Sunday, January 30, 2005

Remaking History

Historical wargames seem
to generally fall into two camps: Incredibly detailed numbers-oriented war/economic simulators or shallow real-time strategy games.

The simulators appeal to die-hard fans. They require a tremendous time investment both in learning the system and knowing the history involved. They are not designed toward helping newcomers to the genre but rely on an extremely loyal, but small, fanbase. Their lineage stretches back to tabletop strategy games and, further back than that, to the actual plans used in wartime to track troop movements and formulate plans.

I remember trying to play a hex game based on some battle or other during World War II. From the get-go I was at a disadvantage, since I knew nothing of how the battle unfolded, the tactics used by both sides or the strengths and weaknesses of the units. There was also no tutorial. I fumbled my way ten minutes into the battle and got completely destroyed by an outnumbered German force.

On the opposite side we have real-time strategy games. While it's true much of the RTS genre is made of nonhistorical situations (Warcraft, Command and Conquer) there are several that purport to offer more 'realistic' bents, namely the Age of Empires series and Rise of Nations.

The problem I had with Age of Empires (and most RTS games) is that the missions don't exist as any kind of riveting storyline. They essentially take the same idea each map (build your base, increase your forces, destroy the enemy) and rearrange it slightly (fewer resources, restrictions on units). Age of Empires used the same formula of resource gathering and army-building. The historical setting was a skin over a tired, tired idea (even back in 1997, when it came out, the RTS genre was tired).

Where is the middle ground between impossible simulation and shallow clickfest?

What I would like to see is a historical game that actually teaches some history.

Woah, woah. Where are you going? I'm not talking about making educational videogames because, let's face it, they always turn out to make a mockery of both education and games.

I want to see a game which explains historical facts and requires me to use these facts to complete certain goals. Don't simply discuss strategies that exploit a game's engine, but find a way to make those strategies matter.

The Brothers in Arms game, or at least its press, is taking a detailed historical tack in an action game and may provide at least a measure of what I'm talking about. They use actual maps to recreate accurate battlefields, simulate infantry tactics instead of run-and-gun and consult with military experts to provide a realistic experience.

What I like, though, is the strangeness of history, the little details that are left out in school.

Did you know:

"Nuclear physicist Niels Bohr was rescued in the nick of time from German occupied Denmark. While Danish resistance fighters provided covering fire he ran out the back door of his home stopping momentarily to grab a beer bottle full of precious "Heavy Water". He finally reached England still clutching the bottle. Which contained beer. I suppose some German drank the Heavy Water."

Now that would spice up a game.

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