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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit