It might have ended more than 60 years ago but, across the virtual battlefields of no less than 183 games, World War II continues to rage. This poses an obvious question: why, out of all the conflicts in human history, does WWII have the overwhelming majority of video game spin offs? Why are there only 18 games on World War One, 16 games on the Vietnam War, 4 on the first Gulf War, 1 on the Korean War and 1 on the second Gulf War? Simply put, why is World War Two everyone’s favourite war?
Everyone loves to hate them. It was even after reading the journal of a German SS officer that the seed for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was sewn in the mind of Philip K Dick. One entry in particular which stated, ‘I can’t get a decent nights sleep because the screams of children keep me up all night’, led Dick to believe that the Nazis were so lacking in the sentiments and emotions intrinsic to most human beings, they were almost like some alien, synthetic race.
Never have the boundaries between good and evil appeared so clear cut as in World War 2. With an unprecedented number of atrocities under their belt, the Nazis were, without doubt, ‘the bad guys’, and few people would dispute that fact. So as you stalk an SS guard who talks about pits filled with burning bodies in Velvet Assassin, there is little moral ambiguity when you get to carve him up with a big knife…
WW2 Combat and Weapons
World War 2 saw the advent of the assault rifle, the computer and the nuclear bomb. However, although it gave birth to an array of modern impersonal weapons such as the precision guided missile and jet propulsion systems, World War 2 combat was essentially man-to-man. It involved head on clashes of troops who were fighting each other on more or less equal terms: a style of combat perfectly suited to a great war video game.
This even encompasses air combat which, with up close and personal aerial dogfights, was a far cry from the modern ‘lock, fire and forget’ targeting systems used by modern fighter jets. Many post World War Two conflicts – Vietnam, Iraq etc –, don’t make such good video games because they feature an enemy who has been forced underground, is impossible to pin down, and therefore much less fun to fight.
Saving Private Ryan
Released in 1998, Saving Private Ryan was a film which really captured that sense of rapid movement and continually shifting fronts which defined the combat of WW2. Apart from the opening sequence which featured the American landing on Omaha beach where things went, well, completely FUBAR (and more reminiscent of WW1) the film really whet everyone’s appetite for gritty World War 2 drama.
It also left gamers all over the world crying out for a video game which could provide the same level of intensity which had you hanging off the edge of your seat during the film’s end sequence. Despite an array of titles from Medal of Honour to Hidden and Dangerous, it wasn’t until the Brothers in Arms series that Saving Private Ryan the game finally arrived.
World War 2 also has some of the most dramatic campaigns of any conflict in history: the stalling of the German advance outside Moscow, the Russian’s miraculous turn around at the battle of Stalingrad, victory over Goering’s Luftwaffe at the Battle of Britain, the largest amphibious invasion ever mounted in all human history on D- Day… The epic nature of all these struggles and the triumph of the heroic underdogs over the forces of evil – what better narrative template for a great video game could there possibly be?
World War Two was undoubtedly the most decisive conflict of the 20th century, and, regarding nuclear bombs and the present day situation in Israel, Palestine and the Middle East, its legacy is still very much with us. But despite the appalling bloodshed, there is this heroic, romantic appeal regarding the struggles of World War 2 which has endured, and persists to fascinate people even 60 years on.
This is something computer game developers have clearly picked up on, and despite the fact that some argue it’s morally objectionable to keep adapting it into video games, their popularity is simply a testament to what a widespread fantasy soldiering in WW2 seems to be. Moral repulsion towards the Nazis, the personal nature of the combat, film and TV adaptations, the drama of the campaigns certainly all play their part, but perhaps one more obvious and fundamental reason behind the popularity of WW2 is simply the fact…we won.