Sniper Elite 4: On Clarity and Confusion

I mentioned a while back that one of the reasons I bought Sniper Elite 4 is because I saw the whole skeleton bullet impact x-ray vision thing in Sniper Elite 2 and thought it was interesting. Having played through, uh, a fair bit of SE4 now, I have a few thoughts about it. In some ways, I think, it’s kinda hard to read what the point is. 

The most basic and obvious explanation is that it’s supposed to be cool. You snipe a Nazi, and the bullet slows down and you get an x-ray slow-mo shot of his body, and you see how the bullet bursts his eyeball and ricochets into and through his skull – it’s very, like, wow look at this it’s so cool you’re such a good sniper. That’s probably the first and most basic reading of the game.

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The second reading is that it’s somehow meant to be anti-violence. You can imagine someone arguing that the whole thing is so graphic, is so intimate with the violated human body, that it’s really meant to put you off. It’s meant to be disgusting, to make you think about why violence is bad and awful. It doesn’t seem like a strong argument though, right – the game never really says or does anything meaningful to suggest that maybe violence isn’t the answer. And even if that was the message, why would you set a game about pacifism during the Second World War? There’s a pretty important moral reason to fight in WW2 – well, for the Allies, anyway – there’s the Nazis and the death camps and – no, WW2 is not a good setting if you want to make an argument for pacifism. Use WW1 instead. Or the Boer War. Or the war on Iraq. Heaps of much better settings for that argument.

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But we’ve got these two basic arguments – either Sniper Elite 4 glorifies violence, or it hates violence. Those are the basic arguments. Let’s step back a little bit and consider some of the broader context of the game – see if we can find any other evidence that supports either position. How about this: if you scan an enemy with your binoculars, you’ll get little bits of information on them. Sometimes you learn about how evil particular Nazis are – some of the snippets say things like ‘Pushed a girl down a well’ or ‘Hates his mother’ or whatever. It’s not clear how you get that information, but don’t worry too much about it. You get it, and then as the player, you kinda think well, okay, fuck that guy. He’s a Nazi and also very clearly an evil person. Let’s shoot him and watch his skull explode. There’s an element of satisfaction to it – an element of moral come-uppance. Fuck that guy. He pushed some girl down a well, and now he’s going to pay. Justice will be done.

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But on the other hand, sometimes you get information that’s sad, or kinda funny, or just really deeply human. Some Nazis pinch chocolate from other Nazis. Some Nazis are convinced that they’re going to die. This guy in the picture above has his hands shake, except when he’s in combat. That one kinda stuck with me. Someone who’s nervous except when they’re fighting, when all the stress and anxiety melts away and life becomes really pure and simple. Shoot the baddies, don’t get shot. No stress, no drama, none of the noise and constant bullshit of everyday life – just those two simple things. There’s almost something pertinent to video games in general there – something about combat (or ‘combat’) as an escape from normal life, a moment to just drop the world and focus on those really simple principles. Shoot the baddies. Don’t get shot. And this is a description for one of the Nazis, one of the people that you’ll potentially have to put a bullet through. One of the bad guys. There’s no justice about that. There’s no sense.

So the intel doesn’t necessarily validate one reading over the other. It kinda pushes both readings a little further. There’s an article over here that talks about how the intel is deliberately ambiguous, how it’s supposed to make you think about good and evil and what’s justified and what’s not – and how maybe killing Nazis is sometimes ambiguous but maybe still sometimes in that context the right thing to do.

“That lens of moral ambiguity seems almost necessary if a video game is truly depicting a head-on, shooting war confrontation with fascism. Only a fascist would deal in statutory, black-and-white absolutes. His military strength comes from acting that automatically and antiseptically. “

Potentially feeling bad for Nazis is, by this logic, what makes us not Nazis. And it’s a nice idea, and it seems to explain some of the contradictory vibes we get. But is it totally convincing? In the article, they’re interviewing the creative director for Sniper Elite 4, who goes on to say that Fairburne (the protagonist) “has a very clear idea of right and wrong in his mind.” It doesn’t really sound like Fairburne has that sense of moral ambiguity about his own actions. In fact, it almost sounds a bit more like he’s aligned with the fascists, with the people who deal in absolutes. He’s got a very clear sense of right and wrong. Nazis are bad, and the Allies are good. Where does his position become any more complicated than that? And further, we might ask, why are you asking the player to feel this moral ambiguity if the protagonist doesn’t? Isn’t that a little disingenuous? Doesn’t it really suggest that we should be feeling uncomfortable about playing as Fairburne? And what does that suggest about the moral integrity of the Allies’ position during WW2?

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The conversation eventually has to come back to the kill-shots. That x-ray bone splintering thing – is that really just about moral ambiguity? The game lingers over the disintegration of the human body. It’s too much. It’s too gratuitous, too cinematic, too horrific. And it’s not clear what it’s meant to suggest. Is it fun? Cool? Gross? It’s not clear what the game wants us to think – and that’s a problem. Some games are really clearly deliberately confusing. Dark Souls has a confusing story – and that’s clearly intended as part of the game. By contrast, something like The Slaughtering Grounds is confusing because it’s shit. It’s not indicative of deeper themes or anything – it’s just a shit game. And I think that’s my problem with Sniper Elite. It’s not totally clear whether the developers have enough control over the medium to really understand what they’re doing. It’s difficult to attribute intentionality. In a way, Sniper Elite isn’t direct enough about whether or not it’s trying to be ambiguous. It’s not clearly confusing. It’s possible that there’s a really complex message about violence and fascism, but it’s also entirely possible that this is a dumb game made by people who haven’t really thought deeply about the issues at hand.

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