I have little animosity for the virtual people I shoot in video games. They are cardboard targets. The worst they can do is kill the virtual me. My "death" lasts a few seconds. I can't hate them for that.
This changed last week.
I played the beginning of the upcoming first-person shooter Homefront and I felt a burning urge in the game to do right with the trigger of a virtual gun. Homefront is set in a near-future United States that has become occupied by a bellicose unified Korea.
Early on, in what would be cliche in film but feels novel in a game, my character was arrested in his U.S. apartment by Korean occupation police, handcuffed, shoved into a bus and forced to ride past lines of Americans taken prisoner. As the bus rolled past, I saw enemy soldiers roughing up civilians.
And then I heard the pitched, despairing voice of a mother telling her child not to look. To turn away. To not let what was going to happen next be an unforgetable scar. The scene came into view: a child wailing as his parents are lined up against a wall and shot to death.
I wanted to climb out of that bus and take action. Soon, a resistance fighter rammed the bus with a truck, freed my character and handed me a machine gun. For the first time in a war game, I wanted to make the bad guys pay.
The murder of the parents was disturbing. "I'm still on the fence about that one," David Votypka, the creative director of Homefront told me after I finished the half-hour of action that followed that scene.
Video games of war seldom depict conflict's awful cost, its impact on human beings. Virtual battlefields are devoid of civilians. The horrors of war are, typically, only inflicted on soldiers, by soldiers. In the dozens of World War II video games, players become American Marines to shoot Japanese soldiers or Russians resistance to shoot German stormtroopers. In this year's Medal of Honor, you are an army ranger shooting at the Taliban. (Last year's hit Modern Warfare 2 deviated and ordered its player to play, for one mission, as an undercover CIA operative who had to participate in an airport massacre of civilians.)
Homefront is unusual simply because it has regular people near its lines of fire. What could sound like familiar plot device in another form of entertainment has the shock of the new in this adventure. It is the shock of making the player fight through an unpleasant situation, one that feels less macho and more desparate.
Later in the opening level, as my character machine-gunned through Korean occupiers with other members of the American resistance, I wound up fighting through a house, past a mother cradling a crying baby who had to take cover as Korean forces rushed closer.
The creators of the game say that one of their mandates is to show "how warfare affects civilians." In doing so, it feels as if it can stir the passions of gamers like me who typically lack any emotional connection to their virtual enemies.
The lead level designer of the game, Rex Dickson, told me his team has heard it from the people who try the level I played: "I really want to pick up the gun," they say.
I asked Dickson if the goal was for Homefront to make the player feel anger.
"Our goal is to make you feel emotion," he responded.
The narrative single-player part of Homefront has been created by New York City-based development house Kaos Studios. They've worked with Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn screenwriter John Milius to craft their tale and its tone. Milius, Votypka told me, brought them down to earth.
Milius discouraged the game developers' original vision of an adventure that had the player heroically helping the military take back the U.S. He helped them craft something more intimate, a desperate journey by resistance fighters to transport fuel from Colorado to California. In making the story less grandiose, they've also given it more grit. They've cast the player as part of a resistance that, Milius prodded them, can't always be politically correct. Lead supporting characters argue about their own tactics, of how brutal or noble they should be.
Homefront is a game targeted at American anxieties, one primed for jingoism. This is a near-future America crippled by economic downturn and invaded by a surging Asian rival. Its portrayal of the Korean enemy will be tempered, though, Votypka said, by a discovery in the game of an internment camp where Korean Americans are held, a reference to America's treatment of its Japanese citizens during World War II.