Most videogames don’t portray defeats. They brush past them the way morning commuters can practically step over the panhandlers outside a subway station without even seeing them: attention front and center, faces carefully blanked. Even when loss and defeat should be inescapable, games are almost Houdini-esque in their ability to extricate themselves from the traps laid by history.
Instead of attempting to portray both outcomes in a conflict, videogames tell the same war story again and again. The good guys always fight against overwhelming odds. They pursue objectives that fit together as neatly as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle until they complete their mission. In the end, they win a great victory: The Red Banner flies from atop the Reichstag, or the Germans retreat from Normandy.
Videogame portrayals of warfare are often so one-sided that even the most brutal campaigns can seem like a walk in the park. Call of Duty presents the Russian experience of the Battle of Stalingrad – the bloodiest conflict in human history, with an estimated 850,000 German and 1.1 million Soviet casualties – without depicting a single setback or failed attack. The Soviets enjoy an unbroken string of successes from the moment the campaign opens, despite the fact that you initially find yourself in the midst of a human wave attack against German fortifications, armed with a rifle clip but no rifle. The game airbrushes the terrible hardship and horrifying waste of the Eastern Front from the picture until it resembles a wartime Soviet recruiting poster.
In other games, the good guys prevail even when the record clearly shows they didn’t. NovaLogic’s Delta Force: Black Hawk Down recasts the U.S. intervention in Somalia as a sort of aggressive humanitarian operation. (Take a moment to let that statement sink in.) In the first mission, you fight to save a refugee camp by shooting Somali militiamen from behind a convoy of U.N. food trucks. Later, the game places you in the Battle of Mogadishu, where you help recover the two downed Black Hawk crews without much difficulty; you even get the chance to assassinate Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid in the game’s “just desserts” postscript. Nowhere does NovaLogic’s version of the story mention the costly mistakes in the rescue effort that resulted in 18 dead and 83 wounded U.S. soldiers, nor the hundreds of civilian casualties that ultimately put an end to the American presence in Somalia.
Even when a game acknowledges that war doesn’t always go according to plan, players are absolved of responsibility for their losses. Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway portrays the failed Allied attack on Holland in the fall of 1944, but the campaign’s worst tragedies are confined to the game’s cut scenes. As long as you’re in control of the action, fatal mistakes become temporary setbacks; if you send three of your men headlong into a German machinegun nest, you need only wait until the next checkpoint for them to spring back to life. At the end of the game, the Allies must retreat, their ambitious airborne operation a failure – but not before you get the chance to overrun a series of German strongholds and then bulldoze a few more with a tank. Half your squad might be dead or in the hospital, but you just single-handedly demolished a German battalion or two. What do you mean, “we lost?”
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.
Silent Hunter III opens this experience to players. You play as a Kriegsmarine sub commander whose career unfolds over the course of the war. There is no story except the one in the history books. The war begins in September 1939 and, for you, it will end in 1944 at the latest – probably sooner, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
At the start of the game, commanding a German submarine in the North Atlantic is like being a fox loose in a henhouse. Allied cargo ships cross the ocean unescorted, and Allied warships cannot find you. The only thing that can stop you is bad weather and a lack of munitions; aside from those concerns, you can stalk, attack and kill at will. You are a predator, and the game seduces you with the charms of the hunt: the first sighting and pursuit, the slow, methodical setup for an encounter and finally the attack itself. You witness tremendous explosions, ships on fire against a night sky, merchantmen struggling to stay afloat as the water consumes them and that last glimpse of hull before a ship vanishes into the deep. Then you slip away as if you were never there.
By the time you reach Silent Hunter III‘s end game, it’s an entirely different experience. Germany is losing, and no matter how much Allied tonnage you send to the ocean floor, more is slipping past with each passing day. Worse, missions are inestimably harder. Allied ships now travel in very large, very well guarded convoys. They’ve become so skilled at spotting you that even raising your periscope above the surface is a gut-check moment. And even if you somehow get close enough to fire a volley of torpedoes, you’ll find escaping is a nightmare. Allied destroyers are legion, incredibly fast and armed with sonar equipment that makes vanishing next to impossible once they have found you.
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.
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.