Lesley Stahl: Did you meet a lot of people who perpetrated war crimes who would otherwise in your opinion have been just a normal, upstanding citizen?
Benjamin Ferencz: Of course, is my answer. These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite–
Lesley Stahl: What turns a man into a savage beast like that?
Benjamin Ferencz: He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being.
Lesley Stahl: He’s a savage when he does the murder though.
Benjamin Ferencz: No. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.
Lesley Stahl: You don’t think they turn into savages even for the act?
Benjamin Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.
I’m normally a fan of Mel Gibson’s movies. And Hacksaw Ridge is, while a bit formulaic, still largely successful as an example of the war-hero genre that has served Mr. Gibson well.
The real miracle in this film is not the real-life miracle; the survival under artillery fire of Medal-of-Honor recipient Desmond Doss while he rescued 75 wounded from behind enemy lines. To me, it is how those men fought on, through day and night, and never ran out of ammunition. In particular the “Sargent” character, played by Vince Vaughn, fights off the Japanese with his MP3 (aka Grease Gun), never running low on ammo. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall a single reload from anyone. I did notice a 1911 lock back at some point and that, sadly, resulted in its user’s quick death.
The incidents of firearms silliness are legion, but only one made me quite literally wince in pain. “Teach,” the well-read-soldier archetype, charges from his trench firing a Browning M1919 from a loose, off-hand stance, gripping the barrel to direct his fire. For you non-gun geeks, the M1919 is a tripod-mounted, belt-fed machine gun firing 30-06. The Spielberg/Hanks mini-series The Pacific actually used the consequences of grabbing a medium machine gun by the barrel as a plot point (hint, Medal of Honor winner John Basilone wrecks his hands in the process).
Looking at the overall story, part of the difficulty in making sense of the action is my “small world” problem. The battle in which Doss earned his Medal of Honor occurred over the course three weeks. In the film, it is three days. And while the commanding colonel says that “several battalions” were lost in the fighting, we focus on the action of a particular company, which is represented by roughly a platoon-sized group of men. If one imagines the battlefield solely as portrayed on screen, much of the subsequent action becomes impossible.
All that aside, Doss’ son has praised the movie for its fidelity to Doss’ story, and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt in this respect. I also like Vince Vaughn as an actor, so again, I try not to be completely negative on this production. It has its moments, but there are movies these days that are working hard to get the technical details right, and I think Mel could have risen to this occasion.
One other thing struck me while watching the portrayals of combat; the hyper-realism that is popular in war movies these days. I predict that a few years from now, this is going to be what gives today’s movies that “dated” look from the two-thousand-teens.
I decided to take a break from chasing the Netflix movie purges, and instead catch one of the Amazon Prime offerings. I’ve had a movie on my watch-list for quite some time, but I was deterred from watching it by the bad cover art. The film is The Battle for Sevastopol, another Russian-made film, this one from 2015.
Fortunately, I had a friend recently watch the film who started a discussion about the use of snipers as a battlefield tactic, and the morality or the lack thereof. In order to participate in the discussion more intelligently, I promised to give the move a watch.
The film is the story of Ludmila Pavlichenko, a female sniper during the Second World War. It is a Russian-language film that seems to be mostly available in the U.S. through channels like Netflix and Amazon prime. I’ve not seen where it was released to a general audience in this country. While the box office returns in Russia were not huge, particularly by comparison to Hollywood movies, it did make many times more than what it cost and so was a commercial success.
Although a Russian-language film, it jarringly begins in English. The anchor for this story is the connection between Pavlichenko and Eleanor Roosevelt, and so Mrs. Roosevelt serves as a narrator. Some other notable American figures, such as Woody Guthrie (who wrote a song about Pavlichenko), also make an appearance. It’s an interesting choice for story telling from the Western perspective, essentially telling us the story that we already know. Except that this isn’t a movie for Western audiences; it was made for distribution in Russian and Ukraine.
It also does pretty well, considering the source, as a war/action movie. Obviously, it makes heavy use of CGI to keep the effects budget down. And that shows, but I was able to look past that. The budget limitations become obvious when comparing two scenes. One showing sniper training had more soldiers in it than another where an entrenched position is defended against a German attack. Again, I’m willing to suspend some disbelief as a nod to their cost constraints.
The style is extremely patriotic, which is probably a matter of course. Similar films from any country, celebrating the war actions of a national hero, are going to come through that way. It does seem to resurrect a Soviet cold war pro-warrior message that may or may not reflect the mentality of the time portrayed. A theme is that ever decent man (and a more than a few women) is eager to fight to defend the Soviet Union. Lack of enthusiasm is cowardice and thus contemptible. More believable would be some ambivalence from Ukrainians being drafted into the Soviet war effort, particularly before the viciousness of the German invaders became evident. It also makes me wonder how accurate these sentiments are in a post-Afghanistan Russia. Do modern times have patriotism tempered by that experience, and if so is this movie attempting a revival?
Again, this isn’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. In the U.S., recent movies have been working to undo the anti-war, anti-patriot sentiment that infused the culture after the Vietnam War. This could be seen in a similar light.
What is unique about this movie from a propaganda angle is it is a joint Russian/Ukrainian production. Pavlichenko was a Ukrainian, although she spent her final years in Russia. She is from western Ukraine and, the initial part of the movie and the initial fighting take place in the Odessa area, all outside of the current “separatists” regions. Sevastopol is now in the part of Ukraine, the Crimea, claimed by the Russians. Also consider both the timing of the release of this movie, as well as the timing of the production relative the war in Ukraine. I feel there is a message in there, but I’m just not sure what it is.
Also puzzling are some of the fudges made to the historical facts. Presumably, these were to advance the story, but I have trouble seeing how. Once again, it makes me think there must be some propaganda angle that I’m just not seeing. For example, in the film her father is a Soviet Army major and a hero of the Revolutionary War. In reality, he was a factory worker. Is this some kind of message about the Soviet patriotism of the fathers versus the modern patriotism of Greater Russia? Again, I don’t know.
In the end, it was a movie well worth a watch. Both from the historical standpoint, telling a story about a historical figure about which I was unaware, and from the entertainment standpoint, as a war move. It certainly highlights the pitfalls of choosing movies simply based on the cover art.
I’ve recently finished the second of two books on the Second World War. They both compliment each other and add to the understanding of that time in history, and what can happen when the world goes mad.
Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East, by Stephen G. Fritz and
Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, by Max Hastings.
The titles, obviously, don’t entirely overlap. The first focuses on the War between Germany and Russia, although the impact of and on other fronts are included. The second deals only with the end of the war in Europe, starting of post D-Day and after the liberation of Paris.
Ostkrieg, perhaps evident in the title, focuses on the war from the German perspective. Recent access to the Soviet archives has prompted a wave of histories based on that new information. Fritz provides a counter point to that counter point, relying instead on secondary research as well as an effort by the now-reunited German government to document the war.
In Armageddon, the focus tends to lean a tad to the Western front, and even there a little bit toward the English (countrymen of the author).
Quality versus Quantity
Simply address the two books from a “rating” standpoint, both were worthwhile reads. Of the two, Armageddon does stand out for the quality of the writing. One frustration I did have with Ostkrieg is it had a repetitive quality, that may have benefited from a bit more editing. The presentation style was for the author to make a statement of opinion about a subject, and then back it up with quotations from (for example) someone present at the event in question. The problem is when there were multiple quotes on the same topic, the initial statement was often repeated. By contrast, Armageddon highlighted different points in paragraphs (or groups of paragraphs) and simply combined quotations on similar subject matter. It improved how easily the book read. Ostkrieg is also a rather hefty tome. I have to wonder if a little paring down might not have made the read a little quicker, but also shorter.
What it means to be “more evil”
Another contrast between the two books struck me as soon as I picked up Armageddon. First, I’ll take a step back.
The theme of Ostkreig is the centrality of the Eastern war to everything that Hitler did. Yes, the book details the battles themselves. This is the reason I picked it up in the first place; I was hoping for a overview of the war in the east that would help me put the battles, campaigns, and maneuvers into a larger perspective. The book does this well. But it actually starts at the very beginning, with Hitlers rise and rapid conquest in the West.
Another theme of Ostkreig is the limited prospects for the Third Reich in ever winning their war. From the beginning, the odds were greatly against Hitler. He was held up as a genius for his gambles that overcame those odds, but if eventually losing it all was inevitable, its not a mark of a genius to keep gambling until you’re busted. One of the first insights I gained from reading this book was about what might have been in Czechoslovakia. When Hitler threatened that country, Czechoslovakia was by many accounts an even match. While Germany’s armies were slightly larger, Czechoslovakia had the advantage of both a defensive fight and the ability to devote their entire force to that defense. Germany would have needed to divert some portion of its forces to protect against intervention by other powers, particularly France. When it came to it, Czechoslovakia may have been able to field a numerically-superior force, modernized to roughly the same level as Germany.
German generals were aware of the problems in Czechoslovakia, and there was a plot to, at the start of hostilities with Czechoslovakia, overthrow Hitler and make a deal with England. Unfortunately for all of Europe, England decided to ignore this avenue and convinced Czechoslovakia to make a deal with Germany. That deal ensured that they would be unable to resist the next set of demands from Germany and emboldened Hitler in continuing his expansion into Poland.
The book argues that each step in Hitler’s expansion was part of the larger plan to conquer the Slavic nations to the East. Austria and Czechoslovakia were needed to gain a strategic advantage over Poland. There is some evidence that Hitler expected Poland to ally with him in the fight against the Soviet Union, as their generational animosity towards the Russian empire should have overcome any indignities heaped upon them by the Germans. Likewise, invading the low countries, France and England were all necessary, in Hitler’s mind, to free his armies to conquer the Soviet Union. He seemed to be genuinely surprised at their declaration of war and expected that the West would probably look the other way as Germany expanded and purged the world of the communists.
Along with this story, the book details how the elimination of the Jews became entwined with everything Hitler did. The eventual genocide almost appears to be something stumbled upon by Hitler and his minions. Initially, the goal of the Nazis was simply to rid Germany of all Jews. An early plan was to transport them all to Madagascar. Once war broke out, Germany’s isolation by sea prevent such transport, the next idea was simply to move them out of Germany into occupied territories. As this became a problem, the slaughter began – perhaps even unsystematically. There is evidence that the killing of the native Jewish population in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia as the German armies invaded the Soviet Union may have been driven by local commanders attempting to impress their superiors (and ultimately Hitler) with ever greater anti-Semitic zeal.
Ultimately, and through the repetitiveness of similar stories throughout the Eastern Front, the book exposes the pure evil of the Nazi regime. Each new story of massive killings is shocking and horrifying. Even though we all know the numbers, as the details of the killings are explored, somehow the horror boggles the mind anew. Likewise, the large scale planning to simply wipe out as many inhabitants of Eastern Europe as possible, simply because Germans need the food and that takes priority, is unfathomable to modern sensibilities. And yet, this is something happened within the lifetimes of people still alive today.
Particular emphasis is made on the fact that no portion of the German military can completely detach themselves from the slaughter, enslavement, and genocide that was going on as the Germans rolled into Russia. While it became an common explanation that the German soldier was not the S.S. and only fought the war, evidence from the front suggests otherwise.
Regarding the purely military aspects of the German invasion, the book generally portrays an army doomed from the start. From a purely numbers standpoint (food, fuel and time), the conquest of Russia was never going to be very likely. Add to that many simply bad ideas emanating directly from Adolph Hitler, and the portrayal of the German fighting machine is mainly of vain attempts to avoid the disaster that ultimately consumed them.
By contrast, Hastings begrudgingly admires the Germans for their fighting ability, and that contrast with the utter lack of value placed on human life by the Soviets and the perhaps over-cautiousness from the West to risk more now to save later.
In that discussion, it also becomes clear that Hastings considers Stalin and his empire the pure evil actor in this war. He doesn’t line up the evidence, as perhaps Fritz would have, but it is certainly a combination of Stalin’s treatment of his own people both before and during the war, the systematic mass-rape of Germany after Hitler’s defeat, and the misery inflicted upon Eastern Europe for a generation (and beyond) following the end of the war.
While it is certainly hard to imagine a worse evil that the Nazi’s meticulous attempt to exterminate an ethnic group from the face of the earth, if one goes purely by the numbers, Stalin and the Soviet Empire do win out over Hitler. If for no other reason, Stalin could continue his reign of terror after Hitler’s death. Stalin’s callousness to the lives of even his own people seem to be unmatched even by Hitler’s own death culture.
Hastings also describes the lack of appreciation on the part of the Allies for the danger of that the Russian’s would be after the end of the war. The pact with the Soviet’s seemed necessary to save England and the free world, but as the ultimate defeat of German became ever more inevitable, the West and particularly Roosevelt failed to plan for the future.
The Allies went to great lengths to inoculate their public against the negative image they held of the communists, once those communists were needed as allies. The reality of kindly “Uncle Joe’s” soldiers behavior came as a shock to many Americans and British, but was anticipated by those in the East. A particular quote stuck with me, where the Soviet’s use of the word “Allies” clearly meant the Western powers, not the Soviet Union. They saw enemies not only in the Germans, but in the American/British at the same time.
Strategy and Tactics
Both books are obviously written for the war-history buff, but both try to tell their stories within the bigger picture of politics and civilian suffering. Ostkrieg illuminates many of the battles around the German’s high water mark when, at least at first appearance, they had the possibility of victory. As I mentioned before, it is often pointing out the places where German strategic mistakes cost them dearly.
Armageddon starts too late in the war for there to be any doubt in the outcome; the defeat of the Germans. Two operations are explored systematically; the Airborne assault to take the Rhine bridge at Arnhem in operation Market-Garden, and the German operation Wacht am Rhein, or the Battle of the Bulge. Both, incidentally, are analyzed for their strategic blunders, but they also resulted in the last two times when the Anglo/Americans and Germans were matched on the battlefield.
In the reading of military history, I’m often struck by the feeling that victory goes to the General who screws up not quite as badly as his counterpart. Dwelling on any particular historical figure and his moments of incompetence probably obscures that all figures have human frailties that are bound to shine through when illuminated by close study.
On the Eastern Front, the Soviet effort was massively mismanaged, but the willingness to expend an unlimited amount of human lives was as much a feature of their strategy as it was an error to be criticized. Like Grant against Lee, once the willingness to win at all costs was there, the final victory seems assured. By contrast, the Germans needed to get everything right in order to win. So analyzing where they failed to get it right seems particularly relevant.
On the Western Front, the failure of the Allies to get things right is probably gets its focus due to the emphasis on the image of American superiority from sources such as Citizen Soldiers and Band of Brothers. Hastings posits that a free and generally peaceful culture, such as America’s, can’t be expected to produce the kind of armies the the totalitarian states were capable of. In one passage, he speculates on the effectiveness of a Patton leading and SS Panzer Army rather than American soldiers. His frustration is that Western timidity likely cost lives in the long run by prolonging the fighting, and definitely sacrificed civilian lives by not saving them from first, the Nazis, and later from Soviet occupation.
At the end, both of the books are thought provoking additions to the histories written of the Second World War, and we absolutely worth the time to read. There is plenty in here to think about, not only in the conduct of the war, but in the generation of turmoil in Eastern Europe that was to follow.
The Godfather is one of the greatest movies ever made.
From the story, to the casting, to the technical details, it manages to get nearly everything right. But it is more than that. Far from being a great telling of a story on film, it uses the medium to perfection. The piece is neatly framed between the two religious celebrations; the wedding and the christening.
It is also a practically unparalleled cultural phenomenon. It redefined the “gangster” cinema genre. No longer do we expect the exaggerated, one-dimensional villains played a la James Cagney. Instead, our mobsters are the deep, complex characters that, yes, they are criminals but they are also the heroes and protagonists of our stories.
Since then, any Mafia-related movie takes place in the shadow of Coppola’s work. We “know” how the mobsters of the 40s and 50s behave, because we’ve seen the film (and its sequels). It provides an implicit backstory to any new characters that are created.
Mafia II (Spoilers included, no extra charge)
The game Mafia II starts using some similar hooks, but is clearly not going to be a simple retelling. The main character (your character) is caught in the course of a minor robbery. Rather than serve jail time, he agrees to go into the Army to fight the fascists in Europe.
Similarities to the back story in my earlier article are present, perhaps because of the automatic game-goodness that comes with including some World War II combat in a game. Unlike L.A. Noire (and Hot Springs, for that matter), our character is not a hero (flawed or otherwise) returning victorious in the war against Japan, but a flawed-or-otherwise-hero* dodging future service in Europe. The war service seems to serve main three functions. First, it allows the introduction of the game world to the main character because, well, we’ve been away at war and missed out what’s been happening. Second, a gratuitous MG 42 level, a la Medal of Honor, can be included. Third, and rather weakly, our character is saved from certain death in Sicily at the hands of Mussolini’s soldiers by the local mafia Don, who convinces the Italians to surrender. Thus, we come to understand the power of La Cosa Nostra.
Returning from the war, the game begins a sequence taking place in the fictional city of Empire Bay (very similar to New York) in the final months of the second world war. The Mafia II begins taking place a few years before L.A. Noire. However, the majority of the story actually occurs in 1951 during the Korean War (which takes place via radio news reports within the game).
L.A. Noire and Mafia II were released within a month of each other. They are also broadly classified within the same action/adventure genre, in the style of Grand Theft Auto and its sequels. However, whereas L.A. Noire (as I discuss in my article) actually draws heavily from the puzzle/adventure style of games, Mafia II is a more straight up drive/fight/shoot game. Given the similarities, some compare and contrast is surely in order.
In terms of resource use, Mafia II seems to make better designed in terms of system resources. The facial expression modelling aside, Mafia II is probably the more visually impressive game, but runs with less apparent stress on the system. The games are similar. Fairly realistic, 3D characters in a fully-explorable city – what is sometimes referred to as the “roaming” genre. The fairly realistic Los Angeles/Hollywood of L.A. Noire is considerably bigger than the faux-New York of Mafia II. Whether this is an advantage is limited by the difference in game-play. In Mafia II, one could spend significant time earning money/cars, etc. throughout the city. In L.A. Noire, there doesn’t seem to be much point (a few minigames aside) from deviating too far from the script. In fact, the long driving distances sometimes got a little tedious, factoring in the sometimes-long waits a stoplights. (I did say fairly-realistic version of Los Angeles!)
I often make the comparison with Grand Theft Auto, although my own experience with that series is limited. Years ago, I had a copy of “Vice City” (faux-Miami) which I played for a while. In that game, I was far more interested in simply driving around, stealing cars and interacting free-form with the game rather than following the scripted missions (which were often leaned too much toward the puzzle). Mafia II seems to be designed for that kind of gameplay (includes mods that enhance the experience), but in this case I find myself playing strictly by the scripted story. In fact, it is even sometimes surprising when some of the GTA-style mechanics (changing clothes stops police pursuit) pop-up in the middle of an immersive story.
Suprisingly, the story itself seems more engaging in Mafia II. I would have expected that L.A. Noire, being more story dependent, would have won this contest. But its the Mafia II story that draw me in better. Also, unexpectedly, the Mafia II story seems to be more linear. It is also more dependent on the in-between-action-sequence cut scenes. By contrast, the “dialog tree” feature in L. A. Noire allowed the story to advance with more direct player interaction.
Driving, again, is a major feature of Mafia II. Again I am using the steering wheel. In this case, the wheel is not supported out of the box. Instead, I found some XBox emulator software that interfaces a variety of controllers for a broad array of games. This solution works great, and almost “out of the box.” After installation, I had to do a little fiddling to get the pedals mapped, rather than the hand-held controller buttons.
That done, the driving experience is easily better in Mafia II relative to L.A. Noire. Overall, the wheel and pedals feel far more natural. In addition, different effects are added to the driving experience. Initially, the driving takes place in the winter on ice and snow. Sliding and spinning are included, of course, but so is the rotation effect that happens when you gun an rear-wheel drive vehicle on an icy road.
Other details are modeled. There is a noticeable difference when driving on cobblestone versus pavement, for example. In the more powerful 50s cars, the effects of a manual shift are built into the “feel” of the driving, even though you are not required to actually shift yourself. One example – when starting off going uphill, you initially slide back a little bit before the clutch engages. I wonder how many younger drivers, never having actually driven a manual, wouldn’t understand why this is happening? The different makes of car are noticeably different in their models. Better cars aren’t just faster and more controllable – they actually feel different. A truck has to be driven quite differently from a sedan which is different from a sports car.
Another area where Mafia II outshines L.A. Noire is in the combat part of the action. First of all both shooting and punching is a little less wonky. In L.A. Noire, I frequently found myself unable to do what I wanted when hand-to-hand fighting, and having a terrible time aiming with the gun. Mafia II responds much more naturally. Further more, the degree of the modelling is much more in line with what is expected from big-budget action games. Punching combos are included, to add some “strategy” to the fistfights. Shooting includes a modeling of the inaccuracy of follow-up shots and the total inaccuracy of automatic fire after the first round. Clearly Mafia II emphasized the action end of things, where L.A. Noire was pushing the puzzle end.
Unfortunately for L.A. Noire’s scorecard, even in the depiction of the characters and social environment, Mafia II has the edge in a number of areas. I’ll admit that in some cases that facial expression modeling in L.A. Noire seems a lot more realistic. But for the most part, modeling of the “ambient” environment is probably a little more believable in Mafia II. One example that struck me was while I was driving down the street in a snowstorm, and passed someone shoveling snow onto the street. It just seemed like such a natural detail to include.
It is also worth mentioning, although I won’t dwell on it here, that as another console port, it also has the same issues (and same mitigations) relative to the mouse. The game does not use the system mouse configuration, which is a pain. It does allow reconfiguration of all of the “buttons,” which include the fighting functions programed into the mouse buttons.
Can we get back to Korea?
Lastly, much like L.A. Noire before it, I put this game into my rotation at this place because it does take place (at least about 2/3rd to 3/4s of it) during the Korean War. In another neat little feature that stands out, the radio news has time-period appropriate news items on it, mixed in with local news perhaps related to your own play. In 1945, this includes news of the end of the Second World War in both Europe and Japan. In 1951, this includes reports of the fighting in Korea.
It’s a neat touch that nicely puts me in the mood to cycle back to Korea War gaming in one of my next posts.
*At some point in the story, the hero mentions that he earned a Purple Heart (obviously, he is back in the States due to a war wound) and a Distinguished Service Cross. Strangely, the backstory for what might have earned him such a significant award is not included, nor evident from the gameplay that is included. The character is cast much more as a reluctant conscript rather than a hero.
My History of Games series is intended to be an exploration of wargaming. Here I take a little diversion into some different genres.
L.A. Noire was billed as a major innovation in gaming at the time it was released. It had been developed using live actors and proprietary motion capture technology to use not only realistic looking 3D graphics, but to use the lifelike qualities of those graphics in-game. The player interacts with characters and can, indeed must, interpret their tone, body language and facial expressions to read between the lines of what is being said. A critical gameplay element is to observe suspects body language during interrogations in order to determine whether or not they are lying, and it is the motion capture that makes that body language realistic enough to read.
But in many other respects, L.A. Noire has the classic game elements that have been around for generations of PC games. Inside the overall L.A. Noire narrative, there’s the driving game, the the chase and shoot game, the button-mashing fisticuffs, and the pixel hunt. Even the “interview” innovation is probably very similar to many previous efforts – at its core, you are given a statement that you have to choose whether it true, false, or something in between.
So how do does one talk about this game? Is the focus on the facial reading? Is it on the “classic game?” Is it meant to be a “Grand Theft Auto” goes to Hollywood in the 40s?
Say Goodbye to Hollywoodland
One of my first reactions after starting up the game was wondering how much was made up. After all, they had replaced the iconic Hollywood sign with Hollywoodland! What I didn’t know then, but I know now, was realistic. Indeed the reproduction of Los Angeles paid meticulous attention to detail. The original sign was put up to advertise a new housing development called “Hollywoodland” and it did in fact still read that way in 1947, when this game is set. It wasn’t until 1949 when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce assumed responsibility for maintenance of the sign and, as part of that effort, removed the “LAND.”
The things you learn.
L.A. Noire has a minigame that involves spotting various landmarks in Los Angeles. When driving by a landmark for the first time, a key or button is pressed to glance at it, after which you receive some sort of bonus points for having found it. The rest of Los Angeles is also very detailed and varied, and the experience of driving from crime scene, to bar, to apartment, and then back to the police station does give the impression of being there. I don’t look for, and haven’t noticed, the repetitive scenery which often fills out games. It is obvious how much work has gone into the details. It does make me wonder about its accuracy. How close is this to a Google Earth from 1947?
Beyond the scenery, the style of the game is a mix between ripped-from-the-40s-headlines and the film noir of the period. Probably more the latter than the former. Any semblance of historical immersion, though, is pretty much limited to the visuals. Driving, shooting, as well as any other activities are meant to be gamey, not realistic. Dialog is meant to mimic movies, and modern ones at that. The story arcs are an exaggerated form of what we know to expect from this type of thing.
The Uncanny San Fernando Valley
So how about those graphics?
The game was some $50 million dollars and 7 years in the making. The concept of using live actors to provide realistic body-language in-game was heavily marketed in the development phase and meant to be a big new thing in the world of gaming. I don’t know much about video game marketing, and what constitutes a commercial success, but I’ve read it sold some 5 million copies. It sounds like it did OK.
On the other hand, I’ve yet to see any further use of this technology in any other games. There was initially some talk of a sequel, which I think people assumed meant more L.A. detective stories. Later, the developer announced a game taking place in China in 1936. That project was eventually shut down before release. One assumes that, whatever success of the original game, the costs of this style of graphical interface exceeded its value.
Back to the Basics
Putting all the rest of it aside, it isn’t a bad gaming experience, although for me not in that “best game ever” category by any means.
My impressions are marred by a few problems, mostly part and parcel of porting a console game to the PC.
One is the save and load system, necessary for console games but out-of-line with most made-for-PC games. Besides hardware and software limits on consoles, fixed save points can be used to up the challenge of a game – you can’t save right before a difficult task and then replay it until you get it right. Of course, it is frustrating have to go through a cut scene and some action to get back to the point that you actually want to play, because you couldn’t save where you wanted. It is also annoying to want to stop playing for the night, only to have to wait until the game decides it is time to save.
Another point of irritation is the lack of support for left handed mice. This game is hardly the worst offender, because some of the clicks can be remapped. But it forces me to think backwards with other menus. I plan to call out other culprits in future articles.
Speaking of key remapping, I’ve never been able to drive properly with WASD keys. I don’t have a console controller, so I dug out my wife’s old steering wheel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work either. Besides the fact that I keep reaching for a non-existent turn signal, the steering is designed around a controller, and doesn’t respond to the wheel in a natural way. I frequently find myself swerving down Ventura, as I try to get my steering back under control.
Then, to add insult to injury, with the steering wheel mapped in, some of the other controls don’t work as configured. In order to interrogate a suspect, I need to use one of the buttons on the steering wheel to interact with my notebook. I don’t know if it is a buggy port or just an unexpected controller fighting with other inputs.
Some of my issues with the game are not related to UI, but are baked into the design. As I said, despite all the 3D, the interrogation game comes down to a dialog tree with three choices. You can believe, disbelieve, or accuse them of lying (given proof found elsewhere). Choosing launches you into a further dialog. If you guessed right, you get additional choices or information. If wrong, the characters (you and the suspect) generally get mad at each other. The problem is, the apparent intricacies of the story don’t always fit this simple model.
I’ll give an example, hopefully without spoiling the plot. I am at the home of the husband of the victim, where I find a clue that would seem to indicate he had bad intentions toward his wife. However, other clues point towards someone else, yet to be discovered. In the dialog tree, I accuse the husband of killing his wife, which he vehemently denies. I believe him, but I do want to ask him about the clue. The problem is, the only way to bring up the clue is to accuse him of lying, bring up the clue, and then allow him to explain that it isn’t what it looks like, and he wasn’t lying after all. Not at all intuitive.
However, having learned my lesson, I’m faced with another suspect later in the game. Again, I’m pretty sure he’s innocent, but when I ask about his contact with the victim, he seems to be hiding information. So, this time, I accuse him of lying, referencing witness accounts of him being seen with the victim to back the accusation up. Turns out this isn’t the answer the game is looking for and the suspect gets all sullen and refuses to give information. Never did quite figure that one out. This guy, like a number of characters, seem to lie to the police for no reason whatsoever. I know they’re lying, but also know they have no involvement in the crime.
One part of the frustration is, unlike the traditional puzzle game conversation tree where you can generally get through all the branches eventually, in this game it is very easy to shut yourself off from the solution by picking the wrong choice. And when that choice starts to feel like a random stab at one out of three options, well, I don’t like those odds.
Overall, though, I can’t complain about the game. While it didn’t appear good enough to make it as a high-end development, top-tier game, as a bargain bin puzzle/action game with some very cool technology – it was worth what I paid for it.
Another Story about Night Vision
As it happened, the next book on my to-read shelf happened to be based in this same period. Once again, a fictional story based on real events.
Hot Springs by Stephen Hunter is a novel expanding out the story of his protagonist Earl Swagger. Much like L.A Noire, it starts with Earl’s return from the Pacific War, release from the (in this case) Marines, and beginnings as a officer of the law.
Rather than risk a review that might give away too much of the plot, I’ll offer a few impressions. However, if you want to know nothing from the book, skip ahead to the next section.
This book is what I would call a literary version of gun porn. Gun erotica, perhaps (although I’d advise against googling that)? The story describes firearms and their functionality in detail, including thorough and accurate descriptions of training and firefights. I suspect firearm aficionados love this stuff, and others probably don’t so much.
I was a little taken aback when I hit a point in the novel where an early version of night vision technology once again took on a major role in the plot development, as it did in several earlier novels by the same author. It became just one plot point of many that was built upon technical details of historic firearms models and tactics. And as I said above, this is good.
I do wonder how well the story holds on its own, without the “gun erotica.” I’m not sure it does, but I’m also not sure it matters. When we pick up an “Earl Swagger” novel, we expect a well told narrative peppered with guns, fights, and gun fights. It did strike me that this story would translate well to the big screen, and that may even be by design. If I were in the movie biz, I think I would enjoy paring this book down into a screenplay. It seems like it would fit just about right into a feature length film.
Día de Muertos
To wrap up this post, I give you Grim Fandango: Remastered.
Why? Why? Why? you may ask.
I started playing this at the same time I started L.A. Noire, in part to amuse my children around Halloween. And amused they are – they regularly ask to continue with the game. I also had never finished the game when I bought it in the CD jewel case, probably a year or so after it came out.
No, it’s not a wargame. It’s not even historical. It isn’t even an attempt to create a self-consistent reality. However, if I had to date it, I could see putting it sometime in the late 40s. The scenes back in the land of the living have a 40s look and feel, and the cars look shortly post war. Plus, the vibe of the game is, like L.A. Noire, that same film noir style.
At the time it came out, it was touted as one of the best of its genre – the puzzle game. The genre is one that I’ve generally avoided, although I have played enough to form the opinion that I don’t like it. At their worst, puzzle games involve hunting through the graphics for hidden hot spots, and then using the found items in non-intuitive combinations to “solve” the particular puzzle. I find it extremely frustrating. I suppose it would be one thing if the puzzles were truly brain teasers that could be worked out with some effort and knowledge. Too often, it seems to me, the only useful knowledge is a background in puzzle games, thus knowing what tricks tend to be thrown at you.
Grim Fandango was an improvement. It had a better story, better dialog and genuine humor. The puzzles themselves were supposed to be a bit easier than the norm for games at the time. At the peak of the puzzle games’ popularity, it was a game targeted a bit more towards the mass audience.
Back then, I was working on it at the same time as my wife. We would both try to do the same “level” at the same time, and help each other out if one of us figured it out first. Problem was, I’m not sure we very often figured it out. Eventually, she would crack and look up the solution on some cheat site. We only got so far. I decided that I was going to figure out the thing for myself, and I guess she lost interest to the point where she wasn’t looking up the answer. So we stopped.
At this point, I’m not yet back to where I’d left of before. Somewhere in Year 2, if you know the game.
It is worth making a gameplay comparison to L.A. Noire. The main difference between the two is that some of the L.A. Noire puzzle involve physical reactions – the driving, fighting, or shooting pieces. In Grim Fandango, all interaction (at least as far as I have seen) is simple moving and clicking. Unlike Grim Fandango, L.A. Noire has the ability to “fail.” However, if you fail on an action sequence or die in a gunfight, you’re simple given the opportunity to try it over. If you “fail” in an interrogation, you’re given a poor rating on the case, but you move on to the next case anyway. Effectively, not that much different than the keep-at-it-until-you-get-it mode of a Grim Fandango.
So in many ways Grim Fandango is an easier, “lighter” version of L.A. Noire. One drawback of Grim Fandango is that it can’t entirely get away from the puzzle game solution that is built of seemingly unrelated stuff you’ve found. L.A. Noire at least has you matching the clues in an intelligent way to the facts of the crime you are trying to solve.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Remastered” part of this game. It really does look and play great, post-facelift. In fact, a few UI anachronisms aside, I’d say the game could easily hold its own as a current title. Maybe not the A-list title that it was in its day, but its likely worth its full asking price of around $15 and definitely worth picking up on sale (as I did.)
And as I said, (quite unlike L.A. Noire), Grim Fandango is something that can be played with the kids.
My first post about the Cold War is about making the transition from WWII wargaming, where there is a multitude of treatment for most every part of the war, to the Cold War where, well, there isn’t. The post going to be divided into two parts, because the two games I kick of the Cold War with are not really related, except by starting date.
The Operational Art of War, Volume III
The greatest battle of the Cold War is the one that never happened.
While the Cold War ultimately touched nearly every corner of the globe and involved some decidedly “hot” fighting, preparations were for the massive showdown between West and East in Germany. Initial confrontations of the era took place across borders created by the position of troops at the end of the Second World War.
No border was more important than the division between the Western and Soviet occupied zones in Germany. Initially, the powers agreed that the goal was to prevent Germany from ever again amassing the power to start a World War. The unity of effort began to dissolve when the West saw that their policies were driving the population to Communism. While the original plan was a political reunification of Germany, it was clear that the West and the Soviets had very different concepts of what that unified Germany would look like. As tensions rose and the border between the occupations zones became the border between the world’s two great ideologies, a political reunification became impossible and a military unification seemed more and more likely.
For the next forty years, the powers prepared for battle between the Soviet Union and the West in Germany. Preparations for that battle determined the outcome of conflicts elsewhere in the globe, and vice versa. While wargames can be, and of course are, made about the various proxy wars, police actions, and revolutions that took place in lieu of that battle, the armchair commander will always long to command the full power of NATO or the Warsaw Pact in virtual battle.
My first game is a an Operational Art of War scenario that puts this battle into perhaps its earliest possible spot in the timeline. What if, as the U.S. and Soviet Russia squeezed the remnants of Nazi Germany between them, the ideological conflict between East and West turned immediately hot?
The Scenario is Patton 45, a scenario which shipped with the original “The Operational Art of War: Volume I” in 1998 (and was subtitled “Patton’s Nightmare” in that version), was designed by Doug Bevard to model a Soviet Offensive against Patton’s 3rd Army in Czechoslovakia.
The Scenario starts with the very real tension which mounted in the final weeks of World War II as both the Soviets and the West attempted to control territory before the Germany’s surrender.The final major offensive of the war took place in Czechoslovakia, as the Soviets sought to force the surrender of Germany Army Group Center and seize Prague. While the Americans had agreed on a demarcation line between U.S. and Soviet operations, the Czech army itself rose up against the Germans and threatened the possibility that they would defeat the Germans, possibly with American assistance. For the Germans themselves, there were many that were fighting their way Westward, preferring to surrender to the U.S. rather than the Soviets. Stalin forced a rapid attack, at significant human cost to the Soviet army, to insure that that post-war Prague was in Soviet hands.
The Scenario is based on negotiations taking place before the final creation of German Occupation zones at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. According the the scenario notes, when the a British negotiator suggested that the rebuilding of liberated Czechoslovakia should take place under the oversight of the West. In response, the Soviet negotiators not only rejected a loss of influence in Czechoslovakia, but demanded control over Southern Germany as well. While this discussion, apparently, never went any further the scenario hypotheses and alternate reality where the Soviets insisted on their position and, when further rebuked by the West, launch an offensive against the unprepared American army to physically occupy the ground.
In my opinion, the American Army as it now exists could beat the Russians with the greatest of ease, because, while the Russians have good infantry, they are lacking in artillery, air, tanks, and in the knowledge of the use of the combined arms, whereas we excel in all three of these. If it should be necessary to fight the Russians, the sooner we do it the better.
General George S. Patton, Jr. – May, 1945
The Operational Art of War is a game that I will certainly be coming back to. Originally released in 1998, it is currently being modified for a “Version 4” release. The current version is TOAW 3, which was released in 2006.
At the time in game out, it was a major game release, with top billing at many of the retailers of its day. Going from my own memory of my impressions at the time, I recall three unique features.
- It was a system capable of simulating virtually any battle from the World War I era to current events and beyond. The game released with scenarios spanning this range, but the system was also open to user-developed scenarios covering any battle or timeframe of interest. (I’m not sure if there is a definitive user-made scenario count, but I expect it is in the range of 1000 or higher)
- The focus was on simulating the Operational aspects of battles. Perhaps novel at the time (although fairly common today) was the emphasis on things like supply, as opposed to simply movement and combat.
- The combat factors were derived from the ground up, by modelling the individual units, weapons, and vehicles. This was intended to give a level of fidelity, particularly when modeling hypothetical scenarios, that simply assigning relative combat factors might not. In this, it still retains its novelty.
There are a lot of factors with this gaming system and the scenarios I’d like to discuss. How suitable is the hex-and-counter model for maneuver, when tactical factors are not present? (Compare, for instance, to games which use area movement). But for this post, my main focus is going to be on the difficulty of modelling a hypothetical situation like this. One where not only did the battle never take place, but where it didn’t take place was on ground which has not seen a modern battle.
While we are all familiar with the “high ground” of Gettysburg, the bridges leading to Arnhem, and the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy. But some stretch of terrain on the border of the Czech Republic and Germany doesn’t have that infamy. When modelling a battle that actually took place, there was a house, a church tower, a farm, an Orchard, or a series of bridges and the game just has to call these images to your mind. But what if it has to create that key crossroad out of whole cloth? It’s an intriguing proposition if it works, but also very difficult to pull off.
When playing the scenario, I based my plan on the assumption that the Soviet Army was a force that had spent itself defeating the Germans. This may or may not have been common knowledge at the time, but I suspect Patton would have made a similar assumption. I initially gave ground before each enemy attack until I had sufficient reinforcements available to make a stand.
The technique was extraordinarily effective. Whether it was in the design of the scenario, or just an artifact of playing against the computer*, I don’t know. I ended up with an overwhelming victory, which usually isn’t the case for me when playing TOAW.
Not that it bothers me. Giving the opponent a good walloping can make for a satisfying experience. In fact, given the choice between an nearly-impossible-to-win scenario and a cake-walk, I’d probably prefer the latter.
However, the experience did fall flat for me. I suspect the problem with the scenario design was, as I alluded to above, one of no familiar features to provide the hook. The chrome. Not knowing my Czech geography, the map largely was a set of random features. Woods, roads, rivers, and towns were all represented, but provided no structure; no story.
The scale of the units also adds to the “generic” feel of the gameplay. The counters represent the regimental-scale subunits of a division. As the screenshot shows, I’m about to complete my encirclement of one of the last Soviet pockets, leading with the reserve combat command (CCR) of the 11th Armored Division. That unit has a mix of medium M4 and light M24 tanks, and a whole lot of halftracks. How well do these match up against the Soviet T34s? Who knows? Who cares? While all these factors are included in the combat calculations, in actual gameplay the details take a back seat to just getting units (any units) into position and winning through weight of numbers.
Yes, it “matters” that my division is split up across the map, in that the combat factors are slightly degraded. But the loss of turns to try to reorganize would be a lot more costly than just absorbing that loss of efficiency. And this is realistic. It was not uncommon that battles were fought with whatever mix of units were available, independent of actual command structure. I’ll also guess that more than one attack ended up being spearheaded by the “reserve” command, when circumstances made that expedient.
My point is that when all this can be ignored, it will be ignored. Then the only difference between this battle, a battle in Normandy, or the Bulge or near Kursk, becomes different coloring on the units. I come away from the game, a little smug in the knowledge that George and I kicked some commie butt. But I gained no knowledge about how American Armor might have faced off against the great Guards Tank Armies of the USSR. Or how pitting Patton against Zukov might have actually played out.
At this point, I’m going to blame the scenario. It is a rather vanilla design, as far as the capabilities of the TOAW engine goes. There were no triggered political, weather or historical events (except some color commentary about goings-on elsewhere in the world.) I suspect the key to designing a scenario of this type is to put in a good amount of these kinds of extras to help drive a narrative.
Let’s see what happens the next time the U.S. meets the Soviets on a hypothetical Cold War battlefield.
(on to Part 2).
*Computer opponents in single player games are notoriously bad on the attack. I suspect the winning strategy for the Soviet side would be to take advantage of the initial superiority to defeat the waves of U.S. reinforcements piecemeal.