226: The Agony of Defeat

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The Agony of Defeat

Typically, videogames about war are only interested in portraying the winners' perspective. But one World War II simulation discards the standard hero narrative in favor of a much deeper, darker and more nuanced approach. Rob Zacny explains why Silent Hunter III is a model of how to tell the losing side of a war story.

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Silent hunter 3 sounds very promising. Any hope of a console release?
I remember playing a sub game I believe on the genesis, although it may have been my dads old PC back in the day that was similar. It would have been the PC it Silent Hunter 1 came out around the time of Red Baron, Commander Keen, and Pour le Merit...

Interestingly enough it seems that for many people the times when you're losing are the most memorable and enjoyable too.

Everyone I know who's played COD2 (I know, not exactly a conclusive proof) remembers the German wave attack at the start precisely because it really felt like you were being overwhelmed and defeated (At first anyway) for once, which in my opinion is far more immersive and exciting than empowerment and success ever could be.

Rob, you should definately check out red orchestra (http://www.redorchestragame.com). It's MP only, but still IMHO the best portrayal of the Eastern Front, doing exactly what you want: it makes you lose as well as win.

And danda, you most likely mean Silent Service II ;)

You're definitely right. The best wargames are those where losing is of major importance. Silent Hunter III kicks serious butt on that front. It's awesome to attack a convoy. It's about 1000x more awesome to have something go wrong, and spend the next hour in a very tense cat and mouse game with a destroyer escort and then slowly rise to periscope depth and give him a fish in the side from 300m.

There are lots of others I can think of. Close Combat V has no storyline, just campaigns, but losing can result in an entire battalion being taken out of the game, and even not winning (but not losing) can grind your advances to a halt.

Silent hunter 3 sounds very promising. Any hope of a console release?

Nah, they've already moved onto Silent Hunter IV (which is prettier, but not as fun). And Silent Hunter V is due out in 2010.

The problem with trying to portray defeat in a video game is that when playing a game you expect to have an objective to complete, and you win the level. I can't hink of any games (except "World Domination games" where your overall objective in the game is to control all the areas on a map, with each area being one level.) where you can fail at this objective and still progress further in the game, unless the game actually wanted you to fail. If this is the case then the defeat was not, presumably, your fault, so you can still feel feel satisfied that you did what you were supposed to. I would really like to play a game where defeat feels credible and you aren't just forced to do it again. This is stil the case even if you are playing a map based campaign, as you will presumably just fight exactly the same battle again in order to capture the same area. And in these games defeat is often meaningless as there is nothing to link missions tgether properly as they are non linear.

Wow, this made Silent Hunter III look freaking awesome, I really want to play it now.

Really good stuff. I wonder if Company of Heroes: Opposing Fronts plays in a similar manner?

I've been playing silent hunter 3 for about a year now. No it won't come out on anything other than PC (if you play it you'll understand) sh4 is out but your the americans in the pacific not the germans in the atlantic. SH5 is coming out next year but it seems quite demanding unless you have a great rig.

Silent hunter 3 sounds very promising. Any hope of a console release?
I remember playing a sub game I believe on the genesis, although it may have been my dads old PC back in the day that was similar. It would have been the PC it Silent Hunter 1 came out around the time of Red Baron, Commander Keen, and Pour le Merit...

You have to buy sh3 off of the ubisoft website because they no longer make it (its from 2005). And if you want it to be more realistic (ie. destroyers aren't godlike until they actually were, and damage and whatnot are proportional) then you'd need to find the seawolves expansion.

Trust me that game is tough as nails, I never played higher than 0% difficulty.

I've also experienced great realistics in that game, when i go through the channel, the luftwaffe and raf may be fighting overhead, or if i radio in a contact, I may have some stukas arrive to help me down some merchants. best patrol 3 tankers, 2 destroyers, 1 pt boat (downed with aa gun), 2 C3 cargo, 1 C2 cargo, and many small and coastal merchants.

When I had a good career going, I decided to be rash and charged into the channel hoping to catch some merchants near Portsmouth, a VW destroyer came into view, and I submerged, waited, fired a volley of torpedoes. They all missed and it rammed me right along the bow. I tried to salvage my boat and men but it returned on another pass and depth charged my stern torpedo room enough to flood it, I sunk to the bottom of the channel and tried to pump out the water, I stooped the flooding but the destroyer made a final pass and depth charged all along my boat, killing all my crew. To me it was slow and agonizing. I stood up after that, threw a salute and shouted "Fur Deustchland!" Funny thing is, my conning tower emblem was the laughing swordfigh (lauchen sawfish) the same that was on the U-96 (I was U-43) in Das Boot, funny how we suffered a similar fate, though in the movie they lasted a bit longer.

I recall the thrill of submarine warfare from 688 attack sub, which I found quite tough but fair.

There are many times I have played games such as the command & conquer series, and wished that you had more options in terms of conceding territory, or transferring units from one place to another in order to turn the tide of a battle.

I realise this may annoy other people, who would prefer to sweep to victory. However, there is something about losing that makes you consider what you would do the next time, and learn from your mistakes. Indeed, if you had lost a territory, how great a feeling would you then get to retake it later, forcing your enemies to retreat as they once did to you.

Another game I have fond memories of was B-17 Flying Fortress which allowed you to take up all the positions on the plane, from various gunner positions, pilot and of course the bomb release. I would love to see another game in a similar vein, allowing you to build a career as a specialist in some position.

You know, I realized that some time ago. The problem is that, when a videogame shows a story, it's always simple, naive and black-and-white, unless it's a GTA-style game in which you are the bad guy, in which case it's simple, naive and black-and-grey. And that's the only way to do it, because in videogames stories must take second seat to gameplay and experience, and gameplay and experience are better if the story is a simple 'here are the bad guys, beat them' one. (A game in which you end up utterly and unquestionably losing would end up leaving a bad taste in gamers' mouths... it might become a cult classic, but no one can afford going for cult classic nowadays. Of course, you can do like CoD4 and cheat by having two main guys and having one of them get fucked.)

It just shows more strongly for me that the real 'stories' that videogames should tell are the ones players make themselves. The SHIII experience you describe strikes me as very similar to a roguelike - you're always afraid something will come up and murder you when you're distracted, and when you die, you're dead for good. And of course, there's Dwarf Fortress, in which even if a farming mishap ends up with an entire fortress lost to starvation, that fortress still existed in the world, and you can visit it with a solo adventurer, send a dwarfing squad to reclaim it, find up those artifacts end up on the hands of goblins, etc... My point is that the stories video games should be trying to tell are those that gamers create themselves, be it your submarine finally being sunk but taking two destroyers with it or a beautiful seaside fortress being torn to pieces by a dragon. Much better than "oh no, Helpful Tutorial Character B and Evil Flashback Character C are the same person! Holy fuck!"

Hearts of Iron..

I know it's somewhat less personal than the Silent Hunter games (I've played the 4th one, and I think it's an awesome experience)

Hearts of Iron is that game which turns into a story which means something to you. Especially since.. in a sense.. simulation games are "sandbox" games.. restricted to their specific area.. in Silent Hunter, you could go round anywhere and do whatever you wanted.. likewise in HoI..

the only story being the one in the history books.. and you doing your best to try and wiggle your way round and to come out on top..

My games as Romania, Greece, and Italy in HoI were very rewarding.. in the sense that I felt I was placed against tough odds.. I decided upon a strategy.. and I implemented it more or less successfully

It is a real shame that there are not many games that are made that depict you as the loser. I for one would love to play a WWII game where it focussed on the German invasion of France in 1940 because you'd start off all cocky and confident and then everything would just go to hell. Making games such as that would revitalise the WWII genre and generate a new experience for anyone who is interested. Plus just once I'd like to be the loser in a WWII FPS/RTS.

Well, I've had that same feeling from other games, such as Brothers In Arms, as you've mentioned. There is the tolls of war in Hell's Highway with Baker losing more of his friends and some of his sanity, even to go as far back as Road to Hill 30, the predecessor of Hell's Highway, you'll see the loss and the emotion.

Though, it isn't to say that there is the ever present facts that the war was won which kills the experience a bit...

Good article Zacny. In essence, most games set in war-time are re-enacting Star Wars with period weapons. You're the hero. You're going to win the battle/war and get a medal in front of a huge crowd of admirers. This sugar-coating can blur the line between 'escapist entertainment' and outright 'historical rewrite' if people aren't careful.

In the end, responsibility falls neither solely on the developers or the players of these games. Game developers should recognize that making the sacrifice and horrors of war apparent in their games will add to their emotional impact, not take away from it. Gamers should also mentally check themselves that all war games are fictionalized versions of events, and all of them must be taken with some degree of salt.

It's funny that you mention COD's Soviet campaign seeming almost like propaganda. From a historical point it does have some origins in Soviet propaganda - way down the grapevine of course...

The Soviet campaign is largely based on the book (and subsequent later film)Enemy at the gates and inherits some of its errors (e.g. there's no evidence that there were ever any female snipers at Stalingrad). The book in turn is based on the sniper Zaitsev, whose exploits were greatly exaggerated for propaganda purposes...

While there's not really any defeats in COD, there is quite a big death count. It's hard to feel any attachment to faceless minor NPC being machine gunned though...and you still reach your objectives. Mind you, who would play a game where the end result is to be captured or die?

Note that the allied forces out-numbered the german forces

@Obrien Xp - I once tried to use the Channel as a shortcut on my way out to patrol. It's insane there. What was really stupid on my part was that I got in two fights with the Royal Navy during my passage, won both encounters, and decided to try and press through. It didn't occur to me that they now had my course pretty well identified, so I was completely stunned when I got ambushed by three destroyers before dawn. An armed trawler took a shot at me, I started shooting back, and then the Channel lit up with searchlights from the three destroyers. That was a pretty bad moment.

@Orange_Clockwork - I really like the Brothers in Arms series, and I think the first two games are wonderful. But as I wrote here, I think Hell's Highway is pulling punches. When I am playing, I'm having fun kicking German ass in an action-packed shooter. It even has a cover system so that I can mow them down without worrying about return fire. But then in the cutscenes, you get the "horrors of war". I don't think the game ever reconciles the all-out action of the gameplay with the somber tone of the cutscenes. Plus, the cutscenes also lean pretty hard on cheap narrative tricks, like the recurring chats with Leggett.

Some other great games mentioned here: Close Combat really makes you start to identify with your troopers, and that starts to take a toll when campaigns get tough and you start losing veterans. Red Orchestra is another good one, a game that's more soldier-sim than shooter. Dwarf Fortress didn't occur to me while I was writing this, but that's another game that lets players find the stories within the game rather than telling them one. It's unbelievable what can happen in that game, and why.


I liked this thread. Very true, informitive, and it kept me intrested. Well done.

operation flashpoint was also good. those anti war quotes when you died really made you think about the necessity\absurdity of war. close combat was also incredible, i remember being completely hooked on the demo level of the battle of the bulge. gonna buy this one iam sure, trying the demo..

operation flashpoint was also good. those anti war quotes when you died really made you think about the necessity\absurdity of war. close combat was also incredible, i remember being completely hooked on the demo level of the battle of the bulge. gonna buy this one iam sure, trying the demo..

I thought the Russian Front (Close Combat III) was the best. Mainly because it encompassed the whole thing.

OP: I actually enjoy playing as the Germans or Japanese in WW2 games.

I have a sort of underdog complex. I like playing as the Soviets when they were losing in the early stages of the war and like playing as the Germans when they were losing at the end.

It isn't really that hard, after all the same argument can be made about knowing you will be victorious. Knowing the outcome isn't the important part, particularly given movies and games rarely have 'bad endings.' That alone makes it so even games with fear factor in them are less then compelling, cause you know your going to win all the time no matter how unrealistic the odds.

Also are there not ww2 games out there in which you glimpsed your characters future, being a bullet riddled corpse. Knowing that you will ultimately die didn't stop you from playing the rest of the game, did it?

No, like in all things entertaining it isn't the end which is important. It is the STORY, it is how you get there, and not the end. Those who have to be victorious all the time have too much of a self-esteem problem! Sadly many game designers are forgetting this, cutting back on story lines cause now it takes ten times as long to program the graphic and physical engines so they get priority. Understandable, but still sucks when the game has no real direction.

Win or lose in the end matters not, it is how well you fight.

you can also look at the point of the game. Is the player being told to win the war or all by himself like in the call of duty franchise and be hero of the mother land, or should develpers be looking at the common soldier more and his desire to live through the confict. That way, player can win while the army evevitably looses.

The developers can also try and do a comentary on the horrors of war, losing friends, fear etc... Your going to need a good story line, maybe with even multiple endings depending on choices or optional objectives that occure duing the game. Do you run toward the artillery to save a friend, or hide in a fox hole?

The good (read: first two) Codename:Panzers games both had German (or, in the case of the second, Axis, as you also got Italian troops and materiel) campaigns, though the campaign in the first game ends at Stalingrad and I never finished the second game.

Well, the thing is, if you tried to make a game like Call of Duty, it would be incredibly easy to show battle that tipped in favour of the Kriegsmarine, Operation Market Garden, the early days of the battle of the Somme, the retreat of the British from france in early 1940, etc.

While the Nazis may have ultimately lost the war, you're playing from the perspective of a soldier in the middle of conflict, flushed with victory at having just captured France, and squashing the British counter-invasion - you would have knowledge of the future four years from now.

The problems portrayed are inherently problems with games in general. How do you make a game with an involving story, where your friends can die, and you can still continue the game? You would have to cover all possible "endings" where this character dies, but this does not etc. It would require way too much development time to make it feasible. The reason why the successful war-games mentioned focus mostly on the atmosphere of the game instead of the stories of the individual characters, is because the characters are ultimately not important.

A players decisions means less and less the more the story focuses on character interaction, and so it must be. The best one can hope for are minor characters that may or may not be killed off during the campaign based on how you fare, but ultimately adds nothing to the ending.

It's been years since I played the game now, but the original Rainbow Six (still the best in my book) did much of this right. Most of the story was set in background information for the characters you controlled, but when a character died in a mission, he was dead, dead, dead. Even the more "important" characters could die, and you could still progress in the game, though you were gimped a bit. Not that Rainbow Six had that much of a story, but still.

As for the "Winners perspective", yes, it would be nigh impossible to make a story-based game where you know you will ultimately lose. Would I play it? If the gameplay was good enough, sure. Story-wise, it would probably be told in a long series of flashbacks, how it came to that the hero cast himself from a cliff or something (of course Kratos was actually "saved" in the end, but it would have made for a better(?) ending).

Ummm, well doing a World War II game from the perspective of the Germans would be easy, including the whole "one man army" thing. The thing is that they won a lot of battles and also came within milimeters of winning the war.

The problem is that it would play havoc with some peoples political perception of history. History tells us most Nazi victories were massacres (we, the winners wrote the history books after all) and a lot of their victories are re-interpeted. For example someone mentions the Nazi invasion of France and the perception of how that went down. In reality France was very pro-Nazi and while there was a resistance it was nothing like history chooses to remember it due to the loss of the Nazis. The Nazis would "accuratly" be portrayed as being in control against trivial resistance until outside intervention, and ultimatly fighting alongside the majority of French to stop the resistance and ultimatly meeting failure with the rest of the war. That would however not be a good theater for a lot of reasons, among them the simple fact that it would cause a lot of people to freak out.

In such a shooter you could pretty much have the Nazi hero act like "Rambo" and be there for every battle the Reich won, with the ultimate point that in the end you can win battles but still lose the war overall. The paticular hero could of course go into hiding with a fortune of art and gold, perhaps moving to live out his days in South America with other Nazi veterans.

Truthfully though the contreversy of such a thing would kill it before it ever got made. In the end it would be considered offensive and hateful, as well as calling a lot of people liars(which would be true). Basically to do it, you'd have to remove a lot of remaining propaganda from the war. The Nazis would still be "bad" but nowhere near as bad as they are portrayed, and I think a lot of people would be very uncomfortable with how many things they (and Hitler) were right about when it comes to things like Economics. Hitler was an international man of the year for a reason.

You could also do "Fantasy World War II" from the other perspective as well, though again some might find it offensive. Basically people like to portray Hitler's occult intrests as him being like a Satan/Cthulu worshipping cult leader. You don't have to portray things that way, you CAN portray his guys as more or less a positive force, protecting humanity from monsters and supernatural threats at the same time as they bring power to the Reich. What's more you could also focus on touchy subjects like all of the stolen artworks, and christian artifacts he recovered from Synagogues and the collections of wealthy Jews (some museum collections are heavily criticized because of this... in some cases having faced 'we stole it first' arguements from Jewish families demanding the return of paintings and such).

One "legend" about World War II was that some of Hitler's strategic mistakes were made due to advice from his Astrologer. Imagine using that as a literal truth for a fantasy game, but in this case Hitler is given the choice of either saving the world, or following the advice of his astrologer and ruling over it's post apocolyptic ashes, and he sacrificed his bid for world domination to save everyone, including those he hated. People would utterly freak if someone did that in a game, but the potential for the story DOES exist as does the heroic portrayal (through fantasy or otherwise) of any other doomed battle.

I guess my point is that it can be done, but we're not ready for it. Today Hitler and the Nazis are not portrayed in any realistic light, even in a purely historical sense. They were bad guys (have no doubts) BUT we portray them as a group of super villains, and tend to forget that they almost conquered the world, and that wouldn't have been accomplished by a handfull of psychos in uniforms. Simply put he convinced a massive portion of the world population he was right. The biggest cautionary tale in Hitler is that even a charismatic and well loved man who is right about 95% of what he says, still needs to be watched critically for how insane the OTHER 5% of what he believes is. The videos of Hitler ranting do no justice to how charismatic the man was, nor do you typically hear much about what he did to become Man Of The Year.

It's very, very easy to portray everything in an entirely differant light, especially when you omit our own propaganda.

As I said though, the world isn't ready for it. Plus I admit I sort of fear if someone was to develop it, it would be a group of Neo-Nazis who would use it as a reverse propaganda piece, rather than simply presenting things from a differant, more gray, perspective.

A game designed for defeat? "Waterloo: Conquest of Napoleon." You spend 99% of the game building your army, winning battles, and then the final level is so stacked against you victory is impossible but you still have to lose to finish the game.

I think "Dwarf Fort" (google it, heathens) is the best example of an un-winnable game. It's hard but rewarding, and your defeats are so spectacular that you can't help but enjoy it.

I thought this article was brilliant, and it definitely connects with some of my personal feelings regarding the nature of war games and their stories. Playing Men of War cooperatively, for example, we had the most fun in the missions where the odds were so incredibly stacked against us that we would either lose the mission or we would have only a small handful of men left at the end, after taking scores of casualties.

Somebody mentioned Close Combat, my favourite of these games would have to be A Bridge Too Far (also a fantastic war movie) and The Russian Front. Both games really played on a sense of attachment that, in my experience, I formed between myself and my soldiers. I would feel very disheartened at losing a unit of veteran soldiers I'd had with me over the course of a few missions, and relieved if they survived. I think finding the story in a game is a very important part of the player's experience, the connections they are allowed to form themselves are so much stronger than the ones a game's story forces them to have.

I think loss is a key part of forming those connections with the characters and story of a game. There's no sense of loss, at least for me, in the Call of Duty games, since both allied and enemy NPCs come in seemingly unlimited spawn waves.

That's why it'll be hard to make a Call of Duty about Vietnam; the Americans lost. Moreso, they and all their fancy weapons lost from some guerrilas in the bush. They got many innocent Vietnamese people killed, and they themselves lost many young men.

I don't think one can make an uplifting game about that.

Having played Resistance One and Two we see the main characters fight and fight battle after battle and win the day, but the war is certainly lost. A win in Resistance is meaningless because having to fight Chimera in a new place means ground was lost and people converted, and killing Chimera is meaningless because if you can't hold the ground once, retaking it is does nothing to protect it from the original threat or transform back all the Chimera to human.

That's so true. But alas, it is the same with all aspects of history. History is biased. History is written by the winners.
You seldom come across an account of losers in these great battles, because chances are, anyone who could've written such an account didn't survive.
I picked up on this trend when writing my major essay for Classics last year, on the Roman Emperor Caligula. He was demonised and discredited in almost all historical accounts, made out to be some sort of madman. These accounts were funnily enough written by the aristocrats who were pissed when he tried to take power away from the upper classes. Perhaps Caligula was a gentle family man. Thanks to History's biased nature, we shall never know.

It's a shame that even in the modern world, it can be hard to get an unbiased account of affairs.
What i'm holding out for is a war game based on the Iraq perspective of the war, of a brave soldier struggling to survive against the american invaders. Something like that would be very refreshing, in a sea of over-done and overrated WWII games. I mean, come on, enough is enough. There was more than one country fighting in that war anyway.


Today Hitler and the Nazis are not portrayed in any realistic light, even in a purely historical sense. They were bad guys (have no doubts) BUT we portray them as a group of super villains, and tend to forget that they almost conquered the world, and that wouldn't have been accomplished by a handfull of psychos in uniforms. Simply put he convinced a massive portion of the world population he was right. The biggest cautionary tale in Hitler is that even a charismatic and well loved man who is right about 95% of what he says, still needs to be watched critically for how insane the OTHER 5% of what he believes is. The videos of Hitler ranting do no justice to how charismatic the man was, nor do you typically hear much about what he did to become Man Of The Year.

Very interesting perspective. Well thought out, it's also why I liked "Inglorious Basterds" so much. It rethought history, and did so from the perspective of the "good guys" being a woman so bent on personal revenge that she will kill innocent people for it, a group of horrific vigilante soldiers who take pleasure in torturing their prey, and a turn coat who's so selfish that he will deal with the enemy for the ultimate betrayal of soldiering so long as it nets him a hefty retirement. Certainly a different perspective, and yet I feel like a lot of people missed that point and were too hung up on the rethought history bit.

In response to the OP, great job. Well thought and articulated. I too have wondered why video games can't be grey more so than black and white. Games like Infamous are getting there with their moral choices system, that too though is far too black and white at the moment. I mean where's the grey when the choices are, save these people and eat with them, or fry a couple and horde up the food for yourself as they run away like pansies. The thought is there though. And as we utilize the development potential of these next gen systems perhaps we can see games that will utilize your actions in a more meaningful way. The karma system in Fallout 2 (and 3 I'm assuming) is a precursor to this sort of in game choice system, where some choices make you lose.

I hope that it's an inevitable next step in gaming.

just my random two cents worth personally if you where going to make a game where you were the losing side, i would do it so u play as different pplz, so you dont get to attached to the character in the story line, or at the last level you play as one of the good guys and kill yourself for some kind of wtf ending

This was excellent to read. Some deep truths you are trying to convey there.

And ntnimara, yes to Hearts of Iron. I played number two and I occasionally talk about some of the campaigns. One game I played as Romania and I indirectly saved Europe. Come closer and I will tell you more.

I pursued a policy of non-alignment, neither to the West, Germany or the Soviets. I worked on my war technologies and units best for the region. Infantry backed up by artillery really worked and didn't drain oil. Plunging into the region and taking territories in short bitter wars I managed to upset the Germans. They were militarising, but were not superior to France or Britain yet. As Romania, I took Austria prior to the German seizure. This angered them, and they declared war on me. In Austria I tried to hold the Germans, they were superior but I dug in and kept the losses minimal. Now it seemed the allies knew I would fall (I was a tin-pot European dictatorship, a competing minor fascism) but if I did, south eastern europe would be German. So the war started early, the French and Brits struck into Western and north Western Germany, and the Second World war, such as it was, was mostly fought on German soil. This gave me the advantage to push up and take southern Germany. Berlin was encircled and held out for months. The Italians sided with neither I nor Germany. They hadn't been brought around yet. The Soviets did not attack a Western Europe thoroughly pummeling Germany and then dividing it. A damn good game although I did not even come close to being the strongest actor at the end.

One of the most commonly recurring threads on the boards I have seen, have been polls asking people how great it would be to play on the Nazi's side in a game (the poll results are always are in favour of the idea).

I'm a huge fan of the Silent Hunter franchise, although I have to warn people who are potentially interested in submarine simulators - they tend to require the player to know quite a lot about submarines (even though there is plenty in the manual to guide you). Plus, missions can result in you spending hours basically floating around in the ocean, unable to find anyone, cursing the fact that you cannot make the time accelerate any faster. The pay off is ultimately worth it, but the slow, slow pace may put lots of people off.

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