Playing Wargames: The story of “Under Ash” and the lessons learned from it.
Posted on Tuesday, October 12 2010 @ 15:55:34 PST
With “Medal of Honor” being released today, I did want to bring up another first person wargame that has been in development and was released in the year 2000, a classic known as “Under Ash.”
Now many of you reading this right now may be wondering, what game I am talking about. Well, the game in question “Under Ash” is a 2000 first person shooter conceived and developed by independent game developer Radwan Kasmiya. Kasmiya is a long time gamer living in Damascus, Syria, who developed “Under Ash” with a team of five back in the late 1990’s. The game, based on the real life events of the First Intifada, a declared uprising of the Palestinians against the occupying forces of Israel from 1987-1993.
Now many of you are probably thinking, “oh no, this is going to get serious.” Well, the game has you star as Ahmed, a young Palestinian who feels obligated to become involved in the conflict by taking up arms against Israel. The twelve hour first person shooter features no medpacks, no intel to find, and no possible way of winning, since the uprising ended in Palestinian defeat. If you are shot once, the game ends. If you shoot innocent lives, the game ends. The game is designed to be difficult to mirror the conflict itself, a conflict that is continuous to this day.
Despite being an indie game, it was immensely popular in the Middle East, selling around 500,000 units as of 2010. The game also spawned a sequel, “Under Siege” which has sold over a million copies in the region.
But why am I highlighting two games about the Israeli-Palestine conflict? Well, for perspective sakes frankly. Kasmiya’s game is, of course, controversial for several reasons. It is seen as a major piece of propaganda to Israel, and ironically enough, a weak form of propaganda in Palestine. Internationally, the game itself is often cited as propaganda and a weak attempt at recruitment for the cause in Palestine. But Kasmiya would be the first to point out that this is not the case for “Under Ash” and “Under Siege”. “These are indie games, not propaganda.” He ardently says, noting that “The news likes to put fire underneath stories.” A truer statement if there ever was one.
An experience like “Under Ash” does not just make for a challenging game, but it is also a teacher of sorts for gamers, and not just of another struggle and culture from our own. The unbiased and real presentation “Under Ash” and its sequel present to gamers is an approach many FPS wargames should take, at least when dealing with the storyline. No B-movie action plots, no generic “opposing forces” or jingoistic pride for the “theoretical good guys” in many wargames. What is needed is a raw, harsh representation of both sides of a conflict need to be made, without the attachment of stigmatized labels and media-induced controversy.
But what Kasmiya’s true goal here is not to create a political statement, but an experience that would resonate with many young Middle Easterners. “If you compare my games to a triple-A shooting game, I lose. What I can do is create a unique story.”
Kasmiya’s story is one that does this. You can’t willingly switch characters in the game, or change the sides and play as the “theoretical good guys” over the “theoretical bad guys” in the game, because there never really is a good or bad side in open conflicts. This is an important lesson, especially since the flack that “Medal of Honor” recently received for including Taliban fighters in the multi-player aspect of their game cause last minute changes to the game before launch.
The U.S military, citing this acknowledgement of the concept of the “theoretical good/bad guys” are necessary for a video game, decided to pull support for the game, which deals with the modern war in Afghanistan. The U.S military decided to pull the game from Gamestops located on army bases, and then pulled any support for the game all-together, with Electronic Arts, in return, renaming the Taliban as the generic “opposing forces” team.
This controversy is not new, as those who remember Konami’s “Six Days in Fallujah” which dealt with a real life battle and interviews of both American and Iraqi soldiers and the use of Al-Queda in multi-player. That game too, was highly controversial and was removed from production by Konami, with developer Atomic Games still searching for a publisher.
What is fascinating to me is how much controversy we have for the real life events of our armed forces when the realm of video games becomes involved. Games like “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor” have, when dealing with World War II, never been shy of depicting real life events for gamers to enjoy and live through, and not just on the side of the Americans but also for the British and Russian forces as well. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” implied modern turmoil with Russian Nationalists and Middle Eastern Insurgent Fighters as the primary antagonists in the first game, using the efforts of the U.S Military and the amoral British Special Forces as the vanguards of the security of the free world.
The second game in the series was much more poignant, with it being an inside job at the expanse of sustaining war, an aspect of Call of Duty, while I have adamantly dismissed as a slice of typical, espionage war fiction this side of Tom Clancy, is not without its moments of brilliance into the plot. The now infamous “No Russian” mission comes to mind, but even Kasimya believes that is not crossing a line in a sense. “The media created that line.” Says Kasimya. “It is a virtual line. That virtual line is in the mind.” In a sense he is correct, as the hubbub over the mission, I felt personally, was misplaced for “Modern Warfare 2” and was integral to the plot of the game.
But instead of waxing on the particulars of one game, what lessons we need to gleam from this is that controversy in any form can occur for a good game. But how that controversy is dealt with is what would make the game, as a statement of the developers, more poignant. Would removing the name “Taliban” from “Medal of Honor” really be a detriment to the U.S forces in Afghanistan right now? Should a game like “Six Days in Fallujah” be published because of its more grounded approach at a specific battle in a recent war? Would playing a game like “Under Ash” or “Under Siege” be considered propaganda because they take an eerily realistic approach at events in the past and opt not to gloss it up with staunch jingoism and propaganda? In the end, only we as individuals can decide what we feel is right and wrong about games like this, because there is no right or wrong answer to this conflict.
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An Open Letter to Robert Kotick
Posted on Monday, July 12 2010 @ 17:16:06 PST
Dear Mr. Robert Kotick,
While I know you are a busy man as the CEO of Activision-Blizzard, I implore you to take some time to read this open letter to you, sir.
As a gamer for over twenty years, I have seen many trends come and go in our industry, some good, some bad, and some just totally unexplainable in terms of their popularity. From this, franchises were born through great perseverance and clever designs by the developers and publishers that you both control and represent in your company.
And a fine company it is. Activision has been a fixture since 1979, and that is over thirty years of producing and developing great games. Hell, video game aficionados probably have nothing but the utmost respect for Activision as an entity since it was the first independent video game developer in the United States. And no doubt that Activision will be a continued pillar of the video game industry, one that I doubt will be shaken too much by any criticism that the company has, or will, receive in the future.
But I must admit, the purpose of this letter is to list a series of complaints of your current business model. Ever since the announcement of the merger between your company, Viveldi, and Blizzard, I admit it was perhaps the most lucrative and interesting deal since the merger between Squaresoft and Enix back in 2003. The excitement of seeing great franchises such as “Warcraft III” and “Tony Hawk” under one roof meant for a powerful entity; a kind of super-corporation that possibly only rivaled a company like Electronic Arts in terms of it’s publishing power. It was an exciting time.
But I must admit in the past few years, the excitement has deflated into a mere roll of the eyes as it were to what has been presented to us. Since the merger, there has been much publicity of the dropped excess that your company decided to cut. From that list were a slew of new I.P’s and a number of risky movie games, including “Ghostbusters“, “Brutal Legend“, “Wet“, and “Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena.” While I admit that these games are not million dollar seller’s in retrospect, at the time many gamers on the more creative side were fairly upset over the dropping of these new titles.
However, what exacerbated this was your own comments on the new direction Activision is creating. You have been quoted in saying, on a cited source on wikipedia at least, that your goal for the company are games that“…have the potential to be exploited every year on every platform with clear sequel potential and have the potential to become $100 million franchises.” An admirable goal indeed that will no doubt make the company rich in the short term. This narrow field of vision however is rife with pro’s and con’s that I do wish to address.
For the most part, you are looking at a rather substantial profit increase for Activision-Blizzard and it’s subsidiaries. Profit margins have increased steadily, and the market for your game franchises has no doubt tripled in the past three years, effectively harvesting more gamers per franchise than any company in existence, possibly surpassing the diehard fans of Nintendo franchises and the Halo Universe.
And from this have come some really good games and some impressive innovations have come with it. “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare” has effectively revitalized the multi-player world with it’s level up/role playing style of customization. “Guitar Hero” had previously revitalized the rhythm market, and despite some criticism, the creating of games like “DJ Hero” have effectively brought more talent from the music world into video games. You also attempted to innovate with the “Tony Hawk” series, and you continually generate influence for Massively Multi-player Online games thanks to the updates and released of “World of Warcraft.” This is a really good track record, one that is overlooked by many who sharply criticize you.
However, from this narrow view of million dollar franchises, a few things are lost in the process. The first is what everyone cites; innovation becomes stagnant and almost non-existent. Since the merger, there has only been one noticeable new I.P created, and that is “Prototype.” Other than that, the constant releasing of the same core franchises, namely “Guitar Hero”, “Call of Duty”, “Starcraft”, “Diablo” and “Tony Hawk” has done something to these franchises that is a potential killer to sales, and that is over-saturation.
Consider this. Ubisoft’s “Splinter Cell” series was, back in the early 2000’s, released once a year for three years straight at one point. The “Prince of Persia” series, when it was rebooted by Ubisoft, ran from 2003-2005, releasing games yearly, with two handheld versions both coming out in 2005 at the same time as “The Two Thrones.” The reason why I bring these two franchises up is because as time went on, the quality of the two games began to wane on gamers. While the metacritic scores would show the series holding steady, that is the very problem with the games being released once a year. It becomes stagnant, boiler plate, run of the mill, as it were. It becomes generic and gamers become jaded.
Franchises that become jaded lose their luster and gamers begin to turn on them for something new or innovative. They won’t abandon them because of what made them great, but they become aware of this stagnancy for the most part. Note that I am taking about gamers, and not the general audience. I admit, we are a small and motley group, often quick to criticize and stubborn to change, but we make our opinions known, sometimes loudly, when we feel that there is a chance for something to change for the better.
Your dropping of “Brutal Legend” for example showcases this. Dropping the title, then sueing Double Fine for a breach of contract after you readily dropped the game for $15 million dollars, claiming that the developer was still in contract. What is worse, your newest “Guitar Hero” game, “Warriors of Rock,” seems to have gleamed a similar art style seen in “Brutal Legend”, a game that has you play heavy metal songs in a heavy metal fantasy world. The similarities are a bit too jarring, to be frank. Even worse is your current predicament with Infinity Ward, the former developer of “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” and “Modern Warfare 2.” While I will not discuss the issues of this here because I do not know all of the details of this case, but it is turning into a media quagmire for your company.
As it stands though, your narrow focus as I have said seems like a short term grab for profit over the long term rooting of franchises and fostering innovative titles in the coming years. Video Games is a business that was forged on risks and creativity. Your own companies history shows this, and I hope that in the future you forego this current model of business and take more risks in the future. Over-saturation and lack of innovation can keep franchises, and gamers, constantly yearning for more changes to them, and eventually turn their backs on what they once beloved. I do hope that my words reach you, Mr. Kotick, and that at the very least, you take some of these words to heart, as unlikely as this may be. I do hope to see great things from Activision-Blizzard in the future, and new I.P’s in your pipeline to revitalize your hardcore fan base.
Thank you very much sir,
Robert “LinksOcarina” Grosso
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National Poetry in Your Pocket Day
Posted on Thursday, April 29 2010 @ 13:19:37 PST
And now for something bleak...
Clouded mind, clouded judgement,
trapped in a thick black haze,
consuming, controlling my very thoughts,
stuck in an endless maze.
No entrance, no exit,
no opening in my gaze,
trapped to wander endlessly
for the rest of my days.
And as a bonus, a short story for you all!
Thank You, Joe
Joe Calvo, 45 years old, a businessman, dead.
Unsure how he died. People said he just collapased in the middle of the sidewalk. Most likely a heart attack or something. Someone attempted recussitation but it was definitly too late.
And like that, it’s another weak case.
Death is death at the scene, but after so many cases, dealing with the run of the mill gets boorish after a long while. Id rather something along the lines of the macabe, a body torn in half, a severed arm or two. Sadistic yes, but after twenty or so years as an active coronor, I am sick of the simple stuff. Sure, a stabbing or gunshot here and there and I get called in to remove the corpses of the victims, but even then that’s no longer shocking unless if it’s something really tragic, like a child.
Poor me that Joe wasn’t a child. He was also pretty fit to have a heart attack, but you can be a muscle-bound freak and have your chest burst open for steroid use, so only toxicology will report this. So run of the mill. So boring. I pack up Joe for his second to last ride, his black suit now over his cold eyes. I’m alone today, a beautiful day it is too. A sunny day in Spring, with green grass rising above the knees of passerbys and goldenrod flowers sprouting like weeds along the cemented pathways. A day I won’t enjoy because of Joe. Because of a 45 year old in the back of my van.
No, thanks to him I get to enjoy the sterilness of the whitewashed rooms, the artificial heat of the flourescent lamposts as I scribble the facts and start the embalming. My greens and yellows become fluids that would make others regurgitate their lunches. A collage of chemicals to keep up the facade of living for Joe. To keep him fresh. Life-like. Always a pain to deal with.
I pull into his new home. Security wasn’t even around, probably wading through the grass on this lovely day, listening to music or basking in the sunlight. I pull the van up to it’s space. Nice and steady, because I don’t want to distrub Joe’s rest, even though nothing will.
I open the back door with my vinyl hands, the touch almost non existant yet still cold. I see his black suit, covering him, like a plastic blanket for a deep sleep. I guess I can be jealous of him. Jealous of Joe, at least a bit. He doesn’t have to work anymore. Unlike this now. I guess I shouldn’t be happy. It could be worse. I could be Joe.
I clutch the zipper to gaze at his face once more. Morbid curiosity I guess. No one else will view Joe now. What struck me was that his eyes were open when I did, colored yellow as if he had jaundice. His mouth was agape, his teeth brandished.
He bites into my safety suit. His teeth can’t cut through the tinfoiled fabric. They never learn I guess. I push him off and Joe goes down hard, still trapped in his new suit. I see Joe trying to grab the zipper, but he won’t pull it down. They never do. Not in time at least. I take my pocket knife. Swiss made. Standard issue to all coronors now, along with the tinfoil lined safety suits. One quick jab in the head and he is down. Fully dead. Totally dead.
I sigh a bit. At least we had some excitement now. At least Joe made things interesting again. Thank you, Joe. Thank you for that.
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Modern Myths, Interactive Adventures
Posted on Thursday, April 22 2010 @ 14:37:28 PST
Throughout my years in school, even to this day, I have always been fascinated by the stories of mythology and legend. The fantastic stories of Greeks like Perseus and Odysseus to Athurian Legend have been great facets of shaping my psyche on storyte... read more...
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The Narrative of Video Games (Version 2)
Posted on Saturday, April 3 2010 @ 10:53:04 PST
This is a re-write of my Narrative of Video Games Blog that I have tinkered with for the past few months. Enjoy it guys, this is the entire article in full.
Today it is hard to imagine a world without video games, let alone the style of ga... read more...
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Finally going somewhere!
Posted on Thursday, February 18 2010 @ 16:27:56 PST
It's been a while since I posted, but I have been busy.
With two new jobs....that are pretty awesome.
The first one is a teaching position with middle school kids that have high functioning (and in some cases lower functioning) ... read more...
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The Point of Pointlessness: Or How I Stopped Worrying About the VGA's and Dropped This Bomb
Posted on Saturday, November 28 2009 @ 10:12:04 PST
As the holidays draw closer to us, three things happen. One, a ton of shopping for your respected holiday, but it Christmas, Chanukah, or Festivus to name a few, will likely get done. Second, you’ll get fat with all the food you will eat. Al... read more...
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Games Are Not Art: Response and Proposal
Posted on Wednesday, October 28 2009 @ 13:39:17 PST
Video games is such a diverse medium that it is somewhat easy to forget that differing opinions, however alien they may be to your own, are welcome for a critical debate. Recently, a forum user named Melaisis posted a rather interesting article title... read more...
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Arnold J. Toynbee
Posted on Monday, October 5 2009 @ 12:23:05 PST
Normally I don't do this, but frankly i'm tired and I figure if you guys like me, you can share in my pain.
For the past three weeks I have been preparing for writing an annotated bibliography on one Arnold J. Toynbee, a contemporary ... read more...
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The Narrative of Video Games, Part 1
Posted on Friday, September 18 2009 @ 09:11:53 PST
Today it is hard to imagine a world without video games, let alone the style of games many newer generations have become accustomed to. Like in “Back to the Future, Part II”, the scene where Marty McFly plays “W... read more...
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