Saturday, April 24, 2010

Toy Soldiers



The reviews of new XBox Live Arcade game Toy Soldiers seem less about the game itself and more like a referendum on the Tower Defense genre, of which every reviewer seems to be a little sick. Though it's a genre I happen to enjoy (in spite of the fact that tower defense is not well complemented by console controls), playing the World War One-themed Toy Soldiers did not once make me think "Tower Defense" except in reference to the game's critical reception. It made me think of other war games.

Video games do not capture the subtle quality of ennui well, and the violence they depict is explicitly not arbitrary. For this reason, games have jibed well with the journalistic historical record of World War Two described in the first-person accounts of Pyle and Murrow and even Liebling, but not with the accounts of First World War captured by writers like Robert Graves and Paul Fussell. I chalk this up to the change in journalism's cultural position between the wars.

Journalism during World War One could propagandize with the best of them -- just look at the Spanish Civil War -- but its propaganda was arbitrary. It appealed to anyone who could read, including working people swept up with the educational reforms of the late nineteenth century. The prose of the Hearst and Pulitzer presses came wrapped in exclamation points and was about as authoritative as the cartoons scrawled like graffiti against its ornate walls. This makes them entertaining to read but of little use when trying to tell the history of the war in retrospect, and so they have been forgotten. What we have instead are the accounts of war captured by writers like Robert Graves and Paul Fussell. These tell the story not from the modern reporter's point of view, with all the globetrotting and classlessness and upper-management access that implies, but from the point of view of the soldier. And what the soldier has done in every war for eternity is wait around -- often in terrible conditions, for days and weeks and sometimes even months -- to see whether of not he will die a quick and messy death. World War One was unusual in that it featured many soldiers from many classes. Not only were many of them writers, but many of them were modernists--which is another way of saying they were recovering romantics. They experienced the war first hand and they were expert in depicting the exquisite languors of the soul while bored or incapacitated. Imagine Coleridge composing "This Lime Tree Bower My Prison" while in recovery from being injured at the Somme, and you sort of have it.

Except in certain creative, game-breaking circumstances, no death in Chess, Risk, or your average video game is permanent. The same is true of the war video game, whether experienced in the mortal first person, as in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, or in the god-like third person, as in Command and Conquer. Nothing feels more removed from death to me than the gameplay loop of your typical competitive online first-person-shooter, which is like the line that forms in front of a slide at a water park: one splashes into the clorinated, flavorless bath of digital death and then queues up immediately for more. On a scale of optimism, I think this ranks fairly high.

Yet one could not mistake this gamesmanship for Romanticism. The romantic impulse is always aware of the boundaries of frame-- of real death, of the "reality" outside the poem. Tennyson, in his "The Charge of the Light Brigade" -- though it was written contemporaneously with the Crimean War battle from which its title derives -- is always aware of that battle's conclusion ("When can their glory fade?"), and his formal duty to memorialize the dead. Though Tennyson's circus-tent ejaculations--"Forward, the Light Brigade! /Charge for the Guns!"-- are unremarkable today except as cautionary examples against the Romantic impulse, they would not be possible in an atmosphere of endless police action, in which our writers are "embedded" during strong pushes, kept generally entertained, and so feel the need to not show that excitement. To be stimulated and not exclaim is the mark of a professional. If you'll remember, Bush was castigated for his own "Charge of the Light Brigade" on May 1, 2003. He learned afterward to speak in the language of slow accumulation.

I expected the popular music of World War One to be similarly out of touch with the modernism of its soldiers, setting Tennyson's Romantic sentiment to music. Reviewing the music recently, I found the opposite to be true (a great collection of sound files exists here). The music of World War One, about World One, is often witty and sardonic. It details the problems of being there, the trench life and dampness and terrible rations, rather than always the longing for victory or home. Detail is key to the success of any grift, especially the grift we must pass on our selves in order to keep going. This was was of course a discovery I'd made earlier in Paul Fussell's work but forgotten. More intriguingly, the songs were built to be sung and reiterated endlessly. Many of them have source melodies predating the war, and could be recycled wholesale for the purposes of wars to be fought, as George Cohan's "Over There" was exhumed 24 years after it's birth for World War Two era James Cagney vehicle Yankee Doodle Dandy. The songs themselves, considered separately, depend heavily on mnemonic repetition--the repeated choruses are often nearly as long as the verses, and the verses themselves revolve around repeated lyric themes. One imagines soldiers getting drunk on reserve behind the line, singing these songs endlessly, twisting certain words in the chorus to make them last through one long, free night of excess before having to return to the quiet horrors of the front. This may sound odd, but they seem to me to have been used, and received, much like video games are used and received by soldiers today. They are "dumb," ideologically rich, and a great source of catharsis.

World War Two marks a universally acknowledged change in the way journalism was performed and in the way it was perceived. Before World War Two, journalists were sensationalists and ambulance chasers. After World War Two, they were professionals and adventurers. What is not commonly acknowledged is that after World War Two, literature changed, too--at least, in part because of the change in Journalism's status. Modernism ended abruptly in America after the war. Every marquee writer in America after that had some association with the periodical press: Truman Capote with The New Yorker, Norman Mailer with The Village Voice, Hunter Thompson with Rolling Stone. None of them were adventurous writers in the modernist mode. They were literally adventurers. They took their habits from the reporters of World War Two, who sold papers not with modernist exclamation points and invention, but by literally leading the fanciful, exciting life of the classless, postmodern writer and sending back quiet accounts of the truth, expensing trips to Morocco, Tangiers and England back to their papers. (Surprising that no one has yet floated a video game about a World War Two photojournalist.) Put simply, Romanticism and Modernism transform the ordinary stuff of war into something extraordinary. Postmodernism insists that war is extraordinary all the time.

The reason World War One has not been recreated as a first person shooter is because most of the stories we have about that war are incompatible with the loop of that genre's gameplay. For readers, Goodbye To All That, All Quiet On The Western Front and Storm of Steel are still very much in print, and viable cornerstones of literary culture. Difficult to create "fun" from what those men describe. One does not want to wait in a trench for hours or days only to receive the call to go marching into the maw of a mounted machine gun and get torn apart in seconds flat. Every reporter given a chance has avoided it: it's not news.

What I'd call the "style" of the current military sinkhole we're now fighting in Iraq and Afgahanistan is similar, only in as much as it, too, is a war fought in a context shifting notions of nationalism, in which the ground experience seems to consist of long periods of absolute boredom punctuated by fatality-rich moments of batshit horror. The differences of scale between these wars--and this difference is vast-- does nothing to change the fact that young men so armed require not just entertainments but the verse-chorus-verse of endless entertainment. The current lie we tell our selves, that our soldiers tell themselves, comes not in the form of song but in video games. Both the songs of World War One and the video games of the American adventure have their charms. Playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 this week, I found myself in the truly ridiculous-- and ridiculously entertaining-- position of capturing a close-set series of checkpoints only to backtrack over and over again to recapture them in an frenetic game of tag. There is no objective to this capture, no final gain to be made, no liberating duty, and this is refreshing. We are told to do something and we know it will be an endless thing: the checkpoint will never be held. Yet everything looks brilliant, the guns have weight and realistic detail, the dust licks up around my soldier's feet. In this weird collision of lie and truth, we all get to report a fact about a war. I ran behind a wall and then this guy had a rocket launcher and the wall totally collapsed but he missed me and I took his flag.

Now, back to Toy Soldiers, the first compelling World War One game yet created. In this game, one is given a vast, open field, as opposed to the close quarters of a first person shooter. Up close, the field appears real-- it is pocked with trenches, and when mortar fire hits it, clods of dirt fly into the air. Yet, pulling back, one finds toyboxes instead of military barracks, and instead of a sun, there is a desklamp. The effect is jarring and quite unique. One participates in this game much as characters participate in their roles in The Twilight Zone, with a keen sense of the uncanny, of playing a role. To play, one sets up small units: machine guns, mortars, cannons, even units designed to distribute chemical warfare. This is all very much like a real time strategy game, except that one jumps into these units after setting them up, triggering a small orgy of personal violence against the enemy AI. The AI comes by way of the axiomatic World War One timetable, one wave after another. Keeping certain numbers from entering your "toybox" is the object of the game.

The adjectives this game inspires are downright Edwardian: ghastly, horrid. One actively sprays German soldiers and horses in this game with a chemical agent, watches them slow their march, turn green and die. One fires a mounted machine gun into row after row of approaching human torsos. One jumps into biplanes knowing full well that one's final strategy will be a kamikaze dive into a tank. That the enemy AI breaks into pieces and disappear upon being so mistreated only underscores the horror of their expendibility. None make a tactical retreat. All are ordered by an unquestioned game mechanic to press ahead. There are moments in which one, prepared in advance, simply waits for the Enemy AI to send the next wave.

There is a sense in which many reviewers are right about this game. It is a hybrid RTS/Shooter with none of the RTS's complicated strategy nor the shooter's visceral thrill. Yet one may say something similar about World War One itself, or the literature surrounding that war. It is neither here nor there, neither Romantic nor Modern. Its self-conception as a professionally-conducted war was proved a sham. No one ever called it The Good War--such sophistry required a professional class of journalist. Its effects were instead uncanny and went unreported except by artists. This game captures all of this in a way I find it difficult to describe. One never feels agency in the game. No matter the result, its mechanics seem fated rather than willed. In most "God" games, the God in question is the player, a perfect indifferent bureaucrat. In contrast, to this atheist, it seems that God (or at least the game designer) stands to the side of Toy Soldiers, subtly directing fatalities in the guise of the player's flimsy free will. And this is somehow the fun of it. There is a Romantic pleasure in taking up a biplane, knowing you'll never come down again, or to take the reins of a mortar unit you know you'll have to replace again before the battle's over.

In subtle ways, this is a modernist, rather than a postmodernist, take on video-game war. It may even be the first to make that distinction.

5 comments:

Matthew Kaplan said...

I was referred to this post by Ben Abraham (of Critical Distance), and I have to say, this is bold and terrific work. Absolutely outstanding analysis here. I love your approach to the game (which I admittedly have not played, although now I look forward to doing so) as reflecting the modernist ethos.

Hyde said...

This is really an excellent piece of work. Steeped in history, insightful and sharp. About the only thing I wish that you touched on is the pushbutton nature of our current wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, which seem to me to be as much about warriors distant from the battleground shooting people with drone missiles as they are about people waiting around to head out onto the battlefield. But that's just me--this is otherwise just plain good stuff.

Greg Purcell said...

Thanks, Matthew and Hyde.

Hyde, I take your point. I haven't served, so my experience is limited to mere book learnin', but it's my impression that the "War by Timetable" of World War One and the "Pushbutton War" of our time have a lot in common. They both have the PR advantage of sounding fairly bloodless. Yet only a few people--engineers and officers--get to push the button or route the trains. The rest of us have to get on board or occupy a desert tent. Just thinking out loud.

Hyde said...

I tend to agree in broad terms with what you're saying about the wars having a lot in common, but I think that in the current wars there are actually lots of just plain grunts who get to "push the button". I'm just a book learnin' type myself, but after reading Peter Singer's Wired for War (http://is.gd/bLQtM) and the like I have to say I think that for some--certainly not all, because there sure still are plenty of boots on the ground--the qualitative nature of this war for them is quite radically different.

But really I meant that mostly as I side point. I don't disagree with the main thrust of your argument, I just brought this up as a consideration.

Greg Purcell said...

Thanks for the tip, Hyde. I'll check out Wired for War soon.