Could Full Metal Jacket have worked as a game?

It’s been over two weeks since I posted anything here. The beginning of the school year is partly to blame for this; however, so is my laziness. I’m sure that my posts will be less frequent during the semester as I’ll be busy with more important (read: graded) work. With that in mind, I press on in my blogging endeavors.

In addition to my business and laziness, I’ve also been struggling with an idea for a blog post. I finally decided that instead of analyzing another video game it would be fun to imagine how a well-known story might have worked as a game. I decided on Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one of my very favorite films. (It’s actually based on the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, but I’ll stick with the version that I’m familiar with.)

I’m certainly doing a strange thing here—imagining what this movie would be like if it were actually a game. I don’t mean to suggest that I think Full Metal Jacket should have been a game, or that it would have been better if it were a game. Rather, the point is to consider how changing the presentation of the story—namely, by relocating the audience within the story—would affect how it operates and how we experience it. A larger question to consider is: can you tell a story like this in a video game? Also, how would you tell this story in game format? The best way to address these questions is to dive right in.

We’ll start with an overview of the plot. Full Metal Jacket follows Private Joker and a handful of Marines as they progress through boot camp and are then sent to war in Vietnam. The first half of the film illustrates how military training conditions average young men to kill on command and without hesitation. The second half of the movie attempts to portray what the overall “feel” of the war was, or what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam. As the plot is largely about how normal people are transformed into killers, I think it could work as a game or interactive story. The player would assume the role of Private Joker and would experience everything he experiences in the film. This would cause the player to develop some lesser form of the mentality that the soldiers in the film developed.

Let’s consider how this process might play out. At the beginning of the game, the player must engage in all or many of the everyday activities of boot camp. They are constantly berated by the drill instructor, they must run obstacle courses and participate in physical training, they must take care of their bunks and service their weapons and do target practice. Perhaps not all of these activities would be directly included in gameplay, as some might prove too tedious and might prompt the player to stop playing. Indeed, the tasks would need to be presented in a way that would encourage to player to continue playing (a daunting but not impossible task). Regardless of what actual tasks are performed, the result should be that the player begins to think like the Marines in the film. Again, this would obviously not be a terribly strong effect, but it might be forceful enough to make some impact on the player. The player should begin to fall into the routine, to feel natural within it, to comply with orders and what is expected of them. Their mentality should mirror that of the recruits in the film.

The first half of the game would necessarily include a lot of verbal abuse at the hands of your drill instructor. The player should feel as if their worth is measured by success in their drills.

During the second half of the game, the player is engaged in the daily realities of the Vietnam War. At the beginning of this section, they are a reporter with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. They can roam base camp and local Vietnamese towns, must perform their designated duties around the base, and perhaps must engage in some journalistic activities. The player should quickly grow weary of the boredom and monotony of the rear echelon and desire to get into real combat, just as Joker does in the film. Once in service with the Lusthog Squad, the player goes on patrols with the squad, travels from destination to destination, and engages in the occasional firefight. They would engage in some of the key events of the film, such as the assault on Hue City and the engagement with the sniper at the end of the film. Throughout this part of the game, the player should come to understand the monotony of warfare, the emotional distance with which soldiers view their job, and the terrifying reality of death. By the end of the game, the player should come away with a mentality that mirrors Joker’s closing monologue: the war is miserable, but they are thrilled to have survived this long.

The film ends with Joker and company singing "The Mickey Mouse March" amidst the burning ruins of Hue City. Ideally, the player should finish the game with the same sense of perverse, ironic happiness.

I don’t intend to propose specific gameplay elements and mechanisms for eliciting these feelings in the player. It would of course be a difficult and tricky procedure, but I don’t believe that it would be impossible. One of the most difficult parts would be holding the player’s attention and making them want to keep playing, especially as they are engaged in unpleasant or boring tasks. This situation mirrors the soldiers’ predicament in the film: after a while they realize they don’t really want to be in the war, but they have committed to it and cannot back out now. Additionally, even though fighting in the war is miserable, they feel as if it is their proper place. The game would need to somehow compel players to keep playing out of a sense of commitment (or morbid curiosity?), which would mirror Joker’s mentality in the film. It would also be difficult to make the player legitimately afraid of (or at least very apprehensive about) dying in the game. Perhaps this could be achieved through a harsh penalty for dying, such as having to restart the game from a much earlier point; however, this would also increase the tendency to quit playing. These problems are not easily answered, but I’m not convinced they are insurmountable.

In any case, the whole point of turning Full Metal Jacket into a game would be to pull the audience into the story and thereby make it more personal. Instead of merely observing how war transforms Joker and his squadmates, the player would experience some of these changes; the player should catch themselves being affected, ever so slightly, by the events of the game. They should realize boot camp made them compliant to commands and eager to fight, and their time in the war made them feel compelled to obey orders but also eager to get out of the war in one piece. Turning Full Metal Jacket into a game would theoretically make the story more impactful on the player because they would personally experience the key psychological themes of the film; this experience would in turn remove any doubt the player has about the transformative experience of war and would make the story much more personally relevant. It would help to dismantle the protective shield of deniability and cause players to seriously consider the psychological impacts of warfare upon its participants.

However, there is a question residing over this whole discussion: is it unethical for a game to attempt to make its players feel these kinds of emotions? Would some (or many) people be upset to discover they could be manipulated by certain strong experiences, such as boot camp and warfare? Is this something that most people would prefer not to know about themselves, and if so, does this impose a restriction on storytellers? Are there some things that we should not persuade people to think about themselves, or is everything free game (no pun intended) even if it makes people uncomfortable?

These are difficult questions without clear answers, but if video games ever begin to go in the direction I hope they will, they will need to be considered carefully.