Reversal #1: Military Idealism in Macro Land

by Indiana… on Monday, 7 February 2011

Advance Wars at its simplest is an abstraction; an 'ideal war': it is no war you have ever seen, but it is in its own way deeply reminiscent of any modern war. However its almost geometric simplicity and focus on the superiority of attack brings to mind the 'ideal war' not of Clausewitz himself—who oft stressed the superiority of defense — but the Clausewitz many late Prussian and early German strategists imagined and assumed to exist.

It conjures a pop coloured land where the logistics are easy, momentum endless and the Schlieffen plan would have worked flawlessly: a strange logical fantasy that lives somewhere between the World Wars and in the minds of those who believed the adage that "the war would be over by Christmas". In this neat little world the trains most definitely run on time, and almost all of Clausewitz's ideals abound, unapologetically true (centres of gravity are easily swapped for headquarters, troops are automaton, civilians are essentially nonexistent —bar something to be colonised under foot, funds are infinite much like manpower etc) all except the essential unpredictability of war. AW is a science not an art —a facet of the game encouraged by the grades one receives for success, and an oddly personality driven one at that.

Chess board
No CO powers here…
Military genius is the order of the day with Commanding Officer's (CO) powers and super CO's powers often proving game changing in their all consuming significance; an addition that seems at first at odds with this quasi science but only further fits in this deeper vein of of idealism. It serves as yet another way of further denigrating the ordinary unit as each unit is, regardless of veterancy or nation, identical. All that matters in this universe is the will of one; the stoic power of the individual —and their attendant military-industrial complex. After all, given how little characterisation is afforded to the troops themselves they may as well be nothing more then chits in this in-game universe. In fact, it often makes more sense to envision them as this, as the callous disregard COs otherwise seem to treat their troops with leads to a strong sense of ludo narrative dissonance*, with battle casualty counts that would no doubt stretch into the tens of thousands passing without any comment.
Kanbei: Emperor of Yellow Comet
A man all his brothers respect…

Indeed, with the character Kanbei we see the ultimate conclusion of this: even though his troops are demonstrated to be elite, they are in no way differently equipped from other Yellow Comet troops. It is just implied by Kanbei's presentation and CO powers (Samurai Spirit, Morale Boost, etc) that they try harder, as if all one needs to win the war/destroy an AA emplacement with a helicopter is to focus harder… laughable, surely.

ED Note [the information on Kanbei's troops is based on the, somewhat anachronistic, fact that in Dual Strike when you 'change' CO all these attributes are replaced by the other CO's attributes whilst the unit itself stays the same, which suggests there was no physical change; I hope this clears things up]

Whilst an adamant fan of the AW series, even I cannot ignore the odd parallels between this bright, attractive and fun game and the war propaganda of the early modern period… if Kitchner etc had really wanted 'you', they really should have made their own take on AW 2. No other piece I have come across — not even Obliterating Germany — so effectively draws the audience into its particular brand of the 'macho' mindset whilst carefully sweeping all consequence from sight.

I don't mean to end this piece on such a damning note, but really, regardless of its other merits its egregious and juvenile presentation of war must be pointed out as in its own way worse then the every easy target of the CoDs of this world, as whilst they atleast vainly gesture to a modicum of balance whilst reveling in the 'grim darkness' of war: AW in its colourful cheeriness plays it completely straight.

*Ludo narrative dissonance is simplest explained as a conflict between the the ludic, ie play, elements of the game and the narrative ones.

PS: Though it may be noted that playing many of AW's standard multiplayer maps even this logical fantasy breaks down, with wars of attrition both commonplace and extremely bloody —"no [fantasy] survives first contact". One could be forgiven for seeing this release into the wild as a peculiar parallel to the early days of WW1; the boundless optimism of single play confronted by grim reality.


I enjoyed this article greatly, but... "victoly"? Really? You're dropping in a not-even-very-funny Japanese stereotype that doesn't have anything to do with your article.

It leaves a sour taste in my mouth and because of it I can't really recommend the article to people read.

by Darius Kazemi on 18 February 2011 at 14:11. #

My apologies - while not my article, the actual image was created by Indiana and is intended to be a light-hearted parody of two things: the first and most obvious being Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign poster. As for the other: the tagline ‘victoly’ is a reference to the absurdly Engrish-laden videogame Samurai Shodown, which would end each match with a bold ‘VICTOLY!!’ emblazoned across the screen – something the series is still doing (and even partially renowned for) with Sen and phrases like “kill thousand of men” and “wild beasts in the wilds”. Given how the character of Kanbei himself is a rather obvious samurai stereotype (compare and contrast to the games' representations of muscle-bound Americans like Max, bearded Russians like Olaf, and Nazi Germany with Green Earth), it seemed to fit and we ran with it. As I recall, we made some for other COs, and after about a year or so they were left hanging around and we forgot about it…until, of course, we started the blog and hunted for appropriate images for articles. The last thing imagined – let alone intended – was any sort of offense taken to it…much like Samurai Shodown itself didn’t intend any.

by Rathe on 18 February 2011 at 14:55. #

@Darius Kazemi: Usually I would give you a full response but I can't help thinking Rathe has given a excellent explanation of this miscommunication.

I am disappointed you didn't see reference/joke here and I'm sorry for any offence caused, but I am glad you enjoyed the article regardless, I hope you feel more capable of sharing this now.

by Indiana… on 18 February 2011 at 17:07. #

Hey, thanks for changing the link to point to the original meme. I think that makes a big difference!

by Darius Kazemi on 18 February 2011 at 18:35. #

Absolutely no problem; we are glad to have had this potential pratfall pointed out to us, I just hope no one else left thinking we were racist.

by Indiana… on 18 February 2011 at 19:16. #

When using abbreviations it's normal to write the abbreviated word or phrase out in full and have the abbreviation in parenthesis in its first usage. Not everyone knows what 'CO Power' means.

It wouldn't hurt to double-check for grammar/typing mistakes either, while you're at it...

by Martin on 19 February 2011 at 22:05. #

@Martin: Done and done; one assumed this would not be an issue for the readership of this site but really there is no excuse for sloppy writing, and as such thank you for the pertinent advice.

by Indiana… on 19 February 2011 at 23:59. #

AW seems like such an odd series to go after. I agree that historical war table-top games and endless celebratory war documentaries intellectualize and romanticize the "clean" logistics of war, making war in general easier to swallow if not tactically exciting.

But the mechanics of AW are so divorced from actual conflict that it's difficult to imagine the games could ever fill any sort of propaganda role. AW parallels the logistics of chess more than it does a world war. It's difficult to look at fighter blocking the path of a tank and see the board as anything but a collection of playing pieces.

And I know your argument is that war is completely simplified in this game, but there's no initial connection to real war to make that a problem. Mario and Pacman are violent games but there's no real connection that's ever established to real violence to make their violence a problem.

by Anonymous on 20 February 2011 at 19:28. #

@Anon: One could look at the parallels to the WW2 powers but that analogy is hazy at best, and indeed I am 'not' saying saying that AW is propaganda of any kind; I am just noting the interesting similarities.

The fact that no one analyses AW is exactly why I thought it would be interesting to explore; maybe it is just my literature background but even if I 'know' the author didn't intend their output to have a 'message' I —and hopefully other readers of this blog— find it interesting to see what 'subconscious' messages we can glean.

My problem with AW —if I even have one— is more the stated ludo narrative dissonance between the plot (save the world, crush the bad guys etc) and the game play. For whilst the plot is not necessarily 'mature' it does have the granularity to include things such as [minor spoilers] as Hawke coming across to your side [end] and this recognition of the lack of a dichotomy between the sides in the game makes the mechanics of the game somewhat suspect to my eyes. If Hawke, one of the main leaders of Black Hole, is a 'good' man what about the hundreds of thousands of troops I killed on the way, let alone my own troops etc —the clones and robots open a whole other can of worms but let's leave that for now.

Indeed it is the contrast between this "collection of playing pieces" and the people we are presented with outside of battle that 'disturbs' me: Mario and Pacman never pretended to be about anything more then their mechanics —are goombas etc even sentient ? Their plots lack sufficient granularity to read this dissonance into them, of course if the villains and grunts of this game where given the personal fidelity of certain AW characters then this would be different.

by Indiana… on 20 February 2011 at 23:05. #

Ok, I mistakenly read your article as being about the social implications of AW (that it glamorizes and romanticizes war by reducing it to strategy and tactics) but now I see you were just pointing out the conflict between the story and game mechanics.

I've been reading too many sociology articles. Thanks for the reply.

by Anonymous on 21 February 2011 at 00:46. #

Absolutely no problem, we welcome discussion here at TCTFD, infact the internet comment thread would be a much nicer place if half the responses were as considered and polite as yours so it's my pleasure.

Vis-à-vis the sociology: an altogether too familiar feeling, I hope this article if nothing else provided an interesting contrast. That said I am interested in this idea of the glamourisation of war through simplification to "strategy and tactics", if only because the "strategy and tactics" are the part people tend to find most abhorrent; with out these elements you simply have politics.

Indeed the reason chess is so palatable is that it is about a "collection of playing pieces" rather then the optimal way to kill and maim cavalry and infantry. The closer one gets to the details of war the further one tends to move away from a pro war stance (very few people play ARMA 2 or Red Orchestra and feel thrilled at the prospect of participation), after all if chess modeled dismemberment, fatigue and armour penetration one suspects it would have a much less family friendly image.

However of course maybe I have missed some subtlety of this argument, due to the lateness of the hour ?

by Indiana… on 21 February 2011 at 02:19. #

I just mean that focusing on strategy and intellectualizing conflict is another method of sweeping away the gritty details of war. Talking in very general terms about combat maneuvers and troop movement keeps the perspective very sterile, very broad, far away from the death of the individual troop or civilian. 1,000 dead is just a statistic, they say.

The endless parade of WW2 documentaries speak in these terms. So do historically accurate table-top games, they revel in the accuracy of the conflict while romanticizing it, turning it into a collection of ingenious maneuvers performed by lager than life leaders. Even now with Iraq, American leaders use phrases like "the surge" to justify the war, framing the war not in terms of loss of life, but in terms of good and bad tactics.

That's what I thought you were getting at here with your article. That AW engages in this kind of whitewashing of war by minimizing the destructive effect conflict has on individual lives.

by Anonymous on 22 February 2011 at 04:10. #

Ah, I guess it was the lateness of the hour; I agree with you in the main it is just the use of the "tactics" that confused me, as that is "the gritty details of war".

So yes, in that sense, that is exactly what I was getting at with my article, I just got lost in the semantics of your point —apologies for that; glad to see some one agrees with me.

PS Now that I think about it the phrase 'surge' does sound oddly like a CO power, but then again modern political debate is practically as close as one can get to a new revival of pantomime.

by Indiana… on 22 February 2011 at 10:49. #

it's great

from darren

by Anonymous on 7 March 2011 at 13:39. #

Keep up the great work! Precious x

by Presh! on 2 April 2011 at 16:55. #

Leave your comment