Flash of Steel header image 2

Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here?

May 17th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Design

In a recent Three Moves Ahead, I hailed the ability of Revolution Under Siege to make me feel, as a Communist commander, that my decisions did have the future of the Revolution at stake. It really isn’t a role playing game or a true strategy game; it’s a wargame that is about supply lines and command structure and avoiding armored trains. (Sorry, I know they are real but I still think they are funny. Sue me. Maybe we need a “weird weapons” episode.)

Some strategy games work because they let you make that psychic leap from counter pusher to commander. For a wargame to really do it is rare, but it’s not like it is very common even when your role is clear. Alpha Centauri gave you a specific character and ideology to play, but could (before you mastered the math) suck you into its world. But for the most part, a good strategy game doesn’t really transport you into the mind of another.

If you’ve been missing Bruce Geryk’s ramblings about War in the East on Tom Chick’s Quarter to Three, then you’ve been missing what has proven to be an interesting investigation not just of the game, but of what a wargame represents. These have not all been at the forefront of Geryk’s usual genius mishmash of design analysis, history, and random shots at Romanians. But it’s a question that underlies most serious analysis of a game that pretends to represent something larger.

Take the question of victory points. Like most wargames, War in the East gives you locations to seize or hold and assigns points based on how well you do that. You have no choice in determining what the victory locations are; they are almost always based on an historical understanding of what either a king, general or historian decided the focus of the battle was. This is all well and good for pushing you to react to historical pressures, but a certain weirdness can set in.

As Matt Kirschenbaum noted in his essay “War Stories: Board Wargames and (Vast) Procedural Narratives” in the game design anthology Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives:

Who is the player in Afrika Korps? Are we adopting the identity of a theater commander like Rommel or Montgomery? This is what the box cover [YOU are in Command] would have us believe. Yet wargames routinely slide between macro- and micro- decision making, and the player’s role is further complicated by the presence of counters that embody the historical identities he or she is putatively assuming. So is the player Rommel or is “Rommel” the counter one is moving across the map?

If the player is Rommel or Montgomery instead of, at the upper level, Hitler or Churchill, then you at least sort of avoid the issue of how to define what victory is. These decisions are above your pay grade and you can shift the blame and move onwards. Because once you get beyond a certain level of command, there is little point in presuming that the victory points laid out are little more than historical abstractions. Leningrad mattered because High Command decided it mattered. If you are under the High Command level, not a problem. If you are the High Command level, then the idea that you can change everything about the war except your objectives makes the whole idea of being High Command a little silly.

It’s a larger problem than the logical mazes that Kirschenbaum lays out. Though a clear identity like those you assume in Alpha Centauri or Crusader Kings or Solium Infernum can help a lot, they aren’t quite enough. Take, for example, the Tropico games, where I never really feel like a Latin American dictator as much as I feel like a gumball machine passing out the right goodies to placate the masses while I push towards the mission objectives. I would argue that as the Civilization series became more complex and personalized around leaders it became even harder to maintain the fiction that you are the cosmic consciousness of a nation. The Total War games work for breeding attachment to specific generals or units, but have never really carried me into that mental space where I feel like I am a king or daimyo. (Rome: Total War would sometimes take me there, however.)

Sometimes I think that the more alien and original the setting, the easier it is to feel like you are a part of it. No other game lets me be Trotsky, so there is a further incentive in Revolution Under Siege to buy into the conceits of the role playing. The repetitiveness of traditional real time strategy, however, makes it hard to feel like I am a Zerg commander or Greek king or Russian general; the mechanics are too familiar to really get invested in the setting. This is probably one reason why RTSes include story based campaigns; there is a desire to build that connection between the world and the player.

I’ve written before about how The Sims has this effect on me. It is probably one of the only strategy games where you can take on multiple roles and feel invested in every single one. It’s a game that defies the idea that clarity breeds connection. It remains a singularly amazing piece of game design that no one has really been able to ape successfully.

So help me out, readers. When and why do you feel that connection between content, goals and role in a game? I refuse to believe it’s magic.


9 Comments so far ↓

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    You know what’s been making me feel that the most recently? Mount & Blade: With Fire And Sword. It’s silly, but moving the game from the fictional world of Calradia to real-world Eastern Europe makes it feel much more visceral somehow.

    I’m still on my first playthrough, in which I aligned myself with the Polish Republic, only to see it suddenly collapse in the face of the might of Sweden and Muscovy. The Republic still exists, but many of its most important cities and fortresses have fallen, and armed bands of foreigners ride through its territory with haughty impunity.

    And I find that this pisses me off. Every time I see it happen I want to run those horsemen down and teach them to show some respect. I want to burn their villages, take back Poland’s cities, and take a few of theirs for good measure. But I can’t, because my band only has 30 or 40 reliable soldiers in it and I can’t raise the money to hire more, so I grit my teeth and run away. (For now, anyway.)

    I think part of this has to do with the scale of the game: even the largest warbands in M&B are only 150 strong or so, so it’s uncommonly personal. And part of it has to do with the real world locations: it’s more meaningful to lose, say, Warsaw after a long and bitter struggle than it is to lose Generic Fantasy City #72, even if the only difference between them is that the first one has the word “Warsaw” floating over it. I’m not sure if those two factors by themselves explain it, though.

  • Chris Parsons

    Great article, Troy.

    I don’t think any game has made me feel more in the role of commander than X-Com: Terror from the Deep. I was invested in all my troopers, carefully turning them into specialists that improved my entire squad’s effectiveness. When Psi powers enter the game, invariable some of your best troops would be the ones easily mind-controlled, and you’d have to mothball them. It really hurt! You couldn’t even leave them on a base as garrison, because that would be the base that gets assaulted and the next thing you know, Sgt. Shultz is shooting up his own guys. I would feel guilty when I couldn’t shoot down a ship and it attacked some city or ship, and when the civilians would get whacked. I mean, it was MY JOB!

    One game I was deep in an alien lair, and my commander, Ripley (I used to name the soldiers after the marines in Aliens) got wasted by that really nasty flying brain creature at the heart of the base. I was tempted to reload a save, but it seemed fitting, though painful, to play it through.

    I played that game about 15 years ago, and writing about it now the memory is clear as day. Not many games I can say that about!

  • Warren

    I find that the Civ IV mod Fall from Heaven II puts me into a place where I “feel that connection between content, goals and role in a game”. The conjunction between the special mechanics of most the races, the leaders, and the goals of the races just all make sense and work synergistically to create a fabric whose weave is far more than the sums of its disparate threads.

  • MFToast

    Although I do like M&B:With Fire and Sword, I actually enjoy Warband more. I’m not a history buff, and although I appreciate the attention to detail in the latest M&B, the era involved just doesn’t seem too exciting to me. There’s something about the archetypical, almost generic medieval feel to Warband that I really enjoyed more. The full plate armor, huge axes, the chaotic head-chopping melee. It’s sort of hard to explain, but it seems that although With Fire and Sword does shoot (Hah!) for realism, it seems to be a sort of hollow realism. Or, rather, it doesn’t seem proportionally “more realistic” than Warband in any significant way. It’s those almost superfluous historical nods that bog me down in Fire and Sword.

  • Ginger Yellow

    The game’s never really done it for me, but Tom Francis’s epic pacifist GalCiv 2 AAR really had the whole commander/leader mindset going on. For me, though, only Alpha Centauri has done it. Unless you count things like Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius. Those I totally roleplay.

  • Kingdaddy

    Jason, I also enjoy the historical setting of With Fire And Sword more than the generic fantasy kingdom of the previous M&B games. This period is Eastern Europe’s equivalent of Japan’s Sengoku era, a period of fragmentation and conflict that turned out to be a critical turning point. (It also helps that a good part of my mother’s side of the family is from Lithuania.) By the way, the one boardgame on this topic, God’s Playground, is outstanding.

    For me, Steel Panthers was the first game that made me worried about the poor schmoes under my command. The campaign game made me keenly aware of not only the long-term cost of squandering units, but the hell I’d dragged them through.

    My brother-in-law said that he felt guilty whenever, in the Close Combat series, he really botched a battle. “Medic!”

  • Unicorn McGriddle

    Part of the issue is that games tend to both present a leadership figure representing the player and then incorporate mechanics that call that relationship into question. Three instructive examples:

    1. Recent Civilization games. There’s a specific historical leader that you might identify with, except that the treatment is pretty impersonal and (more importantly) this single leader leads unopposed and unassisted from the discovery of the wheel to the modern era. The character is taken out of their historical period and doesn’t occupy the sort of place in the timeline that an individual would. Additionally, there’s no model of internal fractures within the government. It reduces Bismarck’s place in the world if he doesn’t get to fight with Wilhelm. All of this adds up to the character providing a vaguely personalized bonus and a distinctive but superficial talking head, but being divorced from their own context. There’s no way around these problems without Civ changing its basic assumptions about leader characters (must be consistent throughout, must be historical figure, no detailed model of system of government). Maybe Civ should identify the player with personifications of the nation? It would make more sense for what they’re doing.

    2. Shogun 2. It’s not about being the daimyo, and it’s not intended to be. One daimyo’s rule isn’t different from another; you don’t have a daimyo with a trade focus and then have to reorganize when he dies and his heir is more interested in consolidating agricultural land. Relationships between clans are not driven by personal connections, with lost allies and chances for new peaces with every new daimyo. There’s just honor, generalship, and a small handful of traits that come in handy on the strategic map. Most damningly, you keep on doing your player thing as leaders come and go, playing the game unimpeded not just with a new daimyo but even with the late daimyo’s wife running affairs on behalf of a child heir, or a succession crisis where an unrelated general takes up the mantle. However, it does place the daimyo in a reasonable context, with personal capabilities, a lifespan, subordinate management, and internal power struggles. It would be possible to play Shogun 2 with a self-imposed “win before the daimyo dies” victory condition and sort of identify with him. I think. (The attainability of this goal varies, but it should be in the ballpark for most clans with a short campaign. I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s extremely workable for the Oda.)

    3. Paradox games, particularly Crusader Kings. First off, I have to make an exception for Hearts of Iron, the most wargame-esque of Paradox’s games. Hearts of Iron would just as soon have you forget about Hitler and Stalin, and the only thing to be said for it in the context of this post is that it does allow some leeway to change your strategic objectives, although victory point locations are fixed. That aside, in a Paradox game you have a head of state with several characteristics that tweak how you play the game. Adding up the aspects, there are personal capabilities (of a more strategic-level nature than most personal capabilities in TW games), lifespans, historical (or alternate-historical) context, usually some degree of subordinate management and power struggle, personal relationships including a personal component to foreign relations, and in CK you are game-overed for the fall of the dynasty. There is one thing that’s really missing from even this third example: if you exclusively identify with a character, then when that character dies your influence should end. (Arguably this happens in Alpha Centauri.) Players have developed a way to graft this functionality into the game by having what they call “succession games,” in which the game is handed off to a new player every time the head of state changes. Another option in EU3 would be to skip to a start date which begins the reign of a new head of state and resigning when that character departs the post.

  • Ginger Yellow

    It’s a bit weird to criticise/blame a civilisation spanning game for not ending when your leader dies, though of course it does prevent exclusively identifying with a given leader. Still, at least EU3 makes those handovers significant. The blow when a high legitimacy leader dies with only a weak claim successor is enormous and can throw your empire into chaos.

  • zipdrive

    Troy, can you elaborate on the following point?
    “The repetitiveness of traditional real time strategy, however, makes it hard to feel like I am a Zerg commander or Greek king or Russian general; the mechanics are too familiar to really get invested in the setting. This is probably one reason why RTSes include story based campaigns; there is a desire to build that connection between the world and the player.”

    I think this is the same for any short-duration game, whether strategy or otherwise: you need time to get into the shoes of someone else.

    Ginger: Who says we need to play a specific person when playing such a long-term strategy game? You might as well play “The spirit of France”, for example.