Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Department of Redundancy Department

I just found out that Might and Magic: Heroes Kingdoms has gone live in North America. This is the MMO based on Nival's Heroes of Might & Magic V, which was spun off into Dark Messiah of Might and Magic and the stellar Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes. It is not to be confused with Heroes of Might and Magic Online, a different MMO based on New World Computing's much more prestigious Heroes of Might and Magic I-IV. Also not to be confused with King's Bounty, either the original game that inspired the creation of Heroes of Might & Magic, or the recently released remake. Also also not to be confused with the Western RPG series Might and Magic I-IX.

There. Glad we cleared that up.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Means, Ends, and Win Conditions

Between The Power and the Glory and Twilight, my fiction diet this year has been something of a mixed bag, so it should probably surprise no one that my scatterbrained lit-major-in-denial ass has spent most of my reading time in the non-fic section of the storyrealm. Among the highlights of such recent ventures has been Codeville and Seabury's War: Ends and Means. It's a fairly famous text in conservative intellectual circles, although one does have to wonder if it would be so fondly remembered were it released under its original title.

It's been updated to accommodate the decades of real actual history that took place after it's publication, and I must confess ignorance to the any substantive ass-covering in the editing process. (c.f. Fukuyama, Francis, The End of History Except Not Really, New York: Doubleday (2001)) Reading it in terms of politics, it's a surreal text, taking place in an alternate universe in which conservatives used the same buzzwords they do today for diametrically opposed reasons. In terms of war, it's a much more straightforward read, and the raw data on technology, expenditures and logistics is useful even when the political slant is a bit obvious. The introduction offers an apologetics, of sorts, for the book's existence, in the process arguing a point much more difficult to deny than any of the principles that follow: when it comes to the function, history, risks, rewards, tactics and procedures of war, modern Americans don't know shit.

I've written before--not here, so you'll have to take my word for it--on how modern war-strategy games tend to present war in a certain way, which is also how it is often discussed in media coverage of politics. Specifically, war is presented as armed and/or mechanized conflict between two or more parties who fight each other until either some specific goal is achieved by one side, or until only one faction has living bodies left on the field. (We are, for the moment, excluding the problem of necromancy from the model.) The results are final, and beyond the initial outlay of resources, the battlefield is presented as something of a closed system: if it meaningfully affects the map, it's going to happen on the map. Terrain matters, but ultimately technology is king.

It's a fine enough model, and makes for some thrilling games, but it's a pretty strange way to look at war, because it's strangely devoid of...soldiers. Players often lack a clearly defined avatar: diegetically, they are sometimes represented by an officer figure of some sort, and sometimes feel more like the non-specific godlike presence of a sandbox game. The soldiers respond in the affirmative when given commands, and...that's about it. With rare exceptions, such as the pleasantly diverting Elven Legacy and Battles of Prince of Persia, armies are never "broken": unit discipline cannot be seriously undermined, because the soldiers in the field are functionally part of a hive mind, being fed information from the semi-omniscient command/control system at the speed of the player's mouse hand.

Confusion itself is the greatest impediment to an army's ability to function, due to the seemingly obvious fact that soldiers, for the most part, are sane people who don't want to die. Those who command them--and who rely on their loyalty and ferocity for their own ends--usually aren't thrilled about the idea either. Wars are rarely fought "to the last man" in practice.

Which brings us to the largest glaring omission in modern war-strategy games: the curious absence of prisoners and civilians. The rules about what to do with each are neither new nor vague, but in practice it seems difficult to keep to them. Games seem like an ideal medium to get people thinking about why. The rules of war dictate that, when fighting is to begin in a populated city, both armies give the refugees safe passage out prior to the onset of combat. Simple enough, but...what to do with these people? Whose responsibility are they? What realistic options do they have? What tactics encourage enemy soldiers to raise the white flag? What are the consequences of ignoring these tactics in favor of a more decisive body count?