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April 09, 2005

Discussion: Stalag 17


Stalag 17

Stalag 17 is a really interesting movie: the protagonist is actually not all that likeable, though we come to identify with him a bit when he is wrongly accused of spying for the Germans in the World War II prison camp that is the film's setting¹.

William Holden's character, Sargent Sefton, is constantly on the make. He's like the titular character in King Rat, always looking for advantage, trying to make his stay in a prison camp a bit more comfortable. The other men hate him for it. We get to dislike him early on, too: in the first scene, he bets against two men who are trying to escape, taking cigarettes from all the men in the barracks. When the machine gunfire starts, and then is silenced, we wish for him to give them back, to forgive the bets. But he sticks to his guns.

Escape from World War II POW camps (or things like WWII POW camps) have been covered before in the videogame medium. But something like what goes on throughout this movie, the maneuvering and posturing, the trying to figure out who's the bad guy -- well, that really hasn't. I hope that there was a little something like that in The Thing, but I don't remember anything from the reviews -- if anyone can help out with a little factual checking on that, I'd love to know.

Lately, writing and thinking about videogames, I feel like I should go back and pick up a copy of The Sims, since it seems like these sorts of things would be something you could explore inside of that game. But I really just want to explore social aspects of interaction under extreme circumstances -- I don't want to babysit Sims filling their needs going to the bathroom and playing pinball. Interpersonal interaction is the subject of some pretty great fiction and film -- why don't we ever see it in games? Too boring? Medium too likely to sink into the uncanny valley when portraying that? Lack of cojones on the parts of big publishers?

I don't have any obvious answers. I've seen pastiches of it used as a means to an end -- for example, how you stand with regards to factions in the Mercenaries game published by my former employer. In some role-playing games, the choices you make may prune or expand dialog trees later on, or change the endings you might see. But there's such a richness of material here and we've barely touched on it, or used it so lightly that it is meaningless.

Stalag 17 presents some conundrums to me as a game developer, questions I'm going to keep thinking about: Can we make a game in which we control a character who we dislike but can come to understand and maybe have a little grudging respect for?² Can we explore the complexities of interpersonal interaction and make it interesting and fun -- even if that means it's to a different market than our usual hardcore fans?

¹It's interesting to note that this movie was the basis for the later television series Hogan's Heroes, and we can definitely see that in the juxtaposition of some humor with the more common concerns of captured soldiers, food, adequate shelter, and also the escapes and escape attempts (when something is really on the line). Of course, there's also Sargent Shulz.
²Know any? I'm interested to hear about games that do this, especially if it was intentional.

Posted by Brett Douville at April 9, 2005 04:44 PM

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