How 'Vanquish' Subverts the Military Shooter
Just re-released on PC, 'Vanquish' shows a very different approach to the modern shooter.
All Vanquish images courtesy of Sega
Though military shooters certainly existed before the mid-2000's, the genre found a new life in the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 era. With increased processing power, creators could further pursue something akin to reality in their simulations. Most of the time, this came in the form of "better" visuals or a larger in-game area.
But the trend went much deeper than technology. Informed by the ongoing War on Terror, mainstream shooters approached reality by appropriating the visual language of the news, recreating the other images that would appear on the same TV screen in the player's home. In effect, this offered a mediated presentation of reality—through images like U.S. soldiers in desert camouflage, temporary operations centers, humvees, and night vision footage of combat.
Post-9/11, news outlets looped images of the War on Terror and a traumatic environment materialized in which these accelerating images proliferated across screens, networks, and space. The effect of this war coverage was seen in pop culture with the prominence of impact aesthetics: an intensified style meant to elicit a physical response from the viewer. It existed before the War on Terror in action films that make their action and violence central to the plot, like Speed, Face/Off, and Saving Private Ryan.
However, as the war was fought and its imagery normalized, these aesthetics were applied to stories about terror and counterterror, sleeper cells, and state data collection, in TV series like 24, and films like the Jason Bourne franchise and Eagle Eye. This style permeated commercial images, and even showed up in the fashion world, as clothing brands like Tapout and Affliction became popular for their abrasive and pre-distressed designs.
All of these cultural products competed for consumer attention across multiple screens by leveraging these aesthetics as a shorthand to communicate that they were more "real,"—or at least immediate—than the others.
These cultural aesthetics imprinted upon game developers' simulations of reality, creating the gritty military shooter. These games are brown and grey, showing areas torn apart by war. And the only person who ultimately brings peace is a white dude with a gun. This archetype can be seen throughout major games of the period, even across genre, in titles like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriot, Killzone 2, Haze, Gears of War, and even in the Uncharted series.
The protagonist's backstory usually involves unearned and relatively unimportant relationships, and he trudges through battles that must be fought slowly, from behind cover. Environments are rendered into spectacles of destruction, whether in Uncharted's action movie style or with Gears of War's burden of self-seriousness.
The impacting presentation of these worlds emerged from a collision of reality and simulation; these games attempt to present reality by invoking physical and sensory qualities of the real world, or "artifacts of the organic." In the same way that digital images are visually marked with compression artifacts, military shooters are "artifacted" with dirt on the camera lens, hand-held cutscene cinematography, lens flare, and other media qualities that only occur in the organic world. They function as an aesthetic texture for the military shooter. It's meant to make the experience feel "real" by evoking real-life images from the War on Terror.
In 2010, PlatinumGames released Vanquish, a cover-based shooter that denies players the heavy action and self-impressed emotion of the military shooter, "refusing grit," in the words of Adam Saltsman. While military shooters try to invoke the organic, the lived-in, or the "real" Vanquish abandons it.
Spotless, utopian surfaces cover the game's Providence space station, and they show no markings or artifacts of life before the war. Its structures multiply as the station mirrors itself and its identity turns vapid. We only see this space station during wartime, the player's interactions with the city are encoded through violence. Parks function as boss arenas; skyscrapers are repurposed as robotic hives; public transportation becomes an action setpiece.
It remembers neither its past nor present; in this way, the game constructs a liminality for the player. Anthropologist Mark Augé defines this as a "non-place," meaning, "a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity [or] do not integrate the earlier places: instead these are listed, classified, promoted to the status of 'places of memory'..." Airports, hotels, and highways exemplify the non-place, defined by the visitor's temporary need to occupy and remember it.
Environments in military shooters act as methods to communicate time and place, both in their visual accuracy and the context they provide for player actions. For many shooters of this time, these environments were in the Middle East, or a lightly-fictionalized version of it. These spaces approach a sense of place through dustiness and masculinity, as players related to these worlds by moving heavily through them while destroying them.
Vanquish takes a placeless liminality and provides the player with a jet-powered suit that can rocket slide across battlefields and slow down time. But the relation to this environment is not lessened because of the quick movement across its identical surfaces; rather, the player slides through the world and understands its scale. And this physical domination of the unremarkable and temporary space encodes it with a more tactile understanding of place.
The nondescript arenas stage an immediate, ephemeral violence that is forgotten afterward by developer, character, and player. In cutscenes and dialogue between combat, the player is oversaturated with enough visual and narrative information for the game to string together the next combat scenario. The presentation is a mirage of interfaces, projections, and cutscenes that creates a screen of many screens.
At times, the game feels as though its simulation is falling apart, even though it adheres to the language of the military shooter (large battles, rescuing squadmates, uniforms, vehicles, etc.). But it uses this language to construct a frenetic action game; many of the military shooter's trademark moments fall flat in Vanquish because it presents this same visual index in a new way. At one point, you rescue some soldiers from electrified bindings, and one says "I think that shock treatment fixed my back problems," and another says "Those bindings felt great!"
In its discordant moments, the game reveals its structure, and therefore its construction, to the player. The simulation isn't falling apart because the game was never simulating reality, or perhaps it approached reality in a different way than the standard military shooter. Rather than simulating images of the War on Terror, Vanquish simulates the assaultive present created by the Western media's presentation of these images, in what Adam Saltsman calls "more-than-real time."
In the refusal of fetishized realism, the game doesn't attempt to convince you that it isn't just another image because Vanquish is only image. Rather than making a fleeting image appear real, the game thrusts the player in the constant flow of meaningless images, because in that moment nothing is more real.