The powers that be,
that force us to live like we do,
bring me to my knees.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
knowing that, deep in my heart,
they’ll fall to ruin one day.
The powers that be,
that force us to live like we do,
bring me to my knees.
But I’ll die as I stand here today
knowing that, deep in my heart,
they’ll fall to ruin one day.
Playing some more Fire in the Lake, I had some additional thoughts on the abstractions that make this game.
The screenshot above shows the second “Coup round.” This is important. The event cards are played in groups called “campaigns” separated by special, non-standard rounds when a Coup card comes up for play. That round has a series of prescribed actions which may result in an end-of game victory or, failing that, involve a sort of restructuring and refurbishing to prepare each of the four factions for the next campaign. When playing either the full war or one of the longer scenarios, after two campaign segments have completed, the players become eligible to play their respective “pivotal events.” (The pivotal events for North Vietnam and the United States are visible in the above screenshots). Before the completion of those first two campaigns, these special, dedicated, extra-powerful events are unplayable under any circumstances. After, they can be triggered by certain other conditions.
To set the stage in the above game, North Vietnam has an event “Easter Offensive” which is triggered when the NVA troops (the red cubes) on the map outnumber the U.S. troops (green cubes). For contrast, the U.S. triggers their card, Operation “Linebacker II”, when the U.S. score approaches the level required for victory (40 triggers the event, 51 wins the game). Historically, these are mid-to-late game events; both cards refer to actions from 1972. Part of this late-game comes from this requirement for the completion of two campaigns before eligibility. However, a campaign (again, per the rules) is meant to represent 1-2 years. Combining that with the events that have already been played in the above game, I would estimate we’re looking at an early-to-mid 1966. Both the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker II should still be a long way off.
I’m fairly new to this game, so I have no experience to tell me about what happens typically as a game progresses; whether what we’re looking at is common or rare. What has happened is that as we’ve hit the card-count trigger allowing pivotal events to be played, off the four, only one is even close to be triggered and that’s the NVA’s Easter Offensive. Furthermore, given the situation in the game, the NVA’s offensive is almost impossible to avoid. Up until this point, the NVA have had little interaction with the other players. When given an event, they have exercised it, but have otherwise used their turns mostly to build up troop levels in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. They were also able to improve the Ho Chi Minh Trail to an extent where they could accumulate something close to their maximum allowable buildup.
The turn shown in the screenshot has me, as the U.S. player, executing my “Commitment Phase.” As I talked about in a previous post, the U.S. player cannot purchase reinforcements in the same way the other players can, using operations in lieu of events. The one chance American has to bring in new units is at the end of the campaign turn during this “Commitment Phase.” The player may either send troops into Vietnam, withdraw them, or just shuffle them around a bit geographically. In any case, the total for all three categories must be limited to no more than 10 units. I’ve now found myself, as I contemplate my options, behind the NVA in troop buildup. At this snapshot, the NVA outnumber me (the trigger for the Easter Offensive) but, if I bring in my maximum commitment of new troops, I will once-again out number them.
At first, it seems lucky that I have enough commitment points to stay ahead of the NVA, even if only just. What you need to remember, though, is that the NVA player can continue to augment his forces each time he gets a turn. The U.S. player is mostly restricted to that commitment phase. Therefore, even if I can avoid the NVA triggering their pivotal event on their first turn, they’re bound to get it a turn or two later.
My initial thought when encountering this is “boy, is this game out of whack.” Something that historically occurs in 1972 becomes an inevitability, possibly as early as 1965. Then I thought a little more and realized it does make sense. At the beginning of 1965 it dawned on the top leadership in the U.S. that they were potentially only months away from actually losing the war in Vietnam. The U.S. was aware of the rapid build up of NVA forces and by the Honolulu Conference (February 1966) Westmoreland had specifically indicated that staying ahead of the NVA build-up was a prerequisite to winning the war. It may not have been apparent until later, but the Pleiku Campaign of 1965 may well have headed off, essentially, the Easter Offensive of 1965. The NVA did believe they had the capability to overwhelm the forces of South Vietnam before the U.S. could commit. Both sides, at that moment, had underestimated the capabilities of the other.
Now, a major NVA offensive early in the war may be possible, but it isn’t inevitable. The numerical strength of the NVA developed because they had used their (non-event) turns mostly to infiltrate troops along the Ho Chi Minh trail. In doing so, they did not come into contact or conflict with the U.S. and the U.S. did not attempt any incursions into Cambodia or Laos. A slightly different draw of cards, or even different choices made with the same set of cards, would see us at this same point in the game but with the U.S. easily outnumbering the NVA.
This lead me to another observation about this game. While activity in the game – building up your own side and taking down the other – comes from use of operations, the advancing of the “story” comes from the playing of events. By this, I don’t simply mean that the context of historical events provides a narrative. While true, that’s also obvious. What I’m saying is the order of the events already played creates the structure that makes one game different from another game. My experience, also, is that while one scores one’s points through operations, gaining the advantage necessary for victory comes from events and the choices made when using them. A particular aspect of this may be seen by contrasting with Twilight Struggle. In Twilight Struggle, high level play often involves forgoing events in favor of operations, which can be directed towards one’s particular strategy. Events, by contrast, are to be used in combination with each other and a greater plan to create a game-changing moves. The advancement of time in Twilight Struggle is often in terms of which of these critical event cards remain in the deck. In Fire in the Lake, the passage of time can be noted through the accumulation of persistent effects, and particularly those produced by event cards. Capabilities, as the long-term effects of cards are called in the rules, more often than not remain for the rest of the game. This contrasts to Twilight Struggle, where that games “underlined events,” as the rules describe them, have a cancelling counter-effect somewhere else in the game. By way of contrast, a Fire in the Lake capability, once put into play, will frequently remain for the rest of the game. Furthermore, these capabilities can accumulate. As a result, an early-war operation will be very different that that same operation in the late war as all the applicable capabilities come into play.
Now for one last, a pretty much unrelated thought.
As I was eyeballing the game, trying to decide whether or not to spring for it, one set of graphics that caught my eye was a user-made sticker sheet. These stickers could be applied to the games blocks, there by decorating and designating those blocks with official unit graphics. They look very nice and would seem to offer an extra bit of historical chrome on top of the game. The more I think about it, though, the less appropriate I find this.
By placing stickers on the units, one designates the (for example) U.S. cubes, not just as “troops”, but as brigades. As I said, initially this made some sense. A brigade was often the core unit when creating an operation to be assigned to a particular command. In many cases, smaller operations would still be managed by the brigade commander, allocating individual battalions, and larger ones would see multiple brigades acting in concert. However, having a little bit of game play under my belt, I now think this entirely misinterprets the meaning of the pieces in this game.
A better way to think of the blocks, rather than as formations, is in terms of command and control. Think of them as the resources necessary to commit to an operation. Those resources certainly would include the soldiers themselves; the count of brigades, battalions, or divisions. However, the blocks also indicate supplies and supply chain support. They also designate the attention of the command structure, which would never be infinite, even in the most leadership-heavy of militaries. In this last, if you are familiar with the now-ancient computer game The Guns of August, think in terms of that game’s requirement to declare which Corps command structures would be active as a prerequisite to using them in any sort of attack.
To give an example, imagine a turn where you move half the blocks on the map from one province to another and then engage in some operation (maybe a sweep or an assault). Should you think of that as physically relocating half of forces currently in Vietnam? Similarly, should you think of the U.S.’s “Available” box as units sitting stateside waiting to be deployed to Vietnam? I think the answer is no and, maybe sometimes, yes. Certainly relocating forces on the map implies physical movement of combat forces. However, I think it is a mistake to think of the blocks on the board as representing the location of all forces. Instead, think of it as representing all the forces which are active. So a unit represented by its block that is given a few weeks of down time might see its block removed from the map to be placed somewhere else representing a different unit which is receiving active direction from the command structure. In that way, “available” could mean available back in the States or already in Vietnam, but currently not being used or at risk of use.
This distinction becomes particularly obvious when you have to work with the Casualties box. Various actions allow the communist players to send U.S. units to Casualties, those casualties being a major factor in chipping away a America’s ability to fight the war. Does it really mean, though, that the 3rd Brigade of the 7th Cavalry was destroyed in the field? Or does it just mean that casualties in that battle were unacceptably high? It should be pretty obvious that the game means the latter. The pain of seeing a brigade disappear from the map would not contribute to the immersion factor for this game.
Similarly even the colors of the blocks can be misleading, at least occasionally. The green irregulars are identified in the rules as “U.S. Special Forces.” Most of the time, however, that means they are native units managed and directed by U.S. special forces. In fact, in some cases there may be only a subtle difference between those green octagonals and various yellow or orange units. The difference may be based on which player gets to control them rather than the actual makeup of the forces. In other cases, the green irregulars are meant to be U.S. units such as U.S. Army Rangers or Long Range Patrols. As in the previous paragraph, a given unit may even swap back and forth in terms of what it represents, without being actually removed from the map. A similar situation applies to the red and blue irregulars. In many cases, particularly when a red unit it substituted for a blue one, the force represented by the block may not change. Rather, it may indicate simply a change in political control; who has the upper hand, the locals or the officials back in Hanoi. In other words, in may cases, the red guerrillas and blue guerrillas both represent Viet Cong recruited in the South. The difference is who is pulling their strings.
I don’t know how much immersion one really gets while playing a game, particularly after one has learned the rules and plays using more complicated plans and longer-term strategies. I suspect that, like Twilight Struggle, the better you get at playing the game, the more you’ll want to ignore the game’s chrome, it being a distraction to your goal of winning. Fact is, I’m not that good. The events still provoke some thought about what unexpected card draws might mean in terms of alternate paths that the war might have taken. Those stickers, though? They do look good you probably shouldn’t be sticking them on.
When Blade Runner was released in 1982, its Cyberpunk dystopia seemed like a plausible possibility for the future. Indeed Blade Runner, along with the magazine-published story Johnny Mnemonic from one year earlier, may well have created the Cyberpunk cultural movement. When I first visited Los Angeles, several years after first having seen Blade Runner, it was easy for me to see how 1980s LA would become Blade Runner‘s LA within a few decades. The imagery of overcrowding, poisonous smog, and a dehumanizing of society in favor of technological advances looked to be a fair warning about where we were headed.
Similarly, the years around 1980 were at the height of our fears about Japanese corporations eclipsing the economic power of the U.S. Again, it seemed a reasonable assumption that if corporate America became a subsidiary of Japan, Inc., then so would Japanese culture come to overshadow American life, particularly where the two intersected. I remember 1989, when Mitsubishi bought Rockefeller Center, as peak fear of Japan. It would only take a few years more for Mitsubishi to lose their shirt, forced to sell out to Goldman Sachs at a huge loss. With that, Japan no longer seemed so scary.
There are two aspects of Blade Runner‘s warnings that seem particularly jarring today. First, is those predictions themselves. America has its worries; Global Warming, China, Mexico may top the list (particularly depending on whose fear-mongering you put your stock into) but pretty much none of the bugbears of Blade Runner are on our horizon. Japan is just a minor economic partner, at this point, and mostly one of the “good guys.” Environmentally, we’re more worried about “carbon” than actual pollution (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulates) and cheek-to-jowl overcrowding. And despite coming ever closer to the realization of sentient AI and post-uncanny valley robots, our fear of these technologies may have actually diminished. Perhaps the realization of just how difficult the technology will be to realize lets us put our fears into perspective.
The other shocker is that Blade Runner is set in 2019. That future, that seemed plausible 37 years ago, has arrived. Instead of flying cars, artificial wildlife, and acid rain we have a future that doesn’t seem all that different than 1982. Blade Runner seems to have missed the cell phone thing, even though the technology was up and coming even in 1980. More understandably, they failed to anticipate graphic processing units*, with even advanced computer vision technology being rendered on tiny, staticky screens. The ubiquity of small screens and President Trump aside, I don’t think 1980s me would be terribly surprised by a sudden glimpse of 2019.
Upon release, the reception for Blade Runner was mixed. The studio sold it as an action/adventure but the films pace doesn’t quite live up to that billing. Some critics found fault with the over-emphasis on special effects and imagery over character development and plot. Audience response was luke-warm and the box office take of the movie barely exceeded its budget. It would take years and the release of different “Director’s Cut” versions of the film for it to really come into its own. Most critically, in those alternate versions, the removal of the narration added a feeling of depth to the movie.
I dug out my DVD (what version?… I can’t keep track**) and watched it again to prepare myself to watch Blade Runner 2049. It can be difficult to watch this move, now, without focusing almost exclusively on the question as to whether Decker is an android himself. After this pass-through, I’m going to have to say “no.” Your mileage may vary.
I would also say that some of those original critics do have a point. The story takes a back seat to the “ambiance.” Put aside the is-he-or-isn’t he question and it is hard to build a consistent world around what story you have left. But let’s give it a try, shall we?
The story that remains also persists in the popular imagination because of its questions about what it is to be human. The returned replicants, or at the very least Hauer’s Batty, are portrayed as superior in every way except lifespan to those who created them. While Batty is told by his “maker,” Tyrell, that the two come together we know from earlier exposition that the limited lifespan was deliberately engineered to halt the emotional development of the replicants before they can become independent. If we see ourselves as (allegorically) replicants, the quest of the Nexus-6s to seek out their creator and ask for more life becomes a stand-in for modern, scientific man’s struggle with the border between our advancement in thought and the realm previously occupied by religion.
The other theme is the one explored by Les Revenants: If you are not human, how would you know? We know Rachel is a replicant, but she does not. She is unable to the fact without being show proof from someone who is human. Assuming Deckard is, in fact, human, we are shown similarities between him and the replicants which he hunts. In Decker’s case, could his job (killing living beings) and the dehumanizing system in which he works siphon away his humanity? Is that why he sometimes seems less human than human?
Next to these symbolic themes, the story itself takes second fiddle. Although Decker does manage to kill all but two of the replicants, he is unable to prevent Batty from killing Tyrell – seemingly the whole point making replicants illegal on earth. For the most part, the replicants have inserted themselves seamlessly into society and, but for the Blade Runners hunting them down, cause no trouble or violence. As to Batty himself, Decker is unable to best him and, in the end, only wins when Batty dies of “old age.” The machine, as an individual, has triumphed over the man but, in the end, mankind still wins. Or is it that we, ultimately, will be defeated by the divine (or nature, depending on how you interpret it) no matter how much we can advance ourselves?
For all of the iconic position attained Scott’s cyberpunk imagery in the decades that followed, his world is surprisingly ill-developed. We have no idea what exists “off-world” much less outside the city limits of Los Angeles. As I said, the world seemed like a plausible future, circa 1982, but (or maybe because of it) the film makes no effort to explain how we got there. Los Angeles shows some signs of massive overcrowding and, also, depopulation. Despite the fact that Earth has been declared a haven, protected from replicants, it also seems to be an undesirable place to live. Several times it is mentioned that only those who aren’t healthy enough to leave earth remain on the planet. Yet, there are those like Deckard and Tyrell who seem to be on Earth as a matter of choice. The technology is particularly vexing. We see a combination of futuristic advancements along side apparent decline. The space exploration (particularly in combination with the Replicant’s five-year life span) hints at man’s having discovered faster-than-light travel. Yet, for whatever advancements we have made, our world has become less livable and less human. Again, it seemed a plausible future in 1982.
But importantly it is that lack of definition that allowed us, the 1982 audience, to make of it what we would. We could suspend our disbelief for what we saw on screen because we were being asked to accept it at face value.
There appears to be a general trend with respect to films today when compared to forty years ago. Today, audiences like their details. While I can see why, indulging them within feature-length films comes at a price. One particular bone stuck in my craw is the Star Wars “universe.” In the original Star Wars, we knew very little about that “galaxy far, far away.” We encountered only three planets (with one of them in pieces) and, beyond that, knew practically nothing about the rest of the inhabited parts of the galaxy. There was, we could surmise, an “empire” with an “emperor,” but we knew nothing about him except through a few of his minions. One might assume, if the minions were as scary as Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, some vast imperial hierarchy only hinted at by the cryptic names and titles we did hear. The empire seemed powerful indeed. When we do travel between worlds, we have little sense of the distances involved. The various planets that featured in the movie are supposed to be “remote,” suggesting both far and inaccessible from the seat of this great empire.
From sci-fi angle, th civilization of Star Wars understands faster-than-light travel. But unlike, say, Star Trek where that was quantified with “warp factors,” in the original Star Wars we have no idea how fast “hyperspace” movement actually is. We’re know little in the way of details of how it works. For example, the Millennium Falcon can travel over vast distances using hyperspace drive and Tie Fighters cannot. Why would this be? One question I’ve tried to ask people is this. First, imagine that you’ve just seen the original Star Wars for the first time, and no other Star Wars cannon exists. Using only what is in the movie, how long do you think it took the Millennium Falcon to travel from Tatooine to Alderan? At the time, I believe I would have said “weeks.” I’ve had that question answered that it is essentially the time consumed by the action as portrayed on the screen; a couple of hours at most, maybe less. Whatever the right answer is, the more salient point is that there is no way to know.
Enter, now, all the Star Wars stuff that has come since. We’ve learned that travel is near-instantaneous (it ignores relativistic effects, of course) between any two points in the galaxy. We also understand the nature of that imperial hierarchy and it now seems a lot less than I had original imagined. I don’t know if, somewhere, someone has counted up governors and/or other administrators but it has to be related to the size of the imperial senate, which we have seen. As to the title “Darth,” we now understand that applies to exactly two entities in the entire universe; a fact that I found particularly disappointing. The more that Lucas, and now Disney, fleshes out this “universe,” the smaller it becomes. Eventually, we have, literally, generations of space travelers bouncing around between a mere handful of planets, most of which seem to consist of one city.
I go off on this particular tangent because Blade Runner, like the original Star Wars, was left pretty vague. In terms of the science behind it, it leaves a lot of holes. It may even be that those holes are impossible to fill. However, by leaving those holes unfilled and the unimportant parts of the world undefined, the film invites the viewer to just ignore the gaps and go with the flow. Assume, we say to the viewer, that this all could be made sense of if you put your mind to it, but lets not put our minds to it just now. Let’s just sit back and enjoy the film. However, when a film is no longer a stand-alone piece but part of a series, it becomes harder and harder to ask this of the audience. At a minimum, the film should be required to connect the dots between the different installments shouldn’t it? Well, maybe or maybe not back in the late-70s, early 80s. But in the twenty-teens, yes, that is something we expect.
So now on to Blade Runner 2049, the 2017 sequel. But before we do, let’s think about sequels in general. Why make one?
I guess one obvious answer is “to make money.” We certainly see, these days, a primacy of the “franchise” as a basis for the major releases from the big studios. It’s a question of marketing as well as a way to eliminate some of the uncertainties. If everyone loved Splendiferous Man 1 and Splendiferous Man 2, Splendiferous Man 3: The Rise of Splendiferous Man should be an easy sell. On the other hand, if everyone hated Splendiferous Man 1 and it failed at the box office, it might be reasonable to assume that further Splendiferous titles will have a tough time turning a profit. One detects a certain level of this reasoning when it comes to Blade Runner 2049. A lot of people LOVE Blade Runner. A good chunk of these people are going to be guaranteed consumers of Blade Runner 2049 based on the title alone. There may be some hurdles you have to jump to execute this well, and we’ll come back to those later.
But first, lets try to be just a little less cynical. Sequels are made when a film is particularly successful but it used a curtailed form of its source material. Think The Godfather II, made largely from the parts of the book which didn’t make it into the original film. This obviously doesn’t apply to Blade Runner as the short story upon which it was based had no additional material to use. The connection between Philip Dick’s original and the Blade Runner story is tenuous enough already.
Sequels might also come from original screenplays where an audience is left eager to find out what happens next. For examples, it is easier for me to come up with examples in the television world, where a TV series continues adding new seasons as long as it draws viewers. This too, however, wouldn’t seem to apply to Blade Runner. Would you bring back Deckard to battle it out with even more replicants? That would be contrary to the film’s ending where we think (maybe, maybe not?) that Deckard has finally gotten out of the life?
Where Blade Runner does kind of fit, again cynical interpretations aside, is the case where you’ve created an appealing “universe,” as they say these days, and there is an audience that craves more stories taking place in that world. Lucas’ claims that Star Wars was a 9-part story from the get-go aside, this might be the perfect example. Even better if you and I had creative control over the Star Wars franchise before Lucas and then Disney ****ed it up. What else might have happened, long-long ago in this galaxy far-far away? Similarly, Blade Runner created such an iconic representation of the future that it would stand to reason the fans want to know more about what that future holds.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be where the production went, forcing us to fall back on the “more money” verdict when it comes to this sequel. When the original Blade Runner‘s future is only a year-or-two away, fleshing out that world makes considerably less sense. 2049 didn’t go this direction at all, creating several massive disruptions between that past-future and the present one. Consistent with our twenty-teen mentality, those disasters, one ecological and one electromagnetic, are described in some detail. In the original Blade Runner, we were willing to accept that the dystopia on our screens was merely somehow a result of stuff in that intervening 30 years, and it worked. In the new version, we’re are told what that stuff was. If it doesn’t make sense, well, too bad.
Also, to make sure the money connection works, the producers used Deckard’s character and actor Harrison Ford to bridge the gap. In doing so, the story itself has to, despite 30 years of time having passed, start right where we left off in the first film. The result is a number of contortions which, in the end, produce a story with even less narrative depth than that of the original. The search (and I’ll stay vague, here, so as not to ruin what story there is) seems to be for more of a MacGuffin than a meaningful artifact, either within the Blade Runner world or as modern-world allegory. As little sense as it might make narratively, it makes even less sense in terms of the science fiction. There is also some serious logical issues, particularly when it comes to information and awareness. The “government” of that future seems to be nearly omniscient, except when it comes to things about which they know nothing.
So far, I’ve been running down the new movie, but what it does get right is updating the look and feel of the original. In terms of visuals and special effects, everything that worked in 1982 can be done better with today’s technology. Beyond the visuals, I consider the Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack as a high point. I hesitated bit before writing this. It’s fairly minimalistic and sometimes a bit incongruous with the film that it is enhancing, but what modern CGI has done for the visuals, Hans Zimmer has done for the Vangelis soundtrack of the original.
So for several decades, the original Blade Runner helped define one way we thought about the future. Because of this, it grew in importance as the film aged. Effects-wise, it has aged better than one might expect. As its future is approached by our present, it allows us to think about how things have changed unexpectedly and how other things haven’t changed at all. Cyberpunk might have been a cool future for the imagination, but it wasn’t a very realistic one. I don’t expect Blade Runner 2049 to have any such cultural longevity. The movie says little about our future or even our present, except maybe that we live in fear of an environmental catastrophe (as if that isn’t going to be obvious from every work of fiction from our time).
*The exception is the massive, animated billboards ubiquitous in Blade Runner‘s landscape. These have actually come to pass. Today’s Time Square looks far more like Blade Runner than 1980’s Time Square, perhaps not entirely by coincidence (at some point, this was our image of futuristic). Animated billboards are a feature even of small towns these days yet Ridley Scott did not anticipate that this technology was the same that would produce cheap and available personal computer graphical displays.
**Actually, I can, if I just look at the the cover of the box. I have the original “Director’s Cut,” which is the first of the reedits to come out. It primarily fixes the narrator problem but does not include the alternate ending.
I recently read a statement, but I don’t remember where I read it. It referenced the often-used statement that “the internet never forgets,” generally used as a warning about posting things on social media. However, as explained, the internet does forget. For example, all that wonderful content archived for posterity on Geocities and Wargamer.com’s forum file storage is being lost to the ages, and more disappears each day.
Such attrition becomes apparent when re-installing old games like the Squad Battles series. As I discussed before, at the time it came out it looked (at least in part) like a contender for the Age of Rifle‘s space, a sandbox for tactical battles in World War II and beyond. HPS was often criticized of hindering modders in the service of not allowing the customers to turn into their competitors, but even still, Squad Battles was designed to be moddable. Particularly at the time of its release, the ability to expand the default scenario range was seen as a key to the success of a new game. A game like Squad Battles: Vietnam, perhaps because it was one of many variants and settings, would never have the range of user-made scenarios that the true sandbox games had. But it did get some.
Pursuing what looks like an approximately ten-years-old “unofficial” Squad Battles site, I found a listing of scenarios for the various versions of that series, including Squad Battles: Vietnam. I can’t speak to whether the listing of user-made scenarios is definitive, but from what I could tell it does cover a lot of the ground. The problem is that the links to where the scenarios were stored all those years ago are no longer functional. In some cases, there does not appear to be any alternate source for them. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, has copies of the files on their own computers, but they do not appear to be internet-accessible. The author of that site seems to have drawn this same conclusion around the time I did (perhaps even my digging through his site made him wonder what I was up to), and he posted, himself, about the problem. One can only hope that as he deletes references to dead links, we don’t lose even the record that such scenarios ever existed at all.
Now, for some of the scenarios referenced on his site he posted the downloadable version himself. I actually have a little bit of trouble accessing his files due to some combination of scripting, account credentials, and/or blocks on .zip files. I had actually started thinking, before I saw his post, that the files may no longer be there or just be inaccessible. In any case, I can’t get them. The plus side of this is when I try to get them and can’t, I realize that sometime (perhaps a year ago, perhaps longer) I made a monster download of a whole stack of scenarios including many of the non-Wargamer hosted files linked on the above pages. It always takes me a while to figure out where I’ve hidden away those downloads, but eventually I do and often find what I’m after. I honestly don’t remember where I got them in the first place, try as I might.
I drag you all through this history because, in between the two Steel Panthers scenarios in the previous gaming post, I played another Australian scenario. There is a user-made scenario called ANZAC, Sweep which takes place the morning of August 16th, two days before the Battle of Long Tan. As near as I can tell, this is entirely hypothetical. The scenario uses a nearly-identical Australian order-of-battle as the real Battle of Long Tan, but on a non-historical map against a different enemy disposition. It is true that there were Australian patrols attempting to locate the VC position on August 16th, but I don’t believe that these two companies would have been working in tandem.
The scenario has the B and D Companies of the 6 RAR, supported by three M-113s and off-board artillery, attempting to locate a VC mortar position. This is essentially the real mission of D Company on the 18th, with B Company and the M-113s being the equivalent of A Company’s historical reinforcement effort. This jiggering of the historical situation has the advantage of being able to be played, despite the lack (at least, in Squad Battles: Vietnam) of a historical map, and without preconceived ideas of the nature of enemy forces.
My initial reaction upon starting the scenario was one of horror. As I said, I had downloaded the scenario from somewhere a year-or-so back and then installed the ANZAC, Sweep before playing. When it started up, I was unable to see any of my units. After some poking and prodding, I realized that the silhouettes my units were still there, but the background (the tan square background of the “counters”) was not. I fiddled with the settings, to no avail, before finally finding a highlighting option that worked. Sort of. The unit counters were highlighted in a kind of pink which made them easy enough to spot on the map but also three-times as ugly. So ugly, in fact, that I began digging through the installation on my own hoping to find some way around this mess. Because, clearly, the person who created this scenario had not intended it to look this way.
Eventually, I found a solution. I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, the program is remarkable modable. It can be extended to include entirely new nationalities, such as these Australians, absent from the original package. It also happens that the Australians are part of the base package for Squad Battles: Tour of Duty. The solution was as simple as copying the support for Australian counters out of Tour of Duty and pasting it into the right place in Vietnam. The result, having nicely colored units advancing against an enemy mortar position, is pictured above.
I assume that when this scenario was first posted, somewhere there was an ANZAC mod, upon which the scenario depends. Whether that came out before or after the Tour of Duty release, I won’t begin to speculate. What I will say is the mod almost certainly had more to it than just the background color of counters. For example, still missing from my game are the nationality-specific sounds that accompany actions such as rallying the troops. Honestly, some of these sounds can get a tediously repetitive, so I didn’t feel I was missing out on much. I felt that way up until I actually played an Australian scenario in Tour of Duty. The Australian voice acting is, shall we say, considerably more colorful than that of the Americans. I quite enjoyed it, although one of the commands sounds a little more like a Schwarzenegger line than an Aussie. Did someone mix up Austrian and Australian*?
As I said above, I question the authenticity of this scenario. It looks to me that it used a hypothetical encounter to approximate the actual Battle of Long Tan, using the “hypothetical” part to free the scenario from trying to simulate that which it couldn’t. Obviously, using the Squad Battle: Vietnam maps, the terrain isn’t going to be right. Likewise, this gets you around the problem we saw in the Steel Panthers version. The Steel Panthers scenario doesn’t last long enough for the M-113s to be a factor at Long Tan but, since this one is hypothetical, we can just assumes that M-113s are already on the battlefield even before contact is made.
Another plus for this scenario, as I happily highlight in the above screenshot, is the availability of artillery support. The scenario starts with the brigade closing in on a, first suspected and then identified, enemy mortar emplacement. Doctrine of the time would likely have given that brigade artillery support which, upon located the enemy position, would have been called in. So often the historical use of artillery is removed from Squad Battles scenarios. Possibly the reason is because it throws off the balance for most any scenario, I don’t know. Including it here makes for a nice change of pace.
There is a twist to the scenario which keeps it all quite interesting. I’ll not dwell on the details except to suggest that this, too, is a proxy for the situation at Long Tan. Let’s just say ANZAC, Sweep makes for a decent Squad Battles scenario by my metrics. Hopefully we haven’t lost too many similarly-decent scenarios into the fading internet of yesteryear.
*That’s a joke. It just sounds a little like Arnold. I don’t really believe that an Arnold voice (or an Austrian voice) was used in this game.
The first time I encountered Freddie Wong’s work was due to a blogger who linked to one of his YouTube videos. This was probably almost 10 years ago, and Wong was making some rather impressive short action sequences which he posted online. What impressed me the most about his work was not the quality, which was exceptional considering this was YouTube at a time before YouTube regularly featured professional content. No, what impressed me most was he would often include a second, behind-the-scenes video that talked up technical details and the process involved in the making of the primary sequences.
One of them still stands out in my mind. It was a shootout sequence, typical of his work at the time, involving a bunch of running and gunning between two heavily-armed opposing teams. In the technical video, he spoke about how a director can use camera angles and cutting to keep the audience on top of the who-is-who and who-is-where, particularly as the action jumps from one side to the other or as the actors move between physical locations. He explains that there are many a top-budget film that fail to do this adequately; where fight scenes devolve into a bunch of running around leaving it impossible for the viewer to discern any kind of tactics. Perhaps the creators do not care. If they figure that the audience is going to pay money to see their favorite big-name actor (reprising the role of their favorite character) bash up hordes of baddies, any “realism” in the surrounding battle scene is largely irrelevant. By contrast, Freddie’s video was easy to follow the action. It was also easy to see how, if he were making something more serious than a 1-minute shootout, he could convey a much more complex interaction than most full-budget films offer.
From that point on, I reviewed the archives of his past work and eagerly viewed his new creations as they came out; at least for a while. At some point, I just ran out of the time to periodically watch-for and then watch what he was doing. Eventually I kind of forgot that I ever did such a thing on a regular basis.
Before that happened, though, he had put together a web series called Video Game High School. This folded his action shots into a coherent (more or less) story with a narrative that spans multiple episodes and, eventually, multiple seasons. The format was a spoof of the standard teen drama, with the fact that it took place at a “video game” school being the hook for his special effects. I do remember watching it and I remember planning on watching more. Once again, at some point I just stopped watching. Was it because I had to wait for new episodes to be released and I lost track? Did I just not find it convenient to set aside time to watch on the computer? Who knows.
Enter Netflix. Season 1 came out as web-episodes in the summer of 2012. The original episodes fit the YouTube format of 10-20 minute lengths (each one being a little different). In 2013, Season 2 was filmed and released. When the second season was in production, Netflix negotiated a deal to be the exclusive distributor of Video Game High School outside of Freddie’s own YouTube channel, paying something estimated to be in the tens of millions for the privilege. Netflix made the episodes available on their stream services once the season was completely released on YouTube. The 9 episodes from YouTube were re-released as 5 standard, TV-length episodes for Netflix. Around the same time, the Season 1 was repackaged as a single “movie” and made available on DVD (although, on Netflix, it was repackaged as 30-minute episodes).
But what Netflix giveth, Netflix taketh away.
By 2019, all three season were available on Netflix. As of last month, all three were removed. Presumably because of that exclusivity arrangement, the second and third seasons of the show are not available in other formats. The caveat is that they were never removed from the RocketJump Youtube channel (renamed from freddiew), where all the episodes remain for your viewing pleasure.
Video Game High School is well worth watching and I think the longer episodes make it more digestible. If viewing it with the eye of a critic, though, on what basis does one judge? Comparing it only to other YouTube content, it is pretty outstanding. However, this is no home-made amateur production filmed in somebody’s back yard. These are professionals holding credentials that would be at home in Hollywood’s studios. They just chose not to go that route.
Season 3 didn’t have the same atmosphere as the first two seasons. In fact, it started to feel more like an “audition reel,” using a wider variety of techniques perhaps just for the sake of doing so. That said, the series finale seems to return to form. Throughout, my judgement is suspended about many things I might be bothered with if encountered in a “real” show. Inconsistency is the rule. The actors playing the high school students are in their 20s and the “high school” itself is structured much more like a college, with dorms, R.A.s, and a notable absence of teachers, staff, and adults. Sometimes the story line treats the students as adults; in several cases when the sophomores (?) are facing ejection from the school, they consider taking on full-time employment. Yet in other episodes, the special struggles of being 16-years-old are the story line. The humor is often based on references to classic video games, something that might be considered “cheap laugh” territory if done within a top-tier production.
Even with its faults, the show holds its own even relative to the competition from “broadcast” TV. There have been a lot of bad shows put out there over the years, especially in the teen comedy genre. Network TV may not be the highest bar, but it is what it is. This isn’t shoestring-budget stuff, even though it is independently-produced. I read an estimate of $1.2 million for Season 2 production cost. Achieving professional-looking results may still requires a real budget but this demonstrates that you don’t have to be LucasFilms to produce high-quality CGI. You don’t have to be a major studio to secure reasonable acting talent.
This is the reason I have been so enthusiastic about Wong’s work over the years. Like, I assume, Freddie himself, I’ve grown frustrated with the Hollywood formulas that produce largely junk and then overprice it for the consumer market. Technology offers a democratization of the entertainment market. Artists can produce and distribute their art without studios and their billions backing the effort. Decent work can be done for reasonable cost and, as Freddie demonstrates, independents even are capable of raising significant levels of funding through the likes of Kickstarter.
By this point, I expected to see a feature film* coming out of Freddie. Instead, I see that his YouTube channel is about five months since the last update. The world has changed quite a bit in the last 5 years. Netflix has created an alternative to the traditional studios that straddles the movie and TV worlds, confounding the entertainment world’s traditional structures. YouTube is full of independently-produced, top quality music. Freddie’s channel broke ground but can he sustain what he’s doing financially when others are following where he led? I don’t know whether the hiatus means he is working something else or struggling to keep his model viable.
While we wait, some vintage Freddie Wong
*I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I actually think the series is eclipsing the 2-hour movie as the best vehicle for telling many stories. Something like Game of Thrones illustrates how the ideal canvas for telling a complex story may be found in between the traditional mini-series and a full-blown, 24-episodes-a-season major network series. The bias toward feature films probably had as much to do with the studios’ financing system as anything related to the artistry. As producers of TV series (and even YouTube series) gain access to top-tier special effects, editing, and other technologies, they should be able to not only compete with the blockbuster films, but beat them at their own game.