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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State