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.

I’m sorry, you’ll have to say what you want to win.
>win war on terror
That isn’t possible in this story.
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


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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times