Gaming’s Most Important Grunts

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Grunt. Such a word conjures images of tedious manual labor, and no word is better suited for the cannon fodder and the copy/paste bad guys that generally serve as the filler between when the game starts and when the game actually gets interesting. But with Memorial Day just past, it’s time for the grunts get their day in the limelight. They may just be meat for the grinder, but where would we be without them?

Infantry (Empire), Grandpa’s Kind of Soldier:

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1977 was the year that gave us Star Wars, but it was also the year that gave us Empire, the first electronic strategy game ever. By today’s standards, Empire would be considered rather basic. In fact the first version was so basic, that it was text based (a graphical version was not released until 1987). That said however, it still introduced concepts like movement speed being affected by terrain, the fog of war, and unit production by turn.

And in the thick of all of that, was an unassuming unit called infantry — the great, great grandaddy of all that ever was and all that ever would be in an electronic strategy game. The infantry unit was what one would expect it to be: cheap, numerous, versatile, and disposable. From there on in, for every lone virtual hero struggling against the tide of evil, for every harrowing boss battle, and mind rending puzzle, there was a grunt on which we could vent our frustrations. And while we may not have noticed it; they’ve each changed the way we play.

Terran Space Marines (StarCraft), the Bread & Butter:

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There is no image more ubiquitous for the Space Marine than those found in StarCraft. The design is simple: an astronaut in power armor, and yet this simplistic design is one of the most instantly recognizable icons in real-time strategy (RTS) gaming.

They are the epitome of the generic soldier: gruff, tough, and eminently expendable. It boggles the imagination at how many billions of Space Marines that have been torn to shreds by the dreaded Zerg Rush over the years.

What makes them important, however, is they also embody the go-to format of almost any given RTS. They stand their ground and open fire on anything they don’t like. It’s a simple, neat formula that rarely sees any variation in scores of similar titles. Blizzard may not have done it first, but they just might have done it best.

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Particularly if South Korea gets to weigh in.

Corporal Adrian Shephard (Half-Life: Opposing Force), the (Faceless) Face of the Enemy:

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Shephard is the main protagonist in Half-Life: Opposing Force, and fortunately for the scientists at Black Mesa: he is the smartest Marine there who never received his orders.

Besides being the only Marine in the whole game that seems to have mastered the intricacies of doorknobs, ladders, and not squawking on the radio every time he has a thought, Shephard is pretty important to gaming as well. While government cleanup squads have become an almost ubiquitous concept since the gritty , dystopian sci-fi movies of the 1980s; story protagonists tend to be on the business ends of their guns, rather than looking down their sights. Shephard represents one of the first instances (and, perhaps, the most famous instance) to play as the ‘other side’ in a game’s story.

While you never technically had to gun down the Black Mesa scientists…you know you couldn’t resist.

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It just feels so good to be bad.

Nazis (World War 2 Games), the Ones Everyone Loves to Hate:

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What opponent has eaten the most bullets in video games? Imperial Stormtroopers? Mercenaries? Super Mutants? Zombies? Those may all ridiculously fun to take on, but ever since Wolfenstein there is but one faction featured more times than any of them combined:

Why? What makes the most evil government in human history so popular? Probably because they were the most evil government in history. I mean, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about a Nazi. They are racist, cruel, aggressive, and walk around Paris like they own the joint. The Nazis represent the antagonists in the ultimate battle between good and evil, humanity and inhumanity.

Seriously, who could ever replace the Nazis? What other civilization has murdered millions and shipped millions more to isolated areas to live out their days; all in the name of securing some national destiny?

Memorial Day, grunts, video games, StarCraft, Empire, Metal Gear Solid, Halo, Gears of War, Company of Heroes

Please send all hate mail to @RJHodgeAuthor.

Mercenaries (Metal Gear Solid), Smarter Than Your Average Grunt:

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“Whose footprints are these?” Our eyes collectively widened, and our jaws collectively dropped when we heard that rather obvious question on the PS1. But we gamers were not used enemy NPCs capable of deductive reasoning. We expected our guards to simply wander around in a predictable loop until we dispatched them at our leisure. The fact that they could respond to noise or visual indicators was a surprise to say the least.

Left a body in plain view? They’re not just going to step over it and continue their patrol. Dispatch someone while they were on the radio? Get ready for a world of hurt!

This marked one of the first times we, as gamers, had to outsmart our enemies — rather than simply determine their patterns, or hammer on the ‘shoot’ button until their health bar went black. Thankfully, however, while they had a slightly higher IQ than the average goon; their ability to deduce whether that cardboard box was closer or farther than last time was sorely lacking.

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Smooth, buddy.

Master Chief (Halo Series), the “Gateway” Grunt:

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If one had to describe the most recognizable action shooter in video games, one would probably describe Halo. And if there is anyone who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Link as one of gaming’s most iconic characters: it’s Master Chief. The Chief is not a subtle man; near 7 feet tall and a voice like jagged gravel, he operates with one singular purpose: to break things. He finds plenty of what he’s looking for in Halo series. The player is a one-man army in his own right. He gets to play with some of the most colorful and inventive weaponry this side of Fisher Price. And then there’s multiplayer…

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Good Lord, is there multiplayer…

With the possible exception of Call of Duty, Halo stands unrivalled as the multiplayer king for shooters. In fact, back in 2009, Bungie estimated a grand total in excess of 16,000+ years combined multiplayer time spent on Halo 3 alone – that’s over 1,000,000,000 matches! One would think that after hundreds of thousands of hours in the same game, the formula would get a bit stale, and yet this multiplayer juggernaut still remains popular today

Carmine (Gears of War), How Else Will We Know There Are Bad Guys Over There?:

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Carmine, himself, isn’t all that important. He wears a full-face helmet, and gets killed within a few minutes on his first mission with the player. It’s what he is that makes all of the difference. And what Carmine is: is the poor, faceless, sap who gets his head blown off just to introduce the concept of nearby snipers.

Carmine is the convenient trope developers use to convince the player that a valid threat exists around the next corner. Carmine is the medic in Call of Duty who shouts ‘They’re shooting medics!” (Right before he gets shot). Carmine is Corporal Jenkins in Mass Effect. Carmine is every soldier who’s ever died to let you know the game is about to get harder.

Allied & Axis Infantry (Company of Heroes), No One Lives Forever, But We Might As Well Try:

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Left-click on infantry, right-click on bad guy. For years that has been the simple formula that has kept the RTS alive and well, but Relic did a little extra with the Company of Heroes franchise. Rather than having two units of infantry plucking away at each other until one falls down, CoH soldiers are actually aware of the environment around them. They are the first instance of infantry in an RTS travelling a safer path to the rally point, rather than the absolute shortest. They take cover, they know when they’re pinned, and they have the option to bug-the-heck-out when the situation reaches FUBAR status.

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Not yet, dammit! The situation’s only fucked up beyond some recognition.

These soldiers represent a departure for the RTS genre. Units are no longer mindless automatons, but facsimiles of real people — people who may be willing to die for their country, but really don’t want to.

Think we’ve missed a few? What were your favorite grunts in games? Tell us below!

Ryan J. Hodge is a science fiction author and is a games industry veteran (His opinions are his own). His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook & Paperback.

You can now follow Ryan on Twitter @RJHodgeAuthor

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One thought on “Gaming’s Most Important Grunts

  1. I think a better poster child of America’s treatment of Native Americans would be Andrew Jackson, or William Sherman or John Sheridan, as they were the policy and decision makers. The guy pictured while also awful, did not have as big (read: horrible) an impact as those three. Though… he is in one of the most offensive video games of all time… Actually THAT version of him might be the perfect poster child.

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