Wolfenstein's corridors. There was still a lack of humanity given to an event that, at its core, is heart wrenching.
Enter Call of Duty, and its sequels, which quickly dethroned the ailing Medal of Honor. Straying away from one-dimensional super-soldiers being recruited by the OSS, Call of Duty attempted to portray the war from the ordinary soldier's perspective, the game switching between American, British, and Soviet troops across the length of the campaign. It was a change of pace, and the beginning of one of the most successful game franchises ever. Yet Call of Duty still strode across familiar territory, and its Germans remained as foreign and alien as ever by video game standards. By Call of Duty 3 battle fatigue had begun to seep in.
Today, we see D-Day and the Battle of Stalingrad as well worn staples of the shooter genre. Gaming didn't go back to the Pacific until 2008's Call of Duty: World at War, yet go back it did. And of course the six-year conflict would seem dull when we're given the same theatres recycled endlessly. But it needn't be so, as there are multitudes of stories that have never received any attention. The role of Indian troops has never really been covered. We've never had to survive the Dunkirk evacuation. China's retaliation against the Japanese is ripe for exploration, or you could even take the bold step to present the war through Axis eyes.
World at War is notable in that it included small moments of moralising, letting the player reflect on what they are actually doing. It at least tried to bring some nuance to both sides of the conflict. During one point of the game, the player calls in a naval bombardment on Japanese positions. You then have to walk through the previously held positions. Japanese troops scream, or drag themselves away, many missing limbs and bleeding out in the sand. It's a brief and horrible glimpse of the effects weapons have on the human body. Later in the game, now in the role of the Russians, the player must choose how German prisoners die. Quickly by firing squad, or slowly with Molotov cocktails. It's a flourish that questions whether your actions are any more just than the enemy's.
On Motherboard: How to Defuse a WW2 Bomb
Ultimately, it isn't in the industry's interest to humanise the Axis powers. Much better that they remain monsters, capable only of hate. It's the safest option, but there's more to it than that. Ever since the release of Wolfenstein 3D the Second World War has been viewed as a noble cause, and America most of all was a great hero. At least, that's when compared to their Russian counterparts, who are shown to be less disciplined and decidedly more savage. America selflessly lent a hand to the beleaguered European nations to oust fascism.
As games left WW2 behind and strayed into modern territory with the likes of 2007's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the notion of America's just cause to be involved in these conflicts survived, thanks in large part to a very westernised games industry. World War II was great PR and the biggest games based on it have cemented America's reputation as a powerful and noble entity. It is not rare today to play games set in Iraq or Afghanistan – but if Americans are fighting in the Middle East then they must have to be there. Because as WW2 has taught us: they are the good guys, and always will be.
More from VICE Gaming: