Sniper Elite, a cult-hit series and one of the few console shooters that has never left its World War II roots, finds itself surprisingly relevant on the eve of Sniper Elite 4’s Valentine's Day launch.
"There's enough distance to that conflict for us to see it as a comfortable place for our adventures," mused Jason Kingsley, the chief executive and creative director for Rebellion, which makes the series. "Unfortunately for us now, there's kind of a — how do I put it politely? — a worldwide rise in authoritarianism, which is characterized by many ideologies, one of them Nazism."
After almost five decades as an action-movie villainy drawn from long-gone governments and their long-dead leaders, fascism is a very real thing in present political discussion. If not its concepts, at least the circumstances that gave rise to real fascist movements are part of our dialogue. The tone of calling someone a fascist is no longer the insulting dismissal of a cartoonish evil annihilated by our grandparents. It's seriously threatened and angry.
Put another way, there's plenty of people who might want to take a crack at fascists right now. So, Sniper Elite 4, delayed last summer, finds itself arriving at almost the perfect time.
"Well, I suppose that it is now," Kingsley replied when asked if Sniper Elite 4 was at all allegorical to the present time. "It is slightly shocking, the things that are happening across the globe. But to be honest, no, the game itself, and the themes behind the game have emerged from historical study."
Sniper Elite 4 won't be preaching about movements or ideologies, in other words. Its point is the same as it has always been: Through patience, intrepid action and ultimate skill, the player, as hero Karl Fairburne, singlehandedly loosens the Nazis' grip and waves in the inexorable Allied liberation and victory.
Still. Kingsley and the game's narrative designer, Colin Harvey, made it a priority in the game's dialogue to specify that the primary conflict was a fight against fascism, not nationalities on the whole. "When we were doing the voice-over, some of the scripts had been written, they were talking about fighting Germans, and I said, 'Can we be a bit more specific about that? Can we talk about fighting Nazis or fighting fascism?'" Kingsley said. "If you look at history, yes a lot of Germans were fascists but a lot weren't."
This distinction in Sniper Elite 4's dialogue is also owed to the choice of Italy as the game's setting. Benito Mussolini is mainly reviled in history, and Italy as a fascist state preceded Germany's, after all. But it still was home to a brave and active resistance vital to the Allies' strategy of destabilizing and breaking Axis control of Europe.
"It's easy to get sloppy with the language," Kingsley said. "I think we all owe it to each other to use the right terms, or the correct terms.
“But yes, I am very aware of the circumstances now," he said. "We had not anticipated any of this."
Italy was chosen after 2014's Sniper Elite 3 not because the nation was (lamentably) fascism's birthplace, but because it offered a chronological step forward from SE3's setting in North Africa, and a rich array of competing and cooperative forces when the Allies invaded Salerno in 1943 and started laying the foundation for D-Day the next year.
"You've got the issue with the fascist dictatorship in Italy, and that's interesting, but you've also got complications with organized crime, you've got the Communist Party," Kingsley said. "It's a very complex area, we felt it was a very interesting place to explore.
And frankly, "Italy is a beautiful place," Kingsley said. The first two Sniper Elites were set in the charmless and desolate rubble of bombed-out Berlin. Sniper Elite 3 at least offered the rugged beauty of the North African desert. Still, "the idea of fighting a World War II battle across a Roman viaduct appealed to us," Kingsley said.
"In our games we had to make [Berlin] slightly less destroyed, based on the footage we saw in our research," he said. "Italy wasn't treated that way. It was almost pristine, these medieval villages, yet with fascist fortifications."
Kingsley likewise wanted some way to complicate Fairburne's interactions with his targets. It's easy to hurl Nazis in Stahlhelme at the user, and have him coldly mow down the the manpower of the Wehrmacht. This time, however, intelligence about Fairburne's targets will appear on screen if he uses binoculars to locate them and observe their movements.
Kingsley acknowledged that past editions of Sniper Elite were somewhat light on story, even if the series accrued a devoted following. This binocular use, which also will manifest in cooperative play, will convey intelligence about a target, as if Fairburne had read a file and recognized its subject. "You can find out someone was conscripted and looking forward to going home," Kingsley said, leaving the implied empathy hanging in the air. "Or another is a wife-beater and a torturer. But that first guy, maybe I can work out a way not to kill him."
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. Introducing some knowledge of the enemy in the crosshairs either complicates a Sniper Elite 4 player's feelings about their task, or imbues them with the righteous executive authority they've craved since June in the U.K., or November in the U.S.
Lingering at the end of all this, 72 years after the events forming Sniper Elite 4's narrative, is the irony of Germany as the Western world's brightest hope for liberal democracy. It birthed the malevolence and xenophobia that our grandparents, like the steel-eyed Karl Fairburne, supposedly wiped out. Now the national roles have reversed: France, the Netherlands, the United States.
What would Fairburne — the square-shouldered ideal of Churchill's moral opposition to fascism, and Montgomery's line in the sand at Alamein — today in his 90s (if still living), think of it all?
"I think he would probably find it very difficult to understand," Kingsley said. "He has a very clear idea of right and wrong in his mind. I think in his civilian life, he would be quite quiet and unassuming. If challenged, he might use a phrase from one of your tremendous politicians: 'Walk softly and carry a big stick.'
"But I think there would come a time when he'd say you have to do something. You have to take positive action," Kingsley said. "You have to do something about it."