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The Irrelevance of World War 2

November 29th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Design, WW2

Nothing like a provocative title to get the readers, I always say.

As I play through the year’s good and great games and try to figure out which ones deserve which awards, I keep coming back to RUSE, a game that could be the biggest surprise of 2010 or the biggest underperformer of 2010 or the best strategy game of 2010. Though I can in no way claim to actually be good at it (the game has a weird pace that makes it hard for me to find the flow), I can claim to know that I know when I am seeing something unique.

Unique is not a word one associates with World War II, at least not in the gaming world. Even in terms of world wars, it was a sequel. Even as gamers complain about getting tired of the setting, though, games keep coming out that show how World War II the history is often meaningless when it comes to actually making the game.

Take RUSE. It is a game about deception, misdirection and seizing supply points. (You could say the same thing about Company of Heroes, only it requires a lot more micromanagement.) There is absolutely no reason for RUSE to be in WW2. The mechanics are irrelevant to the war – no battle looked anything like this, not that Blitzkrieg was historically accurate – and you can easily imagine changing merely the art and card titles and turning this into an elves v orcs game.

World War 2 is, as many gamers have feared, a default setting. The sides are familiar, the powers of the units are familiar and even the setting itself, be it Tunisia or Kharkov or Dieppe, is tilled soil.

RUSE and Company of Heroes and probably a bunch of those shooters that the kids today like reveal just how many really good historical games are only vaguely historical. Game history is like Colonial Williamsburg, a moment ripped from context to entertain for a few hours and maybe soothe a few contemporary worries for a while.

This is why I have become less and less exercised about accuracy in strategy games that make no pretense of caring about it. I am still deeply interested in what choices game designers make about history may actually mean, as the national character series reveals. But making WW2 look and feel like WW2 is not something RUSE is going for.

There are pitfalls in the “history as theme park” approach to games. Context does matter, as does some level of “truth”, even if accuracy doesn’t necessarily always figure into things.

But WW2 highlights one of the problems we will be addressing in this week’s podcast – how does a game’s theme connect to its meaning, and how do the mechanics fit into that space? You can read ahead at Soren Johnson’s blog. Parts one and two of his thoughts.

I never ask you guys to do homework. Don’t pout.


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Rez

    Looking forward to the podcast, but I don’t really agree with context having to matter. Sometimes the theme is just pretty pictures pasted on to make the game mechanics less sterile, no?

  • Troy

    I don’t want to say “context matters except when it doesn’t”, because there are times when context of historical setting is crucial – an RTS that claims to have Stalingrad as a battle needs to capture something about Stalingrad because the battle matters as more than just a bullet point.

    But yeah, most board games have themes that have nothing to do with anything. And RUSE’s WW2 theme is entirely beside the point.

  • Davemonkey

    OK it wasn’t a strategy game but there’s a point to this. I settled in to play Saboteur with some anticipation recently. It was set in “WW II” and while I wasn’t expecting a paragon of historical accuracy I was expecting a degree of respect. The game play was fine & what I was expecting but the opening flashback scenes leading up to being active in the game drove me nuts with its deliberate ignorance of history. Most people won’t care and I hope they enjoyed the game. I couldn’t get past it.

    The problem was I knew too much & am pedantic enough to let it get in the way of an enjoyable open world stealth game. This is probably translatable to the topic. The game ‘could’ have been set anywhere but because it was set in Paris during WWII I came with a set of knowledge that I couldn’t let go of enough to lose myself in the game. A strategy game that only pays a cursory nod to its historical setting is going to get the goat of a group of people who have probably approached the game because they have an interest in the topic (The Geryk Principle of Game Attraction).

    OK I’ll go and read Soren’s article and listen to the podcast before commenting more.

  • Scott R. Krol

    No, most EURO games have themes that have nothing to do with anything. :)

  • Quinten

    Wait wait wait! So Advanced Squad Leader is not a historically accurate simulation? And Puerto Rico is not what plantations are really like? WOAH

  • Andrew Doull

    “Even in terms of world wars, it was a sequel.”

    Best comment about WWII ever…

  • frags

    I really enjoyed Sorens Theme is Not A Meaning piece. I think it’s a point sorely lacking in many 3rd person action games or even shooters. Good point about RUSE. Apart from just the Blitzkrieg ruse card, there’s nothing specifically WW2 about the gameplay.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    The Soren articles are great (I read them a while back), and I particularly like his point about Civilization. I agree with Rez that it’s not an absolute argument, though. Remember Tom’s point in “Something About Miriam”, that all games are ultimately about wrapping one’s imagination around the act of pushing buttons? There are plenty of good game stories and settings that aren’t fully reflected in gameplay mechanics.

  • Sam

    Back on episode 50 of Three Moves Ahead (OK, I listen to old episodes while I’m waiting for the new show to come out, sue me) Bruce said that he wanted to play a good Battle of the Bulge game. Since that podcast, Panther Games has put out “Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge”, an operational level strategy game set during the eponymous German push towards the Atlantic. If there was ever a game that relied on context to be enjoyed, this is the game.

    The game is broken down into a series of very limited scenarios that only come into their own when you understand what you are trying to do, and what, historically, the forces you are controlling were able to do. Can you get Peiper to the Meuse? Can you hold Bastogne with the 101? Is it, as Bruce would say, an accurate simulation?

    This game shows that WW2 can still be unique and not just a ‘default setting’, if the game takes the time to delve into context. I would love to see a TMA on this game, and/or the upcoming War in the East.

  • Tom Grant

    Sam, let me second that recommendation for Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge. I know it’s not the first game to use its game engine, but it’s the first for me to this series. Wow, what a fresh look at what a WWII game can be. It grabs the theme — a wargame in which you have to cede control to subordinate commands — and turns it into a very different experience from the PC games based on the original hex-and-counter wargame conventions.

  • Shaun

    1. I would love an example of what an actual “historical” game is.

    2. I would also challenge the notion that the setting is “tilled soil”. If there are so few games that actually explore the context of the setting, then maybe it’s tilled but not tilled very well? This analogy frightens me. My point is that while World War II has certainly seen many incarnations – they are all very similar. Specifically in perspective, i.e. that of American soldiers from 1944 onwards. Which is tragic since that is telling such a tiny fraction of the story.

    When there’s a game about the Battle of France, the Dieppe Raid, the expedition to Norway, etc. – then I’ll agree that World War II has been overdone. Right now it’s just been poorly done.

  • Ginger Yellow

    I can’t agree that there’s “no reason” for CoH to be in WW2, though I would of course agree that it’s “only vaguely historical”. For me, the WW2 setting is precisely what keeps me coming back to CoH ahead of the Dawn of War series, much though I love those games and their universe. What sets (vanilla) CoH apart is that, more or less, everything does what you expect it to. Machine guns pin and slaughter infantry, but are useless against tanks or when flanked. Infantry can garrison buildings and become very hard to kill, but buildings can be destroyed by arty or explosives. Stone walls provide better cover than bales of hay. Obviously there are limits to this – it’s an old game now and there are plenty of bugs. But it retains an immediacy and a charm that the likes of Starcraft of even DoW 2 don’t have simply because the units and their abilities are instantly recognisable. This isn’t the sort of sense of history that, say, Bruce Geryk would applaud, but I still think it’s important.

  • Tom Grant

    “My point is that while World War II has certainly seen many incarnations – they are all very similar. Specifically in perspective, i.e. that of American soldiers from 1944 onwards. Which is tragic since that is telling such a tiny fraction of the story.”

    Shaun, if I had more than two thumbs, I’d give them to you. Well said.

  • Shaun

    Tom, please do not mutilate yourself.

    Also, that is very flattering.

  • Erez

    “World War 2 is, as many gamers have feared, a default setting.”

    Hole in one, Troy. You have Tolkinesque fantasy, you have medieval, you have sci-fi, you have WWII. This is what Bruce Geryk is constantly hinting by referring to “historical accuracy” in Tolkinesque or sci-fi games.