The Unwritten Life Story of an RTS Grunt
Of all the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, the landing at the sector codenamed “Omaha” was the most bloody. So much went wrong. The German coastal defences were completely intact as bad weather resulted in Allied bombers dropping their payload too far inland. Many landing craft couldn’t make it all the way to the beach so the infantry had to wade through water first. Platoons were scattered across the beach, meaning chains of command were disrupted and chaos prevailed.
I doubt any of these soldiers, who were being mown down by German machine-gun emplacements, had hoped their desperate struggle would become the tutorial level for a videogame. But they were fortunate to have their sacrifice immortalised in the tutorial level of Company of Heroes (Relic Entertainment, 2006).
Technically, it’s the first mission of the game, but it’s still baby hour in the grand scheme of things. Players are effectively given an infinite supply of troops while they try to make progress up the beach. Initially, I cared about these little men disorganised and vulnerable, but I realised the only way to make progress in this crucible of death was to throw them all towards the shingle.
We might hope that the game forces players to contemplate the terrifying nature of war: that soldiers must die in pursuit of a goal which is larger than they; how a commander must remain detached to be able to send people to their deaths. But this level, as with every level of every real-time strategy game before it, taught me one thing: I was playing with pieces on a board, not people.
An RTS might sprinkle in some narration mid-battle and bookend scenarios with cutscenes but this doesn’t arrest the players growing detachment from the carnage taking place on the screen. Consider the way in which the principle of “command” is abstracted so far out it’s possibly more appropriate to call CoH a god game. Your company is scattered across the beach at the very start of the Omaha mission, but all it takes to get them together is a wave of the mouse and a click, like a magic wand. It’s unreal.
Caring about the little soldiers has never been a question of fidelity because there’s been no difference in our attitudes since the early strategy games like Herzog Zwei (Technosoft, 1989) on the Sega Mega Drive or Cytron Masters (Ozark Softscape, 1980/1982). The latter is even an abstraction within an abstraction as the instructions explain “small armies of Cytrons have replaced large-scale warfare by sentient beings as the instrument for settling planetary disputes”.
Ground Control (Massive Entertainment, 2000) is more chess-like than a traditional RTS as the player’s resources are always finite; there’s no economy or base building. Once all the pieces are gone, then the scenario is lost. The player also has to take care of a King; if the Command APC goes, that’s it, that’s you vaporised on the battlefield. Just because the pieces are more unique and the losses more significant does not mean you feel any closer to them. No one worries about what it means when a pawn is taken in chess. Does that pawn get tortured? Is he merely captured? Does he get to go home? No one thinks this. I might weep that I lost my queen, but I’m not weeping for the queen.
Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998) is a more engaging account of the horrors of Omaha Beach than Company of Heroes because we follow individuals who want to stay alive rather than the bloodless, distant spectacle of command. One game scene that did conjure a similar atmosphere was the Stalingrad level of the original Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003) but that was a first-person shooter, claustrophobic compared to the cold distance imposed by an RTS.
Banished (Shining Rock Software, 2014) is not an RTS but a town-building management game where mere survival is your goal. It, too, is a game of little people-ants wandering around doing their thing, and you get to decide what jobs they do, where buildings get placed and what crops are planted. Banished, however, gives every person a name in addition to a fistful of personal statistics.
Once again, though, the design compels you to think in numbers. After your town becomes a bustling metropolis in the wilderness, knowing anyone’s name or recognising a character walking down the street is beyond you. Sure, they have names, but no faces.
There were a few special moments, though, like when I realised my town’s population was ageing and had a slight pang of sadness that my woodcutter was now 86. He had been doing the same darn job since the game had begun, decades earlier. But this is more a brief glitch in the fabric of videogame reality than a feature.
These are games about big pictures not small stories. I’m sure one day someone will make an RTS where the player will feel compelled to interfere in the individual lives of those in the trenches. And we’ll all hate it, because no one ever put their hand up in class and said, “Please sir, can I have some more micromanagement?” I don’t think it’s possible or even advisable to care about these little people because that’s not what these games are about. Multiplayer makes this abandonment even more dramatic.
Players might see men and tanks and infrastructure, but a game’s campaign moulds their thinking into numbers, patterns and counter-patterns. That’s just natural when brains are faced with problems to solve.
The real question is what game has the developer created? Are the numbers an abstraction of some reality? Or are the people just paint on a game of numbers?
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39 thoughts on “The Unwritten Life Story of an RTS Grunt”
I was going to add something about Dwarf Fortress but, jeez, you have all this comment space down here. I’m sure someone will write the Dwarf Fortress comment.
Also: Dwarf Fortress. I don’t see how we can take you seriously if you didn’t mention Dwarf Fortress, HM.
You raise a very interesting idea here, examinable from many angles (we never think about the Fire Imp we just blasted in DOOM, either, that a dark sedan will soon arrive at that Fire Imp’s mother’s house and a couple of grim Other Fire Imps will get out to give her the bad news. Or the Senior Fire Imp writing a letter home (“Fire Imp was always first to volunteer for a task, always quick with a joke, always the one who made the other Fire Imps feel like brothers. He will be missed. Sincerely, Col Fire Imp”))
Meanwhile, your remarks about the abstraction of command really underline this. In general I’m not very good at strategy games. This is mostly because I tend to get excited and therefore careless, but also because – and this seems contradictory, but hey – also because I really dislike losing units. Admittedly that’s more a reaction to the game than a sense that I’ve just thrown away a little digital life, but the two are corollary in some ways. I’d be a terrible real-world commander for the same reason: I’d have campaigned strenuously against Operation Overlord, for all the wrong reasons. “Do you have any idea how many people we’re going to lose?” I’d say. Which was true, but that’s how you get beaches.
Recently I was reminiscing about Darwinia with a friend. One of the few strategy games where I recall actually feeling something for the “lives” being thrown away. Which is ironic since the Darwinians were sort of proto-life. An argument could be made against their status as living things. Did I value them more because they were so new to being alive? A sense of “so much ahead of them?”
One death is horrible, a thousand is a statistic. That’s a mental defense mechanism. It’s interesting how any peek into the individuality of those thousand (like the Banished names, or DWARF FORTRESS, for crying out loud, how could you forget DWARF FORTRESS) creates a completely different kind of emotional bond.
It already exists, and it is glorious.
Men of War is also an excellent example of how right you are to say that multiplayer takes away from the sense of engagement. Playing the game online feels a lot like playing Company Heroes’ beach mission, although you do at least have a human opponent to occupy you.
Oh, good call, Artunkel! Men of War. I’m pretty sure I have a couple of those from a Steam sale. Thank you!
Hello Steerpike. I guess I’m angling around a form of “ludonarrative dissonance” in the RTS world but I decided to drop the bit where I was explicit about that. Just because it’s very long, you know. It has many syllables.
Thank you for reminding of Darwinia because it is the game that finally broke me into the RTS genre and I should have brought it up here. I did feel a sorry for those Darwinians I couldn’t save – even though the game compels you to turn them into soldiers. The “Biosphere” level is an absolute bloodbath. But the only way to beat the game is to play by the rules and not by conscience…
Haha, I also had that Stalin line about tragedy vs statistic but deleted it at the last minute. The actual reason Dwarf Fortress didn’t get invoked is that I haven’t played it and I’m not sure how people feel about their dwarves in that game. Stories like Bronzemurder are human interpretations of Dwarf Fortress’ narrative centrifuge, from what I understand, rather than direct stories that played out in the game.
@Artunkel, I do believe you are new around here. I think I would recognise a name like that if I’d seen that before. I actually bought Men of War yearrrrrs ago – and never installed it. One day I will surely find out what the game is like. Like Mass Effect and Pathologic.
Iunno, Dwarf Fortress certainly forces you towards an *opinion* of each of your dwarves, but, uhh, it tends to be an opinion that sees no qualms with a strange mood leatherworker.
There are a few times when I’ve felt sorry for my poor units who just died (probably due to my mismanagement), but these are usually during those quirky story-based missions in the Command and Conquer games where you have 3 or 4 units and have to sneak around the map looking for the objective. I think I feel a small pang when I lose one of those guys, perhaps because the smaller group size encourages me to see them as individuals – but then again, the knowledge that I’ve just lost an irreplaceable unit during a tricky mission probably eclipses that, like you losing your queen.
I have only played Dwarf Fortress briefly, HM, and I tend to agree with you and MWM above: that it encourages some players to create a narrative interpretation by providing a framework of information around which a story can be built. Much as in Banished, each Dwarf has a name and some biographical facts, which can change based on their experiences, but you quickly lose track of their individuality. Bronzemurdered and the like are delightful works whose creators deserve a great deal of the credit, while DF acts chiefly as an inspiration.
If I recall, the 90s RTS Close Combat tried to model certain emotions in your troops (like refusal to take obviously suicidal orders) which seems like a clever thing, but I never played the games.
I’m downloading Men of War on Steam right now, which is exactly what my backlog needs. 🙂
@Steerpike: I did play the demo of the original Close Combat back in the day, but it was largely incomprehensible to my teenage self. From coverage I’ve read of the game more recently, the UI has not aged well. But yes, one thing that was brought up was the way the game modelled individual soldiers.
Like HM, I’ve not played Men of War. I really ought to. I, too, have a copy sat in my Steam library. Did we all buy it for a £1/$1 three years ago or something?
Finally, on the original article: I nurse my units in RTS games. Always have done. If I can avoid losing a unit, I will. I don’t know where the balance sits between doing that because I anthropomorphise my troops, and because it’s better economics to repair than to replace.
I even try to do this in Supreme Commander, a game which positively encourages you to hurl units into a grinder.
I am a million years late on this article, but here are some thoughts (long post warning):
I must disagree slightly on Ground Control. Especially the first GC, which was all single-player campaign. The fact that they put the camera at unit level, plus the (in my opinion) enjoyable banter between the various story-significant NPCs definitely made me feel much more connected to my units. However, their banter tended to make light of the cliche, eternal-war they were engaged in, plus the commander npcs wouldn’t notice the difference of a couple dozen dead grunts, which kind of undercuts the whole thing.
This issue of representing the gravity of all that death is tricky, however. I don’t think strategy games are the right place to really explore those problems. Not unless you want to take a detour in the middle of your invasion plans to sit down with a psychiatrist and discuss how losing all of your first wave of soldiers made you feel. Those complex emotions seem better suited to shooters or visual novels, where the narrative can really take the time to focus on individual players.
I feel like it is worth mentioning the Fire Emblem series, and others like it. Though it is a strategy game, they went to great lengths to make every unit feel special. I was really sad the first time I lost a unit (that pegasus rider >.>). Again, the impact is somewhat lost when I realized the story-critical characters “were just wounded” and came back fine for the next fight.
And the impact really does seem to be the issue, to me. I have lead thousands of electronic soldiers to their deaths in video games, but I don’t care because I know they are fake. On the other hand, when a classmate of mine from highschool died I stayed up all night thinking about what that meant to me, even though I wasn’t close to them. I don’t think a piece of fiction could ever capture the level of emotion associated with the death of a human.
I am reminded of the shooter Lose/Lose. In that game, destroying ships deletes files from your computer. It is an attempt to create some kind of consequence for death, but I think it shows how poor the idea of including consequences in artistic media is. I will never install that game, because I don’t want to risk losing an important file. Even if I did, I don’t think the annoyance of losing an important file is comparable to the death of a human.
Fictional deaths that have affected much more strongly are all from movies or books. I don’t think a game death could compare, because there will always be one of two options: (1) I can reload a save or (2) the game prevents me from saving them, for some annoying reason. (1) defeats the permanence of death, while (2) removes agency from the player, and thus cannot make me feel as guilty over the death.
Another idea builds on the emotional connections with death. I like Gordon Lightfoot’s, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” In particular, I love the verse that begins, “Does anyone know where the love of god goes/ When the waves turn the minutes to hours?” For me, it condenses the futility of the search and questions of faith into one heavy line.
But emotional responses are not universal. “First Blood: Second Marne,” A wargame published by Strategy and Tactics, had players leave the pieces representing dead soldiers on the game board, but flipped to a side depicting dead bodies. I liked this idea, because it gave an immediate visual sense for the sad level of carnage involved in a typical WWII battle. My friend, who played it with me, thought I was weird and said the idea was disgusting.
I believe any attempt to really bring home the enormity of the human cost in a wargame is doomed to failure. Most strategy games are meant to be played over and over again. Even if a good writer or a skilled animator can make an emotional circumstance that brings a tear to the eye of the player, it is unlikely to work for everyone and will certainly grow stale after it is repeated for the 100th time.
Instead, I think historical strategy games should look to the likes of Age of Empires and similar games. Brendan Caldwell wrote a nice article that I agree with here:http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2011/02/19/gaming-made-me-age-of-empires-ii/
The Age of Empires games – especially Age of Kings – had a campaign that was very reverent towards history. Though it was by no means historically accurate, they tried to include many of the interesting stories and avoided falling into some of the modern cliches surrounding different regions of the world.
For comparison, look at the controversy surrounding Company of Heroes II:
I don’t think a strategy game can ever communicate the emotions of a general who orders entire armies to their deaths. But they do excel at portraying large, complex situations in a manner personal strategy games, like FPSes, have difficulty doing. I think the responsibility these developers should be concerned with is avoiding cliched or simplistic views of history, and try to understand why people did what they did.
I would like to end by touching on my opinion of Banished. For me, I also began the game by worrying about each individual citizen. I looked at their names, their ages. I wrote a fanfiction about a failed town:
But as I grew better at the game, I got larger towns. The individuals weren’t as important. Instead, I started looking at the children/adults ratio, I started weighing the value of stone against the dangers of quarries (in number of citizens lost). But I don’t think this entirely removed the concept of people for me. Instead of looking at individuals, I was now looking at a community. I now mumble too myself about how this seems like a good map for a hunting economy, or how I should really build a forestry/herbalism outpost here.
Strategy games are terrible at telling the stories of individuals, but they shine when telling the story of groups. And while the story of the individual is more respected these days, group stories have meaning too. Consider our concept of “the internet,” which isn’t really any specific person, but more of the idea of a person. Or the number of requests for “someone to do this thing” that get fulfilled by an anonymous “someone.”
I think the weakness of games like Company of Heroes II wasn’t because they failed to tell the individual stories of the Russian soldiers in WWII, but because they misrepresented what WWII meant to the Russian community.
Sorry for the long post, I may have expanded beyond your original point.
PS, I noticed the smiley face. Why is it there? What does it want from me? I can’t unsee it…
Your mention of Fire Emblem (which I’ve not played, but about which I have heard much) got me thinking along additional lines – most notably Shining Force, a classic the… ahem… less young among us may recall from our Sega Genesis/Mega Drive days. This was a character-driven turn-based tactical game with many (for the time) quite innovative elements. You didn’t exactly get attached to your people in Shining Force, since they couldn’t permanently die and that’s a major part of what HM is discussing here, but one can imagine an updated execution of the same game with more characters and more lasting penalties for failure.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention X-Com (the original, though the new one is very good; this was UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe). Did someone else mention X-Com before now? I apologize if I’m late to that party. Anyway, that was a game where I found myself actually creating fiction around fairly generic troopers and feeling their loss as a result.
I never played Ground Control, but I was a big fan of Massive’s World in Conflict. Like its predecessor, it was tactical rather than strategic, but judging from your comments, it did a better job of making you feel the impact of war as a whole (though not the individual cost).
Excellent comment. I wanted to reply but you’ve touched on pretty much everything I’d have said.
“I don’t think a strategy game can ever communicate the emotions of a general who orders entire armies to their deaths.”
I’m not convinced, if only because no one has raised a reason why this is so!
As someone who’s played RTS and 4X games for most of his life, I would be very interested to play a game which explicitly explored this.
I’d also argue that 4X games are implicitly dehumanising and make monsters of us all, which can be read as a powerful critique of concentration of power and pursuit of ambition. I have doubts about how widely that is recognised but it’s clear as day to me. BRB, need to excise a culturally advanced sapient species from time and space! How else can I grow my economy and build a cool Doom Star?
(I know we weren’t talking 4X games but what are they in this context but RTS writ large? And if you need a crossing stone, Imperium Galactica 2 should suffice!)
I’m still here. I’ve just getting through a piece on Spec Ops which has stretched to around 3,000 words.
Sandy, I’m one with Teh Shaun on this – nice comment. I’m in agreement with “I don’t think strategy games are the right place to really explore those problems.” These games are all about mass exploitation/death and the high level disengages the player from that. I think the focus of community in Banished is interesting, a backup position if you find you can’t care about the individuals any more.
Shaun – I think you can chuck in any game which revolves around little people. I guess some Sim games too? 4X most definitely, all cut from the same cloth. 4X games are pretty terrible in this read, extreme brutality, colonialism simulators. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying these games, but they feel like they are more “negative history” – on expansion through domination and cruel efficiency. I may be overstating this point, I haven’t played a 4X game for a while. I am supposed to play a second game of Sins of a Solar Empire, right?
What’s the smiley face? Are you talking about the small one that appears at the bottom? Or at least I remember it used to, I can’t see it now. I believe it’s used for counting traffic.
Yes, the smiley in the corner. You are correct, that is apparently put in to track traffic. And you can disable it! Well, that is one more silly internet conspiracy solved I guess.
Also, I definitely need to play X-Com someday. I keep meaning to, but I haven’t.
And 4X games definitely bring out the worst in me. I have sacrificed entire planets of people just to see if I could. That’s how you know your planetary death laser works.
On the subject of space deaths, I Kerbal Space Program definitely makes me feel guilty. Especially because the Kerbals *never die* (unless you crash or something). They survive off sunlight and zero-G for eons, floating steadily outward into space, a testament to my stupidity in thinking they might make it back to Kerbal if they just used their space walk jets. They stare out into space, so lonely, waiting for a rescue I am too inept to even attempt.
Sins of a Solar Empire is great for this. Planets need de-populating before colonisation. You can imagine how that goes.
Shaun, I remember depopulating a few planets in my single game. And you know what, this conversation makes me excited to go play Sins again. EXCITED. Not APPALLED.
It is as the cynics say: scratch the surface of a bleeding heart and you find the dark matter warp core of a Planetary Obliterator class super-capital starship.
I read this the other day but didn’t get a chance to comment.
Firstly, great piece HM. I particularly liked the line: “I might weep that I lost my queen, but I’m not weeping for the queen.”
Secondly, and leading on from the above, I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned this in the past, but my Cannon Fodder article rose out of the ashes of a larger article about death in games and how it rarely has the sort of emotional punch that, y’know, it often has in real life. There were a lot of moving parts to it and it eventually just fell to bits, but the Cannon Fodder section was one of the more interesting bits that I wanted to expand upon. I think that definitely relates to this, and while I don’t think Cannon Fodder makes you care for your individual soldiers for any other reason than you just get attached to their name/ranking/legacy, it does effortlessly convey the tragic loss of life as a result of war, all while more recruits queue to be thrown into the meat grinder.
I remember very clearly the mission in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare where you’re a gunship man shooting soldiers and tanks from up high in black and white. You hear almost nothing apart from the whir of the aircraft and see almost nothing apart from these ghosts against ashen fields. That resonated with me a lot compared to the usual in-your-face ground combat, perhaps very much because of that. The contrast was really striking. And this reminds me of Gratuitous Tank Battles too where, zoomed all the way out, you can’t hear any gunfire, screams or explosions, just the bombastic music. Zoomed in, it’s chaos. (I’m sure this paragraph is off-topic.)
Thirdly, I’m very much like Shaun when it comes to RTSs: I don’t like to lose units. I will try my damnedest to keep as many alive as possible.
Steerpike, Lewis always said World in Conflict was an RTS where you throw lots of units at the enemy until it breaks, and that always dissuaded me from playing it; is this true because your comment makes it sound as if there was more to it! I mean, it has been known for my brother to speak shit.
And fourthly, great comment Sandy. “I believe any attempt to really bring home the enormity of the human cost in a wargame is doomed to failure.” I reckon Cannon Fodder manages this and manages it over time without forcing the message. War is a lot of fun in that game but slowly you come to realise the price of it.
Interesting point you raise about Banished. I think the bigger something becomes, the more abstract, distant or ‘zoomed out’ and faceless people end up, when observed from the top. You only need to look at how out of touch higher ups can be!
Finally getting round to commenting on this!
I think Gregg B’s comment above is spot on, especially when it comes to Cannon Fodder. It didn’t take much to make a younger me care about those little chaps; stuff as simple as each soldier having his own name, giving players a finite pool of new recruits and showing the new recruits queuing up to join while the white crosses dotting the hillside slowly increase in number.
It’s definitely worth reading RPS’ 2007 retrospective on Cannon Fodder for more: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2007/11/11/retrospective-cannon-fodder/
I also really liked the approach taken by Tropico (have only played the first one, so no idea if it’s still in the more recent ones). Each citizen on the island was named, and clicking on them revealed what they were thinking at that moment in time. It was usually just a small piece of flavour text, but it also served a gameplay function by giving you better incite into how your government was viewed by people.
So, basically, I don’t think humanising RTS grunts necessarily means adding more layers of micromanagement. Personality can be added with small touches like Cannon Fodder or Tropico. More of that would be great!
*That should be “insight”, obviously. Sometimes they were thinking about inciting popular revolt, of course.
I’m not sure that either Tropico or Cannon Fodder can be considered RTS games, though, except under a very broad definition (too broad to be of generic value IMO). Tropico is a city builder; it’s a game of logistics. Cannon Fodder is a top-down shooter with tactical elements. Logistics and tactics are both components of strategy in the real world, sure, but they’re not what lies at the heart of real-time strategy games.
I have however remembered a game that does fit the bill (your comment plus the overarching discussion). One of the earlier games on GOG was Original War (since removed, unfortunately). It involves a bunch of soldiers being sent back to pre-human history. Each soldier is named, has unique abilities, gains in experience and, should they die, they are gone forever – they won’t reappear in the next mission. You can train neolithic ape-men to do your bidding (um, lol) and I guess they are more ‘disposable’, but Ordinary War does a good job of fostering a connection with your troops through the mechanic of making them irreplaceable.
I’ve not actually played the game – it was on my wishlist for about five years! So I can’t comment as to how well the game tackles “I might weep that I lost my queen, but I’m not weeping for the queen.” It depends, I suppose, on how the game handles its narrative, characterisation, voice acting, etcetera. But Ordinary War certainly seems relevant to the topic.
You are absolutely right. In fact, I had written in my earlier comment “These are not RTS games” and then, for whatever reason, I deleted that line.
I mentioned two non-RTS games for the same reason that Banished was included in the post itself – because they show it’s possible to humanise little people-ants. However, it’s MUCH easier to humanise a citizen in Tropico because they’re wandering around performing everyday actions that people can relate to like going to school, finding a job, drinking in a bar, getting married, etc.
Cannon Fodder is also on a much smaller scale than most RTS games, so it’s also easier to make connections with the people-ants.
Still, both games use small touches to add personality to what are essentially little cartoon depictions of people and I think some of that can be transferred over to the RTS genre.
Letting players name the units (like so many geeks, I used to name soldiers in the first XCOM game after friends and family) and giving them RPG-like upgrades is also a good way of creating personality. And, as you say, making units unique and not replacing them when they die (which is what happened in Cannon Fodder) also helps.
Ah, you could have saved me fifteen minutes by not deleting that! 😉
(I couldn’t remember the name of Original War and spent ages fruitlessly looking for it on GOG before I just searched for “time travel RTS games that aren’t Achron”…)
Yeah, sorry, the general thrust of your comment is reasonable. I also named troops in UFO, and many other games. Although I’ve stopped doing that so much in recent years because it gets increasingly hard to explain to my girlfriend how she died this time. (Shot in the face by Sectoid, asphyxiated due to hull breach, fumbled a grenade throw, etc.)
That said she is currently my only named character in Xenonauts (at her request) and she is doing okay… although I did once save-scum around an instance where a Sebillian cannily threw a grenade onto the car she was hiding behind.
Shite, sorry! Absolutely no idea why I thought that bit wasn’t necessary.
UFO was brilliant at developing a sense of attachment to its units, largely because you had continuity of the same team of soldiers across a campaign and you helped them develop from rookies all the way to veterans (though most of mine never made it that far). It was also bloody terrifying (those night missions with Chryssalids especially) which might have heightened the attachment to those little cartoon men and women. And all this despite half of the blokes looking like Guile from Street Fighter.
However, UFO’s approach is probably difficult to achieve with an RTS because there would just be too many units. Dunbar’s number would kick in after a while. Which is why I think the “Tropico” approach of providing unique details about the life and personality of units might be a better bet.
To be honest, I would love to play a game which tried to humanise units. Even more than that, I’d love to play a game which humanised the enemy units.
They call that Hitman.
I am disappointed that no one has mentioned Myth at all.
@BC: Sounds like Myth is quite close to Ground Control in design.
Alas Myth was one of those games I never got the chance to play. Never saw a copy of it I could afford back in the day, and it’s never appeared on GOG nor any Abandonware sites (at least back when I often used them).
It’s been many years since I read anything about Myth – what does it do that’s relevant here? I dimly recall it had some unit leveling and possibly heroes (named)?
There was hero levelling that carried over between levels and you could rename every single one of your characters. There was also no base building so what you were given is what you had.
Every time you heard the word ‘Casualty’ uttered by the narrator it made you heart sink and then sometimes you would hear ‘c-c-c-c-c–c-c-c–Casualty’ that was the worst.
On multiple occasions I remember desperately sweeping through the ranks to see if my favourite guys were still alive and the utter anguish when I realised that they were not among the throng.
Ah, that sounds marvelous. I should see if there’s any way of playing it nowadays. I also vaguely recall that it (or its sequel) were known to have a lot of bugs at the time, but I’m sure patches subsequently addressed most of that.
You’ve also reminded me of Shadow of the Horned Rat, the splendid Warhammer Fantasy Battle game that was notoriously difficult. It had branching missions that offered loads of genuine variety, but was so difficult that there was only one path you could realistically follow and hope to reach the final level, let alone beat the game.
SotHR also had units that persisted between battles, though in WFB style they were discrete units arranged in formations rather than individuals. You could recruit replacements for a unit that had suffered casualties but a complete wipe would usually necessitate a mission restart, as doing without one of your units for the rest of the game was a baaaad idea.
SotHR also had one of the strangest features I’ve encountered in an RTS game: it had a ‘buff button’ that you could click to apply temporary strength buffs to the selected unit. When you had nothing else to do, you ended up staring at the most important fight, frantically hammering the mouse button (nowhere was it explained, or possible to understand, how long these buff button affected units, so it was safest just to mash the bastard).
(Sorry, I’m totally propelling the discussion off-topic again aren’t I? Although I don’t suppose it matters for a necro thread!)
I heard SotHR was insaaaaanely hard; for the same features in a less impossible package, try out the sequel, Warhammer: Dark Omen. It’s one of my absolute favourite RTSs of all time for all the reasons Shaun said. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting it to work on Vista, sadly.
Disagree about Company of Heroes.
That was a test.
This is why: unlike in any other game, in CoH you could HEAR your soldiers screaming, dying, the scratch of fear in their voices. In no other game has the reality of the necessity of death in war been so well realised, IMO. As your riflemen sometimes say, “Ready to die, just make it count”.
I often winced at seeing my men getting butchered, felt guilty, responsible. But where I think the gist of the article is really wrong is that there is no difference between the experience of the RTS general and the real world one. Indeed, the RTS player is significantly closer to the action – unlike a real commander, they can see what’s happening. They don’t just get a typed sheet listing casualties counts and miles advanced.
Patton, while on a “morale building” tour prior to D-Day, told the troops not to worry if they got killed, because they had plenty of replacements.
It is is necessary in war, to accept losses. That RTS’s drive that lesson home does not make them inaccurate, or remote, or detached, IMO. Wellington once overheard a soldier refer to him as a “killing general”, and when he enquired about this he found it was by way of a compliment, because it meant he wasn’t a murdering general – one who would get your killed stupidly, or pridefully, or carelessly.
Hello and welcome GM!
I like your point about the difference between the RTS general being more “involved” than the real world one because the RTS general can actually see what is going on. Although saying that, technology continues to move forward and I can’t help but think the modern general will soon have the oversight ability that an RTS game has awarded its player for decades.
But in the end, and I guess this is where our disagreement would come down to, my experience is that frustration normally boils over into pattern matching. When an RTS episode turns bad repeatedly, I will leave behind any pretence that I’m pushing people around and engage with “the game”. I’ve always found it troubling that my attempts to feel there were real people in a game are often met with cold hard system truths. By the time I’ve reached the end of any campaign I’ve embedded in numbers, abilities and counter-abilities.
This isn’t just an RTS issue; the first-person shooter often leaves me feeling like the game has told me to stop trying to talk to the monsters. That’s an enemy – pick up you gun and shoot, that’s your job, soldier. I give up on the empathy angle and it doesn’t come back.
(Multiplayer RTS I imagine is a far worse where you’re thinking about the other real humans in the game, not the fake ones on the screen.)
Much thanks for adding your feelings to the thread here – disagreement and alternate points of view are great. I see the posts as a good starting point and sometimes the discussions down here sometimes have a lot more meat in them than the essay that spawned them!
That’s an interesting way of describing it! At some point, I suppose that most games (at least, those games which involve death and reloading) devolve into a sort of “pattern matching” exercise.
With RTS games, I guess this would be an issue particularly when there’s a fixed campaign, with a linear set of missions that must be played in order. If you fail a given mission, then you have no choice but to restart and try again.
But what about an RTS which has both a tactical and a strategic level? I’m thinking about something like the Total War games. When you fail a mission at the tactical level, then you don’t get to repeat it. Instead, it has consequences on the strategic map.
The Total War games also tick some of the boxes we mentioned above. The units gain experience and some of them even have names and personalities. Some of the units also exist on the political level as well, meaning that characters leading units might be married into your family, or they could even be your children (or they could be “you”, for that matter).
Could one of the Total War games be your perfect RTS?
Massive tangent warning:
Now that you mention it, one of my fondest gaming anecdotes was from Rome: Total War (the original). One of my generals had contracted plague so I sent him away to live out his life in solitude. I was planning on having him languish away in a distant province somewhere and never see another human soul again. But then a revolt broke out, or a barbarian invasion or something. I only remember that it was a huge existential threat to the entire empire, and I *had* to gather the biggest army I could to repulse them. So I gathered together all my family members like an ancient Mafia don, and made a super-army and crushed the barbarians with surprising ease. Except, of course, plague-man was part of that army. I quickly sent him back to his hovel but by that point each of his brothers had been infected. Eventually they all died, leaving my dynasty weak and with a dearth of sons. There’s just something I find terribly Romantic about these events: the brothers meeting up for one last stand against the hordes, riding into battle together to save the empire from an external threat and, through bad planning and poor hygiene, exposing it to a far greater internal one.
Anyway, I suppose my point is, TW games definitely *can* tell stories. But I have to wonder, was my story unusual? I’ve played a lot of games of TW and I’ve never had another moment with the narrative richness of that one. Which makes me think it was probably a fluke – a fluke which was only made possible by that mixture of tactical, strategic and political levels, but a fluke nonetheless. Whenever a Gallic general falls in battle, I always open the “Enemy General killed” screen and intone the name of the dead man, out of respect. But as I fight more and more battles this becomes less “Here was a worthy foe” and more “Hm, anyone I know? No? Well, let’s carry on then.”
Also, even if I cared about individual characters (because they had cool stats, or because I’d seen them through numerous campaigns, or because they’d done something particularly memorable), I have never cared about the actual fighting units. They’re just grist for the mill of war, shuffled around the map for my own purposes. There is an odd disconnect between the valuing of human life politically (my general is important) and valuing a soldier only for the weight they add to my forces (soldiers are valuable only insofar as they further the aims of me and my politicians in battle).
@James – Excellent points! Though, as GM says, seeing soldiers as nothing more than “grist for the mill of war” may be a problem shared (in some cases) in the real world. GM gives examples from WWII and the Napoleonic wars, though I do think that, post-Vietnam, public tolerance for high casualty rates has diminished (at least, in the West).
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