Finding deeper meaning beneath the virtual surface.
Videogames love a good, cinematic, Normandy beach landing scenario. What could be more swiftly impactful or immediately dramatic than landing on a contested patch of land in the heat of pitched battle, pouring out of your troop transports under heavy fire as some superior barks at you from the rear to move (usually repeating themselves for effect)? Scenarios likes these tap that cherished sensation of being engaged in something important, momentous.
It’s safe to say that you aren’t really doing anything important in these scenarios. Videogame Normandy moments, like all simulations of war experienced from the safety of your couch, are elaborate, highly staged play-acting; equivalent to picking up foam swords and plastic shields and getting swept up in the bombastic reverie of a medieval battle reenactment.
Back in the 1990’s, toy companies traded heavily in this kind of quasi-combat veneer when it came to marketing their plastic gadgets and accessories. Whether it was through the arms race of ever-increasing Super-Soaker sizes, or the suction cup-littered battlefield left after a Nerf gun fight, neon-colored family friendly approximations of war became the obsessions of choice for many American children. Titanfall 2 seems to evoke a similar Nerf-y soft-edgedness in its aesthetic package. Despite all the exchanged gunfire, the bloody and debris-strewn battlefields, playing Titanfall 2 feels like partaking in a Nerf version of Normandy. Though passably gritty, the game largely sidesteps the gravitas of war, focusing more on cool robot buddies and bro-y parkour. At the same time, it hits many of the sonic and visual beats that come part and parcel with its military theater aesthetic: explosions going off everywhere; captains waving you forward before they explode in a cloud of shrapnel and body parts, robots raining down from the sky.
Titanfall 2’s surreal blend of fun and violent grotesquerie is a dichotomous tonal experience that I recognize in another story of mechs and war wrapped in beige and grey metal surfaces: the film Edge of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat depending on what stage in its botched marketing campaign you are experiencing). Edge of Tomorrow is about a future soldier, played by Tom Cruise, who gets stuck in a time loop while fighting future aliens, and thus has to live out the film’s version of the Normandy landing over and over again. But while often gruesome, the experience is hardly meant to evoke the solemn hopelessness of war. Rather, the more times he loops, the less concerned he is for his own fragility, the better he understands the strategies required to win the battle, and the more the film resembles a videogame.
Throughout Edge of Tomorrow, we get punctuated and detached vignettes of what was originally a miserable, oppressive encounter against an unbeatable force, but which becomes an adrenaline-laced practice of mastery over increasingly abstract obstacles. Once death is taken out of the picture, the audience is allowed to dwell on technological warfare’s glistening surface aesthetic: the alien armature of the mech-suited soldier; the bizarrely complex UI that controls its systems; the goofy shoulder-mounted missile launchers; the metal cricket bats; the way the alien combatants twist and roil balletically as they exchange barbs with their human enemy. It becomes, in all respects, a videogame: all of the component pieces of real-life trauma, but none of the consequences.
It’s this level of gameiness in what is otherwise a standard sci-fi-flavored Hollywood war film, that brings Edge of Tomorrow into conversation with a game like Titanfall 2, which also allows the player to enjoy the surface experience without having to worry after their own fragility, completing one half of the equation. Reenacting dramatic Normandy beach-style entrances – especially in the multiplayer, where every battle is bookended by elaborate troop transport cutscenes – completes the other. These moments are so elevated within Titanfall 2 that you can even unlock different commanders who see you off with unique motivational barks before you storm the mechanical beaches of your digital war.
The bundles of refined war iconography that compose Edge of Tomorrow and Titanfall 2 work well in sweeping me along into their high-energy, low-stakes adventures. Missing, naturally, is any contemplation over the miserable consequences of these adventures. In Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise becomes ethereal; an outsider who literally erases the timeline into which so many millions of people had invested their lives, hopes and fears. Their potential futures press-ganged into fodder for his personal playground purgatory. The resolution of the film is that nothing occurred outside of Cruise’s singular action of killing the boss alien. Nothing else mattered, except to him, an audience of one. And to us.
The tiny soldiers that you stomp under your robot heel serve a similar purpose in Titanfall 2. The cabal of mercenaries who all speak in Afrikaner accents, parrot villainous one-liners, and conveniently die, are wind-up toys, and don’t serve any purpose beyond fueling the sci-fi mech aesthetic of the game with their explosive deaths. And once you’re done with the story, you get to go do it again and again in multiplayer; jump screaming out of the maw of your carrier into the “fiery crucible in which the only true heroes are forged,” as Bill Paxton (R.I.P.) describes it in Edge of Tomorrow. His very appearance in the film is an admission by Hollywood that nothing will ever change. We’ll keep trying to bring back the once-unique grunted utterances and acerbic banter of Aliens’ cherished space marines, even as the world around us irrevocably changes and makes such concepts moot. For those of us nestled in the cocoon of a 20 foot tall walking tank, playing or watching the comfortable, detached experience of war as videogame, we can relax in our stalled present, and live out the same dramatic moments in continuity, forever.
Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also enjoys thinking and writing about games.