How text-based war games are challenging representations of conflict

Text-based games are saying things about the wars we fight that the AAA shooter cannot.

>win
I’m sorry, you’ll have to say what you want to win.
>win war on terror
That isn’t possible in this story.
>peace
I’m sorry, I don’t understand that word.
>kill terrorists
Now we’re talking.

Modern first person shooters are to videogames what Michael Bay movies are to film. Loud, bombastic, and visually spectacular, they dazzle us with more exciting versions of wars that have exhausted the electorate. But there’s a small crop of games which use the text-based methods of interactive fiction, or IF, to cover the same subject matter – and say things about the wars we fight that the AAA shooter cannot.

Violence in IF is nothing new. There’s the cowboy shootout sim Gun Mute, the pious but clumsy Urban Conflict (about enemies trapped in a foxhole together) and, way back in 1999, there was Persistence of Memory, where you learn the lot of the powerless individual solder by standing on a landmine for the entire game. But the titles I’m talking about are hyper-topical, often plucked from the headlines.

Take 2007’s Rendition, whose title would not exist without the war on terror. Both the first two Modern Warfare games include "interrogation" sequences, once with a beating and once with electrodes. But where they coyly conceal the violence involved, Rendition makes you participate in awful detail. Try to leave the room and you’re told you haven’t done enough to Abdul. “Break Abdul’s toe,” you type, and the game replies: “Which do you mean? his left little toe, his left second toe, his left middle toe, his left fourth toe, his left big toe, his right little toe…” At this point, many players simply quit.

Another game, Maybe Make Some Change, is based on a series of real-life murders committed by US Army soldiers in Afghanistan in 2010. Maybe traps the player in a kind of purgatory, reliving the shooting of an unarmed man in many different ways. At first the only possible verb is “shoot”; slowly, you learn other ways of engaging with the world. But some playtesters refused to even type the first command, according to the game’s author, PhD student Aaron Reed. “Refusing to engage with a system you find unacceptable is a valid response,” he told me, but it seems like shooting the messenger to me – you can’t talk to the terrorists in any other game either.

A still from Maybe Make Some Change

Beyond topicality, it’s this difficult relationship to the AAA mainstreams that makes these games so interesting. Maybe, for example, plays footage of games including Call of Duty, Counter-Strike and Battlefield 1942 in the background even as it tells the player that no, you’re not allowed to hug the insurgent. Reed said: “The idea that most people, especially younger people, are relating to these wars through the black-and-white mechanics of a first-person shooter game started becoming deeply unsettling to me.”

“Games that try to represent violence through graphical fidelity usually just end up being silly porn,” agreed IF author Porpentine, whose Howling Dogs includes both an introspective husband murder and a ludicrous parody sequence involving death marines dropping into battle from orbit in coffins (“it’s absurd,” says Porp. “It’s war”). “Text rejects the wrongheaded challenge to depict violence through visual fidelity…the best game about war will probably be one where you don't have a gun and it won't be pleasant and it will be scary and very loud and dirty and dangerous and unfair.”

Unmanned, designed by Italian academic Paolo Pedercini, is nothing like this. It simulates a day in the life of a modern drone pilot using two screens divided by a central line: on one side you shave, drive to work, smoke cigarettes and fire missiles at the white silhouettes of Afghan targets, while on the other you contemplate your actions or converse with others using a text-based interface. At one point you chat with your son while playing a blatant Call of Duty parody on the TV.

Early prototypes had no text, but Pedercini found them inadequate for his purposes. “The experience of a drone pilot is already way too similar to the gamer’s experience,” he told me: “mediated reality, god-like vision, joystick interface, physical safety.” Using text allowed him to establish a clear difference between the player’s actions and the stories she tells herself to justify them.

Reed, too, believes text allowed him to step away from the sheer speed of real-time first-person gameplay, creating a “frozen moment of contemplation”.  “We're not used to having all the time in the world to think how to react when someone is running towards us in a game,” he said.” “That situation is usually objective in an FPS - it's being described with polygons, not racially-loaded language.” (At one point in Maybe you are asked to “shoot the hajji”.)

That sour, loaded word illustrates something else these games do with text: draw attention to their own artifice. To progress in Reed’s, game you have to recognise that everything you’re playing through is actually a representation made by specific people with their own motives, agendas and prejudices. The stories they tell you have just one answer, and only by understanding why they’re told can you find a way out of the game’s weird purgatory.

Of course, says Robert Yang – an indie developer who has written about how videogames simulate war – 3D graphics are equally constructed. But most of us just don’t read them that way yet. “We tend to understand text as more introspective because we know how to read its subtleties and read it as a construction,” Yang says. AAA developers don’t bother with introspection because it’s rarely valued or understood.

Reed agrees: “Text-based games really encourage you to think about things on a number of different levels: the simulated world, the person telling you about that world, the things that are described versus those left out. My mom always used to walk in while I was playing video games as a kid, and be like, ‘Why don't you try talking to them?’ And I'd roll my eyes or whatever, because she ‘didn't get it.’ But as an adult that's actually kind of powerful.”

But perhaps most important is the difference in production. It takes dozens of people billions of dollars to make a manshooter, but one person with some spare time to write text game. Emily Short, a prominent IF author who helped design the Inform 7 programming language, told me: “Text isn't typically that great at glamorising war: textual explosions aren't that sexy….without voiceover and animation costs, dialogue in IF can go deeper. Text is a good medium for treating memory and interiority.” Porpentine, who has written extensively on how lo-fi game tools empower the screwed-by-society to find their voice, puts it more bluntly: “Words are cheap, and that's good.”

All the developers I spoke to saw their work as a crucial challenge to the mainstream. As Yang puts it, AAA shooters symbolise "what videogames are" to many people, whereas most filmgoers are at least aware that arthouse cinema exists. “Games are getting more diverse now,” he says. “We just need more player awareness of that diversity.” Until that changes, text-based war games will speak the things the holodeck can’t. “In a way,” Pedercini dryly observes, “we are still stuck in the meta-genres defined by two of the earliest games: Spacewar! and Zork.

John Brindle blogs on games here

 

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder