When I talked to EA's Frank Gibeau earlier this fall about the making of Battlefield 3, the words that kept coming up were realistic and authentic. Yes, the ambitious war game still counts as fiction, what with its earthquake-aided insurrection and nuclear terrorism. However, it's not quite as popcorn as the plot presented in the competing game Modern Warfare 3 released by rival publisher Activision.
"We had a concept about what it was like to be a Marine and being a part of very large events. It was really important for us to capture that emotional feeling of being swept up into things that are bigger than just one person," said Gibeau. "The technology allowed us to do that in some really interesting ways with the animation systems that we have, and how you can make the environments more complex, larger, beautiful, immersive."
But, how real would EA get? In my talk with Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg, I'd asked him if there'd ever be a documentary-style Call of Duty that'd perhaps recount a real-world military engagement. He balked a bit at that, saying that "we've told the stories that the developers want to tell." So, I asked Gibeau the same question. Would EA re-tell the story of an actual conflict in one of their games?
Gibeau says they've already come close to that approach. "Medal of Honor frankly was ripped from the headlines more than a little and told the story of the SEALs that were helping us build the game." Again, reality's the guiding light here. "As the fidelity of the experiences get better, people might ask, ‘Is it real or is it Battlefield?'" Gibeau offers. "In terms of narrative structure," he says. "I think you can do that now if you felt like that's the story you wanted to creatively pursue. I think it's possible to do in a lot of different categories, too, like sports or a modern crime story. As a studio exec, I wouldn't have any opposition to somebody saying, ‘No, I want to tell the real story as it unfolded.' I'd be totally open to hearing that pitch; it would certainly be a twist on what's out there in the marketplace."
The observation about differentiation made me think about the heroes players control in games like Battlefield 3. Right now, we're living in an era that's seen the repeal of the controversial "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military policy, which had homosexual soldiers tasked with hiding part of themselves even as they risked their lives for their country. If authenticity and reality are so important to EA's modern war games, could Gibeau ever see a gay soldier being a hero in the Battlefield 3 and Medal of Honor franchises?
"I don't see why not," he answers. "We've explored that concept in games like Mass Effect from BioWare. I don't see any reason why you couldn't pursue that storyline or that kind of character in a more realistic title if it made sense for the game that you're building. Sure."
Lots of different experiences are had by lots of different kinds of soldiers in the conflicts being fought around the world today. Gibeau's remarks indicate a desire by EA and the developers who work there to reflect those experiences as realistically as possible. There's no telling where that might take them—and us—in the years to come.