Dec 272013

“Not One Step Backwards!”

28th July, 1942: Over a year into the Red Army’s brutal struggle against the Nazis, Stalin’s forces stared defeat in the face.

Despite inflicting over 850,000 Nazi casualties, the Red Army’s losses were around ten times that. To make matters worse, they had lost some 1,950,000 km² of territory and with it came the loss of control over 75 million citizens as well as the loss of the USSR’s industrial and agricultural heartlands in the west.

Faced with ill-equipped troops, low morale and the possibility of the loss of key oilfields, Stalin issued the now infamous Order 227.

Officers who allowed their men to retreat were to be arrested and “treated as traitors”, whilst regular “panickers and cowards” were to shot on the spot or sent to atone for their crimes with certain death in penal battalions (these were sent to walk across minefields, probe enemy defences and the like). Blocking detachments were created to fire upon men who lagged behind  or were thought to be in some way avoiding conflict.

While the effectiveness of Order 227 is debated, the outcome of the Battle of Stalingrad is beyond dispute. It stands as a decisive moment in the Battle on the Eastern Front. Because of this and its horrors, Order 227 holds an difficult place in the post-Soviet memory of WWII history.

Crossing the line

Perhaps then, it’s unsurprising that this stirred outrage:

Aside from not being entirely historically accurate, the game’s depiction (and arguably, triviliasation) of Order 227 as well as the use of Russian tropes (gulags, inadequate weapons,  political commissars, etc.) sparked so much outrage in Russia that the game was removed from sale in August.

The indignation is neatly summarised by a quote from a Polish player on Polygon:

Lukasz Markiewicz is Polish (and Poland, he says, has “the fewest reasons to say anything good about the Soviets”). But he charges Relic with distorting the facts about the Eastern Front.

“The campaign is basically one giant, offensive stereotype,” he said. “The events on the Eastern Front were likely the most grim four years in the history of mankind. There is nothing wrong with trying to recreate that. It is wrong however to essentially reduce it to the lazy stereotype of German Übermensch Wehrmacht and SS against the Soviet Horde.”

The question I would ask is: “Is it really necessary for us to tackle real-world atrocities in videogames?”

A Question of Legitimacy

I appreciate the phrasing of the question above is provocative. The truth is that the historical events depicted in Company of Heroes were “terrible” in the most literal sense of the word, regardless of whether they could be justified or not.

This quote from Kotaku underlines the crux of the problem for me: “…this is exactly why Relic chose the Eastern front setting in the first place: because it’s the bloodiest conflict in history, seeing 20 million Russian deaths.

Really? Can we justify making games out of some of the most horrific periods in human history? Surely the setting of such a bloody conflict should make creators more weary, rather than providing some kind of  real-world vindication.

Moreover, do we even need to refer to real events? What’s wrong with fictional scenarios anyway? If you want to have a military-based strategy game is not enough to invent stories which aren’t based upon the death of millions of actual people – or is that we are too concerned with seeking legitimacy as an art form?

I appreciate that some will argue that for games to be a considered a “true” art form, then we have to be prepared to tackle difficult subject matter intelligently and I completely agree with that sentiment. Where I differ is over the use of certain real-world events.

Games cannot be treated in the same way as film or literature for a very simple reason: in games the user is an active participant.

Primarily games are about providing gratification of some sort. Watching a film about the horrors of war is not the same as taking part in a graphic recreation of those horrors designed to dispense some sort of pleasure from the experience.

There are three other major difficulties which face developers who want to tackle difficult events from history:

  • By recreating any event in a commercial product, you are exploiting it for financial gain. How comfortable are you directly profiting from events in which people died within living memory?
  • The second issue is tone and representation. Conflicts are littered with grey areas and indivisible lines of relative rights and wrongs. Though few would defend Stalin, Russians took offense to the way their country and the conflict was represented. If you were developing a game about a real-life conflict would you be able to do justice to the nuances of the differing narratives and national perspectives? I very much doubt I could.Even with modern day events which from a Western perspective can seem clear-cut and obvious, we do ourselves a great disservice if we take a dualistic approach. If I were to digress slightly, I’d say the only way we can resolve complex issues is by developing a full understanding of both sets of narratives and grievances.
  • The final difficulty is that if we are to represent atrocities, then by extension we have to decide which atrocities are OK to represent and which are not. Being able to make this decision implies that we have developed a criteria which allows us to separate atrocities which are OK against those which aren’t.  I’m not sure many developers do this and instead they rely on “instinct”. This would explain why no major publisher has shipped a game about the Battle of the Somme or a stealth game called Escape from Auschwitz, but slaying Nazis is OK.

I’m not sure this is a call which most people would be happy to make if they were to consider it and attempt to define tangible criteria. If you’re not defining criteria which dictates what’s acceptable and what isn’t, then I’d question your capacity to make such a decision in the first place.

“Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere”

Very few games cross this moral quandary and come out of it looking good.

Spec Ops: The Line very neatly sidestepped this. A game inspired by Hearts of Darkness and Apocalypse Now which poses some very awkward and disturbing questions about war and the simplistic black and white nature of the actions users are asked to take in games (ie: do I nuke the village or save it in Fallout 3). There are points where Spec Ops is very uncomfortable to play because you’re no longer doing the “right thing” and every decision available just seems wrong. The developers had the freedom to tackle these questions because they smartly set the game in the aftermath of a fictional natural disaster.

Spec Ops: The Line

I suspect that the game industry’s need to create games based on historical events stems from an obsession with our external perception and a cloying desire to be taken seriously as an art from. This is ridiculous on a number of levels, especially as games are the only “true” post-modern art form. Games are entirely built upon foundation of pre-existing art forms and technological development. What could be more post-modern than that?

Developers need to worry less about external perception and other art forms, and instead focus on the area where we excel artistically: narrative immersion – the ability to astonish players by placing them in alternate worlds and situations. Games as varied as Elite, WoW, Dishonored, Papers Please, GTA, Gone Home, Outlast, The Stanley Parable and even Super Mario 3D World all deliver completely different experiences but each is an amazing work of art in its own right, which places players in an alternate world full of wonder and depth.

By fixating ourselves on and imitating film and literature, all we achieve is to create empty parodies of the works which inspired us.