A War Game Where Nothing Could Happen

Video game creator Sion Lenton had an idea for one level of his next war video game. The sequence would feature Marines, probably in near-future Tajikistan, on assignment, on patrol. They'd walk around, looking for bad guys. They'd find none.

"I was contemplating having a mission where nothing happens," he told me while he was showing me Codemasters' 2011-scheduled Operation Flashpoint: Red River recently in New York. "That actually happens a lot to real soldiers." They go out on patrol. They expect to encounter resistance. But they find nothing but tension and quiet.

Red River won't have such a mission, Lenton said. "My chief game designer didn't think that was a great idea."

Serving in a war, it's been said, is a long bout of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. War video games aren't built to that proportion. They typically present war as a ceaseless fireworks display. Lenton argued: "I don't think you have to do that to be exciting."

The Operation Flashpoint games made by Lenton's team do show a slower version of war. Players have to proceed carefully, skulking across terrain. Their pace wouldn't be mistaken for real combat, of course. They have more action than that. This new one, Red River, even leans a little more toward the Hollywood version of war seen in games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. This PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 sequel has the helpful mission-objection pointers and a simplified health system — you can still bleed to death from a wound as you could earlier in the series, but you can now heal yourself instead of waiting for a medic. (It also has four-player co-op and extra computer-controlled fire teams who can be ordered for coordinated three-team attacks).

You cannot, however, just run through Red River's campaign of counter-insurgency in 2013 Tajikistan with guns blazing, as if this was a big-budget war video game. You need patience. You must be tactically careful.

"It's exciting enough just walking down the street with bullets around you," Lenton said. There's drama in the simpler movements of war, something else he learned from studying real fighters. "Just crossing the road under fire can be terrifying for these guys."

Thrills need not be entirely heroic according to this game designer. Lenton proudly mentioned that one of the game's missions teaches players how to fight while going backwards — in other words, how to retreat with skill.

War in video games usually involves the stress of action, the cacophony of an event. Operation Flashpoint Red River won't have a mission in which nothing happens, but even the suggestion that it could reveals a different possibility for war games: the stress-of-inaction, the tension of searching for an enemy who, in this hour, is not there.