Through a Gunsight

Lebanon tells the story of an Israeli tank crew on the first day of the 1982 invasion. The entire film takes place inside the tank, and our only glimpses of the outside world come through the gunner's optics. It's an interesting experiment in perspective, but one that is ultimately undone by the narrative requirements of a feature film and director Samuel Maoz's reluctance to fully embrace the confined perspective he adopts. Watching Lebanon, I could not help but think how much more natural this story would have seemed in a game. This is, after all, how games tell their most successful stories.

At its best, Lebanon is a film about trying to see. On the night before the invasion, the gunner is staring through a starlight scope at a dirt lane through a cornfield. Suddenly a ghostly figure detaches itself from the smudged sky. A few quick, agonizing seconds pass before the figure emerges from the night-vision's murk to reveal itself as an Israeli paratrooper. The next night, the gunner tries to follow a some Phalangist militia out of an ambush using the same murky night vision. The Phalangists' Mercedes swims in and out of view as the tank labors to keep up, and the entire world seems to narrow to the cross-hairs and the car's lone working tail-light. The best moment in the movie comes when a helicopter hovers overhead to recover a casualty from aboard the tank. Suddenly the interior's gloom is pierced by blades of stark white light stabbing through the open hatch. The rotor wash leaves the crew looking like they are lost in a cyclone as they watch the dead Israeli soldier ascend.

But those moments are separated by lengthy sequences dealing with an archetypal crew: the scared kid, the cynic who is a week from mustering out, the sensitive gunner, and the inept commander. Lebanon keeps returning to a familiar story about familiar characters, as if we need their reactions to lend meaning to what we experience alongside them.

Confusion and doubt are the real drama in Lebanon, far more effective than the soldiers' shopworn reminiscences of home and family. It is horribly unclear what anyone is supposed to be doing. Their connection with the outside world comes in fragments, as the gunner's scope sweeps frantically around the tank. The crew starts with a mission, then suddenly they don't have one and nobody seems willing to help them or explain anything. They are followers who find themselves abandoned by the powers that be. The authorities cease to inform them of the world beyond their metal walls, and the tank becomes their limbo.

This fractured view of the world is common to games. Games usually let us see and interact with the world through tools. HUDs, sniper scopes, control panels, and maps. We wait for the voice in our ear to tell us what to do. It almost always does, and that is the disappointment. We are usually chained to some positive objective: Destroy the artillery battery at Waypoint Bravo, then reinforce Delta company at Waypoint Foxtrot. I wonder if players would know what to do with a game that put them in charge of a lethal killing machine, and then deposited them in a morass of confusion and conflicting orders. Games are driven by procedure and clarity of purpose. They can brilliantly evoke places like the inside or a tank or submarine, perceiving the world through a narrow periscope, a tactical map, and terse updates from the radio. But while they may portray chaos, they shy from inflicting it on players. Games have conditioned players to comfortable certainty. Discomfort and doubt are not native to this habitat.

It would be nice to see more experiments with them, just as Lebanon experiments with perspective. I wish we had more chances to discover what we would do if the reassuring voices over the radio ever fell silent, if no new objective appeared on the map. Too rarely, we get an intimation of what could happen if designers were not so stingy with their trust in players. Years ago, I was playing Operation Flashpoint and obediently following my sergeant's orders as he led me and the rest of my squad on a patrol. Then, without any warning, my entire squad was cut down by an onslaught of Warsaw Pact tanks coming up a village road. I remember how I thought we could fight them, and I crawled over to a dead squad-mate to grab his antitank rocket. I don't remember if I hit anything or not; I just remember realizing that we'd only had that one rocket, and there were a half-dozen tanks sweeping our hillside with machine guns.

I ran. Not toward an objective, just away from the tanks. It was a perfect, honest reaction. I wondered, as I ran, if I was failing the mission. If I should have stayed with my squad, even though I didn't see anyone else still fighting. Hadn't I done everything it asked? For a few minutes, Operation Flashpoint let me wonder if I had turned coward—if there was something I could have done.

The other half of Lebanon is spotting the story written across the scenery. An old man stares blankly at the tank while his friend is slumped over the table across from him, headless in clean white linen. The Israeli commander sitting down after a heated conversation with his superiors, and his face just crumbling for a brief moment when he thinks nobody else can see. Israeli paratroopers pulling a medic off a soldier who is beyond saving.

Perhaps you could not make an entire film from such moments—film has its rules, too—but I remember how the gunner's attention keeps wandering, as if he knows that what is happening all around him matters more than the story unfolding ahead, as the tank drives inexorably forward, like it's mounted on rails.

Comments

Now I need to see this. To the queue!

My reaction after reading Metro 2033 was "The game is better". This reaction to Lebanon, that it could be better told as a game, I think does something for the medium of games (that something is probably related to a three-letter word that will go unmentioned). It's heartening that there are stories can be identified as being better served as games. As for the other half of the article—whether games are up to telling those stories to the proper effect—well, early days.

That's a really interesting point -- kind of a tectonic shift, really. You've pointed out that a story would work better as a game, and we're reading and agreeing with the idea.

Right there, quietly, in just a couple of paragraphs, the world changed a bit.

Interesting. That thought didn't cross my mind while watching the movie, but I can certainly see it now. I think it will be a few more years before a game will be created that captures the same sense of despair that Lebanon has.

Malor wrote:

That's a really interesting point -- kind of a tectonic shift, really. You've pointed out that a story would work better as a game, and we're reading and agreeing with the idea.

Right there, quietly, in just a couple of paragraphs, the world changed a bit.

I totally agree, and yet, I don't know if there's a game company alive who could do a narrative like this.

Malor wrote:

Right there, quietly, in just a couple of paragraphs, the world changed a bit.

That's what an editor likes to read.

Prederick wrote:
Malor wrote:

That's a really interesting point -- kind of a tectonic shift, really. You've pointed out that a story would work better as a game, and we're reading and agreeing with the idea.

Right there, quietly, in just a couple of paragraphs, the world changed a bit.

I totally agree, and yet, I don't know if there's a game company alive who could do a narrative like this.

I'm having trouble trying to think of a game that comes close. Suggestions anyone?

I may need some help defining "like this" before I can suggest anything.

The closest experience I've had was in ARMA II, after completing an objective that the game failed to recognize. I stood around wondering what to do next... should I head to camp? Of course, in game mechanic terms, this is a glitch, a bug. Life can be full of glitches.

Life's a glitch and then your process is terminated unexpectedly.

Gravey wrote:

Life's a glitch and then your process is terminated unexpectedly.

End of line.

Concave wrote:
Prederick wrote:
Malor wrote:

That's a really interesting point -- kind of a tectonic shift, really. You've pointed out that a story would work better as a game, and we're reading and agreeing with the idea.

Right there, quietly, in just a couple of paragraphs, the world changed a bit.

I totally agree, and yet, I don't know if there's a game company alive who could do a narrative like this.

I'm having trouble trying to think of a game that comes close. Suggestions anyone?

Haven't played it, but everything I've read about Far Cry 2 seems to suggest it could.

kincher skolfax wrote:
Concave wrote:
Prederick wrote:
Malor wrote:

That's a really interesting point -- kind of a tectonic shift, really. You've pointed out that a story would work better as a game, and we're reading and agreeing with the idea.

Right there, quietly, in just a couple of paragraphs, the world changed a bit.

I totally agree, and yet, I don't know if there's a game company alive who could do a narrative like this.

I'm having trouble trying to think of a game that comes close. Suggestions anyone?

Haven't played it, but everything I've read about Far Cry 2 seems to suggest it could.

I'm a big fan of that one, but I admit that you can certainly play it as shallowly as any other Dudes of Bro game.

kincher skolfax wrote:

Haven't played it, but everything I've read about Far Cry 2 seems to suggest it could.

Not really. Far Cry 2 is a brilliant shooter with scarcely a thought or feeling anywhere in its pretty head. It's all about doing, not seeing or reacting. All the agency belongs to you, which also means there's little discovery or wonder beyond seeing the ways the game lets you act on it.

Which is seriously impressive, by the way. Just not, I think, affecting in any way.

As to what I took to be the point of the article, you're also never at a loss for what to do in FC2. You always have an objective (even the tacit "get another objective"), and while the route to it (literal and tactical) is left open to you, there's never a moment where you're totally cut loose and left on your own.

The problem is that 1) video games are still called games, and in a video game the point is always to try and win. And 2) the modern player, be they "hardcore" or "casual", is used to such things and changing that is going to cause some serious disturbance.

I think that is the greatest problem, but I also think it would be the casual audience that would be more receptive to the idea. The issue is getting them over the hurdle that it's not a "game", it's an interactive narrative.

It really is a shame that there's nothing as simple as calling them "games". Calling them "interactive entertainment" is like calling comics "sequential art". It's an attempt to attach a more adult and mature label on a medium everyone looks at as being juvenile (and after reading what Mark Millar did to the X-Men in Marvel's Ultimate universe, the two mediums have a LOT in common it seems).

I want to see games where the player has to experience an unhappy ending. Hell, I'd love a shooter where you play some big freedom fighter revolutionary, and as you climb the final level your comrades for the entire game die one by one. But that's okay, because even if you all have to die you're going to win and change the world! But then, after the "final boss", you get mortally wounded. Outnumbered. You're surrounded. The real mastermind walks up to you, explains how your group of "revolutionaries" have actually been doing the tyrannical government a favor, and that they've led the media to believe you are terrorists. He thanks you, points the barrel of a gun to your face, gunshot, screen goes black, and credits roll.

I want a game to make the player sit there and think "what the f*ck was that all for?" They'll hate it at first, and the game may be a commercial failure for it at the time, but years later everyone will be talking about it.

But it seems no one wants to challenge the medium's potential for narrative, because everyone's too busy...y'know, I don't even know what they're doing. I really don't.

So good luck making a game where you're dropped in a world and are left confused and don't know what to do, but unlike Grand Theft Auto have actual major repercussions if you choose to use it as a "whoo hoo let's do crazy sh*t!" time.

ccesarano wrote:

The problem is that 1) video games are still called games, and in a video game the point is always to try and win. And 2) the modern player, be they "hardcore" or "casual", is used to such things and changing that is going to cause some serious disturbance.

I think that is the greatest problem, but I also think it would be the casual audience that would be more receptive to the idea. The issue is getting them over the hurdle that it's not a "game", it's an interactive narrative.

It really is a shame that there's nothing as simple as calling them "games". Calling them "interactive entertainment" is like calling comics "sequential art". It's an attempt to attach a more adult and mature label on a medium everyone looks at as being juvenile (and after reading what Mark Millar did to the X-Men in Marvel's Ultimate universe, the two mediums have a LOT in common it seems).

Comics have graphic novels and sequential art. There are "movies" and "films." I don't see why there can't be "games" and "interactive art."

ccesarano wrote:

The problem is that 1) video games are still called games, and in a video game the point is always to try and win.

For something which wrestles with all of the above I say to you: The Witcher
More than anything else it was a game that gave you a real sense that your actions have consequences beyond their immediate effect, because it introduced this element of uncertainty it became far harder to game the system.
I have no idea if this continues in the second game, because my PC takes one look at the minimum specs and keels over.

ccesarano wrote:

I want a game to make the player sit there and think "what the f*ck was that all for?" They'll hate it at first, and the game may be a commercial failure for it at the time, but years later everyone will be talking about it.

FC2 comes very close to that.
If I remember correctly the penultimate battle is against your 'buddies' (essentially your teammates/friends) who have been helping you all game, and the finale consists of you confronting your nemesis and then having to choose from either blowing yourself up, or getting shot.
I vividly remember quite a few "what the f*ck was that all for?" threads at the time.