Playing with History – Radio Commander and the challenges of historical authenticity

Good morning, Vietnam!

Can a video game ever truly be historically accurate? In visual terms, it is undoubtedly the case that they can. Take Assassin’s Creed: Origins as an example, we have vast swathes of Ptolemaic Egypt digitally recreated, from the apex of the Great Pyramid of Giza to the dark depths of the Valley of the Kings. It’s a historical recreation that bristles with vitality and life. It’s no wonder that Ubisoft turned the game into an educational tool with the Discovery Tour Mode, jettisoning gameplay mechanics in favour of historical trivia and the opportunity for players to explore antiquity without the hindrance of the slightly underwhelming Assassin’s Creed combat.

Even high-brow, snooty-nosed, mainstream newspapers like The Guardian were giving the Discovery Tour favourable coverage (and when it comes to mainstream press and video games, things are quite rarely favourable), stating that it “has the potential to be an extraordinary learning tool” and, after 300 students in eight different schools trialled the new mode, that “teachers found that it helped students retain a lot more information.”

When it comes to the actual video game bit of Assassin’s Creed: Origins however, there is a glaring issue with historical authenticity (and no, I’m not talking about the bonkers sci-fi backstory that doesn’t even make sense to the developers). Rather, it’s the tools video games provide their protagonists and players that undermine the historical accuracy of the world they have created. Let’s look at Bayek, the avatar of Assassin’s Creed Origins and an Egyptian Medjay. During the new kingdom of Egypt, the Medjay were an elite police force and could also serve as the Pharaoh’s protectors. They probably had access to the finest weapons and tools available at the time; bows, Khopesh swords maybe even a near-mythical fan axe – well, it was mythical until an Egyptologist actually finds the remains of one.

What they certainly didn’t have was a pet eagle with the ability to scout encampments from afar, tag enemies and identify and track objectives. In one fells swoop the rich, detailed and historically accurate environment is undone by a video game tool that breaks this virtual illusion in order to provide interesting gameplay mechanics. You can’t reall blame Ubisoft for this; attacking an enemy fort without Senu to highlight foes would be arduous indeed. But it makes me think – what would a historical video game be like if it only provided the player with the tools their avatar would really have had at their disposal? Enter Radio Commander.

Set during the Vietnam War, Radio Commander drops players into the role of an American military commander. The game is ostensibly an RTS, as players must coordinate their units to complete objectives, but unlike your typical strategy games, you’re not this semi-omniscient being that looks down upon the battlefield from a great height. Radio Commander only provides the player with a radio and a basic map.

This means you have no visual stimuli with which to plan your strategy, only audio. Your platoons can be radioed and will give you voice reports, informing you of their position, status, and the location of enemy forces. You’ll need to formulate your plan from these minimal details, updating your map by moving unit icons, writing notes and attempting to figure out what is going on in the chaotic and confusing battlefield that was Vietnam in the 1960’s.

“Military commanders have only had satellite overview of the battlefield for a short period of time,” Radio Commander’s lead developer Jakub Bukala told me. “In most of the conflicts in the 20th century, commanders had no direct insight into the battlefield. Recreating this sort of ‘fog of war’ is something completely different to the typical approach that can be found in strategy games. We thought that a more realistic approach could be really interesting. In our opinion it is more immersive and it can provide new experiences to players. In the end the real motivation is that we would like to propose something new to the strategy games genre.

The effect is startling. In most RTS games the player is empowered, commanding huge armies with efficiency and ease, yet in Radio Commander the opposite is true and you must instead contend with a sense of powerlessness. During one mission, a seemingly simple trek to a village, I had a palpable sense of being blind. My units would inform me of their coordinates but it was left to me to extrapolate that information in order to reliably place the unit’s icon on the map. Seeing as how I sucked at orienteering in the Scouts, I like to think my unit’s AI was thoroughly confused when I frequently demanded they travel double time to their current position. Things soon went even more awry when my forces were attacked, with panicked shouts, gunfire, and garbled intel pouring through my radio receiver. Foreheads, pits and gonads soon became sweat soaked as I sought to unravel the cavalcade of data and respond with a clear strategy.

When you can’t see your men on the battlefield and all the information is given to you through the radio, the tension is much more intense compared to classic strategy games,” Jakub explained. “Limited information is always good in creating the sense of danger. It works better with your imagination and the threat feels more realistic.”

It certainly does and, rather bravely, at no point do the developers break the illusion to make the experience more safe and ‘gamey’. After several failed missions it soon became clear to me that success depended on a calm and considered approach, the game was not going to protect me from my own mind. Oh, and actually listening and remembering what my units told me would be useful too. It’s remarkable how easy it is to simply ignore the dialogue in most games – considering some of the diuretic dirge digital characters can spout, it’s usually for the best – but that is not the case in Radio Commander as every utterance could prove vital.

The tools of Radio Commander, and the game experience they provide, are certainly historically authentic then, but how about the dialogue? Should I, a person whose only experience of military lingo is the garbled nonsense found in a Michael Bay film, be able to understand what the heck everyone is talking about? It’s a question I posed to Jakub.

“When it comes to jargon and terminology, we are trying to be as authentic as we can. We are doing a lot of research and sometimes the results are quite interesting. There are a lot of abbreviations in the lexicon which is quite useful for real soldiers in the battlefield, but it also raises the entry threshold too much. So we decided that “sitrep” could be easily replaced with ‘report’, for example. Despite this, we received a lot of feedback from people who served and they assured us that the radio tag and the whole writing is solid.” 

Jakub continued, “The Vietnam War has been shrouded in legend, but not everything we see in popular culture is true. The radio tag we implemented in the game is simplified to be more accessible to players. Therefore, you don’t have to be a military enthusiast to play RC, but you will still learn a lot about the Vietnam War and the era it was fought in”.

It’s a different type of learning experience than I have been used to in a video game. Rather than seeing the past, instead I’m encouraged to almost exist within it, to a far greater extent than a game like Assassin’s Creed has ever been able to accomplish. It’s led to a uniquely challenging experience, different to anything I’ve played before.

Many thanks to Jakub Bukala for taking the time to speak with me and providing a demo of Radio Commander to play.

Radio Commander has been successfully funded on Kickstarter and is intended for release in Q3 2019.

Written by
Ade reviews video games. He writes Playing With History. Read more of Ade's stuff at www.adewritesstuff.com

1 Comment

  1. Love games ideas like this that take a different approach to game play.

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