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

 

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition