Sunday 20 November 2011

Review: Infantry Combat

Brindles do reviews? Why, yes. If you choose to read the review below, go to section 2. If you choose not to – maybe you’re too good for such things, or maybe your child is wailing next door – stop off at section 1.

SECTION 1: Ravenous mice burst from a lesion in your thigh and consume the rest of your body before destroying it in a series of star-bright antimatter detonations visible (after ninety minutes) from Saturn.

SECTION 2: You settle down peacefully to a review of Infantry Combat: The Rifle Platoon. Since the game is actually an interactive novel in dead tree form, picked up in New York City for a dollar, you have the rare experience of reading a videogame review written in the same medium as the game itself – just as as Wolfenstein 1d might be considered a prescient review of Modern Warfare 3.  

There’s been a trend among developers to place our pastime on a continuum with other interactive distractions such as board games. Sid Meier and Rod Humble emphasise the importance of studying these artefacts in tandem with their digital counterparts while Brenda Brathwaite famously “dumped electricity” in 2008. So while InfCom isn’t a videogame per se, reviewing it as an interactive experience can broaden our knowledge about the digital form. In fact, author Colonel John F. Antal retired in 2003 to become a military consultant and ‘historical director’ at Gearbox, working on the Brothers in Arms series. It’s clear that his books (this is one of a series) represented an early interest in interactive systems.

YOU ARE 2nd LIEUTENANT BRUCE DAVIS. The book is sure to drill this in, although the blurb on the back confuses matters by identifying you as Steve Davis. Bruce or Steve is fresh out of military college and eager to get to grips with real combat. Luckily for them both, America has just begun an undefined conflict against a painfully generic middle-eastern enemy whose language looks like an American child’s phonetic spelling-out of Arabic. Before long you’re plonked down with a handful of men to defend a vital desert pass from a location unironically designated BP Alamo (trope played straight: if you stay there, you will die). From here on out the book is divided into numbered sections through which you will trace a path of choice and consequence in a fashion made familiar by the innumerable Choose Your Own Adventure books which stalked the childhoods of the eighties.

You flick through each section’s sub-Clancy prose, reading about Davis’ seething rivalry with an uncooperative sergeant, or the back-breaking preparation of foxholes. You bristle at the suggestion that after a decade of PC games you might not know enough about modern military weapons, and refuse to consult Appendix B. Suddenly, as you reach the section’s end, the prose informs you: “Davis has to decide!” And so he must. Turn to section 86 to make the right decision; turn to section 34 to make the wrong one. But is the right one really right? Might it actually be wrong? And so on. Davis has to decide.

Sometimes, Davis simply has to pray, as many sections end with a demand you roll dice. In a  clever touch, the poorer paths through the narrative will see your fate resigned more and more often to the gods of rolling as your floundering decisions bring ever more risk and leave ever less choice.

Meanwhile you’re entertained by random fluctuations of character, perhaps triggered by Bruce/Steve’s identity crisis. Sometimes decisive, sometimes whimpering, Davis is a plaything of the narrative’s demands. His only reliable tendencies are hyperactive self-questioning (“Was he really making the right decision?”) and a genius memory for inspiring military quotes (he’s a big fan of Napoleon, Clausewitz and S.L.A. Marshall). The opinion that air power will win the war before the infantry fire a shot swaps between Davis and Sergeant Piper as if they’re playing pass-the-parcel with a live grenade. They and other characters address each other like military manuals then bookend their unlikely speeches with homely clichés to show they’re good old boys.

Generally the writing – equivalent to graphics, if you like – is uninspiring. I feel uncomfortable criticising the author, as he actually commanded a tank battalion in Korea at the time of publication, but you can’t be good at everything. He does at least hit on the trick of using short, sharp sentences to convey urgency and import. He does it very often. Small differences between similar sections on parallel paths initially seem to reflect some kind of butterfly-effect causality, but rarely end up being relevant, and are only there to add variation. The fireworks, on the other hand, are effective, albeit partially because even the faintest hint of agency allows the player to feel the glow of responsibility. That’s me! I blew up those tanks. Whoever I am.

But forget the prose: this is billed as an educational book, a tactical challenge for the serving soldier or the armc---r enthusiast alike. What should matter is what it has to teach. Here we strike a minefield. The game effectively comprises a series of simple choices, and a few are interesting and effective. But there are some glaring instances where your survival depends on a consequence completely independent of the decision you actually took. 

At one point, getting the best ending depends on a seemingly minor choice between letting your men sleep and keeping them awake. Whatever you choose, you’ll encounter enemy helicopters; if you keep the men awake they’ll shoot some down, but if you let them sleep, they’ll fail, even though they are all wide awake and on the alert when the choppers appear. At another fork, you must choose either to reposition some machineguns in response to changing circumstances or stay the course and keep them in place. But the former leads to a success which the latter would also have ensured (i.e. the spotting of enemy troops by an observation post which is in place either way). In both of these examples the player is rewarded or punished with results that seem unconnected to their conduct; hardly an effective training tool. It is as if the author wants to punish decisions he deems unsound without actually demonstrating their specific folly. Likewise, you are occasionally lectured for failing to take measures that were never explicitly on the table. 

InfCom could be renamed The Many Deaths of Davis for all it bombards you with hot phosphorous. You are walking through the valley of the shadow of death; death is all around you, and you’ll step in it if you don’t wear wellies. Some decisions cause instant destruction while most lead only eventually to inevitable defeat, but there is little scope to recover from mistakes. The majority of paths are actually traps from which there is no escape – though this may well reflect the reality of warfare. With extreme care you can reach a pyrrhic victory in which you defend the pass at the cost of your entire company – and after a mid-book ‘save point’ more endings open up, including a win with heavy losses, and a heroic self-sacrifice. But everything revolves around a series of second-act chokepoints at which a single wrong move will sunder your game, though you may not know it at the time. Certainly you will come to fear Section 58. Spoiler: it’s the one where you get vapourised in three sentences. 

In some sense this is fine. A story where Davis makes awful mistakes and gets everyone killed is still a story, and the more neutral victory conditions are satisfying enough. But with the whole thing billed as a pedagogical exercise, and lectures at every turn about what you did wrong, it’s hard to claim there’s no pressure to ‘win’. Sometimes the hectoring debriefings are actually misleading: if you lose through one particular path with the correct battle plan you’re admonished for picking the wrong strategy, even though it’s the only one which leads to a win state. And even the semi-wins include a mocking command to go back and try again. There are also some sobering speeches about how mistaken it is to reduce military spending after a conflict. Who says games can’t do big messages?

It’s no surprise that Antal eventually went digital because the flaws of his book are natural properties of the medium he chose. Without a mechanism for carrying long-term consequences from earlier decisions through many different sections until they finally hit home, all choices must have instant results. Antal could have asked players to keep track of their own choices and turn to different sections based on earlier picks when it came to the crunch, but this would have presented tempting opportunities for second thoughts, and nothing would bind the player to their previous course. The alternative – to write even more duplicate sections and parallel paths, with tiny differences – would bloat the book so copiously that you’d need a lectern to read it. Instead, arbitrary successes and failures are artificially introduced to serve in place of properly persistent choices. This compromise makes the game workable, but ensures its partial failure as an educational tool while frustrating casual players.

Of course there are games that take this path despite the technology available to them. The first PC game I was ever conned into buying was an adventure called Danger Island. It had all the clichés of the risible nineties adventure: FMV with comically bad acting, nonsensical puzzles, badly rendered environments. What it also had was a stunning sequence in which the player drives a jeep through a maze of jungle roads. Taking the wrong path means instant death by crudely-rendered velociraptor, and the player must navigate the decision tree by trial and error. At its worst, InfCom is a bit like that.

But if nothing else Antal illuminates how, while videogames could sometimes be considered 'boardgames by other means', digital power makes a qualitative difference to the player’s experience of a ruleset and to what rules are even possible. Only computers and bureaucracies have the processing power to give proper flesh to Antal’s concept, and I don’t have a home bureaucracy. InfCom impresses with a depth of detail and description that aren’t well served by its ludic paucity, squeezing all it can from the ageing ‘book’ format. Turn to section 92: nice try, but all in vain. Call it a badge for good effort.

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