Video games and history, part whatever: the ubiquitous WWII shooter

I am not very up-to-the-minute in my purchasing of video games. I came to both this console generation and the previous one late, and I’ve never had the kind of high-powered PC that you want for recent things, so unless it’s some undemanding indie title chances are I’ll play it in a few years when it’s £5. I guess what that means is that I’m talking about a trend that actually appears to be mostly over already. But while it was going it was really going.

For a while there, there was a WWII game around every corner. You had your Medal of Honor, your Call of Duty, there was Brothers in Arms and Company of Heroes. They weren’t all shooters per se, but the big ones were and they shared certain commonalities. Penny Arcade commented on it at the time:



What was interesting to me was that these types of games were derived largely from films, and largely from the same films. The two obvious ones were Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates, but there was also the TV series Band of Brothers and older films like A Bridge Too FarCall of Duty has an Arnhem mission, and so does Medal of Honour: Frontline. I’m pretty sure it’s Brothers in Arms that starts off with the D-Day parachute drops, which are also in Call of Duty (and of course Band of Brothers) and so on and so on. Now, obviously, these are the kinds of things you’d probably recreate in a video game regardless, but it’s also pretty obviously not a coincidence. 

The visuals are kind of … similar. Here’s the assault on a bunker on D-Day, from both Saving Private Ryan and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

bunker2 106079_mohaa


As you can see, they’re pretty similar. The Stalingrad scenes in Call of Duty are also pretty heavily based on Enemy at the Gates:

An-intense-battle-scene-from-Paramounts-Enemy-At-The-Gates-2001-14 Stalingrad_Soviets_running_CoD1


Now, there’s nothing wrong with this — most games include some elements ripped off from another source. LA Noire should be called Mulholland Chinatown Confidential. But I wonder if these repetitions have a tendency to make people think that they must be just “the norm” for talking about this period. I just read an article that described Spielberg’s use of desaturated colour in Saving Private Ryan as “realistic,” which … er … I’m not so sure about. “Washed-out colour” will probably become one of those signifiers of authenticity, like “everything covered in filth.”

Anyway, it’s not that these various WWII shooters weren’t fun. The big set-piece battles in Call of Duty were really tense. At the beginning of the apartment building defense sequence in CoD (or maybe in United Offensive?) there’s this bit where they go

Machiiiiiiiine gyahns?

Machine guns READY!

Anti-tyaank rrrrriiiifles?

Anti-tank rifles READY!

that if I heard it again today would probably get my hair standing on end like it did the gazillion times I played that mission. In fairness to the makers of the game, that sequence isn’t based on a movie that I’m aware of — it’s just a famous actual incident in the Battle of Stalingrad, the defense of Pavlov’s House.



Do I have a point? I don’t think so, other than that for a while in the early-to-mid 2000s, “World War 2 shooter” was a recognisable genre, in the way that, say, “sci-fi shooter” was. I played MOHAA and CoD at around the same time, and I can’t always exactly remember which game had climbing the belltower to snipe the guys with Panzerfausts and which game had running around the hallways of the bunker with a stolen MP40 to plant the demolition charges. Or rather, which of the many versions of that level went with which game.

Most criticisms of these types of games imply alternatives that are no fun: why is there never a WWII game where you’re stuck with a realistically clumsy and useless BAR, or forced to carry the baseplate of a mortar like a chump? Why don’t you ever play a terrified German draftee being crushed by the relentless advance of the Red Army, or a woman on the home front terrified her son won’t come back? These questions answer themselves: because no one wants reality or even realism, just a realistic gloss on exciting battle-type action.



And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t want to be some history-snob: I like to boot down doors and be all eat lead fascist pigs as much as, or possibly more than, the next guy. It’s just interesting to me that a period of history can become a de facto genre. Is there a comparable example in other periods of history? I’m not sure — there aren’t like a dozen games where you’re a gladiator in ancient Rome, as far as I know, and although there are a lot of games about pirates, they’re very dissimilar to one another, unlike WW2 shooters, which are pretty much the same.



Apart from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, that is.

I wonder if this is because the movies on which they’re based are basically similar; typically earnest, more or less realistic, lots of explosions throwing dirt and gravel in the air. I’ve never seen a Kelly’s Heroes type of game, in which the characters were just goofs and/or scoundrels, but I’m sure (and I hope) that someone will come along and point one out to me. 

Video games and history, part whatever: the ubiquitous WWII shooter