Worlds are at war. The relatively human-looking race of men with short brown hair and women with abnormally large bust sizes are fighting against the race of ugly-looking not-humans who replace snazzy one-liners with guttural roars. Well, we know which side you're on right? Of course you do. How do you know? Well, because the guy on the other end of our ear-piece who sounds like James Earl Jones or that guy who plays a drill instructor in every movie ever told you so.
Or forget aliens. Maybe the voices are telling you something different. The enemy is actually those guys over there, the ones that don't
speak English. Sure, plenty of fine, stand-up people don't speak the same language as you, but these ones are bad guys. Why is that, you say? Well, because I'm the disembodied voice of your superior officer in your head who knows these things. Plus, I totally just placed a waypoint on those guys. I don't just toss those things around. Seriously. I promise, those guys are complete dicks.
Video games have a long history of poorly defined enemies; displaying the mass hordes of squishy fodder for your triple rocket-launcher as nothing more than savage aliens or heartless terrorists that launch attacks upon your people for no other reason but to be total ass-faces. Providing a story would cloud the matter and take time away from stabbing aliens smaller than you in the back of the head with a bowie knife.
Not all games are guilty of this, of course. Some titles take the time to build a complex story. The Half-Life series shows the aliens breaking through and eating your fellow scientists brains. Context or not, that's a dick move. The Silent Hill games sure do layer on the ambiguity, but there aren't many who would argue the gentle, kinder side of pyramid head.
Some skirt the issue with the "Saturday Morning Cartoon" technique of replacing living, breathing enemies, the ones who might potentially return to their family of doe-eyed children, with heartless robots or plant-creatures or other such nonsense. The Assassin's Creed series makes murder OK by making the whole thing a hologram, a simulation in your brain, which removes morality from the issue entirely. Other games simply don't care, like the Katamari series, which approaches the consuming of property and human lives as raw material for entire star systems with careless disregard. But, I suppose when the guy giving the orders is a galactic being in stretch pants who vomits rainbows as a means of transport, you can kind of leave logic and reasoning by the wayside.
We know some games have dealt with this blind trust of disembodied authority figures. Shadow of the Colossus being the big one. Without any real knowledge of the reprecussions of your actions, you set out on your quest to viciously head-stab massive walking statues to save the life of your presumed girlfriend/wife/love interest. In the end you wipe out a race of wondrous and majestic beings that have done nothing to you in the first place. The Metal Gear series is one big head-game about the reliability of your commanding officers. Are they righteous? Is the colonel your old pal or a robot voice? Is the guy on the other end of the ear-piece leading you into an unnecessarily complicated trap? Is everyone actually just the puppets of some faceless shadow organization? Whatever the case may be, that one guy is shooting bees at you. He's probably not your friend.
But a huge market of shooter games are guilty of leading you on with nothing more than shoot the other guy because I told you so. Take the Gears of War franchise, for instance. Sure the Locust look superbly evil and they've been slowly massacring all of your civilization for some time now, but what began this whole plant-wide battle? What the heck did we ever do to those jerks?
Well, nothing, really. It's not a big deal. We all just want this precious resource which happens to be in their part of the planet. You know, where the Locust live and have their cities. But we're just going to borrow it real quick. We'll just tear apart their home with massive structures and rape the land of this natural resource. And, if we did end up making a mess of it, I'm sure we'd give them some nice homes on some predetermined land somewhere else. I mean, we were here first, right? No big deal, we'll just reserve some land from them and...
Oh. Wait a minute.
A lot of first person shooters are guilty of this; of having a storyline that's a bit too much like decorated imperialism. Sure when the aliens we've never heard of before show up in space ships and start blowing shit up first, it puts us in the right to start throwing nukes back at their ships. But more often than not we see alien races coming at us because they've just gotten tired of our shit. The Covenant in Halo, for instance, starts war with the humans because they see us as an abomination. Yeah, they're insane zealots with no sense of mercy and begin a slow mass extermination but it wasn't just for kicks. We sort of were spreading across the galaxy, populating and consuming planets in our wake. And humanity doesn't exactly have a impressive history of treating planets with the utmost respect, if Earth is any indication.
In titles that take a more modern approach, we find ourselves going after enemies labeled by our superiors as terrorists or rebels and nothing more. Usually they hail from a vaguely middle eastern land. Sometimes they're shown performing disturbing acts upon innocent people and other times we're just told they've got crates full of weapons and plan to do nasty things with them. But we don't really
know what's in those. Could be medicine or decorative vases or just smaller boxes. But we've got a rocket launcher and there's a precious checkpoint on the other side of those guys guarding those boxes, so the decision is made pretty uncomplicated for the player.
The game could, of course, pull the old standby and make the bad guys Nazis, which is a hard enemy to defend or argue with. But even in cases like this, the soldiers are depicted as over-exaggerated caricatures who steal the blood of children to power their murder-tanks. It's easy to forget that they're also soldiers following a disembodied voice telling them to shoot the other guys, just like you. Albeit in a German accent. They're just the grunts on the other side, they don't know what's happening higher up. They just know you're coming from the other direction with guns that shoot bullets.
So the player often finds themselves in a situation that really isn't so black and white. This is, however, lost on our stoic commander who still spurs us on with quips about the general smelliness of the enemy and by air-dropping us flame-throwers and placing a waypoint on the nearest enemy orphanage.
Some may say that these invisible or barely structured 'commanders' our merely a means of guiding the player along the story so they both understand the next immediate objective and recognize the relevance within the plot-line. But this distance that games put between the player and their mission-givers leaves a complete inability for dissension. There is rarely a way to say no to these voices in our ear pieces, never an opportunity to deny the objectives laid before us and investigate for our damn selves whether or not this faction deserves to be wiped off the planet with extreme prejudice, or whether that prisoner really is falsely imprisoned, etc.
So, we wonder in the back of our heads: do we trust these disembodied leaders? Are we supposed to even question? Is that what first person shooters are even about? Or are we just supposed to just accept the thin background story barely defined by our higher-ups and get about causing rampant destruction, like any good action film?
Well, as long as we get achievements.