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March 28, 2005

Discussion: Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers

Band of Brothers is a fantastic miniseries about the real soldiers who made up the 101st Airborne, who got dumped all over Normandy on D-Day, who fought the Battle of the Bulge, who took Hitler's Eagle's Nest. These were extraordinary men. This is an extraordinary series. But then, you probably already know that, since I'm probably among the last of the folks my age who hadn't yet seen it. Karen and I started watching it while we still lived in California, and finished up a few weeks ago.

Band of Brothers gave me a new appreciation for just how horrible war is. It's something I think we tend to forget as we storm the beaches again and again and again in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor.

The thing is, I'd like to have a better understanding of the sacrifices of these extraordinary (and at the same time, ordinary) men; I'd like to know and understand the bond they feel for one another. I'd like the games I play to be less a reflection of the television shows and movies, and more an investigation into the deep, scarring, and yes, even exhilarating emotions of real combat.

It's not that it doesn't happen at all. There was a moment in Call of Duty, near the beginning, where I was pouring through a French village, fighting off German soldiers coming from what felt like all sides. My whole unit pushed forward, and I ducked into some sort of shed or something, with a window. I was taking my bearings, preparing to dash out again, when a head popped up in the window -- and so, I shot it. For a short moment, I was genuinely pained, for the face that popped up in that window was one of my own mates; I had shot one of my own men, hitting him before the green text that identified him as friendly faded in. And then, he popped up again and moved on.

For that one moment, before the illusion was shattered, I felt the tiniest fraction of emotions that men in combat must have felt every day, maybe every hour or minute at times. It was frightening, compelling, overwhelming, and it was exactly what I wanted from the game. The rest of it I could have done without, really, most of it has completely faded away -- if not for the historical grounding of the game, I'd have forgotten it altogether, except for that one moment.

It's not the only time I've ever had that sort of connection with a game, that brief glimpse of something better. One other compelling moment was in Baldur's Gate, five years ago or so. I was moving along the main story arc and there was some side quest to get some artifact¹ or other from this bear cave. The bear cave was situated behind a tribe of Xvarts², and I started moving up through them to get what I wanted. Naturally, this caused them all to turn on me, to mob after my little band of four or five, and we started in to slaughter.

That's when one of them, perhaps the chieftain, cried out, "Why do you come and kill us? How have we harmed you?" or something similar.

Something about the timing and writing totally hit home with me (not enough to make me remember the line verbatim, but still). Here I was, mass murdering my way through a village of critters that hadn't really done me any harm. And it really bothered me, for a moment, the game paused -- until the gamer took over and I moved on through, looking at it as a barrier and a goal.

What bothered me about it was not so much the killing -- I mean, really, a bunch of blue critters that are composed of only so many bits -- but the fact that I had no other options. I'm pretty sure I had dumped a bunch of points into charisma and the like; I'm one of those rpg weirdos who tries out the boundaries of what your characters can be³. I like to have options. And in this case, I had none. What caused the moment to lose its impact so quickly was that the apparent lack of choice -- spurning side quests is a sure way to end up without the ability to finish the game (which happened to me anyway in that one), and there was simply no other way through.

I guess what I'm getting at is that games are able to provoke in me the strong emotional and moral responses that I'd really like them to provoke -- they are just too rare and entirely too fragile. They happen, there is a moment of real connection, and then they fade away quicker than you can say "blueberry pancakes". Well, not that fast, but pretty fast. Whereas a film or book, where nominally I have even less investment, can pull the strings like crazy.

I'm not sure what to do about this, but I felt like Half-Life 2 was doing a much better job. It's time for me to go back and figure out why, now.

¹No doubt, something really trivial like a +1 sword, which is something you need early on and they make you work for it.
²Yeah, I know. How do you even pronounce that? I think I have to turn in my geek tokens on this one, I had never heard of them, and I played D&D for years.
³A word to the wise: Don't play Neverwinter Nights as a bard unless you also take as your main weapon a one-handed sword or perhaps a mace or dagger, and not a rapier. Trust me.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 28, 2005 08:56 PM


There are a couple examples of emotional/moral choices that come to mind in my personal history of gaming.

In Jedi Knight, you made small more choices over time, then they caused your character to kill or not kill your co-pilot. The final step is taken out of your hands. A lot of gamers just said "Dude, I killed Jan!" but I remember on the forums that a few were really upset. They didn't expect their earlier wanton slaughter of pedestrians to have an effect.

Another example was in Planescape: Torment (one of few RPGs that respected non-violent solutions, btw -- still highly recommended). There was a character in your party that pleads with you not to enter a particular shop. You offer to leave her outside, etc but she won't hear of it and won't explain why. I expected the conversational tree to let up after a couple tries, but she just got more heart-breakingly frantic and I couldn't bear to disregard her. I never did find out what was in that shop...

KOTOR2 has similar depth in some of it's conversations. The character Kreia sometimes won't let you get away with easy answers, she really challenges glib statements of purpose like "I wanted to help." etc. These conversations challenge the simple light/dark ideas we usually see in Star Wars; unfortunately, the game mechanisms still depend on that basic dichotomy.

Finally, some games have had injured or innocent characters get on their knees and beg for mercy. I've noticed that my responses are usually systematic; I decide if I'm a cruel bastard or not, and begin to act accordingly throughout. I had a devil of a time playing Deus Ex 2, trying to "game" the various choices, until I decided to just decide on an avatar persona and stick to it. But when I make a choice like that, I tend to get divorced from the emotional fallout of that moral stance. It becomes pretty much one choice, made early on, and everything else is just inevitable.

Anyways, just some thoughts and examples, no overarching theory to speak of.

Posted by: Reed at March 30, 2005 08:37 AM

You know, it's funny. I had completely forgotten about the moral choices in Jedi Knight. Looking back on it, I can remember making a conscious choice to pursue it as a good guy, and had always intended to get back to it and compare versus being a good guy¹. I can remember in one situation being thoroughly exasperated because I killed a pedestrian (actually, some sort of repairman or something), because I couldn't see him in the supply room where he was working and I launched a rocket in at the barrels in the room to clear it out.

Anyway, point is, I think the reason I forgot about it was that the results of making good choices weren't brought home in the same way that those evil choices you mention were.

I've said before that virtue is its own reward -- but I'm also coming to think that virtue is pretty bland and unmemorable. I mean, how many people can remember the fun they had training a good creature in Black & White. Okay, okay, the two of you can put your hands down. How about those that can remember raising a right bastard? Whoa, whoa, stampede!

Out here in the real world, virtue really *can* be its own reward because it's often really difficult to walk that line. We're frustrated, we're tired, we're down, we're confused, we're struggling, but we still try to make those moral choices; when we succeed, it really can be its own reward.

In the games we play, though, the stakes are low and the choices easy. Want to be good? Pick A. Want to be bad? B is the choice for you.

That's less true of Planescape: Torment than the other games I can think of. I may have to come back to why I think so, I'm getting tired.

¹Yes, even back before kids I was thinking I would replay games and never could seem to find the time.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 30, 2005 11:25 PM