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The gaming industry has seen a glut of modern military shooters over the past decade. This is because developers have started to try and make games that are relevant to audiences and hopefully hit closer to home. While this strategy is an admirable one, these games aren’t always as effective as they could be.
Games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Battlefield 3, and Medal of Honor often depict realistic and poignant situations, but they suppress their relevance and resonance with unrealistic, over-the-top gunplay and narratives. Most of these games play more like a blockbuster action movie than a serious simulation of the harrowing combat situations that real people face all over the world.
In the context of video games, this lack of realism can easily be justified: The game is more fun that way. Most people don’t want to play a game that accurately depicts modern warfare, because if they do, they cannot regain health by hiding behind cover, mow down hundreds of terrorists, or generally feel like a badass.
But, while the inherently unrealistic nature of these games can be justified from a gameplay standpoint, the narrative will suffer as a result of it. Classic game mechanics such as the ability to regain health and to hold many different weapons inhibits a serious narrative. If an encounter is too “gamey,” a player will not take it as seriously.
All of the aforementioned military shooters make attempts to balance the relatively unrealistic but fun gameplay with serious stories, some with more care than others. In my opinion, if one’s game is not going to be played in a serious way, why make the story serious or relevant to the player?
Too many games are trying to be relevant and failing, because their gameplay does not match the tone of their narrative. Developers should stop trying to make their games relevant unless they can fully commit to making the experience realistic and immersive in all aspects of the game. There is plenty of room in the market for games that don’t take themselves too seriously, like the Ratchet & Clank series, the Jak & Daxter series, and the Portal games, among many others.
To all video game developers: Take a leap of faith! Try something a little risky that may not be an immediate cash-in but will be a unified product in terms of tone and thematic elements. This approach may not lead to many "relevant" games (in the sense that they incorporate modern people, places, or events), but it will produce games that feel like complete products, and most importantly, are just plain fun.