War is (Fun As) Hell

I played Killzone 2 a couple weeks ago. At one point, after a tough battle, me and Rico, a squad mate, were riding an elevator to a top of a tower. As it was rising, I looked at Rico and noticed him staring at the floor, as if deep in thought. I stepped towards him, wanting to put an hand on his shoulder and as “You OK?” I didn’t really care for Rico, most of his vocabulary consisted of curse words meant to prove his bravado, and he seemed unable to say a word without shouting it; he was arrogant, impulsive, and I found him all around unlikable. But I did care about Rico: He was the guy next to me in the trenches, the guy who killed any Helghast soldier that flanked me, the guy who help keep me alive during the tough battle earlier. So, even though I didn’t like him, I stepped towards him, wanting to put a hand on his shoulder and ask “You OK?” But I couldn’t. Because this was a game. So instead I just watched him, feeling bad that I couldn’t to anything. The game finished loading, the elevator doors opened, Rico shouted “Let’s go kill some Higs!” or some other generic line meant to prove his bravado, and I continued playing.

Killzone 2, more than any other game, captures that chaos, confusion, and violence of war. And that’s precisely what makes it fun

There’s a constant oppressive atmosphere in Killzone 2. At multiple points in the game, characters comment on the state of the planet Helghan, pointing out how desolate it is. During one level in a desert power plant, we’re told that the beauty of the planet was sucked dry by the constant war machine of its inhabitants (the Helghast). Whenever we leave the city we see this for ourselves. The ground is always dry, the sky is always dusty, and I can’t remember ever seeing a piece of greenery in the game. Looking at it from that perspective makes the history of Helghan rather tragic: A people fueled by war deplete the resources of their planet, and now war is all they have left. It makes sense then that this planet would be home to a race of warriors since every day is a fight for survival. This is a hellish place to live.

Reinforcing that idea is the heavy focus on urban warfare. Fighting through the rubble of a destroyed city is always distressing, even if it’s the city of your enemy. There’s just something unsettling about the imagery. You’ll also spend a large part of the game moving through corridors or small rooms, lending an important sense of claustrophobia to the combat. We’re always trapped, confined, always fighting in the shadow of some structure. Even though the story has us invading Helghan, the level design is meant to make us feel like the oppressed victim.

The graphics were a selling point of Killzone 2, but it was criticized in many reviews for it’s rather limited color palette of browns and blacks, with nary a primary color in sight. But this art style was necessary to maintain the constant dark atmosphere. Unlike the “destroyed beauty” art style of Gears of War, there is nothing beautiful about the environments in Killzone 2. You’re fighting in a destroyed city, and the colors used effectively portray a city under siege. This world feels dirty and grimy, the kind of place no one would voluntarily visit.

But I did visit it voluntarily. I then returned to explore every nook for collectibles. I returned again to play online, where the battles are even more chaotic than those in the single player campaign. Despite oppressive atmosphere in Killzone 2, it was still fun. What did I, and so many others, find entertaining about this chaos?

The answer, I believe, lies in another game. In Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, whenever the player dies, a quote about war is displayed on screen. The quote that has stuck with me the most was by Winston Churchill: “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Out of the 80 possible quotes that can appear, this is the most appropriate one because it doesn’t just describe war, it describes our infatuation with it. People love danger, it’s exciting, and being shot at is certainly dangerous. But most people don’t want to put themselves in harm’s way, so they choose to live vicariously though entertainment: Books, movies, and of course, video games. War games will always be fun, no matter how grimy, dirty, violent, or chaotic they become, because we’re being shot at without result. We get that exhilarating adrenaline rush of being in danger without actually putting ourselves in danger. No matter how realistic a virtual world or its inhabitants are portrayed, the fact that they’re not real will always turn the violence into a theme park attraction, rather than something genuinely dramatic. However, perhaps when a war game involves real people, in a real battle, in a real war, then, like with Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, that traditional gameplay we’ve become so used to will be given a powerful subtext and change the way we view our actions. Until then, war is fun as hell.