Sunday, March 9, 2008

The damnable time-suck of HoMM5

I haven't posted to this thing in a while, but fortunately, nobody's actually reading yet. (With apologies to the exceptions. Hi, mom!) I've been slogging through an article about Heroes of Might and Magic V (HoMM5) and the war in Iraq, and for a fairly short article, it's taking a while to get done.

The problem with writing such an article is that it requires you to play HoMM5, which is both ferociously addictive and dangerously time-consuming. In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Stephen Johnson wrote of the struggle-reward cycle that underlies most videogames, but turn-based strategy literalizes that principle into "press 'end turn' button for terror; wait ten seconds for joy." Since the actual article won't see print here for a while (and hopefully never), here are some loose thoughts that have come up along the way about the principles encoded into the fictional and simulated world, bearing in mind that "fictional" and "simulated" are not actually dependent on one another.

1. Hierarchy. This isn't a war for the common folk. One tier 7 troop will make more difference on the battlefield than a hundred tier 1 troops, and the hero--the field general who faces no direct danger and has a largely symbolic diegetic role--is often more important than all the troops under his command.

2. Tribalism. Troop morale is determined by a variety of factors, some intuitive and some, um, not. Among the most prevalent, and in practice the most important, is an internalized taboo against, for lack of a better term, race-mixing. Factions differ on the level of species as well as culture, but since here in the really real world we have no language to deal with the problem of multiple sentient, humanoid species, we tend to use the word "race." It's a problematic term--I suspect that humans and zombies have far more convincing reasons to despise each other than, say, Sunni and Shi'a--but there it is. Troop morale drops if they're placed under the command of a hero whose race/species differs from their own, or if the troops contain warriors from more than one faction. Should both happen, should a stack of demon troops find themselves serving in an otherwise all-elf army under the command of an elven hero, the morale penalty often renders that stack basically inoperative. So, if you're going into a tough battle, be careful about social liberalism. In the single-player campaign, two of the five main characters are narratively outsiders to their faction, are but treated (and coded) and being natives. One's a hero, one's definitively not, but it's interesting that they're so prominent, given the ludic rules on mixing.

3. Militarism. Every aspect of gameplay is geared toward the war effort. It's hard to imagine how it could be otherwise, given the genre. But it's interesting that the towns from which the player builds armies and researches technologies (a loaded term in this case) are narratively identified as actual towns, with, presumably, non-combatant citizens. (Otherwise, who's doing all this work? Can the two heroes who visit in a given week really keep that tavern in business by themselves?) We never see them, and don't know who they are or what they look like. Presumably their labor produces the gold the town offers up each day, but the only time we see mention of taxes is in the Haven faction's "peasant" unit bio, and they somehow manage to pay taxes while on the road, far away from their fields.

4. Multiple, mutually exclusive perspectives. Most strategy games let you play as more than one side, with the moral equivalence this often suggests and the strategic equivalence the genre demands. Generally, this amounts to having several different campaigns, each centered on the experience of one faction. HoMM5 has six campaigns (out of the box), that can only be played in order. Unlike in, say, Command & Conquer, in which the two campaigns loosely overlap, the six campaigns play out chronologically in a consistent universe, the result being that you're constantly being forced to deal with the consequences of problems you caused for yourself while playing as another faction. It takes some of the verve out of the big victories when you realize that, one cut-scene later, it will retroactively have been a big defeat, which is one kind of identity confusion videogames do very well.

1 comment:

emily said...
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