How Do You Make a War Game Where You Lose?


The object of almost every videogame in existence is to win. How do you tell a narrative sure to end in defeat?

We here at The Escapist have long wondered if you could make a World War II shooter from the perspective of a Nazi – not a deserter, not an alternate history where the Nazis won, but a regular soldier in the Nazi army. How would you be a normal FPS hero one-man-army when you know that your missions – and story – will ultimately end in defeat? In Issue 226 of The Escapist, Rob Zacny argues that in order to make a war game from the point of view of the losing side, you shouldn’t try to tell a predefined story at all – as demonstrated by submarine combat game Silent Hunter III.

Ironically, the military games that tell the most compelling stories are often the ones that discard storytelling altogether. Simulations and wargames (by which I mean the gaming genre, not simply “games about war”) offer a different representation of armed conflict. Some skirmishes end in complete victory, but most outcomes are equivocal. You fight a winning battle, but fail to attain your most important objectives. You enjoy stunning success in some small portion of a larger conflict, but you know it won’t make much difference either way. You make a slight miscalculation and watch your forces get demolished. You struggle just to achieve some kind of stalemate and know that even that kind of non-decision will require a near perfect performance. This kind of fighting may not make for a rousing war epic, but it’s faithful to the frustrations and debacles that are commonplace in real warfare.

Silent Hunter III is a World War II submarine simulation that discards narrative and characterization in favor of a focus on technologies, procedures and tactics. Yet despite its lack of conventional storytelling elements, it conveys an experience akin to Wolfgang Petersen’s classic U-boat film, Das Boot. Petersen’s masterwork is a realistic, painful, yet ambivalently anti-war film, and that ambivalence is one of the reasons the movie occupies such a privileged space among fans of its genre. We know Das Boot‘s protagonists will lose the war, and they are starting to suspect it themselves, but they continue to fight because it’s their job and they’re the best at it.

In the game, as in real life, the job of the Kriegsmarine got much harder over time. And in the game, as in real life, survival is far from assured. To read more about the hopeless accuracy of Silent Hunter III and where it went right where others went wrong, read “The Agony of Defeat” by Rob Zacny in Issue 226 of The Escapist.

About the author