Call of Duty. Battlefield. Medal of Honor. Many of the biggest-selling series in video game history are all about putting players in the midst of wars that could be happening right outside their windows. But the politics and consequences surrounding these international armed conflicts often get sidelined amongst the set-pieces and explosions. One game wants to shift the focus to see what how war really affects people's lives.
The Sun Also Rises—being made by indie studio Horse Volume, whose members met at the Savannah College of Art and Design—wants to take a different tack on the global War on Terror that's been influencing domestic and international policies for more than a decade. While video games have been set in some of the same hotspots where actual battles have been fought, TSAR developer August Early thinks they've gotten some crucial things wrong. "The majority of popular war games are intended to be entertainment. Inevitably, people's perceptions are distorted," he said to me over e-mail. "It fosters ignorance when Karachi, Pakistan is depicted as an Arabic speaking city. It's terrifying when games suggest the use of military force for domestic policing. The War on Terror isn't an even playing field where two teams face off in an arena. It's happening in total confusion, in people's homes."
Continuing on the same thread, Early's colleague Ty Underwood argues that the entertainment-first approach is part of the problem. "There's this idea with a lot of studios that you can choose to exempt your game from being part of the social discourse," Underwood said. "The developers working on Battlefield: Hardline said something to that effect. In the future, we're going to look back on games in 2014 alongside the militarization and brutality of the police and it's going to tell some kind of story about what's happening now and video games' relationship with culture. EA and Visceral seem to think they can opt-out of that responsibility. We want to contribute meaningfully to how games relate to global conflict and to our culture. I think their mistake is putting too much behind authorial intent and not considering that games and art have a relationship with their audience and with culture just by existing."
Horse Volume plans to feature real-life testimonials in The Sun Also Rises, including personal accounts from U.S combat medics, engineers and infantry soldiers who've done tours of duty in Kosovo, Desert Storm and Vietnam. Part of the reason that Horse Volume is crowdfunding the game on Kickstarter is to try and incorporate interviews from people from Afghanistan, as well, by talking to Pashtun interpreters who have been granted naturalization in the US.
"Here are some things [that we want players to get from the game]," Early offers. "Muslims aren't terrorists. Women suffer widespread sexual assault in the military. Veterans aren't getting the support they need. In 2013, more soldiers died by suicide than in combat. Joining the military is often seen as the only viable option for many impoverished Americans. What I've seen is that the common perception of our modern military is flawed. We have a lot of ground to cover and we're confident in the ability of people to empathize through games."