The fake video games in movies and TV shows can be difficult to understand, for an obvious reason: they're not real games. Their function is providing a few seconds of motion, colours, and noises, and possibly a premise for a plot to riff on. They don't need to be coherent or good. Still, sometimes these glimpses and ideas are interesting enough that I quite enjoy trying to figure them out. Take Gods Of Combat, a fake first-person shooter featured in police procedural show Criminal Minds. Apparently it's such a great game that the only way to achieve a similar high after being banned is hijacking a schoolbus and forcing teenagers to kill each other.
Here's a fun (nonlethal) game we can play together, reader dear: I'm going to describe Gods Of Combat as best I can, then you tell me how you think it works.
Criminal Minds is an American cop 'em up about FBI profilers solving unlikely crimes. In the season 8 episode 'The Wheels On The Bus', aired in November 2012, the kooky gang hunt for the armed "unsubs" (short for "unknown subjects", said so often that it seems an in-joke) who hijacked a school bus. A rescued passenger explains that the unsubs (see?) in gas masks separated ten teenagers, fitted them with weird collars, then took turns picking from the lineup.
"Abducting a bus (a form of transportation), gas masks, shock collars, dividing people into teams... this sounds a lot like Gods Of Combat," says the FBI agent played by Joe Mantegna, who also voices Fat Tony on The Simpsons. "This is a video game."
Apparently, MutantSoft's Gods Of Combat has been running since at least the year 2000, with over six million players. Conceding that he "may have played it once or twice," Fat Tony explains that Gods Of Combat is a "multi-user online first-person shooter game" where at the start "you take over a form of public transportation-subway, train, bus-that's how you get your players." Then "the game consists of five players: captain, lieutenant, a pair of soldiers, and the pawn." Abductees wear shock collars, which are "used to keep your player from straying from their mission." Ultimately, "the object of the game is to destroy as many of your opponents as possible. The one with the highest bodycount wins."
I've quoted Fat Tony so heavily because this is the most reliable description of Gods Of Combat, and even he's simplifying for his unGodly colleagues (not to mention the broad television audience). We see very little of the game itself: a handful of printed screenshots; the title screen animation; and a one-second clip of someone walking around a trashed building with a scoped assault rifle. Honestly, I understand less about what it is after studying these.
It's never clear whether Gods Of Combat is a 1v1 game, a 5v5 game, or possibly even a 6v6 game. Do five players fill the roles, or when Fat Tony says "player" does he mean "character", and so one player plays all five lives themself? Hell, does one leader oversee and direct five players as a team, or individually? And how are the roles different? What does the pawn do, because the implications are fascinating? I must know about the pawn. And can you pick the vehicle you hijack, is this a tactical decision, or is the abduction just an edgy premise with no effect on the game? Some potential answers to these questions feel like a game I'd really be interested in. Perhaps we can learn more from the murdergame the unsubs (I know) recreate with their captives.
The meatspace murdergame is a 1v1 built of 1v1s. The two unsubs (two brothers, who I shall hereafter refer to as "the unsubs" because I can't stop now) are competing head-to-head in rounds where they each direct one of their players, with the rest locked up. Threatening with zaps from the shock collars, the unsubs (yup) watch their characters through collarcams while giving directions through radio earpieces. In the first round, they guide their characters through the mazelike industrial facility. We see Addyson sent to retrieve a key from her murdered teacher's pocket, which opens a box in another room. Here, rival Trent has already opened his own box and is fumbling to assemble an empieced pistol. The gun in Addyson's box is already complete and, while both unsubs (hello) yell at their characters to hurry up and shoot the other, she finds her nerve first. She then stays on to fight gain in round two, while the losing unsub (how's it going?) picks a new character. Unfortunately for us as serious video game analysts, at this point, the FBI roll up waving their high caliber banhammers.
Right, so, is Gods Of Combat a game about navigating a murdermaze and low-grade Saw situations? Find guns, do murder? Facing different trials with different horrors to get keys with different rewards, and other such puzzles and decisions? But how many actual players are playing, and how many at once, and how do the roles come into this? And how much should we take the meatspace murdergame as recreating Gods Of Combat? One agent notes that they're "mimicking specific and unique elements" but that doesn't mean they're LARPing it. Gods Of Combat could functionally be a generic 5v5 FPS, right? All we can truly trust is the elements Fat Tony highlights (abducting a bus, gas masks, shock collars, picking teams) and most of those could be thematic wrapping.
This is all assuming we take the show's portrayal of Gods Of Combat as accurate, too. The problem: it's not a real game and it doesn't need to make sense. Its function is making viewers understand that teenagers did murder after playing a violent video game with a morally outrageous premise. And yet, I've enjoyed turning over the pieces in my head. Fill in gaps and blur edges and you might find several interesting—and strikingly different—game concepts within this range of possibilities.
Oh, here's the kicker: the unsubs (you almost forgot, didn't you?) created their murdergame to sustain their sibling rivalry after being "blacklisted" in the Gods Of Combat "Hell mod." The what? Fat Tony explains, "if you get killed off playing Hell mod, your entire gaming profile is deleted." He and another agent do talk about Hell mods as "secret" or "hacked" levels but I suspect that's a simplified explanation for a non-techy colleague. Nor could I say with certainty what "gaming profile" means here, though they suggest that their profiles "would have taken years for them to build" so it seems at least an impressively hardcore Hardcore mode. Oh, and apparently 'Hell mods' exist in many games? A colleague explains that "the Hell mod in this game was like a battle royale. I mean literally, anything goes. There are no rules." Enjoy figuring out what that means too, though do bear in mind it predates the modern usage of 'battle royale' for Plunk 'em ups. Endless mysteries.
Sure, part of my enjoyment of fake games in shows and movies is seeing how ridiculous they are, but I often enjoy thinking about them as if they were real games. I like figuring out how they might work, then making a hasty evaluation of whether that's any good. Every game is only a collection of ideas and imagings until you play it and there are more games than anyone will ever play, so Gods Of Combat is as real to me as, I don't know, Modern Warfare 3. It is a bit of a busman's holiday, considering my inbox swells daily with dozens of announcements and press releases offering not much more solid information (and solid looks) than we have for Gods Of Combat. Still, what a curious challenge to build a concrete game from random fragments that are, you know, not real. I've accidentally found a real game inside the fake game.