War video games let us pretend we're in movies. They may let us pretend we're in actual war, but come on, not really.
We're the great hero in war video games. We are fighting impossible odds. The music swells. The bullets cause us only brief problems. We heal. We triumph. We remove bad guys from this Earth. That's cinema. That's Patton, that's Rambo. That's even Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down and a lot of other Hollywood heroics.
The movie The Hurt Locker showed the slower fight of a American squad defusing bombs in Iraq. Its victories were less loud, its pains deeper. The film won the Oscar for Best Picture last year, and one year later, we're on the verge of getting something a little more like it in video games. A little more like it.
In next month's PlayStation 3 game SOCOM 4, players can don a similarly puffy, padded suit as the one seen in the movie. You wear it in a multiplayer mode called Bomb Squad, a competitive mode for up to 32 players, 16 to a side, one of them randomly selected to be the person in the suit.
Where the movie The Hurt Locker was ultimately about the psychology of a man who slowly walks toward that from which the rest of us would flee, who trades safety to kneel at the brink of detonation, the game's bomb squad mode is more of an action romp.
The person who wears the bomb suit in SOCOM moves slowly. They'll feel more vulnerable. But they'll also get flashbang grenades and an automatic shotgun. Their mission is to defuse bombs set across an urban battlefield. Their teammates get credit for keeping them safe and a bonus if they stick close by them. Every enemy player in the game has the single mission of killing that person in the bomb suit. Each team gets a set amount of time to defuse any bombs as possible, the bomb tech role changing randomly each time the tech is killed before the timer runs down and the other team gets a crack.
The player who wears that bomb suit may feel a little shaken to find themselves suddenly in those special clothes. They'll fell the responsibility of being the hero, of being the one person who can stop an explosion. They'll feel the drag of walking to a bomb, when they wish they could run. They probably won't feel the gnawing emotions depicted in The Hurt Locker though, because the action in SOCOM 4's Bomb Squad is a sprint rather than a creep. Yes, war video games let us play out war movies, but that's mainly true for single-player war games. Multiplayer war games resemble in pace and design something even less (yet paradoxically more) like dire conflict than real fighting: sport.
Call of Duty single-player is an action movie. Call of Duty multiplayer is tag or basketball.
What if The Hurt Locker was competitive sport? It'd be SOCOM 4's Bomb Squad mode, an up-tempo twist that references one of our recent great war movies while turning it further into a different kind of conflict. It may not do much to evoke the interesting psychology shown in the movie, but by slowing its randomly-selected bomb tech down, it will literally give online war gamers a moment of pause, a forced slowdown in a danger zone where they may sweat, briefly, a little more.
SOCOM 4 will be out on April 19 for the PlayStation 3.