Saving Private Ryan represents a monument in filmmaking history. With care and ingenious post-production techniques, Steven Spielberg's opus established a filmmaking grammar of violence that left most moviegoers aghast toward the tangible horrors of war.
By all accounts, Saving Private Ryan did something special. In lieu of entertainiment, the film commanded a sense of shock and strange wonder. Transcending the uncomplicated moralities of his predecessors, Speilberg gave us a glimpse into a war the likes of which many of us will never see.
My only question is, when will video games be capable of providing the same experience?
I've always compared modern video games to Saving Private Ryan in my mind. Yet despite all their ambient occlusion and anti-aliasing, video games have only ever delivered a few, short moments of Speilberg-esque immersion.
What techniques should developers employ in order to achieve the same verisimilitude which Speilberg injected into his wartime film? Here are a few tips from an avid cinema enthusiast:
Blood…and lots of it!
In the realm of onscreen bloodshed, today's choices range from over-the-top displays of violence to child-friendly health bars. Developers need to find a plausible middle ground.
Ballistic trauma is no laughing matter. While it may curry favor with concerned parents, downplaying the effects of a bullet wound only pulls the player out of the experience. Developers should never underestimate the subconscious effect of blood on the human mind — dismembered bowels, severed limbs, and bullet wounds are — however gruesome — an integral part of the battlefield experience.
When a bullet collides with human tissue, the ensuing gore tends to be nauseating. While I don't mean to suggest that studio artists attempt to gross players out with vomit-inducing animations, I'd like for the violence in first-person shooters to be slightly truer to life.
Distance and context
The reason for Modern Warfare 2's "arcadey" label is the result of the exaggerated distance between your avatar and the opposing force. In actual combat, soldiers rarely fight in such close proximity of one another. The average soldier's understanding of the enemy amounts to a simple, blurred silhouette on the horizon.
Besides the prisoner of war Captain Miller's unit captures, how many Germans did you see or meet in Saving Private Ryan? None.
Bad Company 2 struck the perfect balance between long-range combat and more intimate, close quarters encounters. It's easiest to appreciate the feeling of genuine conflict while playing as a sniper — observing the battlefield and subsequently providing support to your teammates can truly be a treat.
Map design happens to be one of the most restrictive bulwarks to immersion. Too often, developers direct their efforts toward balance and symmetry in lieu of crafting convincing environments. In reality, battlefields are rarely balanced — sometimes geography simply favors one side, forcing the opposing army to adapt to the environment they find themselves in.
What makes map design thrilling is the spontaneity associated with crumbling buildings, decaying flora, and defilade provided by natural structures.
Instead of building a multiplayer map, designers should aspire to create organic towns and cities. This will eventually allow players to form their own experiences, instead of conforming to the expectations of the developer.
This is simple: increase the punishment associated with death. Twenty seconds between respawns may sound like torture, but each second provides a lesson to the player and teaches them to tread the battlefield carefully. The more valuable one's life seems, the more meaningful each firefight will become.
A soldier isn't capable of withstanding sustained gunfire,. This means that one bullet should incapacitate or kill your avatar. I can understand how infuriating an unexpected death can be, but that's simply the nature of combat. One minute you're enjoying a brisk walk through the Iraqi desert and before you know it, you're dying in the sand. Part of Saving Private Ryan's thrill lies in the reality of imminent death. Developers should strive to create an environment filled with constant threat.
Cooperation is key
What draws Bad Company 2 closer to the Saving Private Ryan experience is the in-game unit cohesion. A match in Modern Warfare 2 feels less like a conflict between two opposing armies and more like one player's quest to out-kill his teammates. The Battlefield series requires players to cooperate, lest a more collaborative squad should ambush them. This is where classes play a large role.
One of the unifying themes of Saving Private Ryan was the overarching notion that each character played an important role in the narrative. While multiplayer games don't possess any real narrative, players still occupy a role in advancing the game. Medics heal, engineers operate and repair vehicles, snipers provide support, and assault players push the line forward and capture objectives.
When all the squads and classes of a team arrange their efforts toward a single goal, the results are amazing. I've had moments reminiscent of Private Ryan — moments where I surrender my consciousness completely to the experience. If a video game is capable of consistently delivering that state of captivation, it won't be long before the industry can claim to have its own Saving Private Ryan.