The first time I played Insurgency: Sandstorm, I felt like it would be the closest I would ever get to war.
Developed by New World Interactive and released on December 12, 2018, the first person shooter promises “an intense atmosphere putting the terror into modern combat.”
I’m here to tell you that they lived up to their promise. The game is a phantasmagoria of horrifying images, screams, explosions, and gunshots.
But watching the game play in real-time gave the impression of slick gamer gore. The visceral intensity of the combat goes so fast that oftentimes trying to take in the terror of combat while playing is like explaining why you’re hungry with a full mouth.
And each time I attempted to explain using words, the experience kept avoiding the best words. I would say that, at bottom, the game performs in front of you what William H. Gass called in The Tunnel “the fascism of the heart.”
Perhaps, I thought, I could use the way I played to give the viewer an experience like the one I have. For I do not play the game online. When you play online with other people, the pace of the game is oftentimes ruined by the other participants’ desires to race ahead and grab the kills. I only play offline, with and against artificially controlled bots, where I determine the pace.
I realized, whether it had to do with my personality, my understanding of the intent by the developers, or in the desire to bevy the horror in front of me with space and time, I was playing it slower.
I was not the only one to uncover this desire. Not long after the release of the game, thanks to the modding scene and the wishes of tactical YouTube aficionados like Karmakut and OperatorDrewski, a new “hardcore” game mode was released promising, among other things, slower movement speed.
Taking this shared feeling, I sought to convey just what exactly it is about this game I find so compelling, and I put it into a mixed media piece. Using OBS Studio, I recorded footage of several play sessions, and I collated the most intense, colorful, disastrous, or solemn scenarios.
And then I slowed it down.
Slowing the video down by almost twenty times, the original runtime of 4:48 becomes an experience of 1:30:26. The game etches on, sometimes in anticipatory boredom, like that of a soldier waiting for the offensive in a foxhole; or it proceeds in a miasma of sound, the kind of nightmare that feels as though it will never end.
Slowing down the video gave the experience a broken look, as the amount of frames per second could not match the intensity of the slow motion. To counteract this, I used a trial version of SVP4-Pro, which is a motion interpolation program. This program finds the midpoint between two frames and attempts to predict a third frame in between. By running the program again and again, each time doubling the amount of frames per second, I was able to get the 60 frames up to 240. But when I went to 480, the digital tearing started to become more apparent. Still, the net gains were too good to avoid.
Slowing down the game also produced an unwanted side effect, which is to render the sound scape digitally fucked.
I resorted to an old program I used during my college years called Paul’s Extreme Sound Stretch. The idea is to “transform any sound/music into a texture.” And since Insurgency: Sandstorm leans on some of the best sound design for first person shooters in the genre, it felt like a sin to have the best mouth muzzled. The result presents an eerie and hypnotically terrifying experience, one where the bass booms of explosions are retained and spread across what feels like minutes, while yelling feels torn out of the mouths of the soldiers giving them.
(The result is very loud, so be careful with the volume control)
At a feature length of 90 minutes, the video is a visual and artistic painting that one may feel free to skip along in. Watching from start to finish feels silly, as war can do when looked at from the right perspective. At two moments, I interlude with a voiced performance of excerpts from writing. One is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which introduces the rockets dropping at control point A of the map “Tideway.” The second is a night observation of infantry fighting on the map “Hillside” with the poem “Hunters” by Louise Glück. This occurs roughly an hour in…
What are we to make of the soldier who moves through the digital simulation of war in Insurgency: Sandstorm? Why do we find shooting the most entertaining sort of conflict resolution? Is this the kind of flow that soldiers report is enlightenment of a high order? Or, instead of looking up, perhaps we are looking in the wrong direction. We should wonder if this desire for combat is the realization of a baser aspect of our being.