Brothers in Arms, the strategic desensitizer

war games

There are few games that have struck me as wanting to be a film as Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway. Or rather, wanting to be a TV series. The first ten minutes of Hell’s Highway had me seriously tossing up asking its creators if they shouldn’t just have just applied to work on The Pacific instead. The cutscenes – in the beginning, interminably long – have perfected that Band of Brothers tone and feel, and even the musical theme appears to share the same first few intervals. Now, I like Band of Brothers. But I’d rather watch the real thing than play an imitator. My patience was wearing thin, however, I knew several people who swore by the series, so I stuck with it. And I’m glad I did: Brothers in Arms presents a compelling take on World War Two that I don’t think could be achieved in any other medium.

An issue of medium

A case-in-point: there is a sequence in Band of Brothers where our hero, Winters, is asked to destroy a fortified gun station on D-day. He is hugely outmanned, but mounts an incredibly clever plan, which – with the aid of surprise – results in a very successful mission. The end credits of that episode inform me that “Easy Company’s capture of the German Battery became a textbook case of an assault on a fixed position, and is still demonstrated at the United States Military Academy at West Point, today.” But when you watch the sequence, it’s actually really difficult to follow what is going on, and why Winters’ plan is so effective. There are other, perhaps more important things to be gained from that sequence. It’s chaotic, and it’s damn horrible: I would hope to never experience anything remotely similar, even if I was on the victorious side.

But where Band of Brothers, or the moving image generally fails to convey spatial plans and strategies, videogames like Brothers in Arms succeed.

Mapping a firefight

For those of you who haven’t played Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway (or possibly other games in the series; I admit to being only cursorily familiar with the others), it cannot be approached like the one-man-band efforts of Call of Duty. In fact, when the game misguidedly asks you to play without your squad the whole experience falls horribly apart. For the majority of the game, though, you are asked to command, in alternating first- and third-person perspective, a squad of soldiers. Other factors weigh in: some squad members may be armed with bazookas, some with assault rifles. Inherently, the gameplay changes. Upon encountering a firefight, the first thing you’ll want to do as a player is not to start picking off enemies and pressing their positions, as in Call of Duty 2, but to open your map. The map allows you to view the location of sighted enemies and their relationship to the lay of the land; where good cover might be and ideal paths to a flanking position.

The Second World War becomes less of a mediated experience in Brothers in Arms as immediate strategy. It’s a case of keeping your head down and out-planning the enemy: exactly as portrayed in Band of Brothers, except now we really understand the situation. We choose to position our bazookas to open fire from the well-covered front while our assault team flanks from the side. We decide to send out the gunners into a hail of bullets to try and reach that first line of cover.

The strategic desensitizer

In a sense, this is – from what I can gather – one of the most authentic representations of war. Obviously, I’ve never experienced war and I would never, ever want to presume that I understand what it feels like. However, from what I can tell from documentaries and historical accounts of first-hand experience, the idea is that you force yourself to overcome your fear and gain control long enough to outwit the enemy. You ignore the very real possibility of death because you have to in order to survive.

The irony is that in creating the same set of circumstances and decisions in a videogame, Brothers in Arms asks us to desensitize our fear and shock at war and plan our next move. We don’t get the same horrific thrill that we do in Call of Duty 2. I believe that the developers were well aware of this, which is why Brothers in Arms also features some pretty extreme gore aimed shock us back into our non-videogame understanding of the Second World War. However, let’s not completely write off the insight that Brothers in Arms offers. Regardless of what it does for our present-day, immediate understanding of the situations it throws us into, there must be some worth in experiencing war for what it was – if only to allow us to reflect on it later. How many young soldiers even managed to master their fear in order to act the way Brothers in Arms demands? And what did it do to them as human beings to do so?

Photo credit: Skalas2.

1 Comment

Filed under analysis, space, videogames

One response to “Brothers in Arms, the strategic desensitizer

  1. Moeez Siddiqui

    That’s the thing I love about the Brothers in Arms series (you should play all of them; it’s a continuous story) is that you’re experiencing exactly what these soldiers went through, down to the very same square inch. Everyone’s shouting, bullets fly by, you might have your fire team suppressing a cover, while your vulnerable bazooka team tries to get a good position to flush that German post. It’s interactive non-fiction and it could serve as great history lessons for adolescents (these games are rated Mature) who wouldn’t dare touch the books.

    The next game in the series might be set in Bastogne (snow), if you saw the ending of the game. I like that the game developed dramatic tension from the start, going through flashbacks and certain events haunting our hero, Matt Baker. Creating drama in historic events is a feat of itself, something that an episode of Band of Brothers tried to do (the one where Winters shoots a young German soldier). The “Rabbit Hole” level is amazing, but most of the emotional drama is heightened if you’ve played the previous games, and know what the whole deal around Kevin Leggett, Alan and Garnett is about.

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