Jagged Alliance 2, nonfiction by Darius Kazemi, reviewed by Jeremy Behreandt

JA2-cover-nospine-shadow-wide_1024x1024Dave Anthony’s proposal at an address to The Atlantic Council on October 1st that we install plainclothes soldiers into schools has made it that much more difficult to deny the link between militarism and the video game industry. A newly appointed fellow to the council and the director of Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010) and its sequel, Anthony recommended that the government promote unpalatable policy with a marketing campaign. Meanwhile, the marketing for the next installment in the Call of Duty franchise, Advanced Warfare, not only features Kevin Spacey as the head of a Private Military Company, but also links the viewer to a 15 minute advertisement-documentary on PMCs co-created with Vice in which Blackwater founder Erik Prince is interviewed. According to Prince, “PMCs are as American as Thanksgiving day. The first colonies were started by contractors,” states Prince. “Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth Colonies were private endeavors.” As was the East India Company, I’m sure. Considering how long the list of grievances is, I wouldn’t blame Prince for missing the passage in The Declaration of Independence which accuses King George III of “transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny.” Also interviewed: Peter W. Singer, who served as a consultant on Black Ops II (2012) along with Oliver North. It is Black Ops II‘s portrayal of Manuel Noriega which prompted the former dictator to sue Activision, the company behind the game.

While it’s hard to predict how much credence Anthony’s beliefs will be given, or how much they reflect attitudes of the broader culture, I start here because of how newsworthy it all isn’t. As Simon Parkin reported early in 2013, ever since Goldeneye 007 (1997) galvanized the 3D first person shooter genre, game developers have had to either pay a licensing fee to arms manufacturers for the use of virtual representations of real guns or figure out clever workarounds. Realism makes for strange bedfellows. The business is serious enough to necessitate Cybergun, which

acts as an intermediary between gun and game makers, negotiating the licensing of weapons in games on behalf of brands including Uzi, Kalashnikov, Colt, FAMAS, FN Herstal, Sig Sauer, Mauser and Taurus.[…]

The costs of the licences Cybergun sell vary. “It may be a one-off fee, a royalty or revenue share, or simply promotion and endorsement,” says Toutain. “It totally depends on the product and how it fits our own product strategy. It will not be the same price for an independent studio that launches a free-to-play game and a blockbuster like Call of Duty or Battlefield that earn millions of dollars. But always our first objective for any gun is to increase [its] fame around the world.”

Let’s keep riding the way-back machine, this time courtesy Corey Mead’s book War Play. According to Mead, pioneering games like Spacewar! (1963) owe their existence to agreements between defense research and MIT. Marine Doom (1995), a mod of the id Software classic, was developed with training in mind; America’s Army (2002) was aimed at recruitment. Suffice it to say, the hyphen turns out to be the real workhorse of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex, which is today a military-academic-entertainment-carceral-industrial (am I forgetting any?) complex. There is no stance outside that complex which the hyphen does not touch. From here, we could go diachronic, back to von Reiswitz’s Kriegsspiel, or go synchronic and weave a web of intrigue to make Mark Lombardi proud. The boundaries between state and non-state actors have always been and will always be porous, whether we talk about condottierri or ronin, whether we talk militarized police in Ferguson or Bill O’Reilly’s twenty-five thousand man army. So, instead—

Jump cut to Darius Kazemi, author of both the manifesto “Fuck Videogames” and the Twitterbot “Metaphor-a-Minute!” The former work inspired me with the lines “Every medium is imbued with the exact same amount of possibility: it’s like the density of the Real Line. You can always drill down […] DON’T FUCKING LIMIT YOURSELF.” The latter put the fear in me that my attempts at poetry were obsolete with tweets like “an alacrity is a meringue: northeastwards and ramage” (That’s Middle English, by the way, not my typo. Had I seen a tweet with ‘kankedort’, I would’ve had an aneurysm.)

Having been more of a console than a PC gamer in my youth, I came to Kazemi’s book Jagged Alliance 2 more aware of the author—he’d been profiled in The Boston Globe—than his subject. Maybe I expected the entire book to be procedurally generated. Maybe I expected it to be written entirely in introductions, the next half the length of the previous; or written in aphorisms capped at one hundred forty characters. Unfair expectations be damned! Kazemi has written a book in a style inspired by Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of Technology, an all-killer-no-filler book of inside baseball interviews, a book which charts “the process that makes technical projects move from fictional entities to real entities.” But I should introduce Jagged Alliance 2, released for Windows in 1999, to better grasp Kazemi’s stylistic choice.

JA2’s opening cinematic introduces the fictional nation Arulco, where the former monarch has been framed for the murder of his father and deposed by his wife Deidranna, your nemesis. Two months later, on a stormy night in Prague, this exiled monarch meets you, a shadowy figure in a trench coat, and hands over a briefcase full of money. Every time your mercenaries team up with rebel forces to occupy a major urban area, the game cuts to Deidranna’s headquarters, where her effete assistant Elliot clears his throat and delivers the increasingly bad news. Deidranna slaps Elliot and calls him an idiot. Once you reach the capital city, Deidranna exclaims, “For Christ’s sake, Elliot, they’re practically in my back yard. Maybe we should have a barbecue, invite them over, have some champagne to celebrate their little victories!” After being shot by Deidranna, Elliot offers to clean up his own mess before dying.

If the game’s story seems a little thin based on that summary, I daresay there’s more to it than the war games at SCG International. The joy of JA2 lies in, as Rob Zacny explains in the foreword, how it provides players with a vast array of elements to build the stories they share with each other. You will be able to hire mercenaries from a large roster, each with a portrait, backstory, proficiencies, kit and fee. Each merc likes, dislikes, is liked by, and is disliked by other mercs; hence, your each hiring decision impinges on the next. A poorly recruited team’s morale will deteriorate until it becomes ineffective. You’ll also be able to study reconnaissance reports on Arulco and scan the various sectors of the island. While you can deploy mercs to any of those sectors (from A1 to P16) to engage Deidranna’s forces, not all sectors are strategically crucial. You must trade off skilling up your mercenaries against the cost of renewing their contracts or getting them killed; the mining operations which you liberate contain only a finite amount of ore to fill your coffers.

Once you do deploy your forces, the camera hovers over an isometric field. You will spend your turn assigning your mercs to cover, scouting ahead, scrounging for supplies, healing each other, tossing grenades, getting the jump on soldiers. A paradox in JA2 is that while the humans you order around are mere assets, you nevertheless come to care for them as you coordinate their abilities toward a shared goal. It is an approach that cannot be accounted for by cinematic conventions, which assume that the player should identify with whichever avatar’s ass the camera is staring at or whichever gun barrel the camera is staring down. Unlike other franchises with similar gameplay (X-Com, Fire Emblem), JA2 lets the character of each merc develop through brief samples of dialog activated in the midst of play. And while most other games about mercenaries are either side-scrolling pastiche of Eighties action flicks (I’m looking at you Broforce) or self-serious fifty shades of brown shooters, JA2’s gunplay is cerebral, deliberative.

There are plenty other reasons why JA2 is a rarity. Limitations on time, finances and labor prevent most developers from creating games in which content would go unseen on a single playthrough. Were Darius Kazemi to write an experiential account of the game, JA2’s charm would be lost. Kazemi instead decides to research key figures in the game’s development, explore the rationale behind the game’s Artificial Intelligence, and end on the game’s reception and modification by fans. While this means Kazemi skimps on acclimating the reader to JA2, he more than makes up for it elsewhere. Case in point, his interview with programmer Alex Meduna:

Because of the fog of war you’re not privy to what’s going on, but that was one of my big tasks, playing the role of the bad guy. How hard do you make it? It’s always a huge debate on how challenging should it be. […] it’s relatively easy to make a numbering-crunching computer be fairly ruthless and efficient, at least in a numerically analyzable tile-based, turn-based game where the AI has the luxury of being able to “think” quite thoroughly, versus a performance sensitive realtime simulation. So we could certainly make it gang up all the time on the weakest and most injured mercs, concentrate their fire, send every guy in the sector after them when alarm is raised, etc. But that’s generally too deadly and thus not a lot of fun. So you have to put in a lot of artificial limitations, so enemies generally don’t make the smartest decisions possible to them.

To generalize, super-soldiers who telepathically know where you are and teleport to your location are about as thoughtless as shuffling zombies. If you begin by giving enemy soldiers a cone of vision and radius of hearing, then you wind up asking yourself how to make the soldier test for conditions of light vs. dark, topology, camouflage. A simple AI that works on a few variables and rolls of the dice might prove a more convincing opponent than a very ornate AI which tracks many conditions except the one unforeseeable condition which the player exploits.

Kazemi’s goal in writing JA2 is objectivitya “fact-based book, grounded in reality”a book, he explains in his introduction, intended to contrast with Brandon Keogh’s book about Spec Ops: The Line, a third-person shooter which retells Apocalypse Now‘s retelling of Heart of Darkness in Vietnam in Dubai. Was that confusing? Good. Because reality is precisely what is in question in Spec Ops: The Line, and an objective interpretation of delusion would be itself deluded. By the end of the intro, Kazemi states, “I discovered something that should have been obvious to me from the beginning: There is no way to talk about a game without bringing your own interpretation to the table. Even ‘hard facts’ require interpretation.” This revelation can on first glance seem pat, since many pages of the objective approach follow. However, I think if anything Kazemi undersells the importance of his discovery, perhaps because few to no one could anticipate that his book on JA2 would be published amidst the #gamergate clusterfuck of anti-feminism and misogyny masquerading as moral outrage. If only we could return to the halcyon days when all we had to debate whether or not reviews should be “objective” with an inflated numerical rating to tell you to go buy buy buy!

Yes, as butt ugly as #gamergate is, it touches on issues central to video game creation and critique; it’s unavoidable. Don’t worry, dear reader, I won’t be concluding my review with a numerical score, especially not after the backlash to Polygon’s review of Bayonetta 2.

Here’s an example of how objectivity leads Kazemi ’round the ouroboros and into the subjective through the backdoor. In detailing one of JA2’s side quests, Kazemi observes that,

If a female mercenary speaks to the family patriarch, the player is offered the chance to trade her hand in marriage for access to the weapons cache. In typical Jagged Alliance style, if you choose to go this route, a lot of your mercenaries become understandably upset, with at least one mercenary having a unique response if you marry off his love interest. The way the game handles this is through a character’s “Sexist Level”:

                typedef enum
                NOT_SEXIST = 0,
                } SexistLevels;

It turns out that men and women can have various levels of the “sexist” trait, and men can have the “gentleman” trait. Women with the sexist trait and men with the gentleman trait get upset when a woman is married off to the Hicks family.

Yes, in the JA2 source code, a helpful note explains that a feminist character “hates men,” rehashing a popular belief in the tech industry that feminism is a kind of “reverse sexism.”

What those clamoring for fair and balanced game reporting ignore is how game developers are themselves partisan. Coding human behavior is inherently ideological because code operates according to logic and quantity. Try coding the non-quantifiable and/or irrational and you wind up with the strange scenario above. I’ve spoken disparagingly in the past about critiquing games from a cultural studies lens and I have to eat my words. With crow. Yum. Critique game qua game, I would say, not game qua cereal box. Kazemi’s skill is in doing both simultaneously. I do have to point out a less sterling passage, though:

JA2 contains racism, sexism, xenophobia, government-sponsored torture, child labor, and extreme economic inequality. And yet it’s difficult to say what the game’s overall stance is on these issues. JA2 is highly pluralistic, allowing you to play all sorts of characters from all sorts of backgrounds. That pluralism leads to a kind of moral relativism.[…]

JA2’s pluralism is not an arbitrary decision: It mirrors the core Canadian value of multiculturalism, which evolved out of longstanding discussions of “biculturalism” that arose from historical tensions between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians. Declared an official state policy in 1971, multiculturalism is distinct from the American concept of a “melting pot” in that it is anti-assimilationist.

I rather suspect Kazemi is straining here to give JA2 a pass. It’s possible to equate pluralism with moral relativism, but not advisable to do so without explanation. And would you believe me if I said that Rockstar North’s Edinburgh surroundings contribute to the no-please-believe-us-it’s-supposed-to-be-satire violence in Grand Theft Auto I – V (1997-2014), or that Interplay’s California locale contributes to the post-apocalyptic violence in Fallout (1997)? Whether you want to attribute the less-than-mature treatment of mature themes to tech industry, gamer subculture, libertarian ideology, a reaction to political correctness or whatever, it was and continues to be post-national and near ubiquitous.

Still, Kazemi is refreshingly honest about one thing: how difficult it is to determine JA2’s stance on the violence it either simulates or gamifies or both. If a game allows the player to enact certain deviant behaviors in spectacular fashion, yet penalizes the player for committing themfor example, Hitman: Absolution permits you to kill innocent civilians and drag around their corpses but then docks you points for doing sowhich message is it conveying more strongly? For one party to the argument, the player and designer collaborate in actualizing the possible deviance; interactivity makes the message more ambiguous in games than it would be in television or cinema. For another party, the point penalty is not only a crude reduction of gender ethics to Benthamite utilitarianism (-5 utils to you, like you give a shit) but also the most implausible plausible deniability. And Hitman: Absolution‘s stance becomes substantially less ambiguous when you consider the game’s sexy nun assassin trailer.

So if we haven’t considered Deidranna the iron lady at the center of JA2 in light of Lady Macbeth or Elizabeth Bathory or Elena Ceausescu, maybe we could. And if we haven’t considered JA2 in light of 2004’s attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea, maybe we could. The question here is not whether JA2 is realism or entertainment, the question is where and to what extent it chooses to be realist and where and to what extent it chooses to be entertainment. The turn-based gameplay suggests JA2 is entertainment, yet there is a realism to the aesthesis of JA2 absent in other turn-based tactics games. Why, for example, does it choose to make the overthrow of a dictator so childishly black and white while nevertheless devoting effort to realistically simulating weapons and ammunition, the persistence of corpses, the gathering of vultures? As Kazemi phrases it,

war-themed video games are perceived as being realistic, yet there are always three different factors at play: The reality of war, the fantasy of the video game, and the fantasy of war that is manufactured by the military, the entertainment industry, and the media. No matter what a war-themed video game claims to do, it inevitably simulates the cultural fantasy of war and never war itself.

We’ll likely never settle on how much videogames shape real world violence; that argument often distracts us from how real world violence shapes videogames. To quote Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, “Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death.[…] Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it.” If Kazemi wonders why there aren’t more games like JA2, he can be commended for contributing to how to improve the next game like it via his thoughtful writing.

Jagged Alliance 2, by Darius Kazemi. Los Angeles, California. 138 pages. $14.95, paper.

Jeremy Behreandt was raised in Park Falls, Wisconsin. He received his BA from UW-Eau Claire and his MFA from The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His first chapbook, The Wilhelm Scream, was published by Plumberries Press.

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