The Front
The Agony of Defeat

Rob Zacny | 3 Nov 2009 12:31
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You hear everything: your enemy's sonar pinging against your hull like a hailstorm; the faint splash of depth charges hitting the water; the shriek of bursting metal; the panicked damage reports coming from all over the ship. Sometimes you manage to pull it out of the fire, but more often you are fighting to save your vessel right up to the moment a depth charge blows you apart, or until flooding carries you below crush depth. These scenarios are corroborated by the history books: According to most historians, the Kriegsmarine suffered between 70- and 80-percent fatalities by the time Germany surrendered. In a very real sense, you are not meant to survive a career in Silent Hunter III.

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So why play? Because it's demanding, unpredictable and immensely satisfying each time you beat the odds, score a kill and live to fight another day. Because it sheds some light on the experience of soldiers and sailors whose campaigns ended neither in heroic victory nor glorious defeat. It is a game about trying your best when it probably doesn't make a difference anymore; a game of self-deception, wherein you try to convince yourself that the odds are more favorable than they really are just so you can keep doing your job.

At the end of "How to Tell a True War Story" - which is really about how you can't ever tell a true war story because war defies the logic of truth and storytelling - Tim O'Brien concludes with this observation:

In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

When videogames try to tell war stories, they do so within the framework of a traditional narrative, complete with heroes, villains and a plot that culminates in an act of profound courage. They are works of entertainment, ostentatiously and disarmingly so. But they also tell lies, ones that are embarrassing in their naïveté and foolish in their simplicity.

Simulations and wargames, on the other hand, aren't interested in explaining or sentimentalizing. They focus on how wars work and how they can be translated into rules and models. They don't offer the player a satisfying narrative or the feeling of being a hero. These games strike a different bargain. They expose some of war's machinery. Its meaning remains unclear.

Rob Zacny is a freelance writer who writes a lot about gaming's relationship with history at his blog, http://robzacny.com.

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