Creating compelling and interesting moral choices in video games is particularly tricky, the evidence of which can be seen in more games than I can shake a stick at. Indeed, were I to actually try and shake a stick at all of them, I’d probably end up with forearms more muscular than a teenager who just discovered the seedier side of the internet. Too often the decisions in video games lack complexity, usually offering only two options to the player, ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Even then, there’s usually little motivation for choosing to be bad.
If you’re good, not only do you have a host of NPCs telling you how awesome you are thanks to your heroic virtue signalling, they’ll also give you lots of fantastic gifts. Undertaking bad actions on the other hand, just has the effect of making a lot of people want to kill you, often ensuring progression through the game is much more difficult. It’s morally simplistic and also a poor reflection of reality. After all, if doing bad things provided no benefit then why would anyone do them?
It’s refreshing then, that into the currently stagnant game mechanic of moral choices a new contender emerges; Burden of Command. Set in World War II, Burden of Command is a turn-based strategy game with the particularly interesting remit of creating a psychological battlefield. This means the game will focus on the themes of morale, stress, experience, trust and respect. I was particularly interested therefore, to have a chat with project lead, Luke Hughes. With A PHD in AI from Yale and a Masters in Neurophysiology and Psychology from Oxford, he’s clearly a rather clever chap and has many fascinating insights.
This being a Playing with History article, the first thing I asked Luke was if Burden of Command focuses on soldiers who really fought in WWII? ”We take a real regiment,” he replied, ”which is a fairly large unit, and we take a company of them of about a hundred men. Our company is fictional, but the regiment they are a part of is real, the Cottonbalers. It’s a regiment that I think has been through all the American Conflicts since 1812 and John McManus, a historian who playtests for us, wrote their history. So we follow their history really carefully. You go to the places they went, the battles they went to, deal with the things they dealt with. We take liberty to inject events that may or may not have happened to them, but typically happened in other places in the war or to other people. Our licence is authentic, but we draw from anywhere in WWII where relevant with a bias to the Cottonbalers.”
The player follows the exploits of the Cottonbalers through a series of conflicts in a turn-based, table top strategy format. Within this, the game tasks you with making difficult decisions to dynamic situations. It is these decisions that are intended to be psychologically intensive, to attempt to portray what it would have been like to make these choices under pressure in real life.
But spotting the right decision to make in a video game is easy, right? ”There’s no right choice, so what is right for your leadership style?” Luke responded, ”Let me give you an example; this is a historic one the Cottonbalers had to deal with. So, they’ve just taken this hill and this battalion of Germans – which is basically three times their size – appears and it’s pretty likely they’re going to get their asses kicked if they stay. What’s your responsibility? To stay and fight or withdraw? One of the problems is there’s some other Americans on your flank, so if you withdraw they’re going to take the pain rather than you. Or maybe your first responsibility is your men? Maybe your first responsibility is to the mission? What’s your style?”
”To boil it down, Burden of Command is man verses the mission. On the one hand, you can argue that your central moral responsibility is to serve the mission. I mean you want to beat the Nazis. Maybe you should always make the hard decisions and cost the lives of your men? Because in the end, it’s more important to win the war isn’t it? You can be a hard charging guy through the war, you’ll lead efficiently, but the men probably won’t trust you because they know you’re the butcher, you’re willing to get them killed for the mission. But maybe that’s still the right thing to do? Some generals are seen as butchers, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good generals.”
”Inversely, you might decide you need their trust, that you can’t be an effective leader without their trust. I can’t get them to follow me and assault when the time comes if they don’t trust me. Just for military tactical purposes maybe I will protect them because that’s a good leadership style. And finally, maybe I need to protect them because they’re other people. So, you tell me, what was the right decision there? Was it the guy who actually helped win the war? Maybe the ruthless guy saved more lives, but not those of his own men. Maybe the compassionate guy saved more of his men, but cost more lives during the war for other people. I don’t know the right answer there. In Burden of Command you’ll find your own anwer.”
It’s in finding this answer that the premise behind Burden of Command separates itself from the moral simplicity of most video games. In a game if you do a good thing then this usually results in a good outcome, and a bad thing a bad outcome, but perhaps with a personal upside. But in this example, to choose the morally righteous answer and to protect your own men could have a catastrophic effect on the outcome of the war and result in the deaths of tens of thousands. Does that make it any easier to consign someone who is a father, husband and son to his death?
What is it then, that makes for a morally interesting decision in a video game? ”Put in front of the player several resources that they care about,” Luke replied, ”like their prestige, or their trust with the men, or casualties or not, or what their superior will think of them or what they will morally think of themselves, and then tie them to different decisions and don’t let you have all of them. Now you’re in a quandary.”
And it’s this that makes Burden of Command so intriguing. In its attempts to recreate the impossible decisions that a leader would have had to make – knowing full well that maybe there is no right choice and perhaps that every possible option is the wrong one. Will Burden of Command be successful in discovering how to make the concept of a psychological battlefield work as a video concept? I want to be at the front of the line to find out.
Thanks to Luke Hughes for taking the time to chat with us. You can find out more information about Burden of Command here. You can also keep up to date with the development of the game on Facebook and Twitter.
We’ll be returning to Burden of Command in a future Playing with History to discuss historical authenticity in video games and why – or if – it matters.