Friday, December 25, 2015

Of Biographies and Video Games

Two years ago to the day a movie came out in theaters called American Sniper.  I have never watched it, but I have read the autobiographical book it was based on.  Honestly, I don't see what the big deal is.  The author, Chris Kyle, did some things the were good, some things that were bad, and some thing that were downright stupid(ly hilarious).  People who call him "hero" or "coward" either didn't actually read the book or are cherry-picking it for bits that support the way they already think. It's one man's life story told in economy-of-language style that is indicative to those who have served in the armed forces, concise descriptions of events with little-to-no extraneous detail.  Personally, I found it a refreshing change of pace after just finishing several books heavily steeped in academia...but each his own.  I don't want to turn this into a left-vs-right debate mostly because there's already plenty of those going on in the video game industry right now as is.  Instead I want to talk about autobiographies.

Normally they're told in a book or movie format.  The former makes a lot of sense, but the latter feels a bit constrained to me.  Trying to cram a person's life into two hours of video footage fells kind of constraining, especially if a lot of interesting stuff happened to said person.  A video game, on the other hand, has a lot more time to work within.  The problem is video games are by their nature interactive experiences.  Trying to impose rigid linearity doesn't go over very well unless you happen to be one of those rare few who really like QTEs...

I once heard a quote from the screenplay writer of Braveheart that went something like, "Don't let facts get in the way of the truth."  Sounds like a dumb thing to say, I know, but there is a tiny kernel of wisdom in there.  It's easy to get so hung up on minutia that we miss the big picture.  With that in mind, it becomes a lot easier to make a biographical video game.  Developers don't have to agonize over exact dates, names and numbers so long as they capture the spirit of events.  In truth, some autobiographical memoirs such as those dictated by Napoleon Bonaparte and Otto von Bismark don't exactly jive with historical facts so there's that point to consider as well.  Before moving on I'd like to state for the record that my first pick for a biography-themed video game would be Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, or if it had to be an American, George Washinton.  For the sake of continuity though I'm going to use Chris Kyle for my hypothetical example.

Your basic gameplay is going be somewhere between Sniper Elite and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (possibly with a bit of Papers Please sprinkled in).  The player will also have to avoid a number of different fail states in order to progress.  The most obvious one is becoming a casualty in places like Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City while on deployment.  On top of that they have to consider the ROEs (Rules of Engagement).  Shoot an innocent, or fail to fill out the paperwork properly after killing someone and it could lead to a court martial for war crimes.  Aside from those big two, there's the life of a Navy SEAL which ranges from BUD/S and hazing rituals to bar fights and trouble with the police.  On top of that the player has to keep their family life from becoming dysfunctional (via dialogue trees) and find ways to keep PTSD from driving them insane.

Sounds rough, I know, but such was the life of America's most prolific military sniper.  Walk a mile in his shoes, or in this case play a video game about him for a couple of hours, and you'll get a better understanding of the life he lived.  Would it be a 100 percent authentic experience?  Of course not.  In fact it might drift into "what if..." territory.  Since movies and TV don't shy away from using artistic licenses though I don't see why video games have to avoid them.  An "inspired by true events" label somewhere in the opening segment is all that's necessary, IMO.  

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